New York Musical Festival (NYMF)– Report # 1: Adapting Classic Novels

By ROB LESTER****Adapting a lengthy novel as a musical has its challenges — especially if, like The Time Machine and The Picture of Dorian Gray, the work is sprawling, classic, beloved… And you’re unlikely to be the first to try.  These are two examples, both part of the NYMF (New York Musical Festival).

David Mauk’s songs and book (additional book material by Brenda Mandabach) for The Time Machine, under Justin Baldridge’s direction, make for a gripping version of the story.  Yes, the writers have added many new ideas, characters, and incidents, but it seems to be a huge helping of hubris or major oversight not to have the name of the original author, H.G. Wells, anywhere in the billing or program’s notes!  The current state of the piece has been through its own time travels, as the project was begun a full 20 years ago!  Good things sometimes come in slow-gestating packages, and this is an intelligent and emotional adaptation, with a strong core that shines its lights on integrity and romance.  The inventor, named Thomas here, is presented as dedicated, admirable, and heroic, but a struggling and burdened underdog.  If those weren’t enough reasons to gain our immediate sympathies, Michael Hunsaker’s gallant and yet modest characterization attract like a magnet.  His performance is committed, focused, and thoughtful, and he sings strongly with passion and big sustained notes that can thrill without grandstanding for its own sake.  

As he presents the titular as-yet-untried invention that sounds impossible and even ludicrous, his doubters are led by the scoffing and sneering Professor Dash, an old schoolmate who is eager to be sure that he spreads the story of why he has an axe to grind and a grudge to bear: He claims that Thomas’s carelessness burned down their school’s science building where both had toiled back in the day.  The decision to make this a central and recurring head-to-head battle between an oh-so-good guy and an oh-so-mean-spirited —even sadistic—one gives us much more than just a dash of Dash.  He gets a lot of stage time and song time.  Strutting peacock-like, Randal Keith, with strong voice and quickness to grandstand, has stage presence to be sure, yet the portrayal is quite broad in its superior attitude and nastiness. A hard-working ensemble moves well, with the stage space at The Acorn Theatre on Theatre Row well used by choreographer Jim Cooney, whether his players are the well-dressed (by Vanessa Leuck) attendees at the World’s Fair or the prowling, intimidating Morlock creatures of the distant future (Spoiler Alert: The machine works!!) or the personification of the invention itself and the actual whirls through centuries.  While some actors in smaller roles immediately seem exaggerated (several of the other doubting Thomases of Thomas’s claims) or more believable (Marc Moritz as Thomas’s concerned uncle), the most appealing cast performance is by captivating Bligh Voth as the mysterious warrior type from the future, Wenissa, who becomes helper, guide, rescuer, rescuee, and possible “love interest.”  Her singing voice, with its quick vibrato and disarming crystal and vulnerable qualities, is the kind that can make audiences on first hearing turn to the program’s song list page in hopes she’ll be featured in many more songs!  And every time she does, we are in musical heaven even if the characters are going through one hell after another.  (The futures we see are hardly appealing or idyllic.  And you thought our current political cycle was troubling!)  

While the score is somewhat uneven, its best moments are very strong indeed.  The love songs are among the highlights and a few are arguably as necessarily “functional” as the machine and serve their needed purposes in the storytelling.  And, yes, there’s variety, but the various pieces do work as a unifying tapestry and few seem extraneous, though a couple could be shorn of their repeated points or could benefit from lyrics that would take us from one thought/point to a new one at the end.  

Unlike many festival shows, this one isn’t visually meager.  A series of large units of orange-colored thick pipe-like shapes in varied combinations are wheeled about and define the space or serve as suggested inventions or opportunities for lighting placement.  (After a while in the full-length two-act play, it may be too much of an Orange Is the New Black Box and becomes duller, like too much time spent in a plumber’s warehouse of extra drainpipes.)  Projection design by Don Cieslik lets the back wall show us giant blueprints of Thomas’s designs, trees, and other suggestions of the looks of future worlds.  Commentary about society of his times and Darwin’s theories as born(e) in Welles’s writing is projected in its own way, too!  20/20 hindsight about how to think of the future and “prepare” for it are among the insights here; this admirable take on The Time Machine is well worth a thoughtful musical theatre fan’s time!  

