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BWW Review: JOE ICONIS AND FAMILY at Lincoln Center's American Songbook at The Appel Room


BWW Review: JOE ICONIS AND FAMILY at Lincoln Center's American Songbook at The Appel Room

Be More Chill.

Speak those words in a crowded room of theatrical aficionados, and you'll likely be met with the parting waves of divisiveness. Cheers from the 2015 musical's ribald base of devout (dogmatic?) young followers and boos (or perhaps just loud groans) from the rest of the (mostly over thirty) crowd who simply don't get it.

Acknowledging that Herculean split is not only what got him here, it's likely what's spreading like jam around the room, BE MORE CHILL is, no surprise, the source of of the first joke in what might just be Joe Iconis's first real foray into overtly adult entertainment: The Appel Room and Lincoln Center's American Songbook Series. How to win over the mostly silver-haired crowd, whose casual dismissal ('it's terrible') belies the need to actually see a Joe Iconis musical (most didn't bother)...

As it turns out, the solution by the outrageously charismatic composer/lyricist is to give 'em a song cycle so jubilant - so effortlessly and gorgeously staged and sung - it practically begs to be plucked, picked up, and deposited Off-Broadway as the first great musical revue of the 2020s.

Big praise, I realize for a composer who (for many) is still proving his mettle, but this time, I think it's warranted. And dare I say it, this is a moment we'll look back on as perhaps the real start of Joe Iconis's New York conquest. True, Mr. Iconis has been nominated for a Tony Award and a dozen major Off-Broadway accolades. And love it or hate it, most everyone will concede that any time a new composer whose works don't include a film-to musical theatre adaptation is welcomed north of 42nd Street, it's something of a cause for celebration, regardless of the actual Broadway body count (despite the buzz, BE MORE CHILL ran a disappointing 177 Great White Way performances). But Iconis, a writer, composer, and lyricist whose bio is filled with a page of fringe musicals you've likely never heard of, is also, in many ways, that great theatrical cliche: the artist waiting for that break that will validate his grown-up artistry.

And here - at last - by funneling his loyal young fanbase and equally loyal long-time artist-friend Rolodex into a wise twenty performer portfolio stripped of bombast, and truly as chill as a Soho loft party, Joe Iconis AND FAMILY reveals a wit, musicality, and most significantly a grownup canticle connection that, simply put, must firmly place Iconis on the list of emerging musical theatre greats.

Especially fond, as he puts it, of writing about people (especially artistic types) who don't fit in, the power of Iconis's specificity is that, of course, it hits on the truth that is the struggle of the everyman in crisis. It's a simple conceit, but in it also lies Iconis's greatest authorial strength - the five-minute song as a fully realized character journey.

Launching with the autobiographical (at least in sentiment, no doubt), Iconis here starts simply (perhaps defiantly) at the piano with BE MORE CHILL's biggest conversation piece, the angsty, "Michael in the Bathroom;" he quickly passes the solo baton to the gorgeous (and gorgeously voiced) Molly Hager, who takes on "Broadway Here I Come!," a runaway success of a New York anthem from the television show SMASH (and, in truth, the one Joe Iconis song you've likely heard). "Try Again (If at First you Don't Succeed)," winsomely performed by Lance Rubin, completes what, I imagine, is a sort of surrogate - get it out of the way - trifecta, before the evening explodes with a "Whiskey Song" musical celebration, and the entrance of 'the family' - no Manson crew, but the most appealing tribe of bohemian songsters this 21st-century side of HAIR.

Tight in harmony, truly communal in their affection for each other (and most chiefly) the composer they are paying service too, the company of performers (add to the above-mentioned names the fabulous Nick Blaemire, Amara Brady, Liz Lark Brown, Betty Buckley, Dave Cinquegrana, Katrina Rose Dideriksen, Badia Farha, Alexandra Ferrara, Danielle Gimbal, Annie Golden, Ian Kagey, Geoffrey Ko, Rachel Lee, Eric William Morris, Will Roland, Brent Stranathan, Jared Weiss and Jason SweetTooth Williams) each has a moment to shine, something to share, and in Iconis's music and lyrics, some part of the human experience (and the human condition) to commiserate. With little patter in between, the songs play out like Petri dishes under an urban microscope; self constrained strands of our communal DNA on revealing display.

And Iconis, it shouldn't come as a great surprise, is a composer with his hand on the pulse of now, and a vast musical vocabulary at his fingertips.

As a lyricist, at his most didactic, the verses tend to err on the side of repetitious (as in: 'this is my problem and here are ten examples of how it always plays out') rather than burgeoning insight of predicament ('this is my problem, this is how it feels, and this is the progression of what I'm discovering') but at his musical/lyrical best -- in pieces like the Jimmy Webb-esque swing duet, "Right Place / Wrong Time," and most especially the twisted country-tinged, "Old Flame" (a piece written for and performed by the singular Buckley) Iconis's songs become tightly cohesive stories of unexpected catharsis.

In this way, his work might most closely resemble the gems of Richard Maltby and David Shire, and Joe Iconis AND FAMILY could even be viewed as a modern counterpart to their innovative musical revues, STARTING HERE STARTING NOW and CLOSER THAN EVER.

In truth, it could also be argued that it was in their musical revues that Maltby and Shire found their greatest musical accomplishment, and it's hard not to surmise that like that team, perhaps Iconis's talent for stories completely resolved in a single song has, until now, been the more satisfying experience of his music, rather than a book musical in which his songs must simply be building blocks.

And if the evening's newest compositions, like "Revolution Song" (a Go-Go's worthy tribal beat from LOVE IN HATE NATION) and "The Wave" (a song from a new and untitled musical about Hunter S. Thompson of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas fame) reveal a growing maturity in the 38-year-old composer's musical theatre idiom, the headway is not to negate the cumulative power of his early body of work, and what's been accomplished in show-piecing them together here. The evolution is emblematic. And when catapulted by full company gusto, as with the pulsing familial farewell, "The Goodbye Song" (led plaintively by Jason SweetTooth Williams) the overall effect is exhilarating.

Elegantly layered and staged by Max Friedman, in good hands, the show aesthetically too hits all the right beats.

Throughout, Iconis is spine bent to the piano keys as if craning to hear what the 88s are saying, bouncing pogo stick style, or head cocked /smile beaming while watching his 'family' take vocal charge seems to be in full celebration mode. Uptown and adult audience at last.

But this time, to no theatrical divide. This time, the aficionados are all celebrating too.

Joe Iconis AND FAMILY at Lincoln Center's American Songbook, The Appel Room. Saturday, February 1, 2020.

Joe Iconis with Nick Blaemire, Amara Brady, Liz Lark Brown, Betty Buckley, Dave Cinquegrana, Katrina Rose Dideriksen, Badia Farha, Alexandra Ferrara, Danielle Gimbal, Annie Golden, Molly Hager, Ian Kagey, Geoffrey Ko, Rachel Lee, Eric William Morris, Will Roland, Lance Rubin, Brent Stranathan, Jared Weiss and Jason SweetTooth Williams

Follow Joe Iconis @mrjoeiconis and on the web

Photo of Joe Iconis by Stephanie Wessels

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