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The New York Musical Theatre Festival
Baby Case
July 9 - 29th

Book, Music & Lyrics by Michael Ogborn

Directed by Jeremy Dobrish

Cast: Will Reynolds, Anika Larsen, Michael Thomas Holmes, Patricia Noonan, Hannah Elless.

As part of NYMF @ The Griffin at the Pershing Square Signature Center

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Baby Case, the most ambitious new musical featured at NYMF, is already better than Leap of Faith, Bonnie and Clyde and Ghost, the Musical—all Broadway debacles from this past season. And while it could be argued that those three shows should have never made it to the Great White Way, Baby Case deserves a shot. It has real potential. But some reworking and reevaluating is necessary before it can take the leap.

Let’s start with the title, Baby Case. I’m not a fan. As a matter of fact I hate it. And while I realize the original title, Crime of the Century, was used for the superb HBO film, it’s still the best option since it says everything you need to know—perfectly.

The 1932 scandal has been depicted effectively in film (Sidney Lumet’s 1974 masterpiece Murder on the Orient Express—albeit fictionalized), on TV (1976’s The Lindbergh Kidnapping Case with Anthony Hopkins as Hauptmann), on cable (1996’s Crime of the Century with Stephen Rea), in many novels and even an opera.

So the questions that must be posed are:

Why do we need a new work about the Lindbergh kidnapping case?

Does it have anything new to say—any new insights into the case or the two men at the center of it?

Does the kidnapping--and subsequent trial--reflect our current times and can that be conveyed convincingly?

And, why a musical?

Baby Case wants to shed some new light on this oft-told yet always-riveting tale but it gets bogged down too often in repetition and the need to spell so much out for the audience, but never truly delve into it’s character’s heads.

When it simply focuses on character, the musical is at it’s best. For example in the lilting and powerful number “Dirty Dishes,” we are allowed inside the head of Violet Sharpe (a terrific Hannah Elless), one of the maids in the home who may have known more than she ever spoke of.

And performing Nurse’s Song, a winsome Patricia Noonan does her best to convey heartache and guilt.

Too often, though, we are presented with safe characterizations—especially of Charles Lindbergh himself—as if the bookwriter is afraid to besmirch such a titan’s reputation.

To simply musicalize one of the most fascinating crimes in 20th Century American history is not enough—although it is done masterfully by Michael Ogborn (book, music and lyrics). I wanted to know what was going on in Lindbergh’s head. Ditto Hauptmann. Speculate. Please. Put forth a definitive theory. Was Hauptmann innocent? If so, then give us the reasons. I was reminded of the line in Oliver Stone’s JFK: “Who mourns for Lee Harvey Oswald. Who mourns for Bruno Richard Hauptmann? Should we? Why?

And as far as the Lindberghs, did they enjoy the spotlight before disaster struck? How did they really deal with the scandal? And what was the reasoning behind having another child so quickly after their first-born was killed?

The show excels most when it presents the fervor with which the media covered the story and how the average Jane and Joe ravenously ate it all up—demanding more—paralleling today’s behavior and obsessions that may be more sensational but only because we now have television and the internet.

Everyone has an opinion about the Lindberghs, about Hauptmann and they share it--ad nauseum. Sound familiar? OJ, anyone?

Ogborn’s score is sophisticated with lovely music that incorporates ragtime and vaudeville as well as clever lyrics. Once in a while, though the camp elements take over as with the oft shouted: “Someone’s taken the Lindbergh baby!” It’s a bit wince inducing.

Jeremy Dobrish’s direction is frenetic and on-target. He keeps things moving and keeps the audience interested.

The cast hits it out of the park both vocally and dramatically. There is not one false note and many standouts including Anika Larsen, a stirring and striking Anne Morrow Lindbergh. In the haunting act two number, “Hour of Gold,” Larsen does so much with just her body and facial expressions. And the moment itself perfectly captures our country’s need for a heroine to believe in but also for stories to hang on to. Embellished or not Anne Morrow Lindbergh taking the stand would be a powerful and penetrating moment in history, not to be matched until Jackie Kennedy would stand next to Lyndon Johnson at his swearing in ceremony.

