Theater Review: Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter

It is easy to feel bewildered by a title that sounds as if it is translated from the Icelandic. But as it turns out, the dialogue and the lyrics sound that way as well. “Revolution in the Elbow etc.” is a bizarre enough new musical to be mistaken for an entry in the Fringe festival, except that no Fringe show has such an expensive set, nor such Tony-level talent, thanks to the more than a million dollars that has been invested in this unfortunate world premiere production at the Minetta Lane Theater.

Most of the investors as well as the creative team are, in fact, from Iceland. “Elbow” songwriter Ivar Pall Jonsson and his brother and collaborator Gunnlauger Jonsson have told interviewers that their show is a parable inspired by the 2008 economic crash and recession, which hit Iceland even harder than the United States.

So why is the full title: “Revolution in the Elbow of Ragnar Agnarsson Furniture Painter (Rock Theatre on a Cellular Level)”?

To understand what they’re trying to do, it helps to consider the show on three levels.

The first level is the cellular. At the start of the musical, we see a projection of a hairy middle-aged man – presumably this is Ragnar Agnarsson – before the projection zooms in on his elbow, and we are introduced to the miniscule characters who inhabit Elbowville.   We’ve seen something similar in the 1966 sci-fi movie Fantastic Voyage, or Honey I Shrunk The Kids, or, more closely , the 2011 Fringe musical “Yeast Nation,” by the creators of “Urinetown,” whose dystopian vision of society has its echoes in this show. But the jokes about the microscopic life in “Revolution in the Elbow” largely fall flat. One character, for example, has a pet virus, which comes down with a cold. “Just be careful not to be too sterile,” a friend says to the pet’s owner. “They can easily die if they catch cleanliness.”

Marrick Smith portrays Peter, an ambitious young resident of Elbowville, who convinces the mayor, Manuela, to create a Prosperity Machine.

“We’ll have the power to do anything we want!” Manuela exclaims. “This is the beginning of the age of affluence in Elbowville!” Manuela is played by Cady Huffman, a Broadway veteran who won a Tony for – aptly? – “The Producers.”

This is the parable part, and it’s a bit of a muddle, although there is a rousing tap dance number in which the townsfolk are celebrating the easy money.

It all comes crashing down of course, and Peter, whose financial recklessness has done in his own family — his two brothers Alex (Graydon Long), and Stein (Brad Nacht), his pregnant wife Brynja (Jesse Wildman)  — shoots himself in the head. This is not a spoiler, since that’s the first thing we see in the show, quite graphically, repeated (not as graphically) near the end.

The third level is the production itself. The lyrics are unremarkable at best. But there is a driving rock score performed by a fine on-stage band (which has been named Revolution Cellular Orchestra.) The show is thick with talent. Mark my words: We will be hearing from Marrick Smith again. But the entire cast rises above the material. Choreographer Lee Proud has something to be proud of (I’ve been infected by the cheap puns in the show.) Petr Hlousek deserves kudos for his set and state-of-the-art projection design, especially when he shows the giant Ragnar Agnarsson belching, and picking at his teeth, and scratching at Elbowville. He missed a trick though. It would have been a great summation of the show if Hlousek had shown Ragnar scratching his head.


Update: Revolution in the Elbow will close September 20th.

Author: New York Theater

Jonathan Mandell is a 3rd generation NYC journalist, who sees shows, reads plays, writes reviews and sometimes talks with people.

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