BWW Review: THE TOTAL BENT at Haven Theatre (in association with About Face Theatre)
The Midwest premiere of Stew and Heidi Rodewald's THE TOTAL BENT is a meditation on self-expression and the oppressive forces that can stand in the way of that expression. Set in Montgomery, Alabama in 1960 as the civil rights movement gains momentum, the musical introduces us to the embattled father-son duo, Joe and Marty Roy. Marty has spent much of his life writing hit gospel music for his father, a self-proclaimed healer and therefore quite a controversial figure. Now, Marty longs for a music career of his own. Marty not only looks to come into his own musically, but also wants the freedom to explore his sexuality and identity as a gay man. But when white record producer Byron Blackwell arrives from London in the hopes of piggybacking off Marty's nascent talent, both father and son face the silencing of their own voices and the likely possibility that they won't receive credit for their work.
THE TOTAL BENT sets forth a powerful concept and timely themes, but the show itself has a loose structure. The piece plays out rather like a song cycle meditating on these themes, rather than a narrative-driven story. Lili-Anne Brown's dynamic, ever-shifting direction and Breon Arzell's loose-limbed choreographic style mirror the transitory nature of the musical itself. Arnel Sancianco's set design anchors the play in 1960s Alabama. Joe Burke's projection designs are nothing short of brilliant, and he makes excellent use of video to punctuate key moments in the production.
Because of its non-linear narrative, THE TOTAL BENT can be confusing to watch at times, but above all, Brown's direction and the work of the ensemble manage to capitalize on the immense emotionality within the show. The stakes are high for the characters in THE TOTAL BENT, and the company seizes every emotional moment. Gilbert Domally is sensational as Marty, singing the hell out of every song and demonstrating how Marty is bursting at the seams to let his own musical creativity come out. As Joe, Robert Cornelius is an excellent foil and scene partner to Domally. Cornelius manages to be simultaneously charismatic and harsh, and we see this perhaps come best to life in his televised segments (where he is delightfully accompanied by Breon Arzell and Michael Turrentine). Arzel and Turrentine also function as Marty's back-up singers, Abee and Andrew, who follow along with him on his rising career. Though these two may play Marty's support, they're wholly fascinating to watch on their own. They have a delicious rapport and excellent timing that brings them to the forefront of the production.
As Deacon Dennis and Deacon Charlie, Frederick Harris and Jermaine Hill have the dual challenges of performing in the band and acting (Hill also music directs). Both actors have delightful interplay, particularly with Cornelius. The Deacons also aren't afraid to call out Byron, who Eric Lindahl plays with just the right amount of sleaziness.
While many moments of THE TOTAL BENT exist in a kind of haze, the intentionality of the themes and Stew and Rodewald's stunning compositions always ring true. The musical hauntingly conveys the silencing of black and queer voices, and the struggle that Marty, Joe, and those around them have in not just getting through the day, but also being heard-practically with men like Byron standing in the way. With Domally and Cornelius in the lead, THE TOTAL BENT is also an undeniably emotional night of theater.
Photo Credit: Austin D. Oie