“Manuel versus the Statue of Liberty” at the New York Musical Theatre Festival

David Roberts

"Manuel versus the Statue of Liberty” is a powerful new musical that takes considerable risks in exposing the flaws in the United States Immigration System (USCIS). Noemi de la Puente’s engaging book personalizes the “nightmare” of USCIS as a knock-down-drag-out boxing match between a young illegal Manuel (played with a powerful grace by Gil Perez-Abraham) and the Statue of Liberty (played with cloyed playfulness by Shakina Nayfack). This fight symbolizes the larger struggle all illegal immigrants (including those awaiting Green Cards) experience when attempting to gain legal status. 

Ironically, the Statue of Liberty represents the “American Nightmare” reminding Manuel that “It’s Against the Law to Be Here Illegally” and doing all she can to defeat Manuel’s spirit and his attempts to become a legal citizen. This is gritty theatre: the Statue is the enemy of freedom not the ally of the immigrant she seems to welcome. Watching Ms. Nayfack portray the “Statue’s” redemptive transformation is cathartic and electrifying.

The system seems designed to make the naturalization process not only difficult but impossible. Manuel came to the United States with his mother and his sister Yolanda (Alicia Taylor Tomasko) who was born in the United States and is therefore a legal citizen. It is Manuel and his Mami (Tami Dahbura) that face deportation if they do not get Green Cards. Manuel is not willing to live in hiding and with the encouragement of his mentor Mr. Walsh (Michael Marotta) he wants to go to Princeton then, upon graduation, to study abroad at Oxford on a scholarship from Princeton. If he leaves the country, he realizes he will not be able to return. 

The ensemble cast under Jose Zayas’ impeccable direction skillfully portrays Manuel’s journey from his high school graduation through his decision to turn himself into USCIS authorities. Although things go well for Manuel, they did not go well for the inspiration for this musical Dan-el Padilla Peralta. Despite the requisite happy ending for musical theatre (not all but most), “Manuel versus the Statue of Liberty” remains a scorching critique of immigration policies in the United States and a resounding celebration of the human spirit, the confirmation that “nothing good comes easily,” and the importance of fighting for the values upon which the United States was founded.

MANUEL VERSUS THE STATUE OF LIBERTY

For complete information on "Manuel versus the Statue of Liberty” including the creative team, the cast, the performance schedule, and how to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.nymf.org/festival/2015-events/manuel-versus-statue-liberty. The running time is 1 hour and 40 minutes with one intermission.

“Single Wide” at the New York Musical Theatre Festival at the PTC Theater

David Roberts

"Single Wide" is a charming musical with an interesting book, a pleasing country-rock score with solid lyrics. The creative writing team of George D. Nelson and Jordan Kamalu has constructed an engaging musical with strong well-rounded characters with authentic and believable conflicts (problems), with an interesting setting, and strong rich themes. The conflicts drive a powerful plot with enough tension to make the story line sustainable and absorbing.

Katy (played with a redemptive sadness by Emma Stratton) and her mother Amanda (played with the strength of a protective hopefulness by Stacia Fernandez) have had a rough time and are trying to make a new start so Katy’s son Sam (played with an endearing and reparatory charm by Matt Miner) won’t have to “end up just like [them].” Both work tirelessly and hope soon to leave the trailer park where they live. Flossie (played with joyful decadence by Jacqueline Petroccia) occupies an adjacent trailer and does all she can to snag a man, most often making poor choices and not spending much time regretting those choices. Maclain Nelson portrays Flossie’s beaus including Bodie (the perhaps keeper). Freddi (Maya Landau) and Ali (Alex Lanning) round out the women living from paycheck to paycheck and ready for a life they feel is long overdue. It seems the consistent problem for all of these women has been unreliable, unfaithful, and unappreciative men.

The trailer park is a dysfunctional family and it is unlikely anyone would be able to escape their “Microwave Life.” This setting (brilliant design by Jason Ardizzone-West) is a trope (here an extended metaphor) for all life’s situations where people feel stuck, disenfranchised, betrayed, cheated, ignored, discounted, discouraged, or marginalized in any way. Into this dysfunctional family enters a guy named Guy (perhaps an Everyman or an Anyman) played with stunning energy by the remarkable Derek Carley. Guy comes to the trailer park to drink away his problems including his PTSD after serving in Afghanistan but instead, after being befriended by Sam, becomes the catalyst for significant change.

This change agent has his work cut out for him in the person of Flossie who, despite knowing Katy likes Guy (Sam sets that one up), is determined to win him over with her charms (“The World Revolves Around Me”). If there is any disappointment with “Single Wide” it is with the character of Flossie (not with Ms. Petroccia’s spot-on portrayal of that character). Flossie needs a morally ambiguous backbone. She is too flat and her begonia “children” do not give her enough dimension to balance likability with dislike.

