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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


[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

Comments () | Archives (6)

With all due respect for Mr. McNulty’s expertise, I disagree with his opinions and embrace Richard Zoglin’ viewpoint as stated in Time magazine: “"Venice," said Zoglin, is "[an] ambitious and expansive work, combining elements of Shakespeare, Greek tragedy, Brechtian allegory and dystopian political fable, all enhanced by rap narration and a melodic, rock-influenced score that is one of the most winning I have heard onstage in years." Mr. McNulty concedes that the musical “sets up a hyperkinetic theatrical universe that requires more suspension of disbelief than I was prepared to concede.” Perhaps he does not feel comfortable with this new genre in a production that is likely to take Broadway by storm -- especially among younger audiences. In that vein, L.A. teachers invited to attend Center Theatre Group workshops appreciate the opportunity to experience this incredible production with their classes.

The actress who plays the reporter is Morgan Weed, not Reed.

mcnulty is being polite--this show is dreadful and amateurish. the audience around me went back and forth between rolling eyes and suppressed giggles. will this stinker go to broadway? probably--they deserve it.


A wise person in the entertainment industry once told me that it is important not to read reviews before going to a show or a film. He says you may miss something wonderful. But, having already bought my tickets to Venice (I heard great things from a friend of mine who lives in KC where the show had it's first run), I decided to read the LA Times review anyway. And so it was, that if I had read the review before buying my tickets - I might not have experienced this sensational show. Everyone's entitled to their own opinion - in this case, the LA Times reviewer gets it dead wrong. Venice is an AMAZING show!

From the very beginning Sax and Rosen grabbed me. The first number, People Forgotten sets the tone for the entire show - we are going to have a narrator, Sax as Clown MC, take us on our journey. He is a character that both writes the tale we are about to see and participates as a character, often breaking the "fourth wall" to give us nuance about the goings on. Shakespearean? Yes, but with a modern edge that speaks to us in language that's clever and enveloping. This isn't suburban karaoke, this is theatrical story-telling in a hip-hop mode that I and the audience I was sitting with really dug.

The songs range from beat driven dance numbers to beautiful melodic ballads, most with hooks that I can still hear in my head (Bombs Drop, Hailey Daisy, Sunrise, Poison and Let Me Be Great - all great songs). I didn't leave In The Heights feeling this way. (I was, however, angry when there was no soundtrack for me to buy when I left the theater). The cast is top notch with spectacular voices that could easily handle what the authors threw at them. The staging, lighting projections - all enhance the goings on onstage. Also, I loved the choreography - part musical theater, part music video and all seamlessly woven into the show. None of it felt forced to me. You just have to go and see what they've been able to do with this small space.

Much has been made about the show having been taken from Othello, but I would say that Bard's tale is only being used as a framework, a jumping off point, to tell a completely new and modern tale. The concepts of good vs. evil, sibling rivalry, unrequited love, political corruption and manipulation and terrorism are all dealt with in a way that spoke to me. The woman sitting next to me was in tears near the end of the show, then on her feet with the rest of us as we experienced the rousing finale.

My bottom line is that Sax and Rosen have penned a brand new type of musical that is stunning to experience. You simply must go and experience it for yourself.

I disagree with Mr. McNulty’s review. I thought it was excellent, entertaining and a refreshing breath from the traditional ‘riverboat’ musical. The total package of audio visual mixed with great acting and voice is the type of musical that is going to gain the interest of a younger crowd and bring new blood into musicals. There was a message that parallels things going on in today’s world and the highly mixed visuals play upon our daily technical interactions. What I’ve learned is if McNulty gives a bad review - I go see it. When he gives a good review - write that off the list.

I made it through the first hour of this show and left. There is not a fresh idea on that stage. It is lifeless and trite.


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