Most avid theatergoers fancy themselves undercover talent scouts, capable of scoping out the next big hit. The temptation is especially strong during the annual New York Musical Theatre Festival (creatively acronymized to NYMF), which recently completed its sixth season. Prior showcases have yielded such sui generis works as Altar Boys and Next to Normal.
Production values at NYMF’s various small venues tend to black-box basic. However, the musicals (19 this time around, of which I managed to see half) are given the best possible shot, thanks to the participation of major Broadway stars and the most promising of up-and-comers – the subtext being that, if these pros can’t put a piece over, perhaps it needs more work.
Herewith, a cursory – and incomplete – scorecard:
Max Understood, like Lisa Loomer’s recent play Distracted, draws a parallel between our frantic, media-saturated environment and the spike in ADD and autism. Young Max (Marlon Sherman) is on the extreme end of the spectrum, spazzing with sensory overload; when his mother (Mary Mossberg) isn’t looking, he takes off for meaningful, magical-realist encounters around the neighborhood. Nancy Carlin’s book is, alas, overly sappy, Michael Rasbury’s music too arty to augur a broad audience.
R.R.R.E.D., a Secret Musical starts with a piquant premise based on biological fact: redheads appear to be a dying breed (studies have predicted that the recessive gene could be eliminated as early as 2100). Author/composer Katie Thompson, flame-haired herself, plays the leader of the underground resistance, and Patrick Livingston her put-upon assistant. Their interplay – he toadies, she stifles – is a source of incessant hilarity, right up to the needlessly gruesome ending.
Fat Camp, with music by Matthew roi Berger and book by Timonthy Michael Drucker and Randy Blair (the latter also provided the consistently witty lyrics), is an oversized variation on the old jocks-versus-geeks trope. The characterizations, however, truly achieve three dimensions – especially Randy Blair as a poetic insurrectionist, Carly Jibson as a comic sidekick, and ultra-fit Sarah Saltzberg (from the original Spelling Bee cast) as a counselor who truly cares. This show could – and should – go the distance.
Whatever Man, written in its entirety (text and music) by Benjamin Strouse, whose last name has a certain dynastic ring, suffers from a skimpy concept. Charlie (Colin Hanlon) is mired in commitment-phobic perma-adolescence, so his impatient girlfriend (Kristin Maloney) pressures him into group therapy, where his fellow neurotics all turn out to be secret superheroes. Strong performances by Paolo Montalban and Laiona Michelle can’t compensate for the lack of inherent drama.
Judas & Me might have trouble finding acceptance in the heartland, but what a hoot! Chad Beguelin’s book (he also wrote the clever lyrics, well matched by Matthew Sklar’s genre-jumping score) blames Judas’s betrayal on a hellaciously pushy mother (the brilliant Barbara Walsh). From the moment the Angel Gabriel (a world-weary Leslie Kritzer) bungles the Annunciation, Rheba Iscariot plots to promote her contentedly ordinary son (Nick Blaemire) to Messiah-hood. Potential picketers be damned – a great show.
Plagued: A Love Story, with book and lyics by Vynnie Meli, music by Casey L. Filiaci, takes the by-now familiar tack of fracturing fairy tales to create a fun new feminist fable.