The Total Bent: Theater review by David Cote
What a difference eight years can make. When it blasted onto Broadway in 2008, songwriting team Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s concept-albumy Passing Strange flew its freak flag high and proud. The coming-of-age funk-rock musical felt extra fresh in a theatrical landscape that had variety if not a ton of diversity. Now the team has a new project, which may or may not get to Broadway, but that hardly matters. With game-changing hits such as Hamilton and Fun Home thriving, the uptown scene has become a lot more inclusive and eclectic; perhaps Passing Strange had a hand in that evolution.
All three titles mentioned started life at the Public Theater, a fact quite relevant. The Total Bent is a daring and overreaching sophomore musical, one that most commercial producers (or even nonprofits) would hesitate to bankroll. It’s a shaggy, idiosyncratic patchwork of Civil Rights–era satire, father-son drama and an allegory about the birth of funk. As with Passing Strange, Stew (who wrote the book and lyrics and collaborated with Rodewald on the music) is fascinated by heroes who self–re-create, burn out or, preferably, both.
Here, rebellious, bisexual songwriter Marty Roy (red-hot Ato Blankson-Wood) must break away from his cynical, gospel-singing father, Joe Roy (Vondie Curtis Hall, sweating charisma and sex appeal). The loose historical frame is MLK’s 1960s, in a town called “Bluntgomery, Alabama.” Marty wants to protest in the streets, but his father would rather offer the masses soul-music bread and circus. Enter Byron Blackwell (David Cale), a blues-besotted Englishman who wants to produce a record with Marty, then shifts his industry affections to the papa. Betrayed in the studio (and, we suspect, the bedroom), Marty reinvents himself, taking the stage for a miniconcert that blends glam-rock flamboyance and fire-and-brimstone Christianity. Church and mosh pit become one.
Director Joanna Settle’s great achievement is crafting a physical production that looks like it sprang organically from a jam session. Stew, Rodewald and the rest of the band sprawl around the back of the space (decked out in cozy-kitschy plaid patterns by designer Andrew Lieberman), taking roles and lines to push the plot along.
Stew occupies much less of the spotlight than he did in Passing Strange, which puts the onus on his storytelling skills. So it does help to be a Stew fan going into Total Bent, which at close to two intermission-free hours has its repetitive and dull stretches. However, the music is funky, fierce and sticky-sweet, and you might get burned from the heat coming off the performers. And you will be trying choreographer David Neumann’s boogie slides at home with the door shut. In short: Never felt the spirit move in you? Heathen, get churched.—David Cote
Public Theater (Off Broadway). Book and lyrics by Stew. Music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald. Directed by Joanna Settle. With Marty Beller, Ato Blankson-Wood, John Blevins, Kenny Brawner, David Cale, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Damian Lemar Hudson, Jahi Kearse, Brad Mulholland, Heidi Rodewald, Stew, Curtis Wiley. Running time: 1hr 50mins. No intermission.
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