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"Venice" At The Kirk Douglas Theatre: Hip-Hop Musicals Have Finally, Mostly, Arrived

Rebecca Kinskey |
October 19, 2010 | 2:21 a.m. PDT


Matt Sax (center) and the cast of the new musical "Venice." (Photo by Craig Schwartz, courtesy CTG)
Matt Sax (center) and the cast of the new musical "Venice." (Photo by Craig Schwartz, courtesy CTG)
The joy of musicals is their habit of pastiche — they marry the high-art notion of emotion so fierce one can only find expression in song or dance with the familiarity of pop and vernacular, the experience of leaving the theater humming tunes that we almost knew before we went in.

"Venice," which opened Sunday night at the Kirk Douglas Theatre, captures what musicals have long yearned to do: it speaks with hip-hop, not just about it. The show unleashes hip-hop’s unique abilities to strut, rage, celebrate and stew, and when it succeeds — and it most often does — "Venice" makes hip-hop a voice for more than its own world, and into a melody for all of our own.

Starting life as an adaptation of Shakespeare's "Othello," director Eric Rosen and composer-lyricist Matt Sax's musical has come out the other side of a series of workshops, co-developed by LA’s Center Theater Group and Kansas City Rep, as the story of a dystopian city on the verge of peace after 20 years of war.

The walls of the grey-washed set cascade with projected text, or are overtaken by news reports and broadcast speeches as the first two songs unfurl a world caught between the poles of two brothers. The ensemble does furious quick change work, switching rapidly between embodying members of the hoi polloi, the army and the press, managing never to seem smaller than the whole city they are meant to represent.

The first few numbers carry the sensation of an inexperienced driver lurching into gear, as the show familiarizes the audience with all the musical styles it plans to employ. The Clown MC exhibits not-quite freestyle flow, the ingénue Willow contributes traditional ballad stylings, and bursts of robust R&B shine from across the cast.

It is when we are finally left alone with Markos, an arch-villain of almost anachronistic malevolence, that the show arrives. Played with spastic hatred and impulsive violence by Rodrick Covington, Markos shows what a hip-hop musical can do: it can say “motherfucker,” with all the fresh air of contemporary sensibility finally brought to the musical theatre stage.

Angela Wildflower Polk (center) and the cast of the new musical "Venice." (Photo by Craig Schwartz, courtesy CTG)
Angela Wildflower Polk (center) and the cast of the new musical "Venice." (Photo by Craig Schwartz, courtesy CTG)
Indeed, the character work is the unrelenting strength and excitement of the show, drawing out R&B’s eloquence at bemoaning that man, rap’s bouncy fun in flossing so big, and slam-based rhymes that nurse deep hurts.

Angela Wildflower Polk as Lady Hailey Daisy commands and thrills with the spitfire grandstanding of Lil’ Kim, Eve or Nikki Minaj, and J.D. Goldblatt’s Theo Westbrook delivers a particularly luminous swansong of liberated melody and dance, no less assured or joyful than Sam Cooke on an upswing.

It is tempting to fault book writer Rosen and Sax for lacking some degree of the inventiveness and just plain fun in wordplay that characterizes MC culture, or even, say, Shakespeare. But as with any misgivings that the two men have failed to deliver more than one lyrical voice, their work is probably stronger for being relatively straight-forward and just poetic enough to be comprehensible, a unified piece of stagecraft rather than an anthology of schools of hip-hop.

Center Theatre Group has a strong history of developing shows that end up on Broadway — "Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson," staged at the Kirk Douglas in 2008 and currently entering its second week on the Great White Way, being the most recent, and apt, example. The trajectory of "Venice," in terms of CTG’s investment in it, seems to indicate that CTG hopes this current run is a stopover on the long road East. Whether this proves true or not, that standard helps measure what still feels lacking in the production.

The almost-expunged traces of "Othello" keep the show in a bit of a bind. The narrative device of One Incredibly Bad Dude closes down a story that wants to expand to discuss idealism, in both individual and community, and how ideals can be tested.

When the titular Venice, a politician of unbridled hope and promise recalling Obama (or at least Jimmy Smits on "The West Wing"), sees his faith in the power of unity and understanding tested, his great flaw seems to be getting stuck in a room with only one door and guarded by Markos. For one moment, "Venice" teases that it will show us the complexities of our own world, as it has so ably sung them, but the glance of recognition passes, and we are left to be satisfied by showmanship alone.

There is one true clunker of a song (“The Wind Cried Willow”) that it’s hard to believe an old Broadway hand of a producer wouldn’t excise without thinking twice, along with demanding the duets and ballads generally rise to meet the guts and stakes of the solo character pieces. The choreography could use one more pass to go from serviceable to viscerally innovative, and the Clown MC, while played by composer-lyricist Matt Sax, has none of the jaw-dropping raw power evident in so many of the other performances. 

"Venice" might not yet be the best musical that it can be, but it is no stretch to say that it may be the best musical Los Angeles will see this year, if only for the promise of what it makes possible on the stages ahead.



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