Past Reviews

Sound Advice Reviews

Threatening Romans, Unusual Musicals
Reviews by Rob Lester

Two stories reaching back centuries to the time of ancient Rome find the Roman powers-that-were causing much trouble for title characters in two vastly different musicals, neither a typical stage piece. Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt's old show Philemon is dramatic and thought provoking. Then we hit the dance floor for the Roman conquest of Cleopatra's Egypt as a centuries-old saga is dressed in modern musical garb.


Harbinger Records/ The Musical Theater Project

When in Rome ... be careful. The Roman city of Antioch is the danger-filled setting for Philemon, the little-known musical from the 1970s by the iconic team of wordsmith Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt. Developed at their own New York theatre development lab, Portfolio, their much-reworked/revised/rethought story in its final version resulted in a vinyl cast album back in the day and that has been lovingly restored, with three extra tracks added. In his liner notes, Bill Rudman (Founding Director of The Musical Theater Project and co-founder, with author/historian Ken Bloom, of Harbinger Records) calls the limited pressing of the original record a "treasure," adding, "I doubt that more than 50 collectors still have the LP." Well, I didn't realize I was in such small-sized company. (This same label's recent Hidden Treasures collection of their work can convince anyone to explore any and all of their songs.)

Philemon is the kind of score that may seem deceptively simple or even elusive at first. But there is SO much more that reveals itself upon further listening, especially with the context provided in the lengthy historical notes in the CD booklet's essays, including words from those involved in the original show. It resonates even more now.

Despite some bits of crassness and horror, Philemon retains a warmth and delicacy, the piece embracing the more fragile aspects of human experience. It has an unabashed belief in the power of love and faith. The central character is Cockian, a street clown, played with empathetic finesse by Dick Latessa, put into prison by a Roman commander, ordered to infiltrate Christian followers, seen as a threat, by impersonating a leader named Philemon. (The admiring Christians don't know the real Philemon has been killed.) It becomes a life-changing experience for the clown.

Latessa, who appears in most of the numbers, didn't boast a dazzling or polished voice, but his brashness on early songs and a heartbreaking vulnerability later on suit the piece quite well. His loneliness echoes hauntingly in the lamenting "Name: Cockian." His "How Free I Feel" radiates discovered joy. His lighter singing contrasts with Howard Ross's deep, imposing tones as the Roman villain. Leila Martin's rich voice brings the needed gravitas and potency to the message song about love's force and importance, "The Greatest of These". It's a major highlight that is regal and moving. Kathrin King Segal and Virginia Gregory, as two women in Cockian's life, get less heavy-duty assignments, and Michael Glenn-Smith rounds out the cast nicely as a young prisoner guided to keep his sanity by escaping into fantasy ("My Secret Dream").

Of special importance here are the unusual orchestrations that achieve wonders with some bewitching, prominent percussive sounds added to the keyboards and evocative French horn, guitar, and a simple recorder. Whether seeking playfulness, wistfulness, worry or rue, the instrumentation is intriguing and impactful, as much a major communicating factor as the melodies or lyrics. Memories and wishes seem to be stirred up and stripped to their essences, but when "dressing" is added to simpler passages, it feels like a worthwhile enrichment rather than just decoration. Schmidt's included brief comments on the orchestrations are dated just two months prior to his death last year.

The three bonus tracks further pique interest in the show and decisions made around it. "I Believe in Music" is a songwriter demo from an earlier version of Philemon, a life-affirming statement of carpe diem philosophy and priorities. The others incorporate bits of material heard in numbers in the main program, plus more (with some dialogue), and are taken from the TV production which featured the same principals. Although this addendum leaves us with a rather downbeat last mood, it's well worth preserving. (The show itself ends as it begins with a song acknowledging the artifice of theatre, breaking the fourth wall to invite the audience in for what will happen "Within This Empty Space.")

Philemon is a compelling musical, its songs and food for thought to be savored.


Broadway Records

Roman power grabs didn't worry Egypt's ruler, or so the title character of Cleopatra: The Musical Experience wants people to believe. In a preening number called "On Top," the monarch scoffs: "I might not be in Roman favor/ But my people know they're not in danger./ A Roman diet don't handle Egypt flavor./ And my people don't riot unless it's a rager." She sasses that she was "born a bad bitch" and the Romans can "kiss my assets." But her main mantra in this number asserts, "It's only me at the top, at the top, on top/ I'll always be at the top, at the top, on top." And then the same lines again. Repeating lines or phrases or even single words is a common practice in the writing, some of it perhaps understandable due to the nature of the endeavor: Billed as an "immersive" happening, the audience, standing or dancing along in a dance club's atmosphere, is there to groove and move and have the music and pulse wash over them. Nuance and subtlety in lyrics and character development are not what it's about. With what we might call "event theatre" or extravaganza heavy on the visuals, a mere audio souvenir may not be a fair way to try to assess what this voyage along the Nile and thereabouts was really about. While the styles of song and rhythms aren't so much my cup of tea, I can see why it will result in appeal and zeal in some circles.

The M.O. for most of the 11 tracks, set to the electronic beats of club music, is having lyrics alternate with sections of instrumental respites. And there are a few forays into hip-hop territory. Welcome to the party where at first, with swirling sounds, you're invited to "Surrender" to the throbbing musical moods meant to be intoxicating. We're not meant to take this take on the Roman threats to Egypt seriously, and an archaeological dig through the gloss and glibness will reveal a few nuggets of winking charm.

After a limited Manhattan run in 2017 to try its anachronistic wings, a mostly new cast took over another venue, Chelsea Music Hall, for the last couple of months of 2018. The queen of Egypt was joined by a drag queen from "RuPaul's Drag Race," Dusty Ray Bottoms, serving as emcee to interact with the audience. This recording was done in between those times, with four studio singers added to its five ensemble members and the four main characters. The singing and lyrics are sometimes overwhelmed by the instrumentation, with sound mixer Lloyd Kikoler and Jeff Daye playing multiple instruments, doing the orchestrations, and co-producing the recording. Daye composed the music and shares credit with Laura Kleinbaum for the lyrics, with Drew Fornarola contributing unspecified additional material. The centuries-old story of Cleopatra has inspired retellings in books, plays (including Shakespeare), operas, films, TV, other stage musicals, and even slot machine games. But she and her world never quite come across like this.

As the one-named performer Nya plays her, she's quite the confident, commandingly defiant diva, singing in a decidedly modern style that makes no apologies for its take-no-prisoners approach. As her handmaiden Iris, Sydney Parra has her big moment of jealousy gasping and gallivanting through "I Can't Breathe" after the queen's passions with Marc Antony (Christian Brailsford) boil over. He gets a hero's welcome from the people in "He's Home" ("Raise a glass to the baddest-ass ... In the tribe, in the clan./ Headin' up his caravan!"). But all is not well or truthful, and perhaps the army of Octavian (Corbin Payne) wasn't quite conquered as he professes. To quote the lyric of "Exceptional," which isn't exceptional in its depth: "It wasn't easy, it wasn't easy, it wasn't easy."

So, this isn't the score for those looking for traditional music theatre or grand drama or insights into history. Are you willing to throw caution and sense to the wind? You might find it fun if you are into dance music and get a kick from the juxtaposition of modern styles of song and speech imposed on something ancient. Resistant listeners may find the proceedings leave them as unsmilingly stone-faced as a Sphinx, but not so tortured as to be tempted to reach for the nearest asp. This irreverent Cleopatra can be a guilty pleasure.

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