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*Theater review: 'Venice' at the Kirk Douglas Theatre (Updated)

October 18, 2010 |  6:10 pm


Venice 1 
Musicals can either hook you or lose you in their opening moments. “Venice,” a freehand adaptation of “Othello” with hip-hop narration, a pop-soul score and a totalitarian futuristic setting, immediately sets up a hyperkinetic theatrical universe that requires more suspension of disbelief than I was prepared to concede.
 
The show, which opened Sunday at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, is such a hefty imaginative undertaking that resisting its grandiose vision induces some guilt. The dynamic cast and energetic creative team certainly get points for trying. But audience complicity has to be earned, and the story has all the credibility of a pre-teen video game.

A collaboration between Eric Rosen (who wrote the book and directed) and Matt Sax (who wrote the music and collaborated with Rosen on the lyrics), the musical had its world premiere last spring at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre, where Rosen is artistic director. But the work has long been in development at CTG, which commissioned the show and presented a workshop production as part of its 2009 DouglasPlus series. 

Venice 2c Sax, whose hip-hop solo piece “Clay” had a run at the Douglas in 2007, stars as Clown MC, a rapping narrator with a laptop, whose words are projected as a kind of background graffiti. The character, whose rhymes lack the hard-edge ingenuity that distinguishes the grand masters from the pretenders, could be Exhibit One for the production’s chief shortcoming: overkill.

Dramatic moments are first related, then depicted and eventually recapped. There’s even a reporter (Morgan Weed) on the scene intermittently telecasting breaking news updates. With so much exposition to parcel out, the authors must have decided to spread the burden around. But if the fable is swelling beyond the stage’s limits, shouldn’t that have been a sign that things were growing a little too complicated?

Clown MC prepares us for what’s to come: “Now sit back relax while I set into motion/The story of a city that has lost devotion/Once free now the military runs the streets/And the whole city marches to their beat.” (There’s an ersatz quality to Sax’s delivery that occasionally brings to mind suburban karaoke.)

For the last 20 years, this fictionalized Venice (a holdover from “Othello” that’s a bit of a stretch in this multicultural update) has been reeling from a devastating terrorist attack. It’s been total war ever since, but a glimmer of hope is emerging from this long Orwellian nightmare.
 
Venice Monroe (Javier Muñoz), the progressive new leader of the military with Obama-like charisma, has made “change” his political slogan. His plan for peace is to marry the late president's daughter, Willow (Andrea Goss), who fled Venice after the catastrophe. Their wedding will be held at the Central Square Church, the ground zero of this mangled metropolis. It’s a symbolic union, grounded in love and seeking to inaugurate a new era.
 
The plot takes a Shakespearean turn with Markos (Rodrick Covington), Venice’s half brother, an Iago-figure who resents that Michael Victor (Erich Bergen from the national tour of “Jersey Boys”) has been promoted to lieutenant general over him. He entangles his wife, Emilia (powerhouse singer Victoria Platt), into his scheme of fraternal revenge, forms an unholy alliance with Theodore (J.D. Goldblatt), who’s jealously obsessed with Willow, and even ropes in Hailey Daisy (Angela Wildflower Polk), an entertainer with a seductive sassiness, whose assignment is to distract the honorable Michael Victor from the perilous wedding day security mission.  

One would have thought that all these “Othello” parallels (Venice and Willow for Othello and Desdemona, Michael Victor for Michael Cassio, Theodore for Roderigo, Hailey for Bianca) would have provided sufficient theatrical material without bringing 9/11 and all of its baggage into the mix. In truth, Rosen and Sax have taken on more than they can dramatically handle. “Venice,” sorry to say, isn’t persuasive as tragedy or political allegory.

The performers, more accomplished in their singing than in their acting, struggle to establish characters who are neither classical nor convincingly modern. There’s a cloying wistfulness to the romance between Venice and Willow, and Markos is a villain out of a straight-to-video melodrama.

The production contains many lively numbers that nicely exploit the cast’s impressive vocal talent, even if the choreography by John Carrafa and Tanisha Scott tiresomely invokes Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation” period. A two-man band, under the musical direction of Curtis Moore (who contributed additional music), flexibly accommodates a score that leaps from hip-hop to musical theater R&B. Trouble is, even when the songs are rousing, their narrative purpose is farfetched in the extreme.

Meghan Raham’s darkly modernist set and sleek costumes, David Weiner’s ominous lighting, Jason H. Thompson’s bombardment of projections and Joshua Horvath’s propulsive sound design attest to the resources that have been lavished on this project. Misguided? Not entirely. 

The American musical needs fresh blood, and Sax is a composer worthy of reasonable support. Too bad “Venice” can't find its bearings.
 
-- Charles McNulty

twitter.com\charlesmcnulty

[Updated: An earlier version of this review misspelled Morgan Weed's last name as Reed.]

“Venice,” Kirk Douglas Theatre, 9820 Washington Blvd., Culver City. 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends Nov. 14. $20 to $45. (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Photo: Top: Rodrick Covington and Javier Muñoz. Bottom: Muñoz and Goss. Credit: Craig Schwartz

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