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Bloodsong of Love

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

MK Lawson and Eric William Morris.
Photo by Peter James Zielinski.

By the time, late in Bloodsong of Love, that a footless prostitute transforms into a giraffe (metaphysically speaking) at the behest of a man named Banana and the uncanonized Saint Violetta who used to sell herself (in angel wings) when not selling fish at a general store, you'll have long stopped expecting the expected. This "rock ‘n' roll spaghetti western" breaks so many rules, and so warmly embraces the stupid that by any sensible standards it would bomb from the instant its first twangs sound. But because the author of this new musical at Ars Nova is Joe Iconis, you're better off not expecting that, either.

Of the many up-and-coming young composers who've been making the Off- and Off-Off-Broadway rounds in search of their big breaks, Iconis is at once the most unusual and the most conventional. A stalwart musical-comedy man, whose modern sensibilities range from the no-nonsense children's theatre of The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks to the twistedly twisty self-referentiality of ReWrite (in which he was, among other roles, a character) to the raucous here-and-now of Things to Ruin, he's also an amplification-loving rocker having a torrid double love affair with the perfect rhyme and the insinuating-earworm melody.

If these qualities would seem to make him a fixture of decades-ago Broadway rather than the anything-different ethos of today's theatrical counterculture circuit, Iconis proves with this new musical, which plays through May 9 and has been delightfully directed by John Simpkins, that these personalities needn't be incompatible. Combining melodramatic Italian westerns with a Mexican setting, American ingenuity, a dash or two of musical homage (Destry Rides Again, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, and The Lion King chief among them), and a bounty of comedic violence, Bloodsong of Love makes them look like natural mates.

It's also that rare show that looks, sounds, and acts as though it's setting a trend, rather than just following one. Yes, there are strains of an undue jokiness and ironic self-awareness of the kind you might find in The Producers or Rock of Ages, but that's the style rather than the content, and it's clear that it's the characters - not the actors playing them - who are the willing victims of the incongruity surrounding them, but have somehow managed to live with it. And even when they're at their silliest - the footless whore is joined by a pipsqueak tyrant, a one-eyed bartender, and a nerdy evil henchman - they're not treated as just ways to get laughs on the side, but as integral parts of the story.

That story, by the way, ain't bad either - and it justifies the concept of a legend told and retold into oblivion. Our string-strumming narrator (Jason "SweetTooth" Williams) is fascinated with a poetic tombstone he's found that marks the grave of a man known only as "The Musician," and has unearthed (or developed?) an entire story about his exploits. The traveling minstrel (a cowboy-charismatic Eric William Morris) fell hard for Violetta (MK Lawson), who was stolen by town bully Lo Cocodrilo (Jeremy Morse) and kept as a prisoner while The Musician was shipped out of town on a trumped-up charge.

But The Musician and his tambourine-beating sidekick, Banana (Lance Rubin) are back, armed with (literally) deadly music and a desire to reclaim what's been wrongfully taken. Their journey takes them through the usual gunfights, nights in the desert, and, uh, honky-tonks as they trail Lo Cocodrilo and Violetta, but given Iconis's wry outlook on the genre's tropes, clichés, and stereotypes, their path is never merely a straight-ahead one. (Did I mention The Musician built his guitar after Violetta's kidnapping, from the wood of a tree that sprang from the blood she emitted when he devirginized her on their wedding night?)

It is, however, mostly a thrill, and a powerful argument against the committee-driven musical-writing climate that neuters so many mainstream shows. The book is charming, funny, and (very) occasionally moving, never quite going too far in pursuing absurdism. And the score is moonshine-addictive, from the country-story theatre opening ("Outlaw") to the shoot-‘em-up songs (one of which, belted out the door and a dozen blocks downtown by the incredible Katrina Rose Dideriksen, is even called "Shoot ‘Em Up") to the wisps of touching ballads that instantly summon the hazy purple sunsets of the Southwest.

Bloodsong of Love isn't perfect. Though things are shrewdly breathless before intermission, long stretches of Act II drag when the craziness starts to ebb as The Musician and Banana near their goal. One of the songs along that final stretch, "Last on Land," is a lovely (if repetitive) composition that injects far too much metaphor (and a maritime one, at that) just when things should be getting their most realistic. It also stretches Williams's role as the last word in sage ensemble men a bit too far; he becomes so important to the story that his overuse borders on dilution, though his character needs to be at full strength until the show's final seconds.

With an exciting cast of comic-stars-on-the-rise, an impressive band (led by Matt Hinkley), western-themed unit set (by Michael Schweikardt), and costume plot (Michelle Eden Humphrey), however, those are about all Iconis needs to resolve to have his first defining hit on his hands. Simpkins, however, faces something potentially more daunting: The stage is just too small for this many people doing this much choreography (the smart work of Jennifer Werner) and telling this much story. But no matter. One imagines that once word gets out about Bloodsong of Love, a bigger theater will be on its way soon enough.

Bloodsong of Love
Through May 9
Ars Nova Theater, 511 West 54th Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: Ars Nova Theater