BASH’d: A Gay Rap Opera: Celebration Theater, 7/8/11

9 07 2011

Let’s face it: critics probably read their peers’ reviews more often than regular theatergoers read them. We feed off of one another’s opinions, because none of us can see and write about it all. While I was away during the height of LA theater activity this June, I kept connected to the Hollywood Fringe, RADAR LA, TCG, etc. through my fellow critics. I have an embarrassingly detailed Excel calendar for LA theater, periodically updated as press releases are e-mailed to me or seasons are announced. And as I read the reviews last month, I crossed off shows that no longer seemed necessary – and bolded those that were still worth seeing when I got back to LA.

Ranked 100% Sweet on Bitter Lemons, Celebration Theatre’s production of BASH’d: A Gay Rap Opera was at the top of my “to see” list.

Celebration Theatre sets up certain expectations for a show: high production values and innovative fare that affirms and galvanizes the local LGBT community. I adored their production of [title of show] last fall and recently delighted in The Next Fairy Tale, which was perfectly suited for my generation – raised on the 1990s Disney Renaissance. A 100% Sweet rating on Bitter Lemons also sets up certain expectations, especially when critics are calling a show “the most exhilarating, original and moving piece of theater you’ll see this year” (Christopher Cappiello in Frontiers LA).

I was genuinely exhilarated and moved by BASH’d on Friday night. Written by Chris Craddock and Nathan Cuckow with music by Aaron Macri, BASH’d recounts a familiar tale of star-crossed lovers. City-dweller Jack (Sean Bradford) and country boy Dillon (Chris Ferro) meet at a gay club one night and immediately fall for one another. Their idyllic relationship falters, however, when one of them is gay bashed. Violence cracks the facade of their urban utopia and reminds them of ongoing prejudice, even within the city that once seemed open and accepting of their lifestyle.

The stylistic innovations of this show are especially laudable. Rap is traditionally tied to constricting notions of African-American heterosexual masculinity. Homo-hop reappropriates this often violently homophobic genre to affirm a different identity. Lyrically confrontational and at times sexually graphic, BASH’d sets out to reclaim the word “faggot” in celebration of the queer lifestyle in the opening number – just as rap reclaims “the word that starts with N” to consolidate African-American brotherhood. Audience members may be thrilled – or intensely discomfited – by the audacity of such a move. The interracial love story between Jack and Dillon also points up the crossover of whites into rap, questioning who has the authority to perform this genre and what types of stories rap can tell. An operatic tragedy of gay lovers? Why not!

Ammenah Kaplan’s direction and choreography clips along at a rapid pace – which makes moments of quiet and connection, such as Jack and Dillon’s first night together, all the more poignant. Kaplan encourages the presentational quality of the musical, which allows the actors to break the fourth wall and directly call the audience to attention. (And they do, especially when someone clearly uncomfortable with the show is awkwardly avoiding eye contact in the front row!)

Above all, BASH’d is a celebration of performative virtuosity. With DJ Jedi mixing on site, Bradford and Ferro articulately spit out rhyme after rhyme, always keeping time. What’s more, these men skillfully flip among multiple identities throughout the evening. In addition to their primary roles as narrators and the star-crossed lovers, Bradford and Ferro tackle hilarious parodies of “types” in the gay bar (from fag hags to drag queens) and the lovers’ parents. While city boy Jack was raised by two fabulously gay dads, Dillon grapples with a gruff and unaccepting father. Donning a John Deere trucker hat and a plaid shirt, Ferro slouches and slips into a deeper voice to embody this staunchly hetero man. In such rapid shifts among identities, effected with a change in physicality and a new prop or two, both Bradford and Ferro illustrate a colorful world of diverse identities. Marc Rosenthal’s simple but effective projections further multiply the identities juxtaposed on stage. The actors’ stunning virtuosity suggests that individuals should have agency in performing “self,” the incredible spectrum of personalities between gay and straight, black and white.

While BASH’d certainly deserves praise, it is not beyond criticism. The narrative comes in waves, sometimes utterly generic and sometimes positively gripping – particularly towards the unexpected end. Some of the raps feel a little too didactic, rehearsing familiar debates in the queer community such as the potential “normalizing” effect of gay marriage. What’s more, Aaron Macri’s music lacks dynamic range. Some of the most effective rap musicals I have seen in recent years (like Venice and In the Heights) deftly incorporate melodies into their composition, providing a welcome contrast in the rhythmic flow. Macri’s work incorporates familiar tunes into the background beats, but the performers’ raps grow incessant and flat without more melodic balance. Bradford and Ferro could use a breather from the nonstop rapping – as could the audience. The opera also feels like it needs a third voice rather than the pre-recorded vocal tracks that occasionally fill in narrative gaps. DJ Jedi and his beats are already omniscient: why not use his voice, as well?

