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Madame Infamy

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Bashirrah Creswell, Briana Carlson-Goodman, and Rachel Stern, with the company.
Photo by Zack DeZon

For a generation now, Les Misérables has been providing young women (especially belters) with choice material, but it wouldn't really be correct to say it's a woman's show. So for every struggling actress who's dreamed of a revolutionary musical where the ladies are in charge, of the score if not necessarily the battle for freedom itself, Madame Infamy, playing through tomorrow as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, will likely a godsend at best, and a treasure trove for audition material at worst. From the audience, the picture's slightly different, but hey, one thing at a time.

With a book by J.P. Vigliotti and a score by Cardozie Jones and Sean Willis, Madame Infamy examines how two late-18th-century women were shaped by the tumultuous events, unreasonable expectations, and of course towering men of their age. Maria Antonia Josepha Johanna by the Dauphin of France, whom she married, and became better known as Marie Antoinette (Briana Carlson-Goodman) when he became King Louis XVI (Jake Levitt), and Sally Hemings (Bashirrah Creswell), slave and barely secret lover to American Founding Father and eventual president Thomas Jefferson (Kevin Massey), were both restricted by the delicacy of their society, but faced economic and social challenges similar enough to bond them across a decade and the Atlantic Ocean.

Certainly the writers don't pass up the obvious opportunities before them, particularly in the score, where they catalog the women's united desire to "Fly," the trouble that awaits them down almost equivalently "Dangerous Paths" of relationships, and, during their darkest hours, their joint willingness to "Draw the Line" and demand more from their loves than they're willing to give. And at least Sally has a compelling solo moment in which she dreams of the supposed, if illusory, charms of the Jefferson estate, "Monticello."

But as a course in either theatrical writing or history, this evening is at best a survey. The score is an overly loud melange of modern styles, with a folk tune or two sounding good but misplaced against R&B, funk, and disco compositions that, far too often, leave everyone onstage sounding as though they just stumbled out of a reverse-gender production of Jekyll & Hyde. And though much time is spent on Sally and her troubles, Antoinette is poorly musicalized, possessing no notable solo of her own, and her most shimmering onstage moment, a song called "Chocolates," notable more for its embarrassing attempts at sex humor than for how it illuminates Antoinette's complex feelings at not being to attract her husband or produce a suitable heir.

Though the presence of wax sculptress extraordinaire, Madame Tussaud (Rachel Stern), who narrates the plot whenever it's convenient for the writers, is not well integrated into the story, far more damaging is its treatment of the men in the women's lives. Both Antoinette and Sally are defined dramatically by them, but they're hardly people: Louis is presented as introverted and introspective, and probably gay, in the earlier scenes, and a raving madman later on; Jefferson a soulless patrician for whom romance and equality are little more than political tools. The stronger men seen onstage, Sally's brother James (a sincere, if shaky-voiced, Justin Johnston) and Antoinette's servant Count Mercy (Xalvador Tin-Bradbury, flamboyant but juicy), are not shown to have especially complicated interior beings.

Too many weak characters make for a weak musical, and even the forthright Hemings, even as played by the dynamic Creswell (who could nonetheless stand to tone town the melismatic ornamentation on her vocals just a touch), can't make this the rousing paean to feminism it's obviously intended to be. A more cohesive score would help, as would a stronger concept; director Carlos Armesto is striving for a metal-rock concert aesthetic, which also shows up in designer Shane Ballard's deconstructed-aristocracy-prom costumes, but no convincing case is made as to what this adds to the proceedings. And, if the characters aren't destined to be fleshed out more, forgoing the pretty singing and the pretty faces here for more engaging personalities would make a considerable difference. (Q Smith comes closest to showing the way with her forceful stab at dual underwritten roles as Sally's mother and the Versailles' tradition-minded Comtesse.)

After all, don't more young actresses dream of maturing enough to play Eponine or Fantine than Cosette? Active people making risky choices (and singing risky songs) are always more interesting to performers and audiences, and Madame Infamy isn't yet at the point where its achievements in those areas match its other ambitions. Its inhabitants may walk, talk, and sing a bit more, but they're not much different from the statuettes in Tussaud's collections: suggestions of reality possessing everything except an interior spark to make them special, distinctive, and memorable as something more than wax figures.

The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2014
Madame Infamy
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