Michael Thomas Holmes takes Walter Winchell by the short hairs and never lets him go. It’s a rousing, master-of-ceremonies turn—that adds continuous welcome commentary on the events as they unfold. Winchell had his finger on the pulse for decades and this case, however gruesome, was every reporter’s dream.

And in the most difficult roles, Will Reynolds captures the aloof and impassive Lindbergh while giving smalls signs of his arrogance (more would have been welcome). As Hauptmann, he is steadfast in proclaiming his innocence while capitulating to his fate.

Having Reynolds play both Lindbergh and Hauptmann is problematic. It might be a fascinating conceptual choice, but it robs the audience of a face-to-face between these two men--one that, even without words, could speak volumes about their differences as well as their similarities.

I truly believe this musical has a future. It’s certainly well-polished and the actors and design team are extraordinary. And the show can be and should be, as well. Here’s hoping...

The Griffin at the Pershing Square Signature Center | 480 West 42nd Street, New York

The New York Musical Theatre Festival
July 9 - 29th

Book, Music & Lyrics by Brett M. Boles

Directed by Stephen Nachamie.

Cast: Omar Lopez-Cepero, Adam Monley, Kelly McCormick, Karen Elliot, Glory Crampton.

As part of NYMF @ The PTC Performance Space.

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

So many of the musicals I have seen at NYMF so far have had ONE person credited with writing the book, music and lyrics. What happened to the good old fashioned art of collaboration? It helps to work out kinks and plot holes. Really!

Brett M. Boles has taken on the Triple Crown with Foreverman, an impressive and original new work that has mad potential. Alas, as with almost every show I have seen so far, the book needs work.

Firstly, let me say that the producers, ensemble, design team and director are all to be highly commended for the most professional presentation thus far this year at NYMF.

And if the enjoyment level means anything, and it should mean a lot, I had a splendid time at Foreverman, although I was occasionally perplexed and confounded.

The show takes place in Britain and bounces between two time periods.

In 1676 two arrogant alchemists have developed an elixir that, if mixed with the person’s blood, will bring eternal life. No vampire bite necessary. Will Timeson (Omar Lopez-Cepero) is the dapper lead who is fervent in his desire to thumb his nose at death ever since his parents were killed (by plague, I believe). Jack Mercer (Adam Monley) is his whiny, apprehensive partner--not that kind of partner, after all this is a proper musical no matter how much a fascinating twist it might have been to have these two be lovers, but I digress...

Fiona (Kelly McCormick), a sweet ingénue who is dying, arrives at the estate to see our doctors with hope that they have a cure for what ails her. Apparently there’s a curse on the family where only the male members survive or something to that effect.

Both Will and Jack have taken the elixir, but now there is some mumbo-jumbo about each one having only half of the potion written on a piece of paper—which makes little sense because if they developed it together, shouldn’t they both know the ingredients—and shouldn’t they both know what they’ve written on the paper? And if they both took it…okay now I’m confusing myself—imagine how the audience felt! Bottom line: simplify this and make it less contrived.

Will falls for Fiona and, much to Will’s (and the audience’s) surprise, so does Jack whose love for Fiona right now is almost an afterthought—a reason to behave pissily.

Anyway, the pretty but sketchily written Fiona refuses immortality and somehow Will’s loyal spinster housekeeper Mrs. Morgan (Karen Elliot) has gulped the last of the elixir to protect Will and is now free to travel with him to 1849...but not before Will is killed in a confusing duel with whats-his-name…oh, yes, Jack—a duel that brackets act one.

In the nineteenth century, we find a new Fiona (or is she?) trying to help her dying mother (an underused but arresting Glory Crampton, who I hope didn’t get bedbugs). And lo and behold, Jack is her lover. The new or not-so-new Fiona calls upon, yes—you guessed it—Will to help save her mother and the combative Jack and Will come face to face again after 200 years.

