Review: WHO'S YOUR BAGHDADDY? is Exceptionally Executed Intellectual Comedy

By: Oct. 29, 2015
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Brennan Caldwell backed by Brandon Espinoza
and Claire Newmann.
Photo By Jeremy Daniels.

A musical comedy where the first act climaxes in a dramatic representation of the collapse of The Twin Towers on September 11, 2001 may not be the easiest ticket to sell, especially in New York City. Yet, the Off-Broadway musical WHO'S YOUR BAGHDADDY? OR HOW I STARTED THE IRAQ WAR by Marshall Pailet (Music & Book) and A.D. Penedo (Lyrics & Book), based on a screenplay by J.T. Allen, has found an audience with material that is both challenging and truly funny.

With an unusual but fitting curtain warmer, WHO'S YOUR BAGHDADDY? actually begins when the house opens. A majority of the audience's seats are arranged in a circle. In the center of that circle is a box of donuts, bottles of wine, and cups resting on a folding table. Members of the cast greet the audience and mingle with them, making us feel like we're attending a community gathering along the lines of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting, and not spending an evening at the theatre. So, it is no surprise when the show starts with "The Pledge," and we are introduced to the cast as they stand, say their name, and tell us how they are individually responsible for starting the Iraq War.

Direction by Pailet ensures that the show achieves its purpose, which is to let audiences peek behind the veil of flawed intelligence that is often blamed for starting the ongoing Iraq War. Once that veil is lifted, the audience comes to understand and even empathize with the flawed people, misguided motivations, and the total failure of communication channels that actually created a perfect vacuum of "intelligence" and kicked off the war. Under Pailet's leadership, every character presented is undeniably human, which makes both the humor and tragedy of this real life story all the more effective in performance.

Larisa Oleynik and Olli Haaskivi center
with Baghdaddy cast.
Photo by Jeremy Daniels.

As a true ensemble cast, each performer pulls their weight to keep the audience engaged in the plot while sharing the spotlight. Bob D'Haene's Martin Bouchard hopes to find his former glory, letting his emotions sometimes override his intelligence. Brennan Caldwell's ambitious and cocky Richart Becker is overflowing with confidence, making hubris his largest flaw. Moreover, Caldwell's spunky attitude and charm make his hysterical performance of "Das Man" a true highlight of the show. Jason Collins' Tyler Nelson is the epitome of a company man and the boss you love to hate. Larisa Oleynik's Berry Stanton is delightfully coarse, yet her drive to be the best she can be makes her instantly relatable. Olli Haaskivi's Jerry Samuel is a lovable nerd, so his skills with technology vastly outweigh his skills with people. Brandon Epsinoza and Claire Nuemann showcase versatility in a wide range of often hilarious characters and caricatures alike, leaving the audience in stitches.

Nehal Joshi is interrogated by Brennan Caldwel.
Photo by Jeremy Daniels.

However, if pressed to label a star of the show, that title belongs to Iraqi defector Curveball. Played by Pomme Koch at the performance I attended, this character's arch is brilliantly compelling and the one that earns the most sympathy from a Western audience. In spite of being manipulative and wildly unpredictable, he enthralls the characters and audience alike with his claims of Iraq having biological weapons of mass destruction and his heart-wrenching refugee status. Curveball dreams of a better life in the Western world and is willing to do and risk anything to obtain it. As the world, literally and metaphorically, crashes down around him, Pailet and Penedo give the show's most memorable song, "Speak to Me Tomorrow," to the character. Koch performs the ballad with such masterful sincerity that it tugs on the heartstrings and moistens every eye.

Musically, the score sounds similar to Pailet's work for TRIASSIC PARQ. Yet, this does not detract from the production. WHO'S YOUR BAGHDADDY simply utilizes the Broadway pop and rap/hip-hop vocabulary established by TRIASSIC PARQ and improves upon it to build a score that is as inventive as it is fascinating. The use of body slaps, stomps, and other bodily percussive elements-no doubt added by Misha Shields choreography-gives the music an urgency and impact that is powerfully stirring as well. Likewise, Penedo has crafted sharply smart and witty lyrics that touch the heart while electrifying the brain.

WHO'S YOUR BAGHDADDY? is anything but your run of the mill musical comedy. It is clever in its construction, rarely whimsical, performer with an honesty that grants each character dignity, and spellbindingly intellectual. Certainly dramatizing the events leading up to September 11, 2001 and the storm that followed in a musical fashion is a risk, but it's a risk well taken and exceptionally executed.

WHO'S YOUR BAGDADDY? OR HOW I STARTED THE IRAQ WAR continues to perform at The Actors Temple (339 W 47th St, between 8th and 9th Ave) through November 22, 2016. For tickets and more information please visit

Brennan Caldwell backed by Brandon Espinoza and Claire Newmann. Photo By Jeremy Daniels.

Nehal Joshi is interrogated by Brennan Caldwel. Photo by Jeremy Daniels.

Larisa Oleynik and Olli Haaskivi center with Baghdaddy cast. Photo by Jeremy Daniels.

Larisa Oleynik and Olli Haaskivi are questioned by Jason Collins. Photo by Jeremy Daniels.

Jason Collins looks over papers by Larisa Oleynik and Olli Haaskivi. Photo by Jeremy Daniels.

Jason Collins faces Claire Newmann, with Brandon Espinoza and Bob D'Heane by her side. Photo by Jeremy Daniels.

Bob D'Haene and Olli Haaskivi. Photo by Jeremy Daniels.