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Moses Man
Acappella

The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2015

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Moses Man

Genuine affection floods Moses Man, the new musical by Deborah Haber and Casey Filiaci at the New York Musical Theatre Festival. It's clear that lyricist-librettist Haber adores each and every one of those whose lives she chronicles—and why not? As she explains in a program note, this story, which is set before, during, and after the German annexation of Austria at the start of World War II, is about her Jewish parents and their impossible, inspiring escape from the horrors of a crumbling Europe and journey to start over in the United States.

Alas, Haber's unquestionable love has not translated into an exciting, or even particularly memorable, musical. The travails undergone by her lead characters, Avi (Oliver Thornton) and Lia (Tess DeFlyer), either occur mostly offstage or are dramatically stinted. There's limited juice to be squeezed from passport bureaucracy or ethnic immigration quotas, for example. And though the pair and their friends generally manage to stay just a step ahead of the Nazis, there's little sense of the tension and doom they're running from; the threat is real, but vague, as though everyone involved knows (as we do) that everything is going to turn out all right. (The framing device, in which an older Avi and his grandson discuss and comment upon the action, doesn't help much.)

Filiaci's music is of the generically pleasant and anthemic variety one might expect from a Les MisĂ©rables–Fiddler on the Roof mashup, if largely lacking in the flavor, adventure, suspense, or specificity that defines those more captivating properties. The second-act opener, a Mediterranean rave-up set in Cypress, manages to convey a whiff of place, but that's fleeting; most of the other songs are underpowered power ballads or ensemble pieces too gentle to raise the roof as they obviously intend. Only three numbers kindle any fire—a musical scene centering on Avi sweet-talking Adolf Eichmann (Ryan Speakman), the hurried four-way nuptials of "A Wedding for Eight," and "I Won't Disappear" for a heavily suffering minor character Freddy (a fine Zachary Clause)—and they still evaporate from your memory as soon as you hear them.

Director Michael Bush can't inject much new suspense with his lean, declarative staging, and most of the performers underwhelm. The exceptions are the delightfully ghoulish Speakman, and Kevin McGuire and Evan Daves, who respectively and convincingly play the grandfather and grandson bonding over their shared tragic history. Thornton and DeFlyer are genial, restrained, and tentative in parts that sound like they were written for more dynamic performers (an Enjolras type and a Fantine type, really)—these two are not the kind of personalities you're going to be compelled to follow for two-plus hours (and forget about halfway around the globe). To be fair, though, they can only work with what they're given, and Haber hasn't given them—or us—theatrical reason enough to feel for Avi and Lia as much as she so obviously does.


Acappella

There's no shortage of talent in the NYMF outing Acappella. Time and time again, almost as soon as you're positive you've seen everything the company has to offer, someone new will step forward and let loose with a wailing voice that cuts to your very soul, just what you'd hope would happen from the gospel that constitutes the entire song stack. It's good that that's the case, because it's only during the best of these moments that the show manages to rouse itself—or you—from an all-consuming torpor.

The songs, you see, are the stars. They're pre-existing a cappella pieces from The Acappella Company, and thus demand the full participation of the 14-member cast to have basic vocals and accompaniment. But this introduces another wrinkle: It's more difficult for the lyrics to carry narrative weight when the solo line is forever fighting with the underscoring. Unless the sound design is flawless (which, in a festival environment, is almost never the case), there's no way to force your ear to hear the right thing at the right time. Everything, then, sounds more like noise than useful music, a gimmick that, even when the singers are superb (as here), circumstances prevent from paying off the way it should.

Not that it would matter much anyway. Vynnie Meli's book, as with so many written for jukebox musicals, is negligible to the point of pointless, well beyond what any director could fix. (Lee Summers is billed and provides acceptable staging, to no concrete effect.) It concerns a young man named Jeremiah (Tyler Hardwick) who returns to his tiny Georgia hometown several years after being picked to lead a high-profile boy band, and tries to pick up where he left off with the best friend, Simon (Anthony Chatmon II), and girlfriend, Sarah (Darilyn Castillo), he left behind, only to find it harder than he expected. No new ground is covered, and the treatment is pretty half-hearted: Simon's angry for ill-defined reasons; despite now loving someone else, Sarah is quick to sleep with Jeremiah—you get the picture.

Some nonsense involves Jeremiah wanting to learn who he is now, but no actual energy is expended on it. Everything is just killing time between songs, which means they need to be shoehorned in however possible: Simon has to have an a cappella group, Jeremiah's aunt has to have her own, they need to have endless rehearsals for the town festival, and so on. The songs ("Swing Low Sweet Chariot," "Jesus in the USA," "I Feel Good," "Old-Time Gospel") are excellent, as are Hardwick, Castillo, Chatmon, and Freeman—heck, everybody is. but you don't care about the people they're playing. And, unfortunately for Acappella, because they're not playing people, you end up not caring too much about their music, either. Funny how that works.


Moses Man & Acappella
at The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2015
Tickets online, Venue and Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2015 Guide and Tickets


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