Foreverman could easily be subheaded Masterpiece Musical since it takes itself way too seriously and often seeps into melodrama consequently it sometimes resembles a Saturday Night Live skit. Don’t get me wrong, the show is worthwhile and challenging, but some self-reflexive humor couldn’t hurt. In addition, a bit more fleshing out of the plot is necessary as well as adding further dimension to certain characters (Jack, Fiona)--and other things need to be addressed like: Why are Will and Jack frenemies? I never felt a real bond between the two AND I never fully understood the reason for the duel. I was drawn to Will as a character but couldn’t care less about Jack. It’s not that I didn’t like him as much as he didn’t matter. He should.

Props to the team for taking on lofty themes such as the Frankensteinian notion of hubris and everlasting life but they don’t explore them nearly enough. For instance, why is it Will and Jack have no children? Does immortality come with an inability to procreate? If so, why? And what of their playing God? Have they become Gods in their own eyes?

Book problems notwithstanding, Foreverman soars more than it doesn’t with the entire team doing a crackling good job.

Of particular note, Karen Elliot channels Agnes Moorehead and steals all her scenes as Mrs. Morgan, especially the fun, “A Way Back Home” number. This gal’s a keeper!

Omar Lopez-Cepero has everything a leading man should have including great stage presence and a fabulous singing voice.

Boles songs are better than good and some are actual gems—sung magnificently by the cast—especially the rousing showstopper, “Sons of Adam,” perfectly belted by the two leads.

Director Stephen Nachamie keeps things exciting onstage while doing his best to clarify the convoluted book.

Finally, although I appreciated the lack of a happy ending, I would have loved a ballsier epilogue that would have brought our three immortals into 2012. It could seriously advance many of the themes the show is exploring.

The PTC Performance Space | 555 W 42nd St

The New York Musical Theatre Festival
The Groove Factory
July 9 - 29th

Book by Chad Kessler & David James Boyd
Music & Lyrics by David James Boyd

Directed by Tom Wojtuni

Starring: Tommaso Antico, Jonny Beauchamp, David James Boyd, Brett Douglas, Badia Farha, Nathaly Lopez, Colleen Longshaw, Emily McNamara, Travis Morin, Tony Perry, Erik Ransom, Emmy Raver-Lampman, Jeff Tuohy, Kim Sozzi.

As part of NYMF @ The Theatre at St. Clement’s

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

The most inviting and invigorating aspect of The Groove Factory is Tommaso Antico’s sweet presence and grounded central performance, as Chazz Goodhart, the promising DJ who is the soul of this messy new musical.

With some appropriation from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory as well as Xanadu, this tribute to the glory days of NYC party clubs is a splashy, disjointed cautionary tale about the dangers of excess. In the end, the show becomes too much of an anti-drug PSA—contradicting the ad-nauseum-drug-celebration that dominates most of the piece.

The Groove Factory takes place on December 31, 1999 (Y2K) and centers on Chazz leaving his Virginia trailer park home, where he helps mom cook and sell meth, to journey to the big bad apple in order to get into the most happening club in the city. Chazz meets up with his big gay Uncle Joey (Tony Perry, who kills it in his big number, “The Woman in Walter Jones”). Along with two drag queens, they try and snag Chazz a coveted ticket to the hottest event of the year—the Groove Factory New Years Eve bash. Suffice to say, after many unsuccessful attempts, he gets in and the odyssey begins.

And boy is it a mixed bag!

A trio of Little Shop of Horrors-wannabe divas is supposed to act as some Greek chorus but seem to exist simply to give voice to a few peppy but forgettable songs (Badia Farha is the standout diva).

The key problem with The Groove Factory is…big surprise: the book. Chazz’s journey is muddled and so bogged down in his drug taking that his ambition to DJ barely registers—so why should we care?

