Another day, another musical…or maybe three or four. It all depends on your appetite and available time and how many twenty-dollar bills you want to remove from your wallet. That’s right: each show in the New York Musical Theatre Festival is just twenty smackers!
Full details and locations--- and songs --- are all linked from www.NYMF.org, where you can also buy tickets online. But be aware that some are selling fast and selling out, but also some are adding performances for this reason. Overweight teenagers, Jesus Christ, and trouble in Africa are on the agenda: no, not all in the same show. (That might be interesting….or not.) The plays we’ll look at this time are Fat Camp, Judas and Me, and Mo Faya.
Fat Camp, concerning itself with teens at a summer camp to lose weight and maybe gain friends and life lessons, has a lot going for it. There are a lot of laughs, some of it smartass humor, for these kids can be tough. It’s a survival skill. There are some strong cast performances, anchored by Randy Blair who is also the lyricist and co-bookwriter, with Timothy Michael Drucker. He shows many sides of his character of Robert: sullen, wary, defiant, conniving, frustrated, but with a desire to connect. Some others seem more like “types” too broadly drawn, while some in the ensemble don’t get imbued with any distinct personality or physicality—their main function appears to be to add more voices and bodies to the songs and dances. There is tenderness and loneliness underneath the defense mechanisms and sass and competition, but it takes a while for it to come to light, so much comes across as mean-spirited one-upsmanship or insult humor (“her ass is much bigger than mine”). But a great deal of that is appropriate to the milieu and age and contains that humor of recognition (been there/done that or, in the case of having been picked on as a teenager: been there/had that done to me). There’s also a sense of “thank goodness we’re not going through teen angst and insecurities anymore” in the once-removed, twice-grateful laughter. The “in” group and the “out” group, the overprotective mother, the jealousies, the claustrophobia of being stuck with overly peppy adults cajoling and lecturing…it’s all there, and set to music, with contemporary, rocking-out and lively (but varied) melodies by Matthew roi Berger and energetic choreography by Connor Gallagher. Note that the not-so-skinny performers can move and groove quite well, thank you very much. Alex Timber’s direction balances the splashier comic moments and snap-crackle-pop of teen sniggering and snarkiness, with some sensitive underpinnings. Ryah Nixon as a thoughtful and caring camper presents a well-rounded character in the midst of what sometimes feels like a cartoon, albeit a very audience-pleasing, entertaining one. Carly Jibson mines laughs as a spunky bundle of feisty fun who is her bunkmate and friend. The ever-hilarious Kristine Zbornik is a hoot and a half as an overprotective mom whose apron strings and umbilical cord to her mopey, awkward son are made of steel. As her son, Cale Krise is just right as the underdog we root for, and their song about being best friends functions as a dysfunctional devotion duet. But there’s some fat that can be trimmed here in this full-length two-act musical, a bit overstuffed with ideas and incidents, like a foot-long submarine sandwich with all the extras. Perhaps that is so apparent when the actors and writing do such a good, direct job of establishing characters that we don’t need some of what feels like repetition. We “get it.” Some of the nose-thumbing at authority and insult-fests get empathetic “you go, girl!”-style reactions from the audience and are funny, but ultimately, the show can afford to show more heart and smart and less “‘tude.” But there’s no denying the comedic pull and underlying affection for the kids’ struggle for positive self-image. Sometimes this is shown with cute surprises: the head counselor tries to boost a girl’s self-esteem by reminding her of that fine necklace she made in arts and crafts with macaroni; the camper confesses in a moan, “I ate it!!!” Fat Camp is no lightweight as far as recommended shows.
You can describe Judas and Me, with any of these four-word capsule reviews: “Jesus: The Early Years”…. Or “highly crafted, highly entertaining”… or simply “Ha ha ha ha.” The musical merriment showing the conniving jealousy of the mother of Judas, who thinks he should have been picked as the Messiah when she is pregnant with him at the same time that the angel visits the Virgin Mary and the Three Wise Men accidentally stop at her house. As the awkward Judas grows up with his pushy mother, befriending and becoming a disciple of Jesus, the laughs come fast and furious. What teenager wants to have to live up to super-high expectations? “He is the flesh incarnation of God!” boasts Mary to Judas’ mother. Embarrassed, Jesus entreaties, “Come on, Mom, be cool!” The lyrics are full of smart, unexpectedly and frequently delightfully clever rhymes and the music is like musical comedy….well, what’s the word? Ah, yes, musical comedy HEAVEN. It commits no sin. Irreverent for sure, but not nasty, this soufflé is whipped together briskly with delicious ingredients. Jeremy Dobrish nimbly directs this spiffy production, keeping the pace bright but not veering into too much high camp or shtick, and even allowing for some respite from the shenanigans.
