Off Broadway Reviews
The Magnificent Hour
The Banger's Flopera
John Gay couldn't have suspected that his 1728 ballad opera The Beggar's Opera would inspire musical dramatists nearly three centuries after its premiere. Yet both it and its renowned progeny, The Threepenny Opera, are major influences on The Banger's Flopera, in which authors Kirk Wood Bromley (book and lyrics) and John Gideon (music) further update the original story of a charismatic criminal leader assaulting a prevailing orthodoxy. This show, like its forebears is fiercely political; its prime target, of course, is President Bush.
But, unlike the others, it doesn't offer its stinging political rebukes entirely within the worlds of its authors' creation. Instead, Bromley might as well write his message in the sky with fireworks: This show's climax finds the anti-hero, Macky Messer, donning a Bush mask to forestall his own execution. The moment will be shattering and unsettling only to those who can't or won't follow the story until that point; for everyone else, it's just overkill.
The same is true of the rest of the show, a celebration of excess in more ways than one. The plot - following the traditional outline with Macky (Joe Pindelski) seducing young Polly Peacock (April Vidal) and plotting to overthrow her soulless mercenary father (Dan Renkin) - piles on characters apparently there only to wear and say funny things. The acidic rock score, is full of ranting and raving choruses that fail to excite much as they fail to end when you want them to. Only Vidal satisfies singing them: She attacks her songs with an irresistible faux innocence that's dementedly right for the character.
But as otherwise written, performed, and directed (by Ben Yalom), the show resembles a post-apocalyptic anti-drug theme park filled with animatronics. Bromley and Gideon have a few interesting ideas - the finale, in which a starstruck beggar makes a surprising contribution to a thrill-crazed society, is a number of oddly symbolic beauty. Otherwise, the limp opening, a "Mack the Knife" homage that calls too much attention to the superior original, and what follows it remind you that Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill set a standard most people, including Bromley and Gideon, just can't live up to.
Of course, no one expects anyone to be the next Brecht, Weill, or even Gay, but Bromley and Gideon invite these comparisons by updating this tale to a new time and political climate. They might be better served by developing their own style than piggybacking on that of others; it's going to be impossible for The Banger's Flopera or similar works to flourish under the rules that today's writers' elders - and frequently betters - laid down decades or centuries before.
The Banger's Flopera - A Musical Perversion
How do clichés love Michael Arquilla and Stephen Barnett's Beautiful? Let me count the ways: Artists lead hard lives, inspiration isn't always found in the places (or people) you want it to be, and learning what you need to know about yourself is at least as difficult as getting proper recognition from others. Did I miss anything?
If you can see past the lack of dramatic invention in Arquilla's book and lyrics, or if these subjects are new territory for you, you might enjoy this tale about fading star artist Sebastian (David Anders), rising star artist Archer (Rodney Hicks), and Emily (Nikka Lanzerone), the muse of questionable musing powers who comes between them. But this is a show that thrives more on its sound and style than its story: 60 minutes would be enough to traverse Sebastian's life from lonely has-been to rekindled fame and true love with a woman who really understands him.
But Arquilla and Barnett (who wrote the music), working under the assumption that you can't have a 60-minute musical, have stuffed the show with keening rock ballads, communication-challenged crowd collages, and enough symbolic nervous breakdowns to send avant-garde musical lovers to the moon and back. There's one gorgeous number - sung by a portrait of Emily to Sebastian to dissuade him from loving a new woman (Justine Campbell-Elliott) - but the others are mostly loud and garbled (the terrible sound design is by Deniz Akyurek), and obtuse.
At times, the show is just flat-out confusing; I don't normally approve of including show synopses in programs, but Beautiful would greatly benefit from it. Al Sgro provides plenty of fluid direction that zooms in and out with cinematic precision while swirling around the Village Theatre stage with great theatricality but never makes the story digestible. Campbell-Elliott is radiant, if too hard-edged in her singing; Anders does too much surface-level moping, but provides good contrast to the dynamic Hicks. But the wistful quality Lanzerone brings to Emily reads as more a tranquilizer overdose than a phantasmal memory.
In her key role as a pretentious art dealer, Elena Zazanis pushes too hard in her dialogue scenes and not hard enough in her songs. She's illustrative of Beautiful's prime problem: This is not a soft-sell show that can be handled indiscriminately - there's too much that can go wrong. Overly abstract staging of key plot scenes, anonymous ensemble members playing too many undistinguished supporting roles, and an evaporative ending don't easily contribute to a fulfilling theatre experience. At least not yet - one suspects the presence of great beauty and truth deep inside Beautiful, but this production never unlocks them.
The Magnificent Hour
Some stories are just more interesting as concepts than they are as plays. The Magnificent Hour at the Fringe Festival is a perfect example: As long as its creators are just fleshing out its concept in the program and pre-show video segments, it's a blast. But once all that cleverness gives way to characters and a story that tries to connect them together, things get immediately less involving.
The idea is that the American government has taken reality programming to the utmost extreme and established an hour in which anyone can be killed (or, in euphemistic parlance, "made magnificent"). Oh, there's some bureaucracy involved, including the creation of a new governmental agency (the Department of Parks & Magnificent Hour), but with the right paperwork it's possible to off anyone.
This includes renowned reporter Elke Pilaf (Seth Cooperman), who learns while hosting the Magnificent Hour TV program that he's to be one of its first victims. The rest of the show follows his attempts to stay alive, as well the reactions of others to the Magnificent Hour, including a priest (Kevin Flinn) opposed to it on moral grounds; General Edward Kang (Chris Chan Roberson), the governmental official in charge of it; and a man (Jamil Ellis) who wants to kill an annoying coworker at the Department, but isn't very good at it.
What should be barely controlled comedic anarchy is instead strangely mannered and low-key; people behave less like they're under near-martial law than under Garry Marshall law. A few good jokes slip by, mostly in brief scenes between two sparring TV news anchors (Natalie Kim and Gene Perelson) and during an assassin therapy group, but most scenes are so labored and obvious that it's difficult to see beyond the surface to the messages about declining respect for life - and entertainment - that the company (who wrote the script) wants you to take away.
They've all been directed by Sam Turich to behave like Saturday Night Live rejects; only Cooperman rebels and turns in a moderately appealing performance to partially ground the show. But a show like this shouldn't be grounded - you need to feel as though every new minute will be a surprise. The show's improvisational aspect is limited to the actors reading methods of death from cards submitted by the audience; everything in the show, as in the 60 minutes it chronicles, is driven by a clock. That clock is always clearly visible upstage center, providing a constant reminder of how much Magnificent time remains. It also provides animation and movement with purpose, something otherwise in short supply in The Magnificent Hour.
The Magnificent Hour