New York is a tough town for outsiders. The Broadway community loves to reward its own — witness the Tony award sweep for Kinky Boots (a product of old Broadway hands like Harvey Fierstein and director Jerry Mitchell) over the much better Matilda, created by a bunch of Brits from the Royal Shakespeare Company. There’s a distinct downtown-New York sensibility in this spring’s two big off-Broadway musical hits, David Byrne’s Here Lies Love and Dave Malloy’s Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812, as well as in two other new musicals that have opened in the last few weeks: Murder Ballad (a sung-through rock musical about a New York City relationship gone sour) and Far From Heaven, a musical version of the 2002 film about a benighted 1950s marriage, adapted by prolific New York playwright Richard Greenberg.
What chance has a musical from Kansas City got? Especially one so determinedly unfashionable as Venice — a grandiose, over-the-the-top, melodramatic mix of political allegory and Shakespearean tragedy, set to hip-hop music by a white guy from the suburbs?
I saw Venice in its debut production three years ago at the Kansas City Repertory Theater, and was mightily impressed. “The next major American musical could well be in the making,” I wrote then. I must confess that, seeing the show three years later in its New York debut at the Public Theater, I’m not sure I can stand by that statement. The show has not grown as I hoped it would, and its flaws are more apparent. Still, it’s an exciting evening in the theater, another sign of the amazing vibrancy of the American musical, which seems to improve the further away you get from Broadway.
Venice takes place in a fictional future city-state, where terrorism has toppled the government and the military now rules. A charismatic young leader, also named Venice, has returned from exile to try to liberate the people and reunify the country — joining with his beloved Willow, the daughter of a slain political leader, who herself has just returned to the city from the so-called Safe Zone. The jam-packed plot also includes a corporate bigwig who pulls the strings in this military dictatorship (and is also in love with Willow), Venice’s Iago-like half-brother Marcus, who foments his jealousy, a couple of terrorist bombings, several murders and lots of dead bodies littering the stage at the end.
Guiding us through all this is a rapping emcee, played by Matt Sax, the show’s very talented composer and co-lyricist. Sax (a native of suburban Mamaroneck, N.Y.) is an animated and engaging presence onstage, who turns the hip-hop rhythms and inventive, if not-always-scannable rhymes (“I don’t need an icon/That is bygone”) into the glue that holds this sometimes scattershot show together. Beyond the rap narration, moreover, he has created a rich musical score that runs from pulsating disco to sweetly lyrical ballads and Rent-like rock anthems.
Why didn’t the show send me as it did three years ago? In Kansas City, on a much larger stage, Venice had more epic sweep; on the Public’s Anspacher Theater, it seems a little cramped and underpopulated — though director (and book author) Eric Rosen has staged it with economy and energy. And while the cast is filled with strong voices and good actors, Haaz Sleiman seems a little bland as the heroic Venice and Jennifer D’Amiano too polished and composed as the inspirational Willow — could these two really incite a revolution?
I’m not sure what changes have been made in the book, but my sense is that the political allegory (with its echoes of our current fears of government snooping) has been deemphasized in favor of the love triangle; after setting up this dystopian world in the potent opening scenes, Rosen’s book doesn’t really develop the political themes. Still, it’s rare to see a musical with so much narrative ambition, tragic scope and musical inspiration, all wrapped up in one messy but mesmerizing package.