Sunday, November 18, 2018

Review: A Modern Party in Ancient Egypt

By Michael Block 

Breaking the mold in theater these days comes with great ambition. We create in a time where we seemingly need to recreate the wheel in order to stand out. And if you can’t recreate the wheel, you just try to do it a little better. If you can’t be better, just make sure your audience is having a blast. Taking over Chelsea Music Hall, Cleopatra takes a historical story and thrusts a modern flair into it to create a flashy theatrical event.
Immersive mania pervades Chelsea Music Hall. Mix a little Great Comet, a dash of Hamilton, and all the glitter, sequins, and rhinestones you can find in a drag queen’s closet, toss it all in a blender and you get Cleopatra. Set up like a theatrical immersive event within a nightlife experience, Cleopatra retells the infamous story of the legendary Egyptian ruler through an electronic pop and R&B score. With music by Jeff Daye and lyrics by Laura Kleinbaum and Daye, with additional material by Drew Fornarola, Cleopatra’s reimagining is less about the story and more about the experience. The creative team has ensured that at the forefront is a strong, powerful woman to reflect the endless struggle women continue to experience, but if an original story was inserted in its place, the glitz, glamour, and pulsating beat will still stand strong. This show is a party. And the way to entice an audience is to intrigue them in with a story that they are likely vaguely familiar with. The score from Daye and Kleinbaum has some club worthy bops. You might not leave the venue reciting them, but the beat is sure to remain with you. For a story about power and downfall, the downfall here is the book, or lack there of. The majority of the piece is sung through, giving it that Hamilton vibe. Unless your ear is completely keen to the words, you’re likely to miss plot points due to the vocal acrobatics in these key parts. Replacing them with pure book scenes would likely suck out the energy of the party atmosphere. Generally, the characters are thin replicas of stock characters. They lack depth and arc. Cleopatra needs to discover how to blend the book musical with an immersive experience. With that, it must establish the rules within the participatory theatrical event. Between pulling random audience members to be tied to chairs for a blindfolded lap dance and a runway walk off hosted by the Mistress of Ceremonies Dusty Ray Bottoms, the audience is invited into the story. However, the audience, some of whom are filled with liquor supplied at the bar, seems to forget that they are at the theater and lack the understanding that you cannot call out your feelings to a moment in the middle of the scene. Even further, moving chairs around to fit your personal seating needs is off limits as well. Finding the balance between the typical piece of theater and the energetic party that it is essential for Cleopatra to maintain its success.
photo by Santiago Felipe
To bring the piece to life, director and choreographer JT Horenstein ensured that the energy was high and there was no shortage of sexy. Horenstein’s choreography was filled with exceptionally athletic dance. In such a tight space, Horenstein and his company did an extraordinary job bringing high level production numbers to the stage. Horenstein’s focus seemed primarily on the choreography as the book scenes clipped along to get back to the dance. Christopher Bowser’s scenic design felt like a stereotypical modern twist on what an Egyptian-themed nightclub would be. Accents of gold were plentiful. The focal point was the almost regal thrown, which dominated the space. Costume designer Nicolas Putvinsky compiled an array of items, many of which had sequins or rhinestones on them, threw them on each performer and somehow the mismatched design appeared cohesive. Putvinsky ensured that there was more than enough skin showing for each performer. The lighting from Joe Cantalupo was theatrical as a nightclub could get. The bulb curtain above the stage allowed for the space to marry nightclub with play. With the score being electronic music, the sound design was no easy feat. Sound designer Drew Levy and electronic music designer and live DJ Lloyd Kikoler worked magic in Chelsea Music Hall.
To play the queen, you have to be the queen. Vocals alone, as the titular character, Nya is a powerhouse. Liken her to Queen B herself, aka Beyonce . She’s the real deal. She keeps a guarded demeanor as Cleopatra that longs to have a bit more emotion in the book scenes. Christian Brailsford is a walking sex machine as Marc Antony. Brailsford exudes a magnetic arura that lures you in with a silky vocal to match. Playing Iris, Sydney Parra is a true stand out, making her voice known. While the scripted character needs a bit of clarity in the book, RuPaul’s Drag Race star Dusty Ray Bottoms is an exquisite Mistress of Ceremonies. Her hosting skills are on full display, as she maintains the party atmosphere all night long. If you’re going to have a drag diva in a show, you better get the crowd gagging and Dusty certainly did. That costume reveal was everything.
The amount of ambition that went into this project is plentiful. The creative team and cast has brought their A game to the show. Cleopatra knows what it wants to be, it just doesn’t know what it is yet. I have visceral memories watching Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 down in the Meatpacking District in the tent and thinking this was a magical production. Cleopatra is probably a handful of workshops away from that. But it can get there. Immersive theater is alive and well. Cleopatra reminds us why we love it and desire more.