Marco Millions (based on lies): A History of Truthiness
I've noticed that some of the best musicals take a source material with some elements of greatness and a few major flaws and re-invents it. The Most Happy Fella takes the play They Knew What They Wanted and removes the snoozy plot points about labor unions, Light In The Piazza turns a dated movie made from a somewhat overly swooning book into a shimmering jewel of a music. And now, Marco Millions (based on lies) takes a lesser known Eugene O'Neill play and infuses it with a sharpened satire and a modern sense of humor.
This marks the eighth play produced by the Waterwell Company, who since its founding in 2002 has gained a reputation for inventive productions. Last season, their adventurous adaptation of Aeschylus' The Persians was praised by audiences and critics.
Marco Polo's' "autobiography" (quotes used because it was not, in fact, written by Polo, nor was it, to any meaningful extent, true) tells the story of the young Italian opprotunists journey though Asia in the late 1200s, though here it presented in suits and fedoras with a 1920's flair. Marco (Arian Moayed) and his uncle Maffeo (Tom Ridgely) are sent by the Pope to the court of the dapper Kublai Khan (Rodney Gardiner). The Polos gain favor with Khan, and travel for him across the mysterious east. Marco brings the Khan tall tales of dog-headed men, and introduces the concept of paper currency. He also unwittingly wins the heart of the Khans' daughter Kukachin (Hannah Cheek), who pines for the exotic huckster though she is betrothed to a prince. Marco, however, yearns for money alone; even when he is comfortably situated as the Mayor of a Chinese province, his traveling salesman soul prods him to make back alley graft deals. As he explains to his uncle, "There's no money in politics, and no real power. The power comes from money."
The adaptation credit for Marco Millions (based on lies) is given to the entire Waterwell Company. Actor Tom Ridgely also directs, and there is a strangely Brechtian vaudeville tone to the proceedings. The actors sometimes drop character, calling one another by name and bickering about elements of the show. Movietone Newsreels are imitated with hilarious bravado. A flock of umbrellas become a gondola. Such inventive staging and meta references make this a consistently engaging crazy quilt.
The five members of the cast are all exceptional, able to tackle the physical comedy, verbal acrobatics, and shifts in dramatic tone without missing a beat. As Marco, Arian Moayed manages to seem rather sweet and innocent, in spite of his materialistic fanaticism. He has a hilarious way with an oblivious remark, turning on a dime to become intense and terrifying when spewing capitalist tirade. Tom Ridgely is a similarly likable rogue, who shines in his bold facedly racist song and dance travelogue across the Orient. As Xanadu deed-holder Kublai Khan, Rodney Gardiner is savvy and smooth, and his singing, particularly his spiritual style lament near the shows' end, is powerfully beautiful. Hannah Cheek plays a number of roles, and is wonderful in all of them, from Marcos' comedic fiancée Donata to the tragic Kukachin, and her torch song for the clueless Marco is lovely. Perhaps the most engaging in this outstanding troupe is Kevin Townley, who plays everything from a growly vizier to a hysterical factory matron. He is most enjoyable when he serves as our emcee, striking a mysterious balance of laughing at his audience and letting them in on the joke.
The music is provided by a hot five piece jazz combo, led by the shows' composer Lauren Cregor. The lighting by Stacy Boggs and set by Dave Lombard was minimalist; while the original O'Neill play called for 31 cast members and massive set, this reduction for five players called for suitably sparse surroundings. The choregraphy by Lynn Petersen is excellent, and costumes by elizabeth Payne are exceptional.
Though it deals with topics of greed, imperialism, and questions the American Way, the overall tone of Marco Millions (based on lies) is light, quick, and fun. Playing Eugene O'Neill in a miraculous cameo, Townley tells the audience, ""I just dropped by to say what a terrific job these kids are doing. You know, when I was writing Marco Millions back in 1926, this is just the sort of thing I had in mind". Like many of the adventures in this play, this last claim is probably far from the truth, but it's hard to disagree with the first point; these kids are doing a terrific job.
Photos: Top - Arian Moayed and Tom Ridgely
Middle - Kevin Townley , Hanna Cheek and Rodney Gardiner
Bottom - Rodney Gardiner, Hanna Cheek, Tom Ridgely and Arian Moayed
From This Author Margaret Cross