It is difficult to say more about Flossie’s attempt to betray Katy without a spoiler alert. Under Jeff Whiting’s deft and decisive direction, the ensemble cast keeps the action moving with enough twists and turns to keep the audience in suspense and completely engaged. The chemistry between Guy and Sam is electric and charged with emotion and attributable to the extraordinary craft of Mr. Carley and the young Mr. Miner.

The musical numbers in “Half Wide” are all effective. Standing out are Derek Carley’s interpretation of Guy’s “Till It Feels Like Home,” “Just Takes One” sung by Stacia Fernandez, and the trio sung by Emma Stratton (Katy), Derek Carley (Guy), and Jacqueline Petroccia (Flossie). “Single Wide” is a new musical for all those who believe in the redemptive power of unconditional and non-judgmental love and the resilience of the human spirit. Hopefully it will find a home on another stage very soon.

SINGLE WIDE

For complete information on "Single Wide” including the creative team, the cast, the performance schedule, and how to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.nymf.org/festival/2015-events/single-wide. The running time is 1 hour and 35 minutes without intermission.

Review: “Claudio Quest” at the NYMF at the Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre

David Roberts

Theatregoers have had a decent dose of the epic video game Super Mario Brothers (Nintendo) in the recent past. The Fringe NYC 2014 featured “Jump Man – A Mario Musical” which garnered the Fringe Excellent Award for Best Musical. And “Claudio Quest,” currently running at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, had its first incarnation at DC’s Fringe Festival in July 2010. Fortunately for the audiences at NYMF 2015, this current retelling of the Mario Brothers epic journeys is quite good.

Drew Fornarola and Marshall Pailet have put real meat on the pixelated bones of the familiar video game characters. These characters are well developed, believable and have been given equally authentic conflicts the audience can readily identify with. These conflicts drive an interesting plot than layers upon the game’s “here we come to save the day” theme and support a matrix of important themes for the contemporary audience. These include the rivalry between siblings (“No matter what you do you’ll still be stuck as player number two.”) and the redefinition of sex-role stereotypes (“Oh, so there's only one way to be a Princess?”).

Claudio (played with a charming strength and vigor by CJ Eldred) faces the challenges of being a hero with a limited number of lives and having to save Princess Poinsettia (played with the right mixture of pout and punch by Leslie McKinnell) over and over again (as many times as a player sets or resets the game!). Luis (played with a disarming and charming vulnerability by Ethan Slater) wonders what it would be like to be player number one and fall in love with Princess Fish (played with just the right amount of feisty humility by Lindsey Brett Carothers). All of these characters live with the constant threat of attacks from the “bad guy” Bruiser the platypus with the big (you guessed right) heart. Broadway veteran Andre Ward owns the stage every time he enters as the poorly misunderstood Bruiser who needs weekly therapy to get in touch with his inner self. Mr. Ward is a powerhouse of an actor and singer and brings exuberance and joy to this splendid production. His “The Platypus Song” is perhaps the highlight of the musical.

The six member ensemble is uniformly competent and exciting to watch. Their combined voices adequately support the cast and their puppetry skills are beyond commendable. The puppet design by Michael Schupbach and The Puppet Kitchen bring the video game pranksters to adorable (and sometimes frightening) life.

There might be little that is new in “Claudio Quest” but this does not detract from this musical’s ability to entertain and challenge the audience with rich and enduring questions about right and wrong, good and evil, and the importance of significant human relationships. John Tartaglia’s staging is brilliant and Mr. Fornarola’s and Mr. Pailet’s music is engaging and supports the book with a variety of musical styles and genres. 

The connection to Eggplant Kingdom and the perils of saving a country one loves in non-gaming time is rich and makes “Claudio Quest” a musical to keep one’s eye on. 

CLAUDIO QUEST

"Claudio Quest" features a book, music and lyrics by Drew Fornarola and Marshall Pailet and is directed by Tony Award nominee John Tartaglia (“Avenue Q”), with choreography by Shannon Lewis, scenic design by Timothy R. Mackabee, costume design by Leon Dobkowski, lighting design by Jennifer Schriever, sound design by Matt Kraus, puppetry by Puppet Kitchen Productions, music direction by Gary Adler, orchestrations by Doug Katsaros, and casting by Telsey + Company/Craig Burns, CSA. 

For complete information on "Claudio Quest,” including the creative team, the cast, the performance schedule, and how to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.nymf.org/festival/2015-events/claudio-quest. The running time is 1 hours and 40 minutes with one intermission.

