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Review: Kansas City Rep's VENICE

Kansas City Repertory Theatre presents the world premiere of Venice, a co-production with Center Theatre Group. Venice features Music & Lyrics by Matt Sax, Book, Lyrics & direction by KC Rep's Artistic Director Eric Rosen.

The musical is loosely based on Shakespeare's "Othello," with brothers Venice and Markos Monroe (Javier Muñoz and Clifton Duncan, respectively) mirroring Othello and Iago's turbulent relationship.

The show takes place in a war-torn city (also named Venice) in the not-so-distant future. Citizens have lost friends and family, no one feels safe in the street, and all are constantly aware of the strong military presence.

A new era has come to Venice (city) with Venice (man) at the helm, bringing in a "Sunrise agenda" to try to reform his beloved city to its former glory. He starts by rebuilding the church in the town square. To mark its grand reopening, he sends for his childhood love, Willow (Andrea Kiyo Goss), to return and become his wife. Venice believes if those who departed the city return, including Willow, a new age of peace will dawn. Brother Markos has other plans, however. Using Theo (J.D. Goldblatt), Willow's true betrothed and war profiteer, as a pawn, Markos sets to undo his brother's plans. Lieutenant General Michael Victor (Colin Hanlon) acts as Venice's right-hand man through the course of these events.

Act One concludes with a predictably rousing party scene celebrating Venice and Willow - though it doesn't quite seem emotionally satisfying. The climax of the scene is staged in such a way that you'll likely spend the first few minutes of Act Two trying to understand what, exactly, happened (hint: ignore what came across as machine gun fire.)

Act Two sees Markos become successful at unraveling his brother. As in "Othello," he convinces Venice that Willow has been unfaithful. After three relentless days of being torn down, Venice is a changed person. He sees to it that there is no longer peace in the streets; instead, there will be more of a military presence than ever. This is where the production loses its track. Staging of this number becomes monotonous and ultimately dampens the tense moment.  Later, the show's finale is musically moving, but does not support the dramatic through-line.

Venice sees uniformly strong work from the principal cast. Javier Muñoz (Venice) delivers a layered performance that should not to be missed. Duncan (Markos) gives an admirable performance, though one feels as if the material is working against him at key moments. While scholars have long debated Iago's motivation - or lack thereof - in Othello, it needs to be clear why Markos is so driven to bring down Venice and destroy the city. Goldblatt (Theodore Westbrook) is stuck with a character who, at this point in the show's development, seems extraneous more often than not.

Uzo Aduba is featured as Anna Monroe, Mother to Venice and Markos. Anna was one of the original leaders of the peace movement in Venice, which sparked her to name her second son after her beloved city. Aduba gives a passionate performance this is the core of this tale. Emilia Monroe was played expertly by Jasmin Walker, who embodied the broken down and love-lorn wife of the militant Markos. Goss (Willow) has a beautiful voice, which showcases the most traditional musical moments of the score. 

The book, by Kansas City Repertory Theatre's Artistic Director Eric Rosen, stumbles in is plotting during the latter part of Act Two, and the show is burdened with the fallout from a climax which drags on for far too long. At times the book simply tries too hard, often coming across like a rebellious child with its some of its usages of profanity. One also has to suggest the authors reevaluate the narrative device. It either needs additional support throughout the course of the show, or the piece needs to be re-conceptualized.

Theatre aficionados might notice some thematic and structural similarities to the oft-revised musical, Chess. In fact, before comparing the song list insert to the program, I noted that Anna's Song could have come near the top of the show (much like "The Story of Chess") - only to notice that it seems this was its original placement. The back-story placement still seems out of place as it stands now. I hope the creators will continue to experiment with such ideas.

Rosen and Sax are clearly trying to make a political statement with this futuristic war-torn world, and in many ways succeed. The message needs a little more fine tuning, though.

The dynamic, engaging score is a very powerful hip-hop/pop/musical infusion. Much of it is quite impressive, succeeding in creating dramatically-rich material that retains a musicality and, frequently, melodies that linger for days after the show. 

Technical design for Venice was splendid. One must praise Jason H. Thompson's creative projection design, which added immeasurably to the evening. Joshua Horvath's sound design effectively conveyed the militaristic theatrical setting while allowing for the lyric-heavy material to be heard clearly.

The show wisely combined the theatrical musical staging of John Carrafa with the contemporary hip-hop work of Tanisha Scott to generally great effect.  Rosen's direction is oftentimes understated, for the better, and delivers moments of memorable character work and staging.

Watching the show, one feels a bit frustrated that In the Heights hit the commercial theatre stage before Venice. With the Clown MC reminiscent in function and delivery to Heights' Usnavi, and a score which might come across to some theatergoers as similar to that Tony-winning show, Venice will have to work to differentiate itself from the pack.

Don't misconstrue these comments to mean this show is anything other than terrific. On the contrary; with the stellar leadership of Eric Rosen, Kansas City is truly fortunate to have a cutting-edge regional theatre delivering inspiring productions time and time again. The organization is singlehandedly raising the profile of Kansas City to a national level. With Venice, I am confident that Sax and Rosen have taken a huge first step towards creating a powerful, lasting theatrical experience. I look forward to tracking its commercial development in the future.

Venice runs at Kansas City Repertory Theatre's Copaken Stage through May 9.

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Cast: Uzo Aduba as Anna (Coram Boy, 365 Plays/365 Days); Clifton Duncan as Captain Markos Monroe (Twelfth Night); Anna Eilinsfeld, ensemble (I Come for Love, In the Bubble); Jay Garcia, ensemble; J.D. Goldblatt as Theodore Westbrook (revival Les Miserables); Andrea Kiyo Goss as Willow (Rent); Colin Hanlon  as Michael Victor (I Love You Because, How Now, Dow Jones); Javier Muñoz as General Venice Monroe (In the Heights); Angela Polk as Hailey Daisy (Crowns, Permanent Collection, Bat Boy, the Musical-Unicorn Theatre/Kansas City); Matt Sax as Clown/MC (Clay); Brandon Sollenberger, ensemble (Moisés Kaufman's Into the Woods, KC Rep); Jasmin Walker  as Emilia Monroe (Avenue Q, 365 Days/365 Plays).

Creative Team: Musical director Curtis Moore (Into the Woods at KC Rep, The Bridge Project, The Coast of Utopia, Sam Mendes' The Cherry Orchard), choreography by John Carrafa (Urinetown, Into the Woods) and Tanisha Scott (Sean Paul, Alicia Keys, Beyoncé), set and costume design by Meghan Raham (Clay), lighting design by David Weiner (Steven Cosson's Bus Stop at KC Rep, Equivocation, Reasons to be Pretty), projection design by Jason H. Thompson (assistant design, Jersey Boys) and sound design by Joshua Horvath (Clay).

Photo courtesy of Kansas City Repertory Theatre

From This Author - Charlie Piane