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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

J. Manuel Santos and Tanesha Ross.
Photo by Jeff Larkin

Sometimes the only thing wrong with a musical is its writing. For their New York Musical Theatre Festival entry Rio, which is playing through Wednesday at the Theatre at St. Clement's, writers Mitch Magonet and Joey Miller have carefully crafted a compelling plot, filled it with colorful characters acting against a vibrant backdrop, and striven as too few musical makers today do to unlock the honesty and humanity in the people and situations they document. In a perfect world, all that would act as equal compensation for a script and score that are, at their best, mediocre. Alas, our world—much like Rio—isn't perfect, and the show's deficiencies ultimately outweigh its ambition and accomplishments. But luckily for everyone involved, on both sides of the footlights, it's a close call.

The core idea is especially good: Charles Dickens's Oliver Twist relocated to present-day Brazil across two key nights during Carnaval. The young innocent who's introduced to the street's ways of murder, drugs, and sex is Pipio (Nicholas Daniel Gonzalez), who's attempting to locate his long-missing mother when he witnesses a police officer (a threatening Lelund Durond) gun down six children. Pipio's anguish and terror lead him to Samson (Nik Walker), the head of the underground crime ring, who's not above making deals for even children's lives. Samson's girlfriend, Neves (Tanesha Ross), and Pipio's protector Pantera (J. Manuel Santos), who's also Samson's primary challenger within the group's hierarchy, don't like the direction in which they're heading, but believe, much as Pipio is trying not to, that they're trapped in a roiling world of poverty and social inevitability.

Magonet and Miller excel at making their points in broad strokes, with Pipio's various run-ins with religion and the power struggles between Samson and Pantera cannily defining the complex world in which everyone moves. And the climaxes of both acts (naturally involving firearms) are expertly integrated and executed, with director Scott Faris finding in these outlines just the right punctuation amid his bewitchingly fluid and swirling staging to capture your interests at every key juncture. (It's also worth mentioning that Colin McGurk's sets, Brian Tovar's lights, and especially David Kaley's Technicolor costumes are first-rate by NYMF standards.)

Unfortunately, the details never come as clearly into focus. A strong sense of melodrama pervades the proceedings, leaving most of the central figures looking more like walking and talking symbols of societal oppression than people desperately trying to change their lives. There are few links (and none of them powerful) between Samson and Neves or, later, Neves and Pantera. Pipio's own development among the criminals is stunted: He loves Neves, trusts Pantera, and distrusts Samson within his first seconds, and scarcely wavers from these convictions. Worse, he all but disappears for a long stretch in the second act while the grown-ups work out their own problems—which, sadly, are nowhere near as emotionally charged as Pipio's own quest.

As for the score, it's as energetic as it can be without being exciting: Musical director Charity Wicks leads a hot band (including two rhythm experts, and plenty of authentic-sounding South American percussion), but the songs themselves don't catch fire. The closest thing to a memorable composition is Neves's sweet "Touch and Go," a halfway-there rethinking of "As Long as He Needs Me" that, like so many other compositions here, fades into the background noise well before it's finished. Several production numbers try to parlay the setting into pseudo-sexual excitement (Kate Dunn and Ron de Jesus's spirited choreography helps a lot with this), while others paint the life of crime or gender ambiguity (in the case of a pointless supporting role played, with sinewy but effortful panache, by Dennis Kenney) as among the highest forms of human achievement.

But almost none of it needs to be sung, which too often leaves you feeling the story as a whole does not need to be told. This issue is further exacerbated by the performers, who, despite being able vocalists, rarely convey either the electricity or the urgency their situations demand. Santos comes the closest by suggesting that Pantera derives an erotic joy from his nefarious actions. But the lovely Ross plays Neves as a blank-headed cipher, Walker rests on a one-dimensional foundation of smile-to-show-them-how-evil-you-aren't that frustrates as early as his first scene, and few of the other characters receive even that much definition. As for Gonzalez, he's definitely game, but his wide-eyed take on Pipio gets old quickly—rather than projecting a boy who's out of his every imaginable element, he always looks like he's delightedly amazed by what's unfolding around him.

Throughout the evening, one senses the same of Magonet and Miller: that they're captivated by the musical form and its dramatic potential, but haven't yet realized the full depth it's capable of reaching. But if their show is not, at least in this incarnation, a solid or even quite a qualified success, it's a healthy beginning from which a great musical could eventually emerge. The characters need to connect better with their pain before they'll be able to connect to us, and that requires a richer commitment to them and to originality than is currently present. Once those elements are more firmly in place, however, one suspects that Rio could be a surefire hit rather than a near miss.

2012 New York Musical Theatre Festival
Through July 18
The Theater at St. Clements , 423 W. 46th Street
Tickets and current performance schedule at

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