New York Musical Festival – shows aplenty on the horizon

In the wee small hours of the morning, did you ever awake with a cold shiver and wonder whether the supply of new musicals might suddenly dry up?

Well, never fear, at least not as long as such events as the New York Musical Festival keep cropping up on the horizon. This annual event, now in its 14th edition, is presenting 20 new musicals in full productions, each receiving five to seven chances to make their case in front of ticket-buying audiences.

Some make blatant attempts at box office appeal by putting hopefully magnetic or familiar names right in the title.

For example, there’s Ben, Virginia and Me (The Liberace Musical), which claims “to explore the phantasmagorical life of the iconic performer” with a “lavish original score”.

Errol and Fidel promises a musical accounting of an encounter between Errol Flynn and Fidel Castro, while My Dear Watson references Sherlock Holmes’ long-time pal.

Other titles are more temptingly outrageous like Motherfreakinghood! (Maternal Discretion Advised), a story about three gal pals and their adventures as moms.

Through the years, NYMF boasts, 106 of its shows have gone on to further productions in 27 countries. That includes four shows that made it to Broadway: [title of show]; Next to Normal; Chaplin; and In Transit.

While transcendent inspiration is probably as rare ever, what this festival demonstrates is the extraordinary depth and breadth of talent and skill, both performing and creative, ready to give its all in the service of musical theatre.

In addition to full productions, the three-week festival, which runs to 6 August, features an array of concerts, readings and special events.

Here is a grab-bag sampling of a quartet of NYMF’s fully mounted shows:

Matthew McConaughey vs. The Devil. How Matthew McConaughey, stuck for years playing the shirtless lead in sappy rom-com movies and the ilk, won an Academy Award is imagined in this sprightly fiction.

Seems he sold his soul to the devil to get the Oscar-worthy part in The Dallas Buyers Club (here called The Texas Buyers Club for some reason or another – maybe legal) and then take home the coveted statuette.

Both the bargain and how he gets out of it are detailed in slap-happy fashion in Emilie Landmann’s book, giddily augmented by a chipper pop score. Jonathan Quesenberry wrote the music and Carrie Morgan the lyrics.

Bouncy direction by Thomas Caruso and equally bouncy choreography by Billy Griffin help sustain the mood, along with the responsive playing of the five-person band, with conductor/music director Kristin Stowell at the keyboard.

McConaughey gets an oddly magnetic portrayal by Wayne Wilcox, whose rumpled look could well belong to an emergency room doctor after a long, late-night shift. But once the music starts, a slick song and dance man busts out.

Sharing the screwball duties in good form are Max Crumm as McConaughey’s pal Woody Harrelson; Jennifer Blood, as McConaughey’s more-than-dedicated agent; and Lesli Margherita, as a sharp-edged Mephistopheles.

All in all, this Faustian tale of Hollywood makes for an amusing blend of mild sarcasm and fawning fandom.

Andres Quintero and Noellia Hernandez  in Temple of the Souls. Picture: John Quilty

Temple of the Souls. Set in the 16th century, this ambitious, heartfelt show depicts an early chapter in the history of Puerto Rico, when Spain ruled the island, having subjugated and decimated the Taino natives. Unfolding against this background is a Romeo and Juliet tale of forbidden love: the daughter of a Spanish conquistador falls in love with a Taino.

The specific history gives the familiar plot line a fresh vibrancy, and the tale, with its combination of ardour and tragedy, almost seems to cry out for grand opera.

The copious score, however, follows more of a pop opera template, intermixed with old-timey Broadway musical and operetta tropes, such as the blithe yearning-for-romance number, the frolicking-at-the-fiesta number.

Most impressive are the rich-sounding choral arrangements, and the palpable dedication of the entire cast, from the masked dancing natives to the passionate leads, played by Noellia Hernandez and Andres Quintero. Also notable are Danny Bolero as the girl’s imperious father, Lorraine Velez as his Taino mistress, and Jacob Gutierrez as the girl’s playboy cousin.

The fervour of the production may well reflect the familial ties of its creators. The book is credited to Anita Velez-Mitchell, Lorca Peress and Anika Paris. Velez-Mitchell, who died in 2015, was a celebrated Puerto Rican-born poet, writer and performer. Paris and Peress are her granddaughters. Peress directed the show, while Paris shares lyric credit with her grandmother and a frequent collaborator Dean Landon. Paris and Landon are the co-composers of the piece.

