Tuesday, November 02, 2010

A Whole New World - Venice - Musical Review

Venice - Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City, Los Angeles - ****1/2 (out of 5 stars)
Music by Matt Sax, Lyrics by Matt Sax and Eric Rosen, Book and Directed by Eric Rosen, Choreography by John Carrafa and Tanisha Scott
Until Nov. 14th 2010

There are times when using adjectives like fresh and explosive to describe a new musical just screams that it's trying too hard to be different, which is not necessarily better. And half the time, the musical is not even that different and is still 5 steps behind what is out in the popular mainstream culture. So walking into Venice, never having heard a thing about it except that it describes itself as "An Explosive New Musical", made me fear for an ambitious new musical that fails to deliver anything actually new. I had read somewhere that Venice was essentially a retelling of Othello, and it used rap and hip-hop, but while In The Heights also infused Hip-Hop (into what was a pretty traditional musical, forming a Hip-Hop/Rap lite version palatable for musical theatre), Venice is probably the first musical that I have seen that actually injects true Hip-Hop and Rap into the format making it an exciting advancement option in musical theatre's future.

Combining a complex dark tale with the energy, angst, and anger that the Rap style tends to inhabit, Venice manages to spin a fresh (there, I said it) look at one of Shakespeare's famous plays. With Matt Sax's clever and informative lyrics (as well as his own performance as the Clown MC that narrates the entire show), and Eric Rosen's efficient direction, using beautiful projection designs (by Jason H. Thompson) overlayed onto Meghan Raham's allusionary set, we're taken to some alter reality where the city of Venice has fallen after a lengthy war, and when a renewal of hope has begun as a new leader, named after the city itself, Venice Monroe (a wonderful Javier Muñoz), is crowned. Then there's Venice's Iagoesque half-brother Markos (an astounding Rodrick Covington), whose wife Emilia Monroe (from a beautiful performance by Victoria Platt) was former servant to Willow Turner (a lovely Andrea Goss), the exiled daughter of the assassinated leader who is just returning to Venice with the newly appointed (and naive) General Michael Victor (a charming Erich Bergen).

Since I actually haven't ever read or seen Othello, the plot got a little complicated, not aided by the fact that Rapping by nature is fast and furious with the words, so I found myself concentrating hard trying to listen to all the lyrics and figure out the plot twists and turns. Sax and Rosen cleverly reiterate the major plot points in several methods, sometimes with a CNN-like reporter, other times with the Clown MC himself, and other times in different types of speech patterns. Considering the density of the story and the musical styles used, it was overall, fairly easy to understand and Rosen's direction keeps things pretty clear with the small cast.

The darkness of the material though makes the musical by nature difficult to love, but Sax and Rosen keeps the show pulsating with heavy beats and a nice dramatic flow. The songs bound from hip-hop narrations to a quiet lovely melody, from a gangsta-rapped angry tirade (in a mesmerizing performance by Rodrick Covington, from Steppenwolf's The Brother/Sister Plays) and it brings Venice the musical right up to current popular music styles. With the exceptional cast bringing the emotional core to this very "hip" musical, I found myself won over just as the tragic twists in the story emerged in the climax of the musical.

There are moments that still feel reaching and the poetic nature sometimes still feels a little grade-schoolish (particularly to the simple, but catchy "The Wind Cried Willow"), and at times Matt Sax's rapping intros feels light and "musical theatre", especially compared the intensity of the rest of the show, but the overall effects of the entire show is powerful and strong enough to overcome some of the smaller quibbles I have with the show, and I found myself truly enjoying and admiring the show itself, and not just it's attempt at changing the sound of musical theatre.

The performances were almost uniformly excellent, and Rosen manages to direct the small cast to feel like a far larger one. Javier Muñoz (above) sounded amazing (and far better than when I saw him as Usanvi in In the Heights) and mixed a perfect balance of commanding intelligence and dumb naivety. Matt Sax has such a terrific natural presence on stage, and is our perfect guise into this new world vision of "Venice".

In addition to great performances by Goss, Covington, Platt and Bergen, there's an amazing performance by Angela Wildflower Polk (above centre) as Hailey Daisy, a sort of Lil Kim in this otherworld, an idol figure who gets suckered and used by the conniving Markos.

Uzo Aduba sings beautifully as Anna Monroe, mother to Venice and Markos, and the only slight criticism I have is for J.D. Goldblatt's (above) Theodore Westbrook, a jealous but weak fool, but is played a bit too 2-dimensionally.

John Carrafa and Tanisha Scott's choreography is slightly uneven, with some terrifically clever movements while other sections feel naive as compared to the music, but the strong music and visual design of the show (including David Weiner's lighting design) manages to overcome the lesser details to create a pretty striking identity for the show.

There was a time when musical theatre produced radio mainstream hit songs, but then over the years, musical theatre's pace could not, or would not keep up with the pace of mainstream popular music. I've been questioning but optimistically thinking that musical theatre could invite a whole new array of language skills by adopting to the current beats and stylings of pop music, and then comes Venice proving a show can modernize the musical stylings without dumbing down the story. It won't be for everyone, as this is no South Pacific, and I noticed some missing seniors in the second act of the show, and of those who stayed, some audience members still seemed baffled at the end, but a good majority, as with myself, leapt up in applause to this very fresh, and explosive new musical that brings musical theatre into a whole new world.

Matt Sax and Eric Rosen have enhanced a powerful storyline with the built-in emotional intensity of the musical genre's of today, and created a deeply compelling, extremely moving, often funny, and always thrilling, theatrical experience.

Vance at http://tapeworthy.blogspot.com

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