That Bible buzz you’re hearing is not locusts but the buzz of good word of mouth from audiences who are loving this show. I laughed and laughed due to the one-liners and sharp comic timing of the cast, and smiled ear to ear due to the high quality of the songs which show tremendous skill and polish. Music is by Matthew Sklar and book and lyrics by Chad Beguelin—they of Broadway’s The Wedding Singer; they have hit just the right note over and over again. With grand glee and glare, Barbara Walsh stomps and seethes and simmers as Judas’ mother, but there may be too much of a good thing there as it’s a big role and she needs more to do than be a shrew who can’t be tamed, even by an angel. Leslie Kritzer is laugh-out-loud super as the earthy angel who’s seen it all and is not above offering a little perspective, reminding us that being an angel isn’t necessarily all a piece of (angel’s food) cake, as she doesn’t have sexual organs. Nick Blaemire is a likeable pouting and put-upon Judas with Ann Harada sly and savvy as his long-suffering sister who creates her own miracle, getting us to genuinely sympathize with her plight and pride in her solo number. Jennifer Laura Thompson finds whimsy and a wink and backbone to balance the overlying sweetness and goodness of Mary. And last, but for Lord’s sake not least, Doug Kreeger underplays Jesus with much charm, and uses the holier-than-thou persona judiciously. Small town boy makes good. We’re in good hands here all around!
Mo Faya brings us to Africa. We’re introduced to a village where poverty and several people living in one room is a way of life, but where the human spirit and sense of community survive many challenges. Selfishness and corruption are some of the biggest dangers, and take their toll as the power-hungry and power players control and wreak havoc. That smell in the air is fear and it’s thick; still, the good people have a strong will and there’s strength. Song titles give a hint of what’s to be gleaned and remembered: “Every Ghetto Has Its Politics”…”United”…..”Think Twice”….”Are We Free?” Others are in Swahili, as some of that language is interwoven. Too often, we are TOLD what is happening, or hear it discussed, rather than seeing it for ourselves. Indeed, the play is set up with a storyteller, who happens to be a wannabe reggae singer. A young man working at the radio station, able to spread the truth and/or music is our nominal hero and hope. The face of evil, in large part, is presented as a woman who is ready to buy up property and people - Mumbi Kaigwa as Anna, who happens to have the evil eye and loping walk of a conqueror, but also a dynamic singing voice that both chills and thrills. The ensemble work here is impressive as the players multi-task and bring us into their world. At an intermissionless hour and forty-five minutes, it feels long. This is also because we don’t get to know characters in specific detail; it’s more like they stand for right or wrong, or representatives of a society’s elements. Much is played to the audience, with scenes between characters showing their deepest feelings not a common occurrence. When it did, sometimes it felt more like soap opera confrontation. And though day-to-day life events set the scene and give flavor, we might not need so much of the songs/scenes about foods and festivities, or the running bit about the two men in business to supply fresh water and remove human waste, but use the same containers for both. In a word, yuck! What makes this piece worthwhile, is the message that ultimately comes through (after a long road) and, more than anything, the spectacular singing. Sublime and exciting group harmonies are powerful, rich and often thrilling. Among the cast, in solo work, there are likewise some goosebump-inducing voices that sound free and full, that are just pure aural pleasure to experience. Valerie Kimani lights up the stage, and has a dynamic soulfulness and soul-enriching performance style. The singing and rhapsodic or riveting harmony blends made it worthwhile for me, and it wasn’t until near the very end that I felt pulled into the story and emotions, when things got increasingly serious and cathartic. A four-piece band and the music and lyrics of Eric Wainaina (who also wrote the book and is music director) bring such musical glory --- in a “world music,” not “musical theatre” style that I found much to appreciate and revel in, even though this would not usually be something I would seek out.