Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Review: When Bad Titles Hurt Great Material

Sometimes it’s the stories that you don't know about but the events you do know that are the most fascinating. Unless you were living under a rock in the first decade of the 21st century, you will know something about the Iraq War. But what if there’s more to the story? Inspired by the screenplay “Curveball” by J.T. Allen, Who’s Your Baghdaddy, or How I Started the Iraq War is a musical comedy, yes comedy, that brings new light to America’s darkest times.
With music by Marshall Pailet, lyrics by A.D. Penedo, and book by both Pailet and Penedo, Who’s Your Baghdaddy brings the audience into a fictional support group where members seek solace, acceptance, help, and closure. The catch is, the members of this group all believe that they started the Iraq War. Told through a series of flashbacks, Who’s Your Baghdaddy breaks into musical mode, flipping from campy musical comedy to heavy melodrama. While stylistically the musical is unsure of itself, the way the story is told is expertly crafted. Fourteen years after 9/11, it’s possible that it’s still “too soon” but what Pailet and Penedo have done is avoid glorifying the subject. They present their material in a fine manner. Though, this may be due to the unrecognizable characters and unheard story. Had this musical been about Osama Bin Laden, George W. Bush, and Saddam Hussein, you’re likely to feel that the piece was unsavory. Regardless, with strong storytelling and characters each with a sense of redemption, Pailet and Penedo were able to take the audience on an unfamiliar journey. Audiences love to play detective, learning the clues and linking the facts. Pailet and Penedo fashioned the musical in a way that was accessible and engaging. The characters they crafted each had a strong motivation and a sense of redemption. From the desire of becoming a hero or wanting to do something right, each objective was clear and followed through. When it came to the music, Pailet and Penedo used a wide variety of styles. Who’s Your Baghdaddy blended classic Broadway with pop and rap to reach everyone’s pallet. Each character seemed to live in a specific genre but it may be a smart idea to ease off the theatrical rap. Penedo’s lyrics for the most part were stronger in the more comedic numbers, falling off into hokey melodrama in the ballads.
photo by Remy Daniels
Who’s Your Baghdaddy was certainly an ensemble effort. The characters depended on one another and so did the company. Sometimes it’s the utility players that end up being the strongest actors on the stage. And that was very true here. Brandon Espinoza and Claire Neumann as the multi-character ensemble of two were brilliant. Espinoza and Neumann are triple threats that went beyond the call of duty. From on point dancing to an array of voices, Espinoza and Neumann were the heart of the production. Brennan Caldwell as Richart Becker, the German Jr. Detective brought the house down with “Das Man.” Caldwell is sweet and charming with big heart as the optimistic Richart. He was even game to play along with the overly-recurring accent bit. As dynamic duo Berry and Jerry, Larisa Oleynik and Olli Haaskivi were a perfect yin and yang. Oleynik brought grit and immense depth to Berry while Haaskivi’s Jerry just wanted to make Berry proud. Jason Collins, Bob D’Haene, and Nehal Joshi all had characters that lived primarily in the melodrama. They each had defining moments with their power and strength. Collins commanded the stage, even in his time of defeat.
Directing your own work is a massive risk. Luckily for Marshall Pailet, it paid off, this time. Pailet’s use of the space was smart, allowing the fascinating story take center stage. The transitions were quick and Pailet paid attention to symmetry. As a whole, the movement of the piece was sharp and Misha Shields’ choreography utilized the space well. While the playing area may have been tight, Sheilds’ made it feel grand. Since the playing area was virtually the audience of the Actor’s Temple, lighting designer Jen Schriever’s canvas was unique. She was able to capture the support group general lighting and quickly create a more theatrical aura. Sure, shadows and dark patches were a bit of an issue, it was easily forgiven.
Who’s Your Baghdaddy is a fascinating story with a strong ensemble. But that title. It could be a massive turnoff that does not sell the show properly. The musical is not so much satire as it is musical comedy and finding that middle ground title will encourage an audience that it’s time to start talking about the war that shouldn’t have happened.