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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

at New York City Center


  Broadway Inspirational Voices/ Ph: Joan Marcus

Except for Shakespeare in the Park and Lincoln Center Festival, summertime tends to be an unusually slow and fallow period for New York theater, with few if any shows opening on Broadway and most Off-Broadway companies also on hiatus. However, City Center managed to make the summer theater season a bit more exciting last year with the advent of Encores! Off-Center, which extended its annual slate of three Encores! productions of rarely seen Broadway musicals to include three relatively smallish Off-Broadway musicals.
The premiere season was a slam-dunk success, with fine concert stagings of Mark Blitztein’s Depression-era The Cradle Will Rock, Nancy Ford and Cretchen Cryer’s feminist-flavored I’m Getting My Act Together and Taking It On the Road and a one-night-only performance of Jeanine Tesori’s Violet starring Sutton Foster, which received enough acclaim to transfer to Broadway and is currently playing at the Roundabout’s American Airlines Theatre.
The current Encores! Off-Center series consists of Jonathan Larson’s pre-Rent rock musical tick...tick...BOOM!, the country revue Pump Boys and Dinettes and a one-night-only performance of Randy Newman’s rhythm-and-blues oratorio Faust on Tuesday night, July 1, 2014. Unlike the prior entries to the Off-Center series, this actually marked the first New York production of Faust, which received regional productions in San Diego and Chicago in the 1990s and was preserved on a much treasured concept album featuring Elton John, James Taylor and Linda Ronstadt. Are the rights to Faust even available?
Based loosely on Goethe’s German morality drama, Faust depicts God and the Devil battling it out over the soul of the title character, who is now a contemporary college student. Although Faust does fall to temptation and unintentionally causes the doom of his girlfriend Margaret, the musical is more concerned with the loving but adversarial relationship between God and the Devil than the ambitions and misadventures of Faust.
Unlike your typical Encores! production, which is billed as a concert-style staging but is really a full-scale, Broadway-worthy production, Faust, as directed by Thomas Kail (In the Heights) really was performed as a concert. Famed singer-songwriter Randy Newman, who was on hand to play the Devil, was decked out in a Halloween-style Devil costume, a cheesy but cute touch, complete with red horns and cape. He sat at the piano at the edge of the stage for the entire show, narrating (or at least attempting to narrate) the plot to the audience with his distinctively rough voice and gentle persona. Newman was joined by Michael Cerveris, Laura Osnes, Tony Vincent, Isaiah Johnson, the Broadway Inspirational Voices chorus and an 11-person orchestra.
Rather than an integrated, well-structured musical, Faust is essentially just a two-disc album based on a thin premise, as is often the case with rock musicals (i.e. Chess, Jesus Christ Superstar and American Idiot, which all originated as albums). Although David Mamet wrote the book for the Chicago production, his work was apparently not reflected in the Encores! production, with sole credit going to Newman.
The plot is a mess and the characters are undeveloped and static. More often than not, it is difficult to tell what exactly is going on. To be honest, I’m still not sure what role Cerveris was playing. Apparently an angel with a dark past? He really just stood around without much purpose. And why does the Devil have a love interest (in the character played by Vonda Shepard)? What point does that serve? Based on Newman’s own commentary and relaxed state of mind, he didn’t appear to be taking the show too seriously himself. Having someone else play the Devil might have allowed the musical to come to life. Instead, Newman upended and upstaged his own work.
If Newman is willing to work with a new playwright, perhaps Faust can be reworked for the stage. But seeing as no work has been done on Faust over the past two decades, that’s probably not going to happen. Even so, the two-hour concert provided a rare opportunity to check out the eclectic score (containing rock, light pop, gospel and blues) in a lively and supportive atmosphere. If not to revise Faust, maybe the experience will leave Newman with the motivation to pen another show.
The possibility that the Off-Center series will continue to include musicals that never even played New York (or at least received major productions in New York) is promising and exciting. Think of the possibilities: Children of Eden, The Baker’s Wife, Martin Guerre, The Visit, Love Never Dies


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