In reading through the reviews on Bitter Lemons, I was surprised by the nearly unconditional praise of BASH’d. Then I noticed that the unqualified raves seemed to stem from an emotionally-charged opening night. Almost every review mentions the timeliness of the show: NY achieved marriage equality that same evening. Particularly for our many gay male theater critics in LA, the political resonance of this piece was palpable. Isn’t it interesting how identity and event shape perspective?

BASH’d still needs some narrative honing to my view. But stylistically and politically, I agree with my fellow critics: this gay rap opera is brash and innovative, given an exceptional West Coast premiere at Celebration Theater. BASHd is an invigorating new work that I would love to see make a national tour, hitting not only urban centers but also suburban areas where its contemporary, genre-bending voice and message of gay pride could make a remarkable impact.

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[title of show]: Celebration Theatre, 9/3/10

4 09 2010

In a post below, you can read the chronicle of my creative journey via [title of show]. My personal affection for this musical – having followed it almost from its inception to its current LA premiere at the Celebration Theatre – immediately taints whatever purported objectivity this review could hold. A musical about two guys writing a musical about two guys writing a musical, [title of show] has been a touchstone for much of my own musical creativity. Far from being just a witty insiders’ tribute to the Great White Way, however, this musical extends inspiration to anyone who has ever dreamed of creating, but been daunted by vampires of criticism and self-doubt along the way. Celebration Theatre’s LA premiere is a soaring flight of fancy that has deservedly extended its run through September 11.

Two nobodies in NY, Jeff (Jeffrey Landman) and Hunter (Micah McCain) decide to get off their asses and write a new musical for the inaugural NY Musical Theatre Festival – in under a month. They gather actresses Heidi (Carey Peters) and Susan (Jennifer R. Blake), as well as accompanist Larry (Gregory Nabours), on a meta-musical journey about the struggles and joys of creation. [title of show] takes them from NYMF to off-Broadway and, finally, to Broadway itself – with new additions to the script at every twist and turn.

Nothing quite compares to seeing the original creators on stage (Jeff Bowen as “Jeff,” Hunter Bell as “Hunter,” etc.), but the show holds up even without this directly autobiographical component. Much like A Chorus Line, these characters so resonate with performers that [title of show] will always have a tinge of the autobiographical. Last night felt particularly meta; I enjoyed watching Hunter Bell and Jeff Bowen, surprise guests in the audience, watch their musical theater counterparts almost as much as I enjoyed watching the show itself!

Jeffrey Landman is pitch-perfect as the rational yet subtly quirky composer/lyricist Jeff, while Micah McCain takes more risks as over-the-top show queen bookwriter Hunter; McCain’s portrayal is hit-and-miss, as some of his bold choices veer into caricature. Gregory Nabours is one of the most interactive and engaging Larry’s I have ever seen; although the keyboard sounds a bit muddy at times, Nabour’s facial expressions and flirtations with Heidi are a delight. Jennifer R. Blake embraces Susan’s verbal and physical quirks, while Carey Peters’ Heidi is affectionate and endearing – but could use more grounding. I was particularly disappointed with “A Way Back to Then” – a ballad in which Heidi recaptures the magic she felt dancing and dreaming as a child. Peters intersperses her lovely, mature alto with a comedic little kid voice that clashes with the tone of the song.

In fact, the production as a whole could use more grounding. While Michael Shepperd’s direction and Ammenah Kaplan’s choreography keep the story clipping along at a wonderful comedic pace, some elements are over-exaggerated – and tender moments like “A Way Back to Then” could be more fully embraced. The production is not perfect, but neither is the script. In a musical that is otherwise so honest, the “Act II” conflict and resolution has always felt contrived to me. What I want from [title of show] is not a “well-made play,” but a serialized journey: the ebb and flow of life as it comes, rather than a carefully-constructed narrative formula.

But all this is nitpicking. At the end of the day, Celebration Theatre’s production of [title of show] made me soar with laughter and tear up a few times, all while providing me with that necessary kick-in-the-butt to keep creating. Four chairs and a keyboard can make a musical, and Celebration’s intimate venue provided the perfect locale for this show’s West coast premiere. With actors running down the aisles throughout the production and as good a view of the audience as the cast, the space cultivates an infectious community energy that may just draw me back for a second viewing next weekend!