NYMF Recap: Feeling Electric, The Big Time and The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde

The New York Musical Theater Festival has completed its second successful season of presenting new musicals in various stages of development. Here is part one of a two-part series of reviews covering shows that have closed, but will hopefully be back soon in full-scale productions.

 

Feeling Electric

Somewhere out there is an unofficial list called "Bad Ideas That Made Good Musicals." It includes such seemingly unmusical subjects such as "a strike in a pajama factory" and "a murderous barber whose victims get baked into meat pies." You can now add electric shock therapy to the list because Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorky (book and lyrics) have come up with an exciting new musical, Feeling Electric, dealing with the effects of this controversial practice on a young suburban mother trying to get over long-term depression. Perhaps the most negative charge that can be made against this energetic, intelligent and yes, funny rock musical is that it can use some trimming from it's two hour and forty-five minute length, but I couldn't name you a moment in director Peter Ashkin's production where I wasn't completely engrossed and entertained.

Amy Spanger is outstanding in a demanding role that requires her to be quirky, maternal, sexy, emotionally erratic and strangely peaceful, all while belting strong character-driven lyrics set in a hard-driving score. The plot can only be minimally told without giving away the surprises of this well-structured story, but it deals with a woman's inability to cope with a tragedy that occurred very early in her marriage. The show is light and comic at first, with humor centered around typical family squabbles and mom's dependency on many medications, but as the audience learns more about her domestic situation the authors seamlessly guide the musical into more complex drama, yet retaining an optimistic feel.

Anthony Rapp is terrific as a mild-mannered doctor who Spanger can't help envisioning as a sexually intimidating rock star. He recommends electric shock treatment as a last resort and it's the mom's reaction to the procedure that fuels the controversial issues presented in the second act. Fine work is also provided by Joe Cassidy as the long-suffering father trying to make things right, Benjamin Schrader as the attention-demanding son and especially Annaleigh Ashford as the dark-humored neglected daughter. ("Taking a semi-automatic and shooting as many popular kids as possible is really the only sane response to high school.")

A interesting aspect of Feeling Electric is that Kitt has both parents and children sing in the same musical style, without any apparent generational differences; something rare in rock scores.

Audiences may flinch at the idea of musicalizing such a subject, but Feeling Electric is a sensitive, moving and musically thrilling piece and a fine example of the dramatic power of musical theatre.

 

The Big Time

"I never knew so much could happen between eight and eleven o'clock!" exclaims a dazzled character toward the end of The Big Time, Douglas Carter Beane (book) and Douglas J. Cohen's (score) rip-roaring musical comedy that can best be described as Anything Goes sprinkled with Golden Rainbow deep fried in Silk Stockings. But lovers of the genre will tell you they live for those three hours of the evening.

There have been other shows that could be described as valentines to the Broadway musical, but The Big Time pays tribute to the type of show that is too often dismissed as trite and unrevivable -- the star-powered vehicles of the 1930's, where great literary wits like P.G. Wodehouse and George S. Kaufman would somehow write semi-coherent plots for stars who were already signed, making room for songs that would never pretend to advance the plot. It was a time when, if a society matron regurgitated a bad oyster after a swanky dinner party, Cole Porter would put a song about it in his next show, despite the fact that nearly everyone in the audience wouldn't get the reference.

Like Porter, The Big Time plays to insiders. If you've never heard the phrase "send me my mail there", if you don't know what a Jerry Herman list song is, if you don't understand why Philadelphia is funny and if you don't know what word the New York Times used to describe Jackie Hoffman, much of the show will cruise by you. But if you get a kick out of put-downs of British musicals and lyrics about the healing properties of seeing a Comden and Green show, then this is your special island.

Debbie Gravitte and Sal Viviano are cheesy show-biz fun as Donna and Tony Stevenitti, a pair of 3rd rate Atlantic City lounge singers who accidentally get booked on a cruise ship that was expecting Steve & Eydie. The ship is filled with United Nations officials trying to prevent civil war in the country of Pedestria. A faction of its citizens, known as the Dregs, are demanding independence and several Dregs have snuck on-board, ready to hold the passengers hostage until their demands are met.

What does this have to do with musical comedy? Nothing, except that everyone on board seems to talk about nothing else. Patrick Quinn, who seems to have completely metamorphosized into George S. Irving, sings of his love for the "Big, Brash, Splashy and Illogical Musical" to his delightfully deadpan associate, played by Joanna Glushak. The gang of Dregs (Michael McCormick, David Beach, Raymond Bokhour and Jackie Hoffman) have a showstopping ditty about their hatred for western culture. And when Donna Stevenitti is asked if she's ever done anything so arduous that it seemed life-threatening, she answers with a tart, "Honey, I've sung Sondheim."

The songs are lively and fun, the jokes are fast and funny and Christopher Ashley's direction is period goofy. Would The Big Time score with the casual theatre-goer? I'm not sure, but if you're the type that sets your alarm clock to wake you up with a Jule Styne overture, it's no less than de-lovely.

photo by Joan Marcus: (l-r) Bradley Dean, Debbie Gravitte, Patrick Quinn, Jackie Hoffman, Sal Viviano and Raymond Bokhour

 

The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde

It's not an easy task, developing sympathy for characters who rob banks and kill people, and occasionally villains can be effectively romanticized, but although the opening chorus of The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde (book and lyrics by Michael Aman and Oscar E. Moore, music by Dana P. Rowe) promises, "Romeo and Juliet but served up southern fried", the recipe for tragic romance requires a bit more seasoning. There's good material in this work-in-progress and there's no lack of entertainment in the text or in director Michael Bush's production, but songs that don't contribute to the story must be cut and empathy for the title characters must be found before this one is ready for another run.

It's the midst of the Great Depression and Bonnie Parker is depicted as a young Texas girl with dreams of adventure, stuck waiting tables in a dumpy cafe, living with her mom while her husband is jailed for life. The dapper and slick-talking Clyde Barrow lures her into a world of petty thievery, but Bonnie's thinking big and the two of them gather up a gang for some high-stakes bank robbery. What makes the story almost endearing is their initial ineptitude as they learn how to rob people with a minimal amount of panic and their naive excitement at their growing celebrity. But eventually blood gets shed in buckets and when it does there's nothing left for us to like; at least not as presented.

Country-western vocalist Sherrie Austin (Bonnie) seems in her element with the catchy score, but her acting doesn't stand up to the detailed work of Deven May, who looks remarkably period and plays Clyde with strong vocals and a crisp and easy swagger that gradually crumbles as the team ventures further and further over their heads. Get the rest of The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde up to his level, and you've got yourself a show.

Photo by Joan Marcus: Sherrie Austin and Deven May

 


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Michael Dale After 20-odd years singing, dancing and acting in dinner theatres, summer stocks and the ever-popular audience participation murder mysteries (try improvising with audiences after they?ve had two hours of open bar), Michael Dale segued his theatrical ambitions into playwriting. The buildings which once housed the 5 Off-Off Broadway plays he penned have all been destroyed or turned into a Starbucks, but his name remains the answer to the trivia question, "Who wrote the official play of Babe Ruth's 100th Birthday?" He served as Artistic Director for The Play's The Thing Theatre Company, helping to bring free live theatre to underserved communities, and dabbled a bit in stage managing and in directing cabaret shows before answering the call (it was an email, actually) to become BroadwayWorld.com's first Chief Theatre Critic. While not attending shows Michael can be seen at Citi Field pleading for the Mets to stop imploding. Likes: Strong book musicals and ambitious new works. Dislikes: Unprepared celebrities making their stage acting debuts by starring on Broadway and weak bullpens.


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