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Dorian Gray is the famous Oscar Wilde story The Picture of Dorian Gray that has one truly unique idea going for it, and that’s this adaptation’s raison d’etre: For newcomers, it’s the plot’s rewardingly chilling conceit that our young and beautiful title character never ages while the painting of him, instead, DOES age and change instead.  This idea has attracted dozens of folks who have presented plays, musicals, films, and TV versions of the story with the dramatic thickening of plot and dramatic ending.  Of course, Wilde had his agenda of putting forth his opinions about the folly and two-facedness of his Victorian society and how people value and glorify youth, beauty, and art.  So, after a lengthy pre-show of the actors milling about the stage and warming up and chatting (a device we’ve seen maybe too often), an early song tells us that art for art’s sake and beauty for beauty’s sake have their place and can just be enjoyed without a deeper purpose.  Then we meet Dorian and see the painting.  Here, it’s not a literal painting, but an actor’s upper body in a frame which the actor holds up.  The device holds up, but the silent, posed position has got to be the most thankless role in the NYMF festival where the musical is being presented.  Christopher Dayett wrote the book and lyrics and shared composing duties with Kevin Mucchetti.  It’s my sad duty to have to report that the show is burdened with problems, although the intriguing central fact of the portrait’s changing remains potent.  

There are some appealing melodies, but the dialogue and lyrics too often fall into repetition.  How many songs can we have where the word “soul” is so prominent or the word built up to?  (“strong desires burning inside my soul”; “To influence a person is to give him your soul”; “For this I would give my soul”;  “the fire that ignites my soul”).  And while it’s true that writing something fresh about being in love is pretty tough after a zillion love songs have said it (almost) all, the words here tend to sound like the more cliche type or melodramatic word choices—    “Fate has brought us together and never shall we part”; “Love finds a way”;  “My art is more than art when he is at my side”; “Let’s make our dreams come true”).

Too much of the acting feels clumsy or in need of nuance.  Numerous characters in this story are burdened with qualities that aren’t admirable: solipsistic rich people; obsession with surface physical beauty over deeper attributes; a tendency to mock and even take pleasure in others’ discomfort.  So, how do you make them more likable or sympathetic?  The artist’s homoerotic if mostly silent and frustrating attraction to gorgeous Dorian could be explored with more tension, but Topher Layton, as the portrait painter, is able to give us some of that in his timing, line readings, and sad and admiring gazing under Christen Mandracchia’s direction (she’s also in charge of the scenic and lighting design, though the “scenery” is little more than a series of multi-purpose different-size boxes hauled around gamely by the cast between scenes, adding time and sapping energy.)   

 Brad DeLeone is our Dorian, appropriately less endearing as time goes by and he morphs from shy and insecure to entitled and grand.  While that’s not quite 50 shades of Gray, he does manage to show somewhat of a character arc even if he could use more wattage in the charisma department and vocals with more voluptuousness and ease.  Sadly, most others are less three-dimensional or veer toward caricature and tend to over-simplify the emotions or get bogged down in the old-fashioned formality of manners in speech (despite their actual rudeness!).  Some underplaying would be in order.  Tyreese Kadle in his role as James manages to retain dignity amidst the overplayed hands of some with whom he shares scenes.  In a rather long playing time it becomes difficult to sustain interest in the unsympathetic people we see without some kind of intrigue and fascination in what makes them tick.  And, if you know the plot ahead of time, there’s even less to keep you engaged.  The show was written as a playwriting thesis project and its structure and choices may have served academic goals, but needs some major rethinking here, especially when the many prior stage and screen versions have preceded it and will be in some audiences’ memories, creating higher expectations.

See www.nymf.org for all schedules and details of these and the many other shows and readings and events in the festival.  Performances take place in theatres on Theatre Row (West 42 Street) in Manhattan.