And the twist—spoiler alert—that he’s already dead and a ghost haunting the place who needs to relive the experience as catharsis so he can move on—well that should be integrated into the plot otherwise it’s a big yawn.

The songs (by David James Boyd who also plays Willy D. Vinyl) range from the catchy and inspiring to the repetitive and annoying; the best being “Red Sugar” which is exciting, evocative and clever.

The ensemble is certainly spirited.

Jonny Beauchamp, as Summer Clearence, nicely captures the pompous, sardonic drag queen attitude.

Emily McNamara proves her versatility in varying roles that include a meth mom, a limping leopard-skinned slut and a deaf old bat as well as a vapid supermodel--singing the shit out of her solo, “Lovesick.”

And then there’s Antico who does more than his best to make sense of his role even when the show meanders and loses steam in the final quarter. Antico has a lovely singing voice and watching him watch the other characters held a mesmeric fascination that the show itself lacked.

The Groove Factory cast emitted an infectious enthusiasm and if that denoted great musicals—this one would be a winner. Alas, a coherent book is also necessary.

The Theatre at St. Clement's | 423 West 46th Street


The New York Musical Theatre Festival
Living with Henry
July 9 - 29th

Book, Music & Lyrics by Christopher Wilson

Directed by Donna Marie Baratta

Cast: Ryan Kelly, Dale Miller, Lizzie Kurtz, John Edwards, Mary Kelly, Gavin Hope.

As part of NYMF @ The PTC Performance Space

Henry, in the dramatic, highly-personal Canadian musical, Living with Henry, is actually HIV. Yes, he actually plays the virus. The basic plot of this ambitious, conceptual musical involves Michael (Ryan Kelly) contracting HIV from his reckless new methhead boyfriend Mathew (John Edwards nailing it) and going on his own personal journey of self-knowledge—learning how to love and accepting the fact that having HIV is no longer a death sentence and that people don’t always behave the way they should behave but that doesn’t make them monsters.

I can see just how divisive this piece can be and personally I was disappointed more than impressed. I applaud the bold concept, but the execution is too predictable and the performances ranged from the absorbing to the amateurish. And while I admire the warnings about the dangers of unprotected sex (God knows the tweens and twentysomethings today need to hear it), the PSA-heavy message became too all-encompassing.

The best parts of Living with Henry involve Michael’s self-exploration and Ryan Kelly does a soul-stirring job in the piece.

Christopher Wilson, possibly wearing too many hats, has written a terrific and inventive score with “We Can’t Go Back” acting as an incisive anthem of sorts—a very powerful one. In addition, the keen and provocative “Bathhouse Tango” works on every level. The music is lovely and one can hear the William Finn influences. And Wilson’s lyrics are smart, penetrating but, at times, predictable.

Where Wilson truly stumbles is with his book, perhaps too personal—it actually could use more humor and more abstractness and a clearer reasoning for certain plot points. I think we’d be able to relate to Michael’s behaving irresponsibly if Mathew wasn’t so devious--near villainous--about the way he forces him into it. In addition, certain reactions by the female characters don’t ring true (although this could more be the fault of the performances). Also, if you are going to have these absurdist characters, then go the distance with them!

Dale Miller commits to Henry valiantly and, at times, the character is a twisted Joel Grey in Cabaret meets Pontius Pilate in Jesus Christ Superstar. I loved his menacing, wicked nature but some more overt humor would have been welcome. Miller does have a blast with this role.

Donna Marie Baratta’s direction is inspired and her choreography is hypnotic.

There is a really good show here but a real rethink of the book is more than necessary.

The PTC Performance Space | 555 W 42nd St

The New York Musical Theatre Festival
July 9 - 29th
The Griffin at the Pershing Square Signature Center

Book by Michael Alvarez

Music & Lyrics by Ella Grace

Directed by Michael Alvarez

Cast: Sara Kapner, Justin Stein, Abbe Tanenbaum, Davi Santos, Welsey Tunison, Daniel Quadrino, Matthew J. Riordan, Katie Mack.

