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Reviews by Rob Lester

Have you heard the story about the guy who goes to bed and wakes up as something resembling a big cockroach? Well, now Kafka's old "Metamorphosis" tale has morphed into a musical riffing on that novella and the writer himself. By extension, some singers and arrangers can make their own metamorphosis turning something old into something new through genre-swapping and remodeling with inventive flair. For example, consider Gabrielle Stravelli and her band taking on Willie Nelson's songbag.


Broadway Records

Come take a walk on the wacky side. With the score of a stage piece exploring and named for writer Franz Kafka and his most famous work, Kafka's Metamorphosis: The Musical! supplies giggles, glibness, satire, sass and surprise. Beginning with an invocation to journey to the world before smartphones and, tainting Trump-triggered times, "before the facts were 'alternative'," some sung exposition entertainingly sets us up in an era and with basic biography. Then, picking up the sympathy banner and picking up the tempo with narrating singers, the company tells of "A Boy Named K" with a "Poor, poor Franz" mantra that is reprised later.

Jack Rento effectively plays both the writer himself and Gregor Samsa, "The Metamorphosis"'s protagonist (the 25-year-old man who lives with his family and unaccountably awakes one day as a verminous insect). As the show's double-duty central figures, his worries and wariness dominate. When they dwell on the dreariness or despair, there's a risk of overstatement with basic vocabulary. But the proceedings are peppered with his chuckle-worthy asides when Gregor discovers that he's become that creepy creature, like his shocked, angry realization "I have a thorax" and the practical observation that he's "going to need a lot more shoes." I was tickled to catch a quickly passing winking reference to the old pop anthem for female power, "I Am Woman," when the character asserts "I am insect—Hear me roar!" Lyrics have some irreverent rhymes like "novella"/"umbrella" and "multi-media"/"Wikipedia" (in "Almost Complete"). Then we get "Make yourself at home" and "But I have irritable bowel syndrome" (in "This Door Must Stay Locked").

The others generally play just one character each—Gregor's sister and parents—although there is sung narration and commentary by all which is not character-specific, and some allows for breaking the fourth wall to directly address the audience. With Kafka's actual "Dearest Father" letter as genesis, prominent parallels of painful paternal rejection in the lives of both the real and fictional men add drama. As Kafka, Rento laments his lot in some slow swaths of self-pity, contrasting with Gregor's explosive "How Do You Like Me Now, Dad?"

Gregor's father is played by the man who provided the seed for creating the musicalization—"as a joke" offhandedly one day. He is Matt Chiorini, a theatre professor/director/writer who admits in the CD's liner notes that he's been "obsessed for years" with this story. Playing guitar, he's also one of the four musicians and wrote the dialogue (some heard on the recording) as well as the songs, with "additional music and lyrics" by Travis Newton, violinist and musical director, taking on conducting, orchestrations, and vocal arrangements, as well as producing the album with the lively band's keyboardist Greg Giovanini as his assistant. Percussionist Robert Bridge completes the instrumental ensemble.

Dizzying speed is the appropriate M.O. for argumentative and tense passages, wisely employed in "Samsa Mornings," a slice of mundane breakfast table chatter and nagging so as to avoid tedium and underscore rushing against the clock and the characters' inattentiveness. Carleena Manzi as the mother serves such moments well as a kind of placating family umpire. Morgan Smith's pretty, plaintive voice as sympathizing sister Grete is the saving grace in some tracks with sections that become slow, semi-clunky, deliberate and repetitious. Some of this does achieve the goal of showing that there is a communication breakdown, as well as frustration.

As things go on during the 12 tracks, now and then, you may experience a sense of diminishing returns as what is initially delightfully daffy and odd starts too feel familiarly the norm—and a little tired. Some of the melody lines could benefit from more variety, and lyrics are more impactful when they don't settle for near rhymes or words sung with syllables against their natural stresses. But it's difficult to become engaged for a long stretch with unrealistic stories or characters without the advantages of seeing action, facial reactions, and other visuals (and this show has puppets!). A not-so-minor P.S.: the lovely bittersweet post-mortem ray of hope, "We'll Smile Again" just before the end, adds a satisfying, valued tug of emotion as does a spoken wrap-up final thought.

Recorded somewhat early in its development (between performances in its nurtured native college town in central New York State and before performances in festivals, including New York City's NYMF earlier this month), Kafka's Metamorphosis: The Musical! hasn't finished its own metamorphosis. In a recent local TV interview, Chiorini stated that, after taking in audience reactions, he expects to learn and tweak this, his first musical. Meanwhile, this aural souvenir earns and makes points enough to intrigue.


Perhaps singer Gabrielle Stravelli and her arranger/partner/musical director/co-producer/bassist Pat O'Leary have the musical equivalent of advanced degrees in reupholstering. They never sound like strangers lost in a strange musical land, but rather like grateful guests who rearrange the furniture but wouldn't dare break it. The pieces picked for the satisfying set offer much variety in tempo, mood, and subject matter, making this both a non-redundant affair sustaining interest and a showcase for the versatility and range of Willie Nelson as impossible to shortchange.

The team has so creatively and comfortably refashioned and reshaped the world of country music icon Nelson through their own through-and-through jazzy, pizzazzy sensibilities that you truly gotta hear it to believe it. (Yes, even some scat-singing works like a charm; "charm" is probably the operative word for this whole project.) The metamorphosis is miraculous, especially considering that, despite the considerable retooling and rethinking, there's a very fond respect for the old-school, simpler originals and their history. I feel it solidly present from top to bottom on the dozen delicious tracks, four of which are medleys, allowing for more samples of the long-careered veteran's songbook. Besides the many that he wrote or co-wrote, there are five here from the pens of other tunesmiths. This broadening of the Nelson image as an anti-pigeonholing effort is kind of an appropriate "return favor" in that the man himself has approached plenty of music outside his early good ol' comfort zone, covering standards, with albums exploring Sinatra and Gershwin as recent examples.

As she's shown on prior recordings (and certainly in person), this singer radiates such joie de vivre that smiling is unavoidable, and the blues retain a patina of sweetness that keeps the Stravellian sunshine lurking just under the clouds. Pick Up My Pieces is a definite pick-me-up. There's a sophistication and thoughtfulness in both plucky and unlucky moods that shoo away the potential for any force-fed corniness. Offsetting the more plain lyrics, spouted philosophies and attitudes never get too pat with O'Leary and the band, featuring brass and strings, bringing depth and decorative dazzle.

Nelson's breakthrough as hit-maker, "Crazy" (which had already become the signature for Patsy Cline), is combined effectively with the despairing, vulnerable number suggested by the album's title, "Somebody Pick Up My Pieces," each adding to the other's impact. Catharsis and honesty take precedence over weepy self-pity. Performed with zeal and unabashed playfulness, a romp like the tongue-in-cheek adviso "Mammas, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys" unleashes unabashed playfulness that's pure fun, with a wink. On another note, delicacy and mature understanding coalesce in the moving "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground," a highlight made all the more impactful by its emotion having a reserve.

The classic "Stardust," dating back to the late 1920s, represents Willie Nelson's first big-selling foray into embracing the Great American Songbook when he did so four decades ago. Therefore, it's the most appropriate choice from the repertoire most often dipped into by the graceful Gabrielle, and it suits her talent for making almost anything sound fresh and committed to, no matter its age or earlier incarnation. It shimmers. The whole long introductory verse is performed a cappella, showing off her mastery and magnetism.

Gabrielle Stravelli's command is more and more evident and exciting with each of her fine recordings and I can't wait to see—and hear—where her career takes her next.

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