When I look back on the musicals of the past twelve months, the most interesting have been at the Public Theatre -- well, certainly the most interesting to anyone over twelve. FEBRUARY HOUSE, with its haunting score by Gabriel Kahane; GIANT, an old fashioned musical with a sweeping, lyrical score by Michael John LaChiusa; David Byrne and D.J. Fatboy Slim's disco musical, HERE LIES LOVE; and now VENICE. These shows may not be perfect, but they are all fascinating and, except for the wonderfully old-fashioned GIANT, rethink the possibilities of musical theatre.
Funny thing -- I don't like rap, yet found Matt Sax's score, musically inventive and consistently absorbing. I felt the same way about Lin Manuel Miranda's score for IN THE HEIGHTS (Maybe I don't dislike hiphop and rap as much as I think I do). Both these composers have found a way to combine rap with the best of theatre music. Sax's score for VENICE is a real hybrid -- hip hop blended with Sondheim. He knows how to write a haunting tune. Equally important, he knows how to write a musical scene that is both musical and dramatic. However hip the score of VENICE is, it is also rooted in the best of American musical theater of the past seventy-five years from the bench scene in CAROUSEL (hmm, a man slaps his wife in this show too) to SWEENEY TODD.
VENICE is a modern, musical version of Shakespeare's OTHELLO. I'm not sure why Venice, when four of OTHELLO's five acts take place in Cyprus. The show has little sense of place, but that isn't particularly important. After an awful war, the city is ruled by a multinational corporation. Actually, for reasons the show explains, Venice is also the name of the central character, played by Haaz Sleiman, the leader of the rebellion against the dictatorship. The villain, the Iago figure, is Venice's jealous half-brother. The adaptation works. It is filled with echoes from Shakespeare's play but has a life of its own. If I have one slight reservation about the show is that the first act is too talky. We need a few more songs to replace some of the dialogue, particularly when the songs are so good.
VENICE has been given the production it deserves. There is very little in the way of scenery -- who needs it with a show this strong? -- but highly effective staging and energetic choreography. The leads are all excellent. I know Sleiman from his terrific acting in the film THE VISITOR and from the first season of NURSE JACKIE on tv (why did they get rid of him?). He's a good actor and singer and stunningly handsome. Jennifer Damiano who was so wonderful in the musical NEXT TO NORMAL sings beautifully as the counterpart to Desdemona, now called Willow after the song Desdemona sings in Shakespeare's play. Leslie Odom, Jr. of SMASH fame, plays a good villain. Claybourne Elder and Victoria Platt (the Cassio and Emilia counterparts) have beautiful voices. Composer Matt Sax is riveting as the rapping narrator. Sorry to keep comparing him to Lin Manuel Miranda, but they both are fine theatre composers and charismatic performers. Overall, the singing is the best I have heard in a musical this year. The four piece band (keyboard, bass, cello drum) sounds like an orchestra, thanks to clever arrangements (Curtis Moore).
The sad thing about excellent shows like VENICE is that, since they are not Tony eligible, they remain unknown to most Americans, who don't realize that the most exciting plays and musicals are not on Broadway. Yet it is interesting to note that this show began its life in Kansas City (maybe everything is up to date there, theatrically at least), then moved on to Los Angeles before arriving at the Public. VENICE would certainly win my Tony as Best Musical of the season.
By the way -- a not insignificant detail -- the tickets for VENICE were $12. That's right, $12. As a result, there were lots of young adults in the audience, a switch from the usual geriatric audience at non-profit theatres in New York.
VENICE. Public Theatre Anspacher Theatre. June 2, 2013.