March 14, 2012

Totally Mesmerized by "The Total Bent"

If you see The Total Bent— which, if you haven’t done, you’ll have to rush to do because it closes this weekend—you may or may not see the same show I saw. For The Total Bent, the latest work by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, is part of the PublicLab at the Public Theater, a workshop in which the creative team continues to tinker right through the last performance.  But at just $15, it’s a bargain for the adventurous theater lover.

Before my performance started, the director Joanna Settle came out and explained that a scene in the first act had been cut, the second act tightened and lines changed throughout the show, all during a four-hour rehearsal earlier that day. Some of the actors, she said, might have to carry their scripts to keep up with the changes. But, as it turned out, only one did and he only did it in one scene.  And despite what must have been a grueling day for them, everyone's energy level was heat-wave high.

Stew, who goes by the one name, and Rodewald are the hipster duo who wrote Passing Strange, the coming-of-age rock musical that opened at the Public five years ago before moving to Broadway, where it played 165 performances. That show was based on Stew’s own adventures as a middle-class kid who refused to settle for any of the stereotypes usually associated with young black men.

I’m not sure what the genesis was for The Total Bent but, once again, the issue of black male identity is in the spotlight.  This time out, the protagonist is a gospel prodigy named Marty Roy who is desperate to break away from his domineering father and some mysterious incident in their past. Marty wants to create a new life and his own kind of music. 

Despite the fact that Passing Strange won the Tony for best book of a musical, storytelling isn’t really Stew’s strong point.  The Total Bent seems to mash together plot points from "The Jazz Singer,"  the movies' first talkie about a cantor’s son who dreams of a career in show business, with bits and pieces from the life of soul singer  Marvin Gaye, whose contentious relationship with his preacher father ended with the older Gaye shooting the younger one to death. 

The result, to be honest, is kind of a mish-mash.  Some supporting players wander around without much to do. Scenes start and then just drift off so that story lines are left dangling. After the show, I overheard several of my fellow audience members trying to figure out what had happened to certain characters.  No one even tried to speculate on how the title related to what we'd just seen.

But then there’s the music. The savory blend of gospel, punk and show tunes that Stew and Rodewald have brewed into a 21st century version of art song is totally infectious and somehow makes up for the fractured narrative.  

I had groaned loudly when the usher told me that the show’s running time was three hours and then I groaned again, this time silently, when I realized that I was sitting across the aisle from Stew (instantly recognizable by his roly-poly physique and trademark pork-pie hat) and so couldn't easily sneak out or leave after the intermission. But the time whizzed by and during the few down moments, I got a kick out of peeking over at Stew as he openly grooved to his own music.

And he wasn’t the only one rocking out. Stew is big in the young, artsy and multi-culti parts of the city but his appeal is clearly spreading. The audience the night I saw the show was older, whiter and straighter dressed than the previous times I’ve seen his work. But they were totally to into it.  I don’t think anyone sneaked out at intermission and you could see grey heads bopping and expensively-heeled feet tapping all over the place.

Just as he was with Passing Strange, in which the marvelous Daniel Breaker played the Stew stand-in, Stew has again been blessed with a charismatic lead actor.  William Jackson Harper has a soul-stirring gospel voice and dare-you-to-look-away stage presence.  I would have been content to just look at and listen to him all night.

Meanwhile, Vondie Curtis Hall may be older and grayer than he was in his heyday as the James Brown character in the original production of Dreamgirls, but he’s no less dynamic as the father and is in equally great voice.  And David Cale almost steals the show from them both in a sweet comic turn as the white Brit who becomes Marty’s producer.

So what can I tell you?  The Total Bent may be a rollicking mess but I was totally mesmerized by it.

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