Monday, June 24, 2013

"Venice" - Broadway in the cards!

By Judd Hollander
Photos by Joan Marcus

While the new rock musical Venice (book by Eric Rosen, music by Matt Sax, lyrics by Matt Sax and Eric Rosen, additional music by Curtis Moore) isn’t 100% ready for Broadway, it’s certainly on the fast track to get there, if the current powerhouse of a production at the Public Theater is any indication. An epic tableau of a show, Venice has a lot to offer; including a Shakespearian plot with sibling rivalries and star-crossed lovers, along with betrayal, deceit, class struggle, terrorism and the ever-fading possibility of the reunification of a country. 

The once-peaceful Venice was fractured twenty years earlier when a terrorist attack killed 20,000 people, causing most of the elite to flee the city to a “safe zone” where the wealthy and powerful prospered, while the city itself fell into violence with the various factions fighting for control. Among those caught up in the chaos were two young children. Best friends Willow Turner (Jennifer Damiano) daughter of the former president, and Venice Monroe (Haaz Sleiman), whose mother was a leader of the peace movement. During the attack, both Venice’s and Willow’s were killed, Willow being among those lucky enough to escape to the safe zone while Venice was left behind. In the years since, Venice has taken up the cause of his mother, with his entreaties of peace and hope reaching the masses of the city and eventually uniting the different groups therein as one. Now 20 years later, Venice is pushing for the reunification of the affected areas with the safe zone. Helping him in his efforts is his trusted friend Michael (Claybourne Elder), who is facilitating the return of Willow to the city where she and Venice plan to wed.

However there are certain people who do not want the wedding or the reunification to come off as planned. People such as Theodore Westbrook (Jonathan-David) head of Westbrook Enterprises, the corporation which controls the safe zone and Venice in general. Westbrook has also loved Willow for years and wants to marry her himself. There’s also Markos (Leslie Odom Jr.), leader of the military occupation forces, as well as Venice's half-brother, who has his own nefarious plans for power. Using whatever means necessary, including a rather seductive singer (Angela Polk), and whispers of innuendo and misdirection, Markos begins an elaborate plan which will turn friends and allies against each other, his ultimate goal being to return the city to chaos, from which he will emerge in control.

Instantly involving with characters that are extremely well drawn, the play sucks you in and has the audience rooting not only for Venice and Willow to ultimately be together, but also hoping against hope that perhaps this time, a world where one can finally put down the tools of violence will actually emerge. Containing elements of Othello, King Lear and Sondheim’s Into the Woods, Venice spins a tale of young people forced to grow up too fast and who now find themselves in a world where, after years of struggle everything they have strived for may be cruelly snatched away, forcing them to begin again if only they have the strength to do so.

Helping to hold the entire production together is an incredible performance by Sax, playing a sort of master of ceremonies, narrator and guide for the audience while setting up the action - the play segmented like chapters in a book with a rousing 20-minute prologue bringing one up to speed on prior events – while moving with a power and passion that causes the story explode off the page. The score is delivered perfectly, with tunes that are both hummable and memorable – a rarity in musical theatre these days - running the gamut from rap to rock to ballads. The company also makes good use of the playing area, a mostly bare stage with a few judiciously placed props and set pieces. Good work by scenic designer Beowulf Boritt in this regard.

That’s not to say there aren’t a few problems in the production. While Damiano is nicely appealing as Willow in a benign sort of way, becoming a quiet symbol for the people to rally around, she lacks the vocal chops to really deliver the more rock-driven songs. Through she does very well with the ballads. It would also have been nice to see the jealousy angle played up a bit more in the first act as one of the character’s reactions in this regard is not as believable as it could be. Sleiman on the other hand is quite good as the stalwart Venice, a man driven by his dreams for a better life, but one who threatens to be torn apart by his own baser instincts. Something Markos, in a fantastic performance by Odom, ruthlessly exploits. A villain through and through, one can see the bitterness, anger and long-simmering resentment in every move, gesture and speech the actor makes, all the while always plotting to become the total master of all he surveys.

A nice surprise is David’s performance as Westbrook. Definitely a man with his own agenda, and willing to do almost anything to get what he wants so long as keep his hands clean, this character turns out to be rather multi-layered with perhaps more in him than even he realizes possible. Venice is also a case where the supporting people are just as significant as the leading players, with Uzo Aduba doing a powerful turn as Venice’s mother, a woman who realizes the important of forgiveness; while Elder does well in the role of Michael, a good counterpart to Venice in that he’s more cautious than the title character, but perhaps not always quite careful enough. Polk is very good as the sensual and seductive Hailey Daisy and Victoria Platt is fine in the role of Markos’ wife, someone who, like so many others, ultimately finds herself touched by the simple innocence and belief of Willow.

Direction by Rosen and chorographic work by Chase Brock are both spot-on, moving the piece through the various chapters and situations while tying everything together with a strong through line that takes the play from start to finish. Alternatively hard driving and soft spoken, Venice looks to have a long life ahead of it and this reviewer expects to see it on Broadway one of these seasons very soon.


Featuring: Matt Sax (Clown MC), Haaz Sleiman (Venice Monroe), Claybourne Elder (Michael Victor), Jennifer Damiano (Willow Turner), Jonathan-David (Theodore Westbrook), Leslie Odom Jr. (Markos Monroe), Uzo Aduba (Anna Monroe), Victoria Platt (Emilia Monroe), Angela Polk (Hailey Daisy), Emilee Dupré, Semhar Ghebremichael, Devin L. Roberts, Manuel Stark (Ensemble)

Musicians: Jim Abbott (keyboard and guitar), Alisa Horn (cello), Sherisse Rogers (base), Marques Walls (drums)

Book: Eric Rosen
Music: Matt Sax
Lyrics: Matt Sax and Eric Rosen
Additional Music: Curtis Moore
Choreography: Chase Brock
Scenic Design: Beowulf Boritt
Costume Design: Clint Ramos
Lighting Design: Jason Lyons
Sound Design: Acme Sound Partners
Projection Design: Jason H. Thompson
Music Supervisor, Orchestrator and Vocal Arranger: Curtis Moore
Dramaturg: Doug Wright
Music Director: Jim Abbot
Music Production: Matt Sax, Curtis Moore and Joshua Horvath
Production Stage Manager: Kelly Glasow
Stage Manager: Erin Gioia Albrecht
Dance Captain: Manuel Stark

The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Tickets: 212-967-7555 or
Running time: 2 hours, 35 minutes

Closes, June 30, 2013

1 comment:

Mark said...

Getting tix to the very last show. I thought for sure it would extend but your review sealed the deal!