Monday, July 20, 2015

Review: Theatrical Napoleon Complex

Ah the epic musical. It's a genre of musical theater that features a giant story with a sweeping score and drama. Lots of drama. There have been many successes on the Great White Way. From Les Miserables to Miss Saigon. And some that weren't that good. The Pirate Queen, I'm looking at you. If you'll notice, they all share an author. And you're totally allowed a bomb when the first two a mammoth hits. Regardless of authorship, the factors of a successful epic musical are various( timing, subject, etcetera) but there is nothing more painful than seeing an epic musical flop. Napoleon, a wannabe epic musical, is large in stature but features just a tiny bit of good.
Written by Andrew Sabiston and Timothy Williams, Napoleon is a historical musical about the French General with the slight figure but the giant ego. Told through the eyes of Talleyrand, the man that made him, he recants Bonaparte’s rise to infamy through his reign of madness. Through time, Napoleon has been lampooned not just for his appearance but for his epic failure. And it's fitting as Sabiston and Williams's musical is an epic failure as well. Despite a score that features some stunning numbers, nothing kills a musical faster than a dreadful book. The structure of a memory play through an outside observer is a clever touch. But cowriters Sabiston and Williams make it incredible inconsistent. Talleyrand goes from passive storyteller to active observer. At times he uses past tense verbs to tell the story and suddenly he switches to become surprised and affects the story. While it could be that Talleyrand is changing the story to how he wished it went, it did not come across that way. The modern dialogue that Sabiston and Williams employ gets extremely heightened causing comedic approaches within the acting. Hokey lines cause laughter. When things become unintentionally hilarious, you know you have trouble. Trouble right here in Waterloo. Though the title claims the story is about Napoleon, it truly focuses on the trio of Napoleon, Josephine, and Talleyrand. Sadly, the arcs of all three characters are a mess. There is almost no arc for Napoleon. It's more of bullet pointing history in an after school special. Josephine's journey of sexual conquest is the most interesting story of all but only gets lightly touched upon. Talleyrand reads like a jilted lover. He's very Iago-esque in approach. It's a dynamic take that needs to be explored further. Like many epic stories, this is a long musical. And there is a lot of material ripe for trimming. As stated, this is a musical about Napoleon and Josephine and kinda Talleyrand. The writers spend much time exploring such minor characters, it's almost comical. The romance between Anton and Clarice is completely unnecessary. One of the more horrid textual decisions is opening Act II with their duet that is almost identical to Marius and Cosette in Les Miserables. There's even a barrier between them! With the fluff gone and the focus back on Napoleon and Co, there's room to fix. With all the script problems to address, the score is actually, for the most part, quite good. Sabiston and Williams infuse a slight rock touch to the sound that gives the drive of war. One of the strongest numbers in the show is "The Dream Within". It's a triumphant song for the army boys yet the pair and musical director Joshua Zecher-Ross have the girls off stage singing! Sure it adds power but a female voice in this particular song is jarring to say the least.
photo by Ric Kallaher
To bring this show to life, Napoleon employed a sexy, and overall tall, cast. As the titular character, Joseph Leo Bwarie takes on a punk rock persona. Bwarie is a capable performer who, like Napoleon, doesn’t need the physical prominence to take command. Matthew Patrick Quinn as Talleyrand has some rough text to tackle and struggles a bit finding moments to not be super intense. Margaret Loesser Robinson as Josephine fits the sexy seductress well. There are many minor players who do a brilliant job when given center stage. As Lucien, Christopher J. Nolan finds empathy as brother of the tyrannical general. Jack Mosbacher as Anton, a minor character who made himself major, brought an incredible vocal to the stage. It was Mosbacher that helped to turn “The Dream Within” into a showstopper.
Napoleon, to some, was a visionary. He may not have had the best of intentions at all times but he knew how to lead his troops. Unfortunately for director Richard Ouzounian, his vision wasn’t as successful. Rather than going full period, a brazen choice, Ouzounian and costume designer Tracey Fess brought Napoleon’s world into the punk scene. The entirety of the ensemble found themselves in black modern attire wearing everything from pleather to guy liner. While Fess’s design looked stunning on stage, discovering the parallel between style and time is unclear. Additionally, Fess does not try to add or subtract pieces to allow named and speaking characters to transform into ensemble members in proceeding scenes. There were moments where Mosbacher and Nolan have lines as Anton and Lucien and immediately run on stage wearing the same thing we just saw to speak and sing as random townsperson number 2 and 3. Additionally with the staging, Ouzounian’s use of set designer April Soroko’s pillars were haphazard. And there were many moments where a song would end, lighting designer Driscoll Otto, who on the whole did an extraordinary job, wouldn’t include a lighting button and the stage would be lit and bare with not a soul on stage. Those mere seconds of emptiness were simply uncomfortable. And speaking of buttons, the vocabulary Otto and Ouzounian was inconsistent. But as it seems to be a trend with other NYMF productions, it is incredibly awkward to force the audience to applause at the end of song where the end is sex. And last but not least, after all the controversy Clint Eastwood faced with the fake baby in “American Sniper”, Clarice and the doll, clearly displayed for all to see, was cringe worthy. Who knows what was happening in the scene as all eyes were fixated on the face of a doll.
It’s no secret that Napoleon and Les Miserables will face comparisons. And to fight with the big dogs takes equal brilliance. After kicking around for as long as it has, Napoleon is in desperate need of fresh eyes. And capable eyes at that. Whether it's a dramaturg or a brand new book writer, a new perspective could help Napoleon out of the gutter.