As part of NYMF @ The Griffin at the Pershing Square Signature Center

Reviewed by Frank J. Avella

Near the end of Act One of Trouble the Musical, during a number titled, “Spring Flowers,” the audience is finally treated to a taste of just how delectable this uneven new show could actually be. The music, lyrics, staging and performances magically blended together for a provocative and mesmerizing moment of sheer magic--and the fact that most of the cast shed their collective garb in a sexy and non-gratuitous manner before the act is over is just gravy. Unfortunately, the hour leading up to this is too often plodding and uninvolving.

It’s not that the show is bad, it’s actually quite promising, but there are a few major flaws that must be worked before the show moves beyond NYMF.

The crisscrossing plot of Trouble involves eight high school students who are romantically involved with one another. The most interesting relationship is between a stepbrother and stepsister—although it is egregiously underdeveloped.

Abbe Tanenbaum plays Hannah, a very popular, very motivated teen who is dating James (the gorgeous and talented Davi Santos) but is secretly in love with her stepbro, Ben (a fine Wesley Tunison). Too much time is spent on Hannah’s trying to hold onto James that her relationship with Ben gets shortchanged. (Tunison is allowed a sweet solo, “Sitting in the Rain,” proving what he could have done with just a little bit more.)

James, it turns out, still has feelings for his ex, Sarah (tough-ass, powerhouse rocker Katie Mack) and that isn’t explored enough either.

Sarah and Hannah’s friend, Joe (Daniel Quadrino) is openly gay and out and has a secret crush on straight jock, Chris (Matthew J. Riordan), whom it turns out is a lot less straight than anyone would have guessed.

The final couple, Jen and Nick (Sarah Kapner, Justin Stein), has the most stage time and, yet, are the least interesting of the group. We learn they both met at a clinic and it’s alluded to that they definitely have mental problems.

Seven other actors round out the cast playing various roles.

The show wants to be hip and raw, but it’s in the trying so hard that it often falters. Alvarez (the bookwriter) needs to redevelop some of his characters and give them more inner life and less cliché things to say. In addition, it would be nice to truly feel connections amongst the characters. We see them all come together when one is in danger, but the portrayed bonds don’t ring true since we are given very little to substantiate them.

One of the major problems with the book is that the central characters (Jen and Nick) need further development. If they truly represent the Romeo and Juliet of this production then we need to feel that urgency. Right now, it doesn’t exist. This is the fault of the writing but also of miscasting.

The score, by Ella Grace, is a hybrid of Rent and Spring Awakening with a dab of Next to Normal tossed in. It’s fun, peppy and poppy, but something rockier and edgier would be more appropriate.

Alvarez is also the director and this show is a staging mess. The production felt clunkily put together with many mic issues, clumsy set changes and sometimes misguided choreography as well as a general sense of unpreparedness. Even the kissing sometimes felt way too stagey (especially between the boys), as did the shedding of clothes. You either commit to it or you don’t.

The second act did feel more solid than the first.

What is constantly redeeming the piece is the ensemble with the two best performances being given by Abbe Tanenbaum and Daniel Quadrino.

Tanenbaum is just bitchy and over-the-top enough to give us a terrific diva turn, but she knows when to bring Hannah down to earth and make us care about her. Her electric number, “Shake and Bake,” rocked the house.

Quadrino sings the standout solo number “I Stalk You a Little Bit.” His enthusiasm is so infectious you can’t help but adore him, even when he’s called on to sniff a dirty jock.

To be fair the creators are trying to say something about how we learn how to hurt one another at an early age instead of trying to understand that we are all damaged (troubled) and we should be trying to help each other.

I can see Trouble having a very exciting life off-Broadway, but before that can happen the creators need to work the troubled areas out of their Trouble.

The Griffin at the Pershing Square Signature Center |480 West 42nd Street, New York



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