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Man of Rock
part of
The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2011

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Combine Rock of Ages, Spring Awakening, Jersey Shore, and two and a half hours of traffic gridlock with George Etherege, and you get Man of Rock. The unhinged and ungainly show, conceived by Jessica Heidt and written by Daniel Heath (book and lyrics) and Ken Flagg (music), which is playing at the TBG Theater as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, attempts to translate Etherege's Restoration comedy The Man of Mode to the 1980s rock club scene, but ultimately just proves that not all great tastes taste great together.

There are lots of little problems with this production—wildly uneven actors, arid and inconsistent direction (by Heidt), a sound system permanently stuck on "loudest"—but its most serious woes are elemental. Heath evinces little understanding of why he's adapting Etherege and even less sense of how to do it artfully. The basic idea tracks, with the rakish Dorimant (Nick Cordero), here an inspiration-challenged bar owner and singer, learning that commitment just might be preferable to sleeping around. But Dorimant's dressing in a 17th-century long coat, and both he and his eventual beloved Antoinette (Vanessa Reseland) constantly oozing tongue bloat rather than believable speech ("I ask only license to attend you at your home in the health-some wilderness of Connecticut," says Dorimant at one point) yanks you out of the 1986 Jersey setting and into a universe of confusion that prevents anything from being moving, funny, or exciting.

Whether Heidt and the writers want a modern-dress Man of Mode or a contemporary spin on the tale, they must make a choice; as it is, they seem to have made no choices at all. Act II, for example, doesn't see a song until some 10 minutes in. Nor is there any tension in the subplots, which variously feature a hair singer named JJ Rock (J. Michael Zygo) jolting the club and Dorimant's complacency; Suzie Love (Lisa Birnbaum) and Missy (Danielle Levin), Dorimant's conquests past and present, trying to pin down their man; or Antoinette's gay boyfriend (Zygo again) coming out to his father (Lance Gardner) and convincing him to court Antoinette's dotty and ancient mother (Levin). Even the performing styles are a jumble: Cordero and Reseland basically play things straight, but the others base their portrayals on screeching and caricature, and grow tiresome very early on.

The evening would be downright unbearable if not for its songs. None of them has anything to do with the plot, mind you—each finds the singer grabbing a microphone stand, trotting downstage, and blaring it out at the audience in defiance of whatever may be happening around them—but they recall a swirl of distinctive 80s styles from Heart to Whitesnake to Bon Jovi and beyond without ever resorting to purely parodic pastiche. The best are Dorimant's romantic anthem "Come Down Angel," Missy's piercing whine "Love Doesn't Matter," and Suzie and Missy's empowerment duet "I Know What I Want," but all are delivered with invigorating brio by the cast's gifted vocalists. (Zygo, however, lacks the anchored, shredded scream he needs to properly channel Van Halen.)

The score is good enough, in fact, to be focused on and even expanded—it apparently excites Heidt and the authors more than the plot, which barely hangs together (among other things, don't bother trying to figure out why Dorimant and Antoinette fall for each other) and, thanks to its flabby dialogue, plods about like a wounded sloth. Most troubled musicals could never change their formulation that much and survive, but the individual pieces of Man of Rock have so little chemistry now that further experimentation would likely do less harm than leaving everything rooted so uninterestingly in place.

Man of Rock
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2011

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