Past Reviews

Off Broadway Reviews

The Total Bent

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - May 25, 2016

Vondie Curtis Hall
Photo by Joan Marcus

In Passing Strange, the 2007 Off-Broadway musical (that moved to Broadway the following year), Stew, who coauthored the show with Heidi Rodewald, told the story of a young black man several decades ago whose coming of age centered on a battle for authenticity amid a swirling tempest of concerns over race, love, and music. In The Total Bent, the new musical that just opened at The Public Theater, Stew, who coauthored the show with Heidi Rodewald, told the story of a young black man several decades ago whose coming of age centered on a battle for authenticity amid a swirling tempest of concerns over race, love, and music.

Okay, okay: In execution, Passing Strange and The Total Bent are pretty different. The earlier show was a sprawling epic, laid across multiple countries and exploring the various and varied musical styles that would imbue the lead character with his unique inspiration; this one is more intimate and internalized, treating Southern gospel-rock fusion and concerned with the complex, almost codependent, relationship between African Americans, their social and political standings, and the role God plays in their lives. The two shows don't really look, sound, or feel alike, and were obviously both created to communicate different things to (one presumes) different types of audiences.

But The Total Bent suffers from a problem that the earlier effort was better able to camouflage (and, for that matter, turn into an advantage): the limited dramatic abilities of its writers. Though musicals typically work best on a large scale that makes sense of the form's elevated modes of presentation, they can still suffice, even thrill, when they're small and intensely focused—provided they're properly glued together. By orienting Passing Strange as a stream-of-consciousness rock concert, Stew could shift between disparate, and for that matter violently opposed, ideas and still remain within the operative realm of its central figure's head.

Ato Blankson-Wood and David Cale
Photo by Joan Marcus

Here, though, the attempt to concentrate things has made them much more diffuse. The primary conflict, which unfolds in early-1960s Montgomery, Alabama, is between "Papa" Joe Roy (Vondie Curtis Hall), a revival-tent preacher trying to complete his "crossover-comeback" album, and his son, Marty (Ato Blankson-Wood), who's writing it. Whereas Marty used to share his dad's ideas and ideals, now he's caught up in the anger of the age, and trying to inject it into the songs his father wants kept pure and holy.

"My new songs rise to the beat / of bus boycotters' feet / Wanna take the struggle to church / And drag gospel into the street," Marty says.

Joe's view: "What you writin' is a gospel version of the plague." And his perspective is understandable, given that it immediately follows a cut of a song whose refrain turns on the phrase "That's why he's Jesus and you're not, Whitey."

Shockingly, their act breaks up, and Marty starts his own with his friends to sing the kind of music he's positive will influence the kind of change he's desperate to see, in a time and place he thinks craves it. He falls in with a white, English producer, Byron Blackwell (David Cale), Marty believes can realize his vision even if he doesn't entirely share it. And although that influence does indeed propel Marty and his debut album (which shares the show's title), it comes at the expected steep cost that forces Marty and Joe to consider whether they're really better apart than together.

It wouldn't matter that there's nothing new here—even within the Stew-Rodewald theatrical oeuvre—if the musical storytelling were fresh and vibrant. But Stew, who's credited with the "text," has taken far fewer chances this time around. There are only three characters of note (a few others orbit Marty at various points, but contribute little of consequence), and their goals within this framework are too small to fill out even the modest 100-minute (intermissionless) running time. And after the conflict is established, there's nowhere unexpected for it to go or grow, and a cursory knowledge of recent American and musical history is enough to know how all this is likely to end up.

The action also never strays far from the look and atmosphere Andrew Lieberman's homey recording studio set, including following a major change before the final scene. This is a musical that's content to live in a safe insular world, a philosophy that manifests itself in the costumes (Gabriel Berry), lights (Thom Weaver), and choreography (David Neumann) at least as much as in the score. Individual numbers toe the line between the warring genres, but fit comfortably in neither, and make a minimal impact on anything that surrounds them. Here, no number stands out—and not in a good way. Though, to be fair, not in a bad way, either: Most of them seem indifferent to the concept of singing, let alone communicating, altogether.

Director Joanna Settle has staged the material sufficiently, and coaxed professional if damp performances out of the actors. Hall and Blankson-Wood generate a fair amount of heat during the opening scene, but can't keep those fires burning all the way through. Too often you sense that they, like Stew and Rodewald, are trying to let the writing carry more weight than it legitimately can; this is exactly the kind of show that needs of a galvanizing star performance to tie everything together.

As it is, you get that only in limited quantities. Stew, who plays in Marty Beller's onstage band, serves up a bit of sparkle when he speaks and sings as the closest thing there is a tangible onstage conscience. Take, for example, his reaction to this makeshift lyric of Marty's: "You could take a phrase like 'floor wax' / And then repeat it til you get into a trance / Cuz this trance ain't about religion. / It's more a kind of self-hypnosis." Stew, his character ever the realist, retorts, "That lyric will never make it to Broadway, never!" He's right, but not because of any given line: The Total Bent, unlike its more adventurous, electrifying predecessor, doesn't seem to belong there—or much of anywhere else.

The Total Bent
Through June 19
Anspacher Theater at The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule:

Privacy Policy