“Do you hear the people sing?” asks a 12-year-old Marxist named Gittel (Megan Stern) in a lullaby to the books on her cot. “Singing songs of stupid feelings?” These are the opening lyrics of Dan Fishback’s exceptional The Material World. And with this sly barb, tinged with impatient intelligence and inchoate angst, Fishback sets the tone for his original and affecting new show. An unlikely cross between Tony Kushner and South Park, The Material World is messy, uneasy and the best downtown musical I have seen in years.
Gittel lives in the Bronx in 1921; her parents, Papa (Leo Schaff) and Mama (Molly Pope), are Jewish socialists who regret having fled Russia before the Bolshevik Revolution. Sharing their home as a boarder, in Fishback’s casually transhistorical world, is Ian (a sweet-and-sour Cole Escola), a young modern-day slacktivist so overwhelmed by the world’s problems that he wrestles himself into a philosophical sleeper hold. (“How can I save the planet / When I can’t even do my laundry?” he wonders.)
On the opposite end of the self-actualization spectrum, and also somehow present, is Madonna (Amy Gironda). Having achieved enormous success through sheer force of will and organization (“I may not know how to do anything, but I know how to get everything”), she is now bent on tapping into the power of Kabbalah by channeling it into an empty vessel: namely, Britney Spears (the touching Lisa Clair). And then there is another, older Gittel (Eleanor Reissa, a Yiddishkeit specialist), a feisty centenarian on the verge of leaving the home she has lived in for decades.
Although The Material World is the centerpiece of this year’s gay-themed Hot! Festival at Dixon Place—where director Stephen Brackett and his flavorful cast meet the piece’s demands with clarity and scrappy humor—its queerness is manifested in Fishback’s disconcerted sensibility rather than show-queen fabulousness or even any specific LGBT plot. (Ian is gay but proudly, defensively single.) This is one of the very rare musicals, in fact, with no romantic story line at all. Fishback is more interested in questions of social matter: the differing values of action and inaction, and of activism and mysticism; the precariousness of sanity, the performance of the self, the limits of physical space.
Yet the show never feels like a seminar, because it comes at its questions from such surprising angles. Fishback’s engagement with his themes is consummated in the form of songs that, united by his anticool intelligence, span widely from neurotic folk-pop to dance music and “Justify My Love”–style mood groove. His version of an 11-o’clock number, delivered by Pope in a shredding power alto, infuses an old-fashioned Broadway showstopper with goofy profanity and a confidence that verges on madness.
“You get used,” sing the old and young Gittels together. “Still you sing. You get used to anything.” But we are not yet used to shows like this; I have never seen anything quite like it. Fishback’s musical richly deserves a life after the Hot! Festival has gone to ashes. Strident yet diffident, nervous yet sure, The Material World feels, in its own way, quietly revolutionary.—Adam Feldman
Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam