Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

Cleopatra: A Life Unparalleled

Part of the
9th Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival

Theatre Reviews by Matthew Murray

Melissa Labbadia
Musical soap operas don't come much sudsier than Cleopatra: A Life Unparalleled. They don't come much gutsier, either: The Connecticut-based Crystal Theatre production of Cheryl E. Kemeny's 99.44%-pure hokum-filled musical, which gives its final performance tomorrow at the June Havoc Theatre, is among the most ambitious shows ever to hit the Midtown International Theatre Festival: 12 heavy-voiced actors, countless racks of elaborate costumes, a three-piece band, and a scope that threatens to dwarf the very Nile itself.

But leave aside the eye-bulging spectacle, and you'll strain to follow the action in a plot so overpacked it makes Les Misérables look like a model of narrative conservatism. Cleopatra VII (Melissa Labbadia) is born, cycles through brother-husbands and hero-husbands (Julius Caesar, played by Matthew Surapine, and Marc Antony, played by Greg Kisken), and reforms the entire Hellenistic world's opinion of women, Egyptians, and Romans before a broken heart and a broken kingdom compel her to commit suicide by way of snake.

It's a tall order for 105 intermissionless minutes. Most of the great and even not-so-great dramatists who've tackled this story onstage and on film have been less daring in any single accounting. Even William Shakespeare spread the tale between two three-hour plays, Julius Caesar and Antony and Cleopatra, and covered considerably less than half of the time period Kemeny does here.

Her attempts ultimately prove more valiant than they do valid. Because she's tracking 30 characters across several countries over the span of nearly 40 years, the drama quickly becomes dangerously dense. Double- and triple-casting does not aid much in identifying and remembering who's doing what, whom, and why at any given time. And since at least one betrayal, shadowy cabal, or incestuous fling is always either at the center of the action or waiting for its entrance, there's a popcorn-camp sensibility about the show as a whole that does not always work in its favor.

Such problems are exacerbated by the score, which is perpetually pounding but does little to clarify the copious surrounding confusions. The most memorable numbers are those that most strongly anchor the story: "Kill or Be Killed," the show's de facto theme song, which Cleopatra's advisor Mardian (the dynamic Cidalia Alves) sings to the young princess; "Who's It Gonna Be?", seduction squawk for Cleopatra and Caesar; and "That Woman," in which hearts and weapons collide as Marc Antony, Cleopatra, and a coterie of cohorts gear up for their final foray into the history books.

Despite the admirable efforts Kemeny and Char Fromentin (also the choreographer) display in merely getting the show up and running, the overwhelming size of everything eventually begins to feel less impressive than oppressive. A fair number of cast members - particularly Alves, Jennifer Van Buskirk as Marc Antony's scheming wife, Samantha Kulish as Caesar's mate of convenience Calpurnia, and Surapine as a magnetically militaristic Caesar - are so good that you wish they wouldn't get lost so often in the teeming mass of humanity forever crowding the stage.

Labbadia, however, is a marvel, if for no other reason than her resilience. As Cleopatra, she hardly ever leaves the stage, though her scenes and songs rarely allow her to command it. But the actress navigates every nuance with grace and charm well befitting the Queen of the Nile, and makes a statuesque center for a show that's sadly too big for her - or any single person - to manage. One of the lessons of the real Cleopatra's life was that she couldn't have everything she wanted; Kemeny would do well to take away that lesson from her own Cleopatra as well.

Run Time: 2 hours
Tickets online, Venue information, and Performance Schedule: 9th Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival

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