4 from the
New York Musical Theatre Festival


Reviewed by David Spencer

I’m wary of reviewing shows from the New York Musical Theatre Festival because some of them are in nascent or intermediate stages of development and they’re so vulnerable that even a bad word on this semi-modest site can do harm. So I’m going to offer a few quick impressions of the four shows I managed to see.

            Zapata, as you might imagine, tells the story of the Mexican revolutionary legend. While its book (Ana and Peter Edwards) has a moderately competent bio-pic “life-overview” structure—not to be confused with a musical theatre structure, which it doesn’t have—its score is mostly subtext-free bombast that tells us what we already know. (In one instance, this is for real, Zapata turns down an offer from El Presidente—a government position in turn for quieting the rebellion—and Zapata exclaims, “I do not fight for power! I fight for land!” music starts and, sure enough, he sings “I do not fight for power! I fight for land!”) The show struck me as well-funded hobbyist work, with the concomitant facile imitations of familiar musical/dramatic tropes and lack of nuanced or even just neat craftsmanship, but it entertained some people prone to buy into its semi-Euro-musical style melodrama…so let’s leave it at that.

            A Letter to Harvey Milk won the Festival’s Best Book award (Jerry James) and tied for Best Lyrics (Ellen M. Schwartz) and not surprisingly. With music by Laura I. Kramer and based on a short story by Lesléa Newman, the show, set in 1986 San Francisco, literately and sensitively tells the story of a Jewish deli owner and Holocaust survivor, Harry Weinberg (Jeff Keller) and his budding relationship with his young writing teacher Barbara (Leslie Kritzer), a young lesbian who, estranged from her parents after having “come out,” becomes a kind of surrogate daughter to Harry. But she makes Harry—in a quite different way—“come out” as well; in the writing, he faces long-suppressed visions of his Holocaust imprisonment, finds himself in constant conversation with his deceased wife Frannie (Cheryl Stern), and revisiting his friendship with an equally deceased politician, the famous and self-same Harvey Milk (Michael Bartoli) of the title. And it’s significant that Harry saw Harvey as a kind of surrogate son; and that Harvey paid an even steeper price than estrangement for coming out.

            As good as the show is—for something still in development—it still needs some serious retooling. Right in the middle, the score jumps the rails to follow show-slowing and discursive sidebar tangents about Yiddishkeit for no good reason except jingoistic pandering (why make such a tsimmis about that which is an obvious factor from the beginning?). Plus, here and there, Ms. Schwartz’s usually bright lyrics are wedded to a few really unfortunate jokes (there’s a compared-to-Hitler thread that shows up twice and dies such a death that it forces Mr. James’s dialogue to try taking the curse off it by acknowledging how over-the-top it is). This all smacks of stubbornly retained early draft material that at long last needs to be professionally, mercilessly cut so that the show can be tight enough, and snap to its fairly-clear most natural/optimal shape enough, to have the future life it deserves.

            Stuck is a musical about a bunch of people who get stranded for approximately the 90 minutes it takes to play the show, in a stalled subway car. With a coherent, playable book plus respectable, if intermittently (and unnecessarily) craft-careless music and lyrics by Riley Thomas, the show (which had a previous debut in Chicago but has had its references adjusted to fit NYC) is reasonably entertaining and intelligent—it’s nobody’s un-proud moment, not by a long shot—but it does bear the burden (relative to the eye of the beholder perhaps how heavy a burden) of a core problem. If you deal with that kind of story structure, you’re essentially dealing with archetypal characters—you throw together the archetypes that best  work in opposition to one another (because of course in opposition they’ll discover their commonalities, right?)—and since the train has stopped, their lives are on hold, so there’s no real plot, just triggers for the revelation of backstory. Thus, though there’s an ostensible story, it’s really just the framework for a revue structure that centers around acts of confession, and speaking for myself, I was always ahead of it. That said, the night I attended, the audience seemed quite friendly toward the show.

            Finally there’s Flambé Dreams, a goofball comedy about a young man with dreams to be a master maître’d in the tradition of his late father, who was killed in a flaming desert accident. The book and lyrics are by Matthew Hardy and the music by Randy Klein, both of whom are accomplished and skillful artisans. That said, I’ve rarely been a fan of musicals that are goofball for the sake of being goofball, but judging by the audience reaction and the totality of the show (which, full disclosure, I had for several years watched and in my capacity as teacher, sometimes abetted, in development at the BMI Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop, where it originated), Flambé Dreams may well find its place…but in order to give themselves the best shot at more than festival approbation or the fruitfly lifespan of a limited run in a subscription house, the authors need to be more rigorous about sticking to the point (and spine) of the story (two or three songs that were very funny when presented out of full context, in classroom and revue environments, were less so in context [even when delivered the same way by the same performer] because they slowed narrative momentum and played as sidebar trips); and about compression (specifically the authors need to look at how to create composite segments; to know where/how poetically folding three related things into one segment will do more in less time than giving each narrative step its own individual space in a literally linear order). Personally, I think Hardy and Klein are more than capable of doing what needs to be done. I hope they do.

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