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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Leslie Odom Jr. and Haaz Sleiman with the cast.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

Revolutionary musicals don't come along too often, so it's more than a little surprising that The Public Theater is now giving New York audiences a second within less than two months. That's "revolutionary," by the way, in the sense of being about or promoting revolution, not staking virgin territory for its own. Like its predecessor Here Lies Love, Venice, which just opened in The Public's Anspacher Theater, is not especially original. But both imbue their average, familiar components with an unbelievable energy that elevates their composition and presentation beyond the ordinary. Where the shows diverge is that the former is based on real past events (involving Imelda Marcos), whereas Venice is admitted fiction that feels as though it was written about today.

It is, after all, about the constant warring between corporations who want to control everyone, a government that wants to control everyone, and innocent souls caught in the middle. Every act unleashed by any power player is always determined by how it benefits them first, with all others affected considered later (if they're lucky). Occurrences in this so-called world are so politicized, in fact, that much of the first act focuses on the exact impact a wedding will have on the two warring factions—love is only called into question once all other matters are settled.

Should this sound Shakespearean, that's no accident. Composer-lyricist Matt Sax and librettist-lyricist-director Eric Rosen originally conceived the show as a rigorous updating of Othello. But if vestiges of that concept remain—a love triangle, a handful of undertones driving some characters, some Iago-like wheeling and dealing, and a woman named Emilia—Sax and Rosen have upended the original into unrecognizability. And they've done so with such verve and commitment that not a shred of anything left could be considered dated or boring.

The complex, often violent, interplay between the central figures is as delightfully acidic as what you'd find in the tartest prime-time soap operas. Theodore Westbrook (Jonathan-David) is heir to his father's tentacular business, which rose in influence after an uprising 20 years ago crippled the government and is now in charge of the city of Venice's military occupation. The appropriately named Venice Monroe (Haaz Sleiman), a white man who grew up in the ravaged metropolis, wants to overthrow Westbrook Enterprises and return the city to the control of the people. His black half-brother, Markos (Leslie Odom, Jr.), is a high-placed peacekeeping general within his own designs on rule. And Willow Turner (Jennifer Damiano), the one-time friend of Venice who's still in love with him, is now engaged to Theodore.

A few others factor in as well—Michael Victor (Claybourne Elder) is Venice's repressed chief of staff and longtime friend, Emilia (Victoria Platt) is Markos's wife and the daughter of Willow's parents' servants, and Hailey Daisy (Angela Polk) is a pulpy chanteuse whose strings are pulled by the military occupiers—but the chief conflict is how the members of the foundational quartet address, and perhaps exorcise, the ghosts of their pasts. Most of these are figurative, as the choices of their elders loom large over their troubled presents, but Venice and Markos's peace-minded mother Anna appears from the grave (in the person of Uzo Aduba) to echo concerns to her sons of the ideals both have, in their own ways, abandoned.

Sleiman with Jennifer Damiano.
Photo by Joan Marcus.

There are, indeed, Les Misérables—or Evita-level entanglements aplenty here, but little of the sloppiness you may expect. Sax's driving music (which was augmented by Curtis Moore, and is conducted by Jim Abbott) draws primarily from rap and R&B, along the lines of his excellent one-man musical Clay from 2008, but borrows from other popular forms as well. If the compositions don't always ideally mesh with the narrative, and if the lyrics—as you'd probably expect from a work of this nature—rhyme casually when they bother to rhyme at all, the angry jaggedness of the songs propels you into the chaotic uncertainty of these people's lives in continually compelling ways.

Rosen's smooth staging, which adroitly balances the swooping sweep of change with the intimacy of the quieter scenes, further ensures you don't get lost as you follow the group on their journey. Beowulf Boritt's industrial unit set, Clint Ramos's riches-meet-rags costumes, Jason Lyons's lights, and Jason H. Thompson's projections are rarely much more than standard rock-concert issue, but they're always in tune with their surroundings. (Chase Brock's heavily angular, music-video choreography, is somewhat better than that, especially in the violent group numbers that dissect cultural opinion about events as they unfold.)

The cast is full of performers possessing the lithe bodies, fearless voices, and fiery attitudes the material demands. Sleiman is particularly magnetic as the titular reluctant rebel, convincing you he's been drawn into a fight he would not have chosen on his own. But Odom (most recently seen in the just-wrapped TV series Smash) is nearly his equal as the scheming Markos, always layering his sneer with a smile, and Damiano is an alluring embodiment of the freedom aesthetic given feminine form. Though everyone else is up to the challenge, too, special mention should be made of Sax, who's secured for himself the largest—yet least-important—role, of the spunky-cynical narrator Clown MC, who presides over the action with the swiveling hips and cocked eyebrows of history not approving of the judgment it has to make.

For all of Venice's ambitious scope and intrigue, it must be noted that the musical never quite lives up to the theatricality or the storytelling gusto of its opening number. An electric 15-minute prologue that reads the rules, sets up the board, and arranges all the pieces at the speed of light, it promises an airtight evening of searing drama, killer music, and whiplash-inducing surprises that emerges only in fits and starts thereafter. The middle sections of both acts also get mired in the details of their plot machinations, with an overly maudlin ending that's a bit of a stretch given all that comes before.

What's both inescapable and irresistible is the urgency that courses through the show's veins. Sax and Rosen have captured the piercing spirit of all who fight for real, lasting freedom, and struggle against their worst selves to improve the lives around them. This makes Venice a jolting, contemporary reminder that the most important of life's battles must be continuously fought. But if the show in its current form proves that Sax and Rosen don't win every skirmish they initiate, their creation leaves no doubt that they're already on the winning side.

Through June 30
Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
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