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Caligula: An Ancient Glam Epic

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Yes, you can go too far in pursuit of verisimilitude. You'll learn that if nothing else from the New York Musical Theatre Festival production of Caligula: An Ancient Glam Epic. This is a show that, from the ground up, was obviously conceived in adherence to that ancient dictum: Nothing Succeeds Like Excess.

And if you thought that might be a sure-fire way of telling the story of a young man who became emperor of Rome when he was 25, went insane, and was killed by a conspiracy led by the captain of his own guard before he was 30, well, think again. Any hope of author Eric Svejcar telling the story in an effective, exciting manner vanishes in the first 20 minutes, while well over two hours of show still remain.

This is not to say that Svejcar hasn't turned in some decent writing. Examining the life of Caligula as filtered through early 1970s glam rock isn't a bad idea, and Svejcar has a solid handle on the period's musical stylings. He turns in a number of memorable musical themes over the course of the evening, and the large band (under David Andrews Rogers's musical direction) rocks hard and loud. (The sound designer, clearly from the "louder is better" school, is Shannon Slaton.)

It's a good thing that so many of Svejcar's tunes are so good, because that makes their repetitive nature slightly more tolerable than it might otherwise be. It seems as if each of the major songs piles on multiple verses, while adding precious little in the way of new dramatic, thematic, or musical ideas. The experience is like seeing a tribute show to your favorite songwriter assembled with every line of every song he or she ever wrote, with no regard for appropriateness or how tiring it might all become.

This reaches its nadir at the end of the second of the show's three parts, a song called "Fall Down On Your Knees," in which Caligula (Euan Morton, who recently made a splash playing Boy George in Taboo) declares himself a God on Earth. After his countless proclamations, each of three different main characters - Caligula's wife Caesonia (Denise Summerford), the captain of the guard Chaerea (Alan H. Green), and the show's narrator (Gilles Chiasson) - sing their own thoughts and feelings. This all culminates in a "One Day More"-style ensemble piece that thrills your ears but numbs your other senses.

If Caligula resembles Jesus Christ Superstar stylistically, it lacks that work's solid commitment, specificity, and lean resolve. Here, though many characters have been eliminated from the story, there are still more than you can shake a stick at, and keeping track of the various conspirators, victims (innocent and otherwise), and ensemble members will be your primary activity while watching the show. Rest assured, though, that they will all sing huge amounts of material about every detail of their opinions about everything, and you will learn nothing from it.

Director Michael Unger isn't directly to blame for this - he actually manages to maintain a firm grip on the show, keeping the pacing up, and impressively manages the considerable traffic on the Theatre at St. Clement's stage. (He would, however, do well to tame his predilection for lining up the ensemble members downstage and having them sing to the audience; that grows old very quickly.) Scenic consultant Jamie Fagant needs to adjust the wheeled platform that creaks over the over-amplified multitudes, but Janine McCabe's costumes and Joel E. Silver's lights do their jobs nicely.

So do the actors. Morton is a disarming presence in the title role, singing well and making a strong and steady transition into insanity. Also excellent is Brooke Sunny Moriber as his sister (and lover) Drusilla, though her role is small enough to relegate her to the chorus for most of her time onstage. Chiasson is likewise very good, though his role is a study in excrescence. Summerford, Green, Sebastian Arcelus and Shorey Walker as Caligula's parents, and Michael Hayward-Jones as emperor Tiberius all make strong impressions as well.

Far more pressing is the inability of Svejcar and Unger to determine what information is necessary and what isn't. Removing unnecessary material from the songs (and excising huge chunks of the interminable book scenes) could easily get the running time down to about two hours or so, but just taking the scissors to the script and score isn't likely to make Caligula bearable. May I suggest a machete?


New York Musical Theatre Festival
Caligula: An Ancient Glam Epic
Through September 28
Theatre at St. Clements, 423 West 46th Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.352.3101

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