WITH: CJ Eldred (First National Tour, “The Book of Mormon”) as “Claudio”, Ethan Slater as “Luis”, Andre Ward (Broadway’s ‘Rock of Ages”) as “Bruiser”, Lesley McKinnell (First National Tour, “Wicked”) as “Princess Poinsettia”, and Lindsey Brett Carothers (Broadway’s ‘Bring It On: The Musical”) as “Princess Fish”, with Max Chernin, Alex Goley, Abby Hart, Katie Lee Hill, Andre Jordan, and Tiffany Mann rounding out the cast.

Review: “Moses Man” at the New York Musical Theatre Festival at the Alice Griffin Theatre

David Roberts

“Moses Man,” currently running at the New York Musical Theatre Festival, is based on the true story of writer Deborah Haber’s parents Kalman and Lily Haber whose nine-year journey from Nazi-occupied Austria throughout Europe, Cyprus, Palestine, and Africa finally – against many odds – leads to freedom and a new home in the United States. In “Moses Man” that survivor Opa (Kevin McGuire) shares the story of survival with his grandson Moshe (Evan Daves) as Moshe is opening his exhibition about his grandfather’s journey. Apparently Moshe curates this installation without consulting or seeking the facts from his grandfather. Although this seems odd, it is the convention Ms. Haber uses to relate her story: past and present coexist on the stage and Moshe can see the events of his grandfather’s journey play out before him. The only thing he cannot do is speak to those from the past.

The Cast of "Moses Man" - Photo from Broadway World

The Cast of "Moses Man" - Photo from Broadway World

Under Michael Bush’s inconsistent direction (some scenes are well staged, some seem to be without any direction), the talented cast does its best to enliven Ms. Haber’s characters and tell the important story of a journey of survival. This attempt has mixed results. Many of the scenes are driven by authentic emotion (pathos) and historical fact (logos). Missing is the ability of the cast and the story to connect to the lives of those in the audience (ethos). The story is simply “out there” to be viewed and understood. Many of the scenes become didactic as though the audience had no knowledge of the horrors of the Holocaust or the need to assure that “this never happens again.”

Casey Filiaci’s music is often endearing and reflects a variety of musical styles and genres depending heavily upon Sondheim-like phrasing. Some songs like “Take a Few … in Eight Days” in Act I soar and give the cast the opportunity to showcase its collective talent. Others, however, like the interminable “And Mama Needs Cherries” need serious editing. Numbers like the extraneous Act II opener “Opa” should probably be cut entirely. The entire production is overlong.

One wants to identify with Avi and his bride Lia (Tess DeFlyer) and one wants profoundly to identify with Freddy (Zachary Clause) who is outed in Belgium and is murdered in a concentration camp. For some reason, the performances lie flat and the director needs to address this issue in earnest and with alacrity and celerity.

“Moses Man” is about “journeys of choices” and had the creators attempted to counterpoint their story with the stories of so many others on the planet (and in the audience) attempting to navigate those journeys, this new musical would resound with success. It is “time to do something” about oppression throughout the world, “time to stand up” to those oppressors. At times, the actors do not seem to be in touch with their characters and the motivations and conflicts of their characters. It is therefore difficult for them to “tell the story” effectively. And sometimes they seem to move about aimlessly.

The "mission statement” of the producers of “Moses Man” includes the following. “Moses Man,” based on the historically significant implications of the displacement of those facing persecution during the Holocaust, also reflects the contemporary dilemmas faced by each of us.” Unfortunately, this connection fails to happen in this new musical. Also problematic is the missed opportunity to make strong connections between the biblical Moses leading his people to freedom in the Promised Land and Avi’s mission to lead his small tribe to freedom in America. This is unfortunate and significantly lessens the impact of this musical which has at its core an extremely important matrix of themes including the journal of survival. Instead of relying more on the biblical Moses story, the creators decide to mimic scenes from “Les Miserables,” banners and ramparts included.

At least this New Moses (Avi) had the opportunity to see his promised land. The First Moses was not afforded the opportunity to see his Promised Land. The cast and creative team have obviously worked hard to bring the musical to its current level and the musical is deserving of a close look by audiences. 

MOSES MAN

For complete information on "Moses Man,” including the creative team, the cast, the performance schedule, and how to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.nymf.org/festival/2015-events/moses-man. To learn more about the musical itself, please visit http://mosesmanthemusical.com/about/overview. The running time is 2 hours and 20 minutes with one intermission.

