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The Beastly Bombing

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Russell Steinberg, Andrew Ableson, Jacob Sidney, and Aaron Matijasic.
Photo by Kim Gottlieb-Walker.

Perhaps only a musical theatre visionary would conceive of international terrorism being an ideal subject for a comic operetta. But without inventive talents behind such an idea, you're left with a show that sings richly (and endlessly) about absolutely nothing. That, alas, is the case with The Beastly Bombing, the anti-groundbreaking big-sing about the War on Terror that's playing at the Julia Miles Theater as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

From the perpetually clueless heel of an American President with a sordid past and a Jesus fixation to law-enforcement antics and a sextet of lovers as bumbling about each other as they are a plot to blow up the Brooklyn Bridge, The Beastly Bombing draws from the oft-accessed wells of newspapers' front pages and the Gilbert & Sullivan oeuvre. In fact, finding much originality in librettist-lyricist-director Julien Nitzberg and composer Roger Neill's show proves almost as tricky as tracking down Osama bin Laden.

Puttering patter numbers for President Dodgeson (Jesse Merlin), devil-may-care duets for his daughters (Heather Marie Marsden and Kate Gabrielle Feld), and mock-angry anthems for the Al Qaeda and white-supremacist operatives (Andrew Ableson and Jacob Sidney) they fall for do not immediately a good spoof, or a good show, make. Nitzberg and Neill highlight the humorous romanticism at the center of the story, turning into a revolutionist's On the Town, that idealizes difficult love while downplaying the dastardly deeds that give story what heft it has.

For example, much more is made of the third coupling - between the other Al Qaeda and white supremacist, played by Russell Steinberg and Aaron Matijasic - than of the explosive plot being hatched. Unsurprisingly, the President is portrayed as being a greater threat to the world, far more concerned with appearances than he is the country being blown out from beneath his command.

While there's no reason this couldn't work, The Beastly Bombing never convinces that the Victorian-era England treatment that's been applied to it is itself worthwhile, let alone necessary. Nitzberg and Neill go to extravagant lengths to make room for arias, vivid ensemble numbers, and social commentary with exactly the kinds of plot twists and deus ex machina resolutions that characterized Gilbert and Sullivan. But because none of the characters speak or sing in a language recognizably their own, any points the authors are trying to make by equating their show with The Mikado or The Pirates of Penzance never materialize.

The absence of real wit does not aid the show's assimilation as satire, but rather paints it as obvious comedy that revels in being obvious. Songs about psychedelic mushrooms, the joys of Jew hating, and the misguided morals of secretly homosexual Catholic priests don't obtain comic credence merely by their very presence, and nothing aside from their tongue-twisting provenance and breakneck speed (performed, not always in sync, with an unfortunate-sounding set of pre-recorded orchestral tracks) gives them reason for inclusion here.

Only Kevin Remington's frenetic choreography, which injects real athleticism into its host of unlikely targets, supplies energy enough to propel the action to its conclusion. With a Saudi doing somersaults, a chorus line of women in burqas, and a priest straight out of the Susan Stroman school, the dances realize the theatrical possibilities of The Beastly Bombing for more than the writing does.

The performers, while vocally impressive, can't generally compensate for the cleverness and character they're missing. The exception is Merlin, who wisely avoids a warmed-over George W. Bush caricature and instead piles on the basso profundo that's just right for the egotistical head the self-absorbed nation Nitzberg and Neill have drawn in The Beastly Bombing. At his best, Merlin's manner and voice suggest the drop-dead seriousness of a dynamic divo better equipped for tackling a modern major-general than a contemporary commander in chief. If Nitzberg and Neill's goal was to make you wish their President were doing anything else, mission accomplished.

Venue: Julia Miles Theater, 424 West 55th Street between 9th and 10th Avenues
Friday, Oct 5th at 4:30 pm
Friday, Oct 5th at 8:00 pm
Sunday, Oct 7th at 1:00 pm
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