Others on the creative team include choreographer Enrique Brown and music director Bruce Baumer.

The show is also admirably sincere in delivering its various messages for racial tolerance and inclusion. As the Taino lover sings: “I believe one day, love will bridge this great divide.” And happily, the good intentions are pretty much matched by the show’s sure-footed execution.

Lauren Patten, Ruby Wolf and The Goree Girls in a scene from The Goree All-Girl String Band. Picture: Shira Friedman Photography

The Goree All-Girl String Band. Said to be inspired by a real-life story from Depression-era Texas, this upbeat nugget tells how a group of prisoners in a women’s jail, known as the Goree State Farm, get together to become a rousing all-singing, all-dancing, all-girl country music band.

They get themselves a spot on a Texas radio programme dedicated to incarcerated talent and eventually win themselves a pardon from the Texas governor. And of course, they also discover their own self-worth and self-respect.

Its gals in jail may bring to mind – just ever so slightly – the enduring classic Chicago, minus the Bob Fosse sexiness and irony and the Kander and Ebb insinuating vamps.

Instead, it gives us a catchy passel of twangy, jaunty foot-stomping numbers along with some soulful ballads. The book – by Michael Bradley, who also wrote the lyrics – could use some polishing up of its patchwork plotting.

But the musical numbers are guaranteed to win you over with their spirit, close harmonies and happy prancing. Artie Sievers is the composer, and Brandon Powers is credited with “movement”.

Ably directed by Ashley Brooke Monroe, just about everyone in the 13-person cast deserves special mention. Along with singing and dancing, they each do more than their bit with a wide assortment of musical instruments, from guitars and banjos to a cello and string bass. There are flutes, an accordion and drums, and at one point, even a washboard comes into play.

Most prominent, though, are Lauren Patten as the band’s spunky leader, and Ruby Wolf, as a youthful, tremulous prisoner who blossoms under the band’s stewardship. As the prison’s blustery but lenient warden and his unwaveringly good-hearted wife, Nick Plakias and Tamra Hayden, bring some mature sagacity and humanity to the proceedings.

The racism of the period is recognised when Hattie, the African-American member of the band, is not allowed to perform with it: a “blended band” is a no-no. However, she gets her own solo spot later, and Nattalyee Randall makes the most of her searing number, in which she tells us about singing “from the soul ’bout the blues inside”.

Jessica Tyler Wright, Casey Erin Clark, Kristan Espiritu and Karen Burthwright in Play Like a Winner. Picture: Shira Friedman Photography

Play Like a Winner. Girl student soccer games become a life-and-death sport in this cleverly concocted conceit. The emphasis, though, is on the parents rather than the middle school players, as we witness the tribulations and finagling of the soccer moms to make their daughters stars on the playing field. In fact, only one of the young athletes makes the stage. When games are played, it’s the parents cheering and moaning on the sidelines that we see.

The book by Erik Johnke, based on a play It’s All About the Kids by Caytha Jentis, has a genuinely funny satiric edge, and the humour on occasion shows up as well in Johnke’s lyrics. David Wolfson wrote the peppy music.

It considerably emphasises tempo over melody and frequently sounds like one reprise after another, but it blends well into director Kevin Connors’ brisk staging and nicely complements Pim Van Amerongen’s choreography.

The story centres on the rivalry that explodes between two soccer moms: when Kathy’s daughter, a novice, takes away the star position from the daughter of Melissa, the veteran team manager. Jessica Tyler Wright wins sympathy as Kathy, Casey Erin Clark’s Melissa wins laughs, and both impress in their musical numbers.

Laughs are also engendered by Nicolas Dromard as a brutal, winning-is-everything coach; Frank Viveros as a mild-mannered, overly-dedicated assistant coach, and Megan Kane as the assistant’s neglected wife. As Kathy’s daughter Jenna, the only player we actually see, Zoe Wilson makes a convincing transition from sullen introvert to diabolical competitor.

Will any of this year’s NYMF’s shows have a future? I’m making no predictions, but I certainly wouldn’t complain if any of them wound up with productions paying their dedicated performers and creators a living wage.

Ron Cohen


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