Sunday, June 5, 2016

19. Review: THE TOTAL BENT (seen June 3, 2016)

"All that Glitters"

Stars range from 5-1.
The Public Theatre, with its rich history of finding gold in them thar offbeat musical hills (from Hair and A Chorus Line to Fun Home and Hamilton), hasn’t hit the mother lode with The Total Bent, the entertaining but seriously patchy new show by Stew (“text” and music) and Heidi Rodewald (music); their Passing Strange also had a Public run before moving to Broadway in 2007 and winning two Tonys.
Vondie Curtis Hall. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Gold glistens most brightly in the galvanizing performance of star-in-the-making Ato Blankson-Wood, the top-notch company surrounding him, and the foot-stomping, finger-clicking gospel, blues, rock, funk, and jazz score. The book (whoops, I mean “text”), though, is dross; when someone says, “That lyric will never make it to Broadway, never!” he could just as well be speaking of The Total Bent (in its present form, at any rate), which takes its title from a line of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s: “God does not judge us by the separate incidents or the separate mistakes that we make, but by the total bent of our lives.”
Ato Blankson-Wood, David Cale. Photo: Joan Marcus.
The audience at the Public’s Anspacher Theatre sits on three sides of a sprawling arrangement of furniture, floral carpeting, and equipment (designed by Andrew Lieberman and nicely lit by Thom Weaver) suggesting a recording studio in Montgomery (a.k.a. “Bluntgomery” in the script), Alabama, ca. 1960, during the heart of the Civil Rights movement. The seven-member orchestra, led by drummer Marty Beller, is upstage, its members including the guitar- and piano-playing Stew and the bass-playing Rodewald (the only female on stage). Stew also interjects ironic comments on what’s going down.

Blankson-Wood plays Marty, a sweet-faced, African-American songwriter and aspiring singer. He’s the opposite of his charismatic dad, Papa Joe Roy (Vondie Curtis Hall, Dreamgirls), a notable TV evangelical preacher-gospel singer with a troubled past who exploits Marty’s songs for his own career and is working on a “crossover-comeback” album. Marty, a protester against racial injustice who sees himself as a musical savior, wants to write a new kind of music using his “inside voice” to advance the cause, abandoning the black church’s deference to the white man (“Jesus Ain’t Sittin’ [in the Back of the Bus]”). The retrograde Joe Roy is content with the status quo, musically and politically; in “Shut Up!” he sings that since Jesus loves blacks, they should “suffer their oppression in style.” Thus is sparked the father-son combustion that drives the show’s racing motor.
Ato Blankson-Wood, Curtis Wiley, Kenny Brawner,Jahi Kearse. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Stew’s narrative creates a stew of father-son, religious, racial, musical, homosexual, artistic, and moral issues, including the price of fame. Complicating things is the arrival of the questionably motivated, white, British record producer, Byron Blackwell (David Cale), dressed in a bold plaid suit and speaking what sounds like a Liverpudlian accent; he’s hot for Southern black music and for Marty, too, hoping to make him a star and more. Joe Roy’s genius doesn’t miss his eye for talent either but it only furthers the family rift.
Ato Blankson-Wood, David Cale. Photo; Joan Marcus.
Instead of taking an intermission, the hour and 50 minute show goes into holding mode as a team of well-drilled techies sets up metal platforming so we can move to London, where Marty—in bushy Afro and Prince-like, skin-tight, open-chested, glam-rock duds (costumes by Gabriel Berry)—gives an explosively energetic concert backed by sensational singer-dancers (Jahi Kearse and Curtis Wiley). Then, remembering there’s an alleged “text” involved, the show shifts back to it for its fuzzy conclusion.
Curtis Wiley, Ato Blankson-Hall, Jahi Kearse. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Somewhere in here lies material for a solid show, but I suspect it would mean abandoning the current script in favor of a clearer, sung-through story. The storytelling is vague and the characters more shadows than substance. But the performances—fired up by Joanna Settle’s driven direction—are all terrific, most extraordinary being newcomer Blankson-Woods (a male ringer for Lupita Nyong’o), who brings a sizzling rock-star sensuality to Marty, especially during his concert section. In Kearse and Wiley, he has two supercharged Energy Bunny backup singer-dancers, with all three making the most of David Neumann’s concert choreography. Hall is perfect as the aging, still lithe and magnetic, preacher man, while Cale, who sings the music hall-style “Bluntgomery,” gives the middle-aged Byron the right mix of slime and sincerity.
Curtis Wiley, Jahi Kearse, Ato Blankson-Wood. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Does The Total Bent add up to more than its separate incidents and separate mistakes? That’s for God to judge and audiences to decide.


Anspacher Theatre/Public Theatre
425 Lafayette Avenue, NYC
Through June 19