- Associate New York Critic
The true story of the “alternative facts” that instigated the Iraq War, told by a cast of eight in the comedy musical “Bagdaddy”
As you enter St. Luke’s Theater, located in the basement of the church, you find yourself in the meeting of a support group for those who started the Iraq War. You are offered a nametag and coffee with doughnuts. As the show begins, the group leader (Brandon Espinoza) assures you that the newcomers can relax, as they won’t be asked any questions.
The “regulars”, overcoming resentment and denial, tell us the story of how each of them instigated the Iraq War. By using an Iraqi defector, self-proclaimed engineer of the biological weapon of mass-destruction, as the only eyewitness, the group of spies and scientists provided a reason for the US government to invade Iraq.
It might be difficult to imagine how a topic so serious could be made into a musical with a huge emphasis on humor. It is even more difficult to believe that the story told by the author of the music/book and director, Marshall Pailet, and the lyricist/book writer A.D. Penedo, is mostly true with just a few liberties and artistic condensation. The musical had its initial run in New York in 2015. The current run has a new chilling sound to it, demonstrating how fatal “alternative facts” can be.
It all starts in Frankfurt, where an Iraqi named Curveball (Joe Joseph) claims that he has proof of Saddam Hussein building mobile bio-weapons and asks for asylum. He is brought to the interrogation room with a junior detective of the BND, Germany’s national intelligence agency, Richart Becker (Brennan Caldwell). Cool as a gherkin, Richard is eager to do anything to become “Das Man”, which he states in his 90s-infused boys band-style song of this name. Insecure and in fact lonely, he becomes an easy target for the smooth talker, Curveball.
“The pinnacle of professionalism”, the CIA is brought into the picture, represented by the analysts Berry Stanton (Larisa Oleynik) and Jerry Samuel (Ethan Slater). The rap “Berry and the Badboy” features them doing The Robot in clouds of red and purple smoke while backed by vocals of the entire company. The fax from Germany, the golden ticket to the corner office, is like an oil spill to the wild fire of Jerry’s professional ambition. She quickly moves the intel up the chain of command where it meets the resistance from Tyler Nelson (Jason Collins), the bureaucrat who follows the rules to the letter.
Eventually the report from Curveball makes it to the desk of the weapon inspector, Martin Bouchard (Bob D’Haene), who is fascinated by the sounds of bacterial names and obsessed with the idea to reclaim his past glory. So the chain of fatal connections links and the work begins, picking up steam in the “Hydrangea Reports” number illustrating how the international investigation operated.
With just two more members of the ensemble playing multiple parts, Brandon Espinoza and Claire Newman, Bagdaddy plays out the entire series of events of 2001-2004, leading up to war. Pailet and Penedo use a lot of rap and 90’s pop along with Middle Eastern tunes for the soundtrack. Some of the smart and sharp lyrics might seem provocative, but they never fall off the edge of good taste and are always true to the characters. The energetic and often self-ironic choreography by Misha Shields and charged performances of the entire cast keep you on the edge of your seat for the entire time.
If you are seated in the back of the house you will spend the entire show on the edge of your seat trying to see the stage better anyway, as the venue was clearly not intended as a theater. If you are seated on stage, among the few other audience members, you will get a completely different angle. But regardless of you seats, you will see some part of the action better than others. The director Marshall Pailet tries his best to use the entire space, including the catwalk in the middle of the orchestra and even the back of the house.
Set design by Caite Hevner mostly consists of a single table, but you will be amazed in how many ways this piece of furniture can be used. Lighting Design by Jennifer Schriever plays a crucial part in creating the atmosphere of certain spaces, like the nightclub “Furliner” where the company indulges in mad debauchery to the musical’s signature song, “Who’s Your Bagdaddy”.
The unobtrusive design and the engagement of the space could be developed further, but who cares about this if you have a bomb of a script and an explosive cast in front of you. The humorous approach of Bagdaddy doesn’t belittle the scale of the tragedy of the Iraq War. Quite the contrary, the harder you laugh in the beginning at the delusional careerists in government service, the harder hits the realization of what it can lead to. Especially now, when every single one of us can become a progenitor of unproven or even straight-up made up facts.
Bagdaddy plays at St. Luke’s Theater, 308 W 46th Street through June 6th. Running time is two hours with one intermission. Performances are Monday at 7pm, Thursday at 7pm, Saturday at 8pm, Sunday at 7:30pm. Tickets are $39.50, $69.50, $99 (premium) and can be purchased by visiting telecharge.com or by calling 212-239- 6200. For more information on Baghdaddy visit baghdaddymusical.com
Bagdaddy is written by Marshall Pailet and A.D. Penedo. Directed by Marshall Pailet with musical direction by Rona Siddiqui. Orchestrations by Charlie Rosen choreography by Misha Shields, based on a screenplay by J.T. Allen.
Creative team includes: Kaite Heavner (Set Design), Jennifer Schriever (Lighting Design), Summer Lee Jack (Costume Design). Baghdaddy is produced by Charlie Fink and co-produced by Jan Brandt, Abigail E. Disney and Tim Disney.
The cast is Brennan Caldwell, Jason Collins, Bob D'Haene, Brandon Espinoza, Joe Joseph, Claire Neumann, Larisa Oleynik and Ethan Slater.
Asya Danilova is the Associate New York Theatre Critic for OnStage, a New York based photographer and behind-the-scenes videographer for film and theater. She started a theater review blog, New Show New York, because of her passion for theater and background in art and film criticism. What began as a hobby quickly became an important means of expression. Her goal as a writer is to bring more young audiences to the theater. asyadanilova.com