The Total Bent – The Public Theater, New York

Curtis Wiley, Ato Blankson-Wood, and Jahi Kearse in The Total Bent, with a book by Stew, music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, and directed by Joanna Settle, running at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus.

Curtis Wiley, Ato Blankson-Wood, and Jahi Kearse in The Total Bent at The Public Theater, New York. Picture: Joan Marcus

The Total Bent continues at The Public Theater, New York until 26 June.

Rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩

The musical numbers in The Total Bent, the new Off-Broadway offering from singer-composer-musician Stew and his long-time collaborator Heidi Rodewald, are so thunderous they almost seem wasted in the relatively intimate confines of The Public Theater’s comfy Anspacher space. They deserve an arena filled with multitudes of adoring fans who can transmit back to the stage the electric energy the music and the charismatic performers are radiating almost non-stop.

The show also deals with a compelling theme, even if the free-flowing storytelling is not too easy to follow. It’s about the dilemma facing African-American musicians and their art, and how much of that art has to reflect the troubled waters of their heritage.

Can they be true to themselves and also produce the kind of music white audiences (with money to buy recordings and concert tickets) want to hear. The quandary is heightened by the show’s time and place, the rising of the Civil Rights movement in the US southland, specifically Montgomery, Alabama in the 1960s. The book by Stew, who with Rodewald wrote the score, dramatises the issue with a father-son conflict.

Joe Roy is a black preacher-performer who has made a name for himself singing pacifying, blues-inflected gospel, but his career has begun to fade. His son, Marty, a prodigy who writes his father’s songs, wants his father to step up to the times with songs of protest that hit racism.

When he gives him a song putting down “whitey”, it does not sit well with Joe, who later reverts to type with an infectious number that admonishes protesters to “shut up and get back on the bus”. Also adding to the friction is Marty’s omnisexual persona.

Inserting himself into this generational battle is an Englishman of uncertain reputation, Byron Blackwell, who claims to be a producer and has a penchant for “authentic Negro music”. He sees mainstream potential in Marty, even as one of his galvanising numbers asks: “Why do black people – of all people – still believe in God?”

And whatever his qualifications, Blackwell takes Marty to London, produces a career-making concert where the songs take on pop sexual colourings – ‘Let It All Hang Out’ – and provocative religious annotation as well, as in a hot, seductive number to Mary Magdalene.

The big problem, though, as one of Marty’s two back-up singers points out, is that there aren’t any black faces in the audience. And so the dilemmas continue.

The story, unfolding with more verve than clarity under Joanna Settle’s direction, sometimes seems as cluttered as the unit set on which the drama plays out. The seven-piece band – including Stew on piano and guitar and Rodewald on bass and keyboard – sits quite visibly on stage, sometimes trading lines with the cast, which doesn’t necessarily help in clarifying things either.

But absolutely clear is the force of the plentiful music, touching on all kinds of genre from rock to rhythm-and-blues and pop and back again, and the brilliance of the performers, Vondie Curtis Hall as Joe and Ato Blankson-Wood as Marty.

In his numbers, Hall, whose career includes the original cast of Dreamgirls, embraces the audience with a bluesy mellowness made urgent with the underlying fire of a man who has known oppression but is trying to keep it masked under a cover of religious fervour.

In contrast, Blankson-Wood is totally explosive, constantly undulating, sometimes joyfully, sometimes angrily, but always with a near-cosmic magnetism. He combines the come-hither allure of Michael Jackson with the audacity of Mick Jagger.

David Cale, as a wonderfully smarmy Blackwell, brings yet another intriguing colour to the show. In his big solo, he traces his own history in a song that echoes The Beatles in their English music hall phase. And the synchronised gyrations of Jahi Kearse and Curtis Wiley as Marty’s back-ups serve to further heighten the already ultra-high voltage.

Stew scored for The Public with his earlier show, Passing Strange, which moved to Broadway in 2008. It also won a Tony Award for his book.

Maybe this time around, an available arena can be found where The Total Bent’s thrilling score and performers can find a fitting home.

Ron Cohen

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