Viva La Revolucion: Next! is Epic Theater
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Judith Butler wrote, "Fantasy is not the opposite of reality, it is what reality forecloses." While Butler wrote this in reference to issues of gender (look her up, she will blow your mind), I think this sentiment can be applied to the kind of ideological work musical theater can do, in that it imagines a space that allows us to experience, momentarily, the possibilities not yet available to us in reality. This, I think, is the object of Guest Artist Jonathan Mastro's originally conceived revue, Next! A Cabaret from the Frontlines.
Next! is an amalgam of songs from a small sampling of musical theater's vast repertory. In the context of the revue, the songs are bound together by their progressive politics and the story arc. The play is a story about a group of students at Colby who are trying to put together a musical revue that is socially relevant and entertaining. In the context of the revue, songs from musicals are reconceptualized to have social or political significance.
Some songs come from musicals that are political to begin with, such as the overtly anti-capitalist The Threepenny Opera, the 60s liberation romp Hair and the latently antiracist South Pacific. There were also songs from obscure musicals, with my personal favorite being Bat Boy: The Musical, and from popular musicals people disregard as kitsch or pandering to the masses, like Annie.
However, the political implications of the songs were sometimes tenuous. I think this might be because the revue tried to cram too much disparate material into 50 minutes. In trying to cover so much ground, the ideological work became lost in translation.
I found myself lost at times in trying to figure out the subject that each song tackled out of context of its musical. The themes covered by the revue included, (but were not limited to) work, love, war, assimilation, race and injustice. Progressivism is an umbrella term for so many things, and to touch on it all was too much. So sometimes, the function of the songs did not come through, and the revue felt conceptually muddled. For example, I wasn't sure what the song "Unworthy of your Love" from Assassins was meant to do within this context of political theater.
But this would be my only criticism of an otherwise wildly entertaining, thoughtful and extremely well-directed and performed piece. As an ensemble, the small cast did an excellent job with their music and was incredibly entertaining. They did not play characters, but played themselves. For example, Piper Haywood '10 is an artist in real life, and on stage as "Piper," she had the chance to paint.
However, I want to single out two performances that I thought were exceptionally good: Brent Daly '11 and Mary Randall '13. Brent was very diva, both as the character "Brent" and as the characters he played in the songs. His performance of orphanage supervisor Miss Hannigan as a chain-smoking alcoholic (his voice channeling Harvey Fierstein at his finest) in the opening number "It's The Hard Knock Life" from Annie, and his performance as the Bat Boy in "Show you a Thing or Two" from Bat Boy: The Musical were two of the funniest moments in Next!.
Mary Randall '13 played the cello while singing in "Later" from A Little Night Music. Enough said. Lest you think she played simple whole notes, the cello line was its own distinct musical line, completely separate from what she sang. Being able to convey two contradictory musical ideas at the same time is a feat I cannot even begin to fathom.
In terms of other technical aspects, I especially loved the use of stage space that Mastro employed. The set included two moving scaffoldings and a staircase. For every musical number, the staging changed and was utilized effectively, so that the actors were climbing on top of the set pieces or were being rolled around as they performed on the moving parts. Indicative of this effective use was the number "The Bourgeois" from Jacque Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. The three actors involved (Ismael Perez '13, Julia Deutsch '12 and Alexandra Desaulniers '11) would incrementally move up the stair case and hang off it at times. These stage antics fit the mood of the music perfectly. Furthermore, the excellent live band and Mastro's arrangements of the music did a great job capturing the spirit of the songs despite the small size of the band.
And the costumes were incredibly well made, whether it was the sequined bustier of pastel colors or the many layers of clothes velcroed on a single body. In the Bat Boy number, Daly had on at least three layers of clothes: a tuxedo, his military fatigues from the previous number and his clothes as "Brent." However everything was seamless, came off without a hitch and did not look bulky at all.
I loved this production because it was ambitious. I don't think Next! always accomplished what it set out to do ideologically, but when it did succeed, it did so in a big way. The song that to me best represented the ideological work Next! tried to do was the finale that posits "Do You Hear the People Sing" from Les Miserables in the context of gay rights.
When the actors came on stage dressed in sequins and flamboyant outfits, I did not know what was happening; I don't remember such a staging in Les Miserables. However, when the LOVE sculpture came down, its red replaced by the rainbow colors of gay pride, and Brent Daly came marching up the stairs waving the rainbow flag, my friends and I?became ecstatic--as in beside ourselves with joy. The struggle of the proletariat to be recognized as human was being remapped as queer people claiming their recognition as humans.
From our section of the audience, we clapped our agreement with the message of the song: "It is the music of a people who will not be slaves again." In that moment, Next! did its work as transformative, provocative, fantastical theater.