BWW Review: Quirky WAGNER, MAX! WAGNER! Premieres at Kennedy Center
In 2008, I witnessed one of the most unique productions on Broadway with Stew and Heidi Rodewald's Tony Award-winning PASSING STRANGE (for the record, I really liked it). Flash forward to present day, when it was announced that the creative duo would premiere a new work at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as part of the World Stages Festival, I was pretty excited to see what they cooked up. In the promotional materials, WAGNER, MAX! WAGNER! is described as follows: "a song cycle [that]...irreverently explores the surprising connection between the music-myths of composer Richard Wagner and the blues." In true Stew and Heidi fashion - supported by a slew of other accomplished musicians comprising "The Wagner Problem" - they explore this idea in unpredictable, surprising, and in-the-moment ways. While not everything about this production works, there are definitely things to appreciate and foundations from which to build for future incantations.
The co-collaborators do a couple of interesting things with the material. The story of Wagner, as told in this piece, is not what we might expect. Richard Wagner, of course, is best known for his work in the opera in 19th century Germany. Stew and his co-collaborator take every available chance to place their exploration of Wagner - his music and the man behind it - in another musical context, that of the blues. While they're not always successful in laying out a hypothesis and then providing evidence to support it in a cohesive and well-studied way (and Stew makes it clear that's not exactly what he was intending), they are able to leverage a rich variety of music - infused with jazz, blues, rock and roll, and classical - to explore, to put it broadly, the challenges of an artistic pursuit. Whether it's the 19th century or today, these challenges are timeless. In some cases, this exploration of the idea of creating and sharing art is informed by Stew's own experience with creating music against the backdrop of his own cultural heritage. He spends a great deal of time talking about the love-hate relationship the middle class African American community has with the blues, which is one of the more developed segments of the piece.
Currently, if one does not get caught up in the narrative details and try to make structural sense of everything and understand how it all fits together, it is most definitely possible to find some aural pleasure in listening to the music that's offered up. Stew and Heidi have put together an enormously talented group of musicians to bring this show to life and do not skimp in the area of instruments/players. There's even a sitar - played by Chris Rael - which adds a unique flavor to an early number. Each musician is given a chance to shine whether they're playing the bassoon (Sara Schoenbeck), clarinet (Mike McGinnis), violin (Dana Lyn), oboe (Katie Scheele), accordion (Nathan Koci), as well as others. Stew (vocals/guitar) and Heidi (vocals/bass), as well as several other vocalists - most notably Bibi Stewart and Brandon Woolf - give voice to the lyrics in a pleasing and interesting way. The rich musical landscape the group offers is the show's primary asset.
However, music is not the only element at play here and neither is Stew's commentary. Video (Joan Grossman) is employed and while it can be visually interesting, I did not necessarily feel it added much substantive value to the telling of the story through music. KJ Hardy's lighting design aids the group in establishing a rock concert-like atmosphere in some of the more jolting musical numbers.
My primary criticism of this piece, it must be said, is that it really goes nowhere narratively-speaking and when it ends, it does so abruptly. While Stew stresses that no two shows are the same and that they are working things out as they go, there's something to be said presenting a finished work if it's not designated as a workshop production. This is particularly true in a venue such as the Kennedy Center If the idea is to create a polished work of art that's aiming at a diverse audience - and not necessarily those that frequent downtown music clubs - more work is most certainly required to make it structurally satisfying and thematically centered. That being said, there are foundations from which to build if the idea is to create something with lasting value.
Running Time: 85 minutes with no intermission.
WAGNER, MAX! WAGNER! played the Kennedy Center on September 25 and 26, 2015. For information about other productions that will play the Kennedy Center as part of the World Stages Festival, visit the Kennedy Center website.
Photo: Heidi Rodewald and Stew (l-r); courtesy of the Kennedy Center.