“Acappella” at the New York Musical Theatre Festival” at the PTC

David Roberts

It is difficult to imagine it getting any better: a group of talented a cappella singers (Broadway veterans and vocal band members), beatboxing, traditional American spiritual hymns, and a decent book about finding one’s voice and finding one’s way. All of that is featured in the new musical “Acappella” enjoying its weeklong run at the Pearl Theatre Company as part of the 2015 New York Musical Theatre Festival. Conceived by the show’s Executive Producer Greg Cooper, “Acappella” has been twelve years in the making and this NYMF run gives the creative team an opportunity to further develop what is already an entertaining experience about the journey of a young rock star from fame and fortune to the rediscovery of his faith in other and in self.

Jeremiah (played with a conflicted sweetness by Tyler Hardwick) gets the opportunity to tour with a popular “Boy Band” and leave his southern Georgia home. He also leaves his best friend Simon (played with a marvelous intensity by Anthony Chatmon II), his girlfriend Sarah (played with a powerful yet playful persona by Darilyn Castillo), his Aunt Leona (played by Cheryl Freeman who balances her character’s protectiveness with parental authority), and his church family and friends. While on tour, Jeremiah is inspired by the passion of a blues singer (Darryl Jovan Williams) and decides to return to his Georgia home during his brief furlough from the band.

Gavyn Pickens, Anthony Chatmon II, Janelle McDermoth, Miche Braden, Garrett Turner, Cheryl A. Freeman, Katrina R. Dideriksen and Rachel Gavaletz

Gavyn Pickens, Anthony Chatmon II, Janelle McDermoth, Miche Braden, Garrett Turner, Cheryl A. Freeman, Katrina R. Dideriksen and Rachel Gavaletz

“Acappella” deals with Jeremiah’s journey, his attempts to reunite with his best friend Simon and his girlfriend Sarah – who is now engaged to marry Simon, and with himself. The title has more importance than describing the lack of traditional instruments (the voice, after all, is an instrument): ‘a cappella’ serves as a rich trope (here an extended metaphor) for the “unaccompanied” state all of the characters find themselves in. Even the small town they live in is no longer “attached” to its roots despite the Festival to celebrate its Anniversary. It seems no one can truly find a deep connection to others without first having a deep connection to self. Jeremiah has to be set free (“Set Me Free”) before attempting to reconcile with his past and redesign his present and future.

All of the cast members have outstanding voices. Tyler Hardwick (Jeremiah) has a strong well-supported tenor which easily soars into a pleasing falsetto. Anthony Chatmon II has a similar pleasing upper vocal range that counterpoints powerfully in his duets with Mr. Hardwick. Mr. Chatmon is also a strong actor who brings authenticity and believability to his character Simon. Darilyn Castillo’s vocal range is impressive and is showcased in her solo “We Are One.” Broadway veteran Cheryl Freeman rocks the traditional “His Eyes Are on the Sparrow” with perfect phrasing and interpretation. One wishes the talented Miche Braden had been given a solo that allowed her to display her dramatic (as well as her comedic) vocal strengths. Garett Turner, Darryl Jovan Williams (the Blues Singer who brings the house down with his character’s “Jesus in the USA”), and Virginia Ann Woodruff bring honesty to their performances as vocalists and actors.

The Vocal Band supports the action of the musical throughout with songs from The Acappella Company’s rich canon. Stand out numbers are “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” “Set Me Free” in Act One, and “No Excuse.” The beatboxing was a breath of freshness replacing the traditional musical band or orchestra. Bassist Janelle McDermoth shines. Lee Summers’ minimalist direction is appropriate for this musical and his staging is certainly engaging. Evan Feist’s arrangements are pleasing and supportive of the music and Leslie Dockery’s choreography showcases the movement talents of the cast. Kyu Shin’s scenic design and Sarah Johnston’s lighting design – again minimalist – are appropriate to the action of the musical. 

As with any product in development, “Acappella” has room for growth. Its book needs some attention and certainly needs to flex its text to compete with the music. And that music, splendid as it is, needs to more uniformly connect with Ms. Meli’s book. Some numbers – albeit well performed and quite funny – do not move the plot forward. Among these are the numbers by Leona’s Group which provide comic relief and the opportunity to showcase the amazing talent of Miche Braden, Cheryl Freeman, and Virginia Ann Woodruff but do little to help the audience understand the conflicts of Jeremiah, Simon, and Sarah.

As it stands, “Acappella” is a moving testament to the strength of the human spirit, the importance of the human community, and the endurance and richness of personal faith. Clink on the link below and try to get tickets as soon as possible. The opening night performance was sold out.

ACAPPELLA

For complete information on "Acappella,” including the creative team, the cast, the performance schedule, and how to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.nymf.org/festival/2015-events/acappella. To learn more about the musical itself, please visit http://acappellathemusical.com/. The running time is 1 hour and 30 minutes, plus one intermission.