Off Broadway Reviews
at The New York Musical Festival
There are lots of reasons that jukebox musicals irritate hardcore theatre fans (and why many members of that same group have questioned them ever being included in the New York Musical Festival, where they began appearing several years ago), but perhaps first and foremost is that they usually seem more oriented toward extending and protecting a brand than telling a story. And depending on how "out there" a catalog of music or its creators are, a show can freefall from bewildering into the depths below with terrifying rapidity. We saw this happen (and quite spectacularly) with David Bowie's Lazarus Off-Broadway last year, and now NYMF is getting into the action with an entry that only just edges it out in terms of comprehensibility: Ludo's Broken Bride, at the Duke on 42nd Street.
The concept, music, and lyrics come from the members of Ludo (Andrew Volpe, Tim Ferrell, Tim Convy, and Matt Palermo), an alt-rock band whose tastes run from traditional ballads to charged-up charm songs to literal emotional zombification, and well beyond. Colorful and unpredictable are good words to describe their output, which make for compelling listening on their own. But they don't interlock in any overarching musical or thematic way outside of a live-performance set or an album track list, so they're not predisposed to play nicely together, something that's sadly proven by the work of adapter and co-director (with Donna Drake) Stacey Weingarten and the provider of "arrangements and additional story," Dana Levinson.
To the extent a story here is discernible, it involves a middle-age particle physicist named Thomas Liridon (Carson Higgins), who builds a backpack time machine to travel back 15 years to 1989stick with me hereand save his beloved life scientist wife, Oriel, who died. But because he uses cheap parts, he's instead propelled about 150 million years into the past, where he's attacked by pterodactyls (coincidentally, Oriel's favorite prehistoric creator) and velociraptors, and befriends a ratlike little proto mammal he names Hawking. After somehow repairing the time machine, he then returns into the future, but too far, to a time when Lake Pontchartrain is producing zombies; the son of Satan, King Simius (Brian Charles Rooney), is running for mayor; and a woman who looks exactly like Oriel (and is played by the same actor, the luminous Gabrielle McClinton) is leading the resistance effort.
Or something. I'd fret more about the exact details if they were, in fact, knowable. But all the "plot" does is encourage questions it then doubles over laughing at. What is the connection between particle physics and time travel? How can Thomas build a time machine when he's incapable of fixing his CRT TV? Why do cave drawings end up destroying the world? Why is there an angel (sung, with admittedly heavenly sweetness, by Larry Hamilton) overseeing the proceedings but never actually doing anything? Why is more than half of Act I devoted to a flashback of Thomas (played in the past by Michael Jayne Walker) meeting Oriel, and why does that flashback contain both dream sequences and multiple dream ballets executed by multiple pairs of dancers? What do all the dancing skeletons have to do with anything? (The balletic choreography, for the most part shockingly subdued, is by Steven Paul Blandino.) And what on Earth is the logic behind the two skyscraping tone-deaf mysteries unleashed at the resolution of the resolution of the central conflict (about which I'll otherwise remain vague to avoid overt spoilers)?
I'd wager a guess that the answer to all these questions is the same: There's no way to cram Ludo's crazy compositions into a coherent narrative unless you're a librettist of unique dramatic gifts, and probably even the likes of Oscar Hammerstein II and Peter Stone would be driven insane by trying. Absent someone of that stature, the result, the theatrical equivalent of listening to an iTunes playlist on shuffle while dropping bad acid, is kind of inevitable. Andwhat do you knowit ends up hurting the cause it's most trying to forward, obscuring what's best about the Ludo songs by forcing them to bear weight they weren't designed to support. With every false rhyme, mis-stress, dead-end final measure, or endlessly (and pointlessly) repeated chorus (all regular characteristics), it becomes increasingly clear this is not theatre music, and it almost seems to resent being considered such.
Does good stuff still come through? Sure. "Streetlights" is an engagingly initial gentle falling-in-love duet for Thomas and Oriel, and the songs in which they variously explore the facets of their ongoing romance are lovely. Though it's almost laughably incongruous, "Japan It," a hey-let's-go-on-vacation number, is thoroughly catchy. "Battle Cry," for the dystopian resistance fighters, is an appropriately blood-pumping anthem. And Simius's graveyard cabaret turns, "Skeletons on Parade" and "Love Me Dead," deliver plenty of goofy macabre fun, in no small part because of Rooney's miraculous trick voice and the overwhelming in-with-both-feet gleeful bravado with which he invests the role.
The cast is largely excellent, too, with McClinton making Oriel deeply alluring on the levels of both feeling and intellect, Higgins and Walker displaying a fiercely sung dichotomy between the two halves of a man's soul then and now, and the supporting players somehow making sense of the nonsensical in which they're drowning (Jackson Perrin and Jamen Nanthakumar, as Thomas's college cohorts and comrades in devil destroying, are among the strongest). And the whole thing is staged acceptably, with the lights (Andrew Scharwath), projections (Pauline Lu), and puppets (Sierra Schoening) representing several geologic periods of demented evolution and mutation particularly good, the eight-piece band (led by Peter M. Hodgson) really cooking, and the sound design (Emilio Madrid-Kuser) refreshingly not relying on brain-melting volume for effect.
All of this is meaningless, however, when, outside the basic moral ("grief is a natural part of life"), you can't understand what the heck is going on. Ludo's Broken Bride is without a doubt fascinating, but that's about the only concrete thing that can be said about itit resists any and all additional attempts at categorization, definition, or bare description. Some might see that as a plus, but to my mind it only is when the choices that constitute the whole are precise, unassailable, and explainable, which here they never are. Rethinking and expanding current boundaries of musical theatre is a worthy aspiration, but if clear, absorbable communication of your messages isn't your ultimate goal, or apparently even your interest, why not just put on a concert and be done with it?
Ludo's Broken Bride