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Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Matt Sax
Photo by Don Ipock Photography

This time, a microphone amplifies more than just a voice. As used by Matt Sax, the writer, composer, and sole performer of the new hip-hop musical Clay, a handheld mic can become a gun, a telephone, a razor, and even the inviting, impassioned mouth of a woman. And yes, when necessary, that microphone can even play itself, booming Sax's voice to not-so-far reaches of the tiny Duke on 42nd Street. About the only thing it's incapable of transforming into is a crown.

Clay lacks little other majesty. Practically everything else in this electrifying rap bio, which Sax developed with director Eric Rosen, approaches Shakespearean proportions: the universal intensity of its story, its consummate reliance on the actor's craft, its royal look (Meghan Raham depends on a series of velvety red curtains for her sets, and Jason Lyons on a vast array of marauding instruments for his lighting plot), even a character who in name (Sir John) and function (lopsided mentor) pointedly recalls Falstaff from the Bard's own Henry IV histories.

True, the music (on which Jon Schmidt and Johnny Williams also collaborated) is little more than the bare standard for the genre, all heavy drum beats and chest-echoing bass. But even it assumes the weighty aura of fanfare, in scope and sweep convincing you that that constantly mutating microphone isn't the only indicator of a theatrical visionary coming into his own.

That, by the way, means both Sax and the foremost of his creations: Clifford, the quiet 17-year-old who longs to break free from his punishing Westchester existence and become a rapper. He's already acquired the experience he needs to inform his songs - a divorce battle when he was young put him in his father's custody and drove his mother to suicide; and his first time falling in love has been with his own stepmother who has not been shy of returning his affections - but he needs someone to guide him to the spiritual, emotional, and rhythmic freedom he craves.

Enter Sir John, the Brooklyn hip-hop icon whose performance compelled Clifford to track him down at his day job - running a bookstore - and plead for lessons. When Sir John agrees, he and Clifford gradually apply the brushstrokes necessary to paint the portrait of the young man as an artist, stripping away the pain, the ecstasy, and the guilt of Clifford to uncover the star-on-the-rise who will be known as Clay. As Sir John tells him at his new baptism: "You are a mold of the faces inside of you."

Clifford's evolution would not be so astonishingly believable if those same words weren't also true of Sax. But the 24-year-old actor, who began developing this show during his sophomore year at Northwestern, is one of the most dynamically malleable new musical performers New York has seen in years. For Clifford's father, he adopts a juicy, snivel-nosed condescension that clarifies their decade-long duel before a single shot is fired. As Clifford's distraught mother, he speaks in the barest of whiny whispers, holding an imaginary cigarette that drips from her fingers as if even its ashes can't wait to escape. Clifford's stepmother is pure sensual sensitivity, a goddess in human form.

If at first the characterizations appear simple, you gradually come to understand their vivid depth of detail and complexity as Sax reveals the interplay between them. Clifford and his father shave simultaneously, Sax's body becoming the mirror in which both men's inner souls are alternately reflected. Sir John's lessons take on a gleefully sardonic tone when mentor and the mentee occupy the same space at the same time. And in the tour-de-force fight scene at the show's climax, every blow propels Clifford into another personality, Sax's face and stature changing so rapidly that your blinking will block out half the story.

Sax and Rosen make so much of Clifford's struggle for personal and artistic independence, it's a shame they haven't allowed themselves more to work with. The story is told so casually and even messily - with unnecessary leaps around in time and, at one point, overlapping flashbacks - that it sometimes feels too small for the expansive treatment it receives. Clay's debut performance at Sir John's club is also oddly underpowered, far less explosively intimate than much of what ramps up to it.

The rest of the writing, though, is stellar, a piercing and poetic take on adolescent angst viewed from the inside. Ranging from the hilarious (Clifford's first attempt at freestyling, in which he rhymes a ridiculous litany of hip-hop clich├ęs) to the heart-stopping (his escalating confrontations with his father), the book and the score display a reverence to established dramatic values of conflict and suspense so often absent in musicals of this type. Last year's still-running Tony winner, In the Heights, is full of rap that ultimately feels emptier and far more utilitarian than Sax's. (Unwavering devotees of the perfect rhyme, however, will find nothing to love here, either.)

Perhaps the most and least surprising aspect of this show is who's presenting it. The show is the inaugural production of Lincoln Center Theater's new LCT3 initiative, intended to unite young artists with young audiences by means of low ticket prices. As LCT is renowned for both the variety and the quality of its programming, fusing classical works and contemporary voices across all its stages, something like this is the logical next step. And $20 for all tickets is an otherworldly price for seeing a stunning new star in this blazing show. But even at higher prices, Clay would still be the best new deal in town.

Through November 8
Duke On 42nd Street, 229 West 42nd Street between 7th and 8th Avenues
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Duke On 42nd Street

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