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The Total Bent Review: Stew Mixes the Sacred with the Profane

Some two-thirds of the way through “The Total Bent,” Marty Roy, the musical prodigy son of the charismatic gospel-singing, faith-healing, white-hating Papa Joe Roy, struts up on a stage that has just been put together from shiny table tops. He has exchanged his t-shirt and jeans for rock star threads, as have his two backup singers, and they let loose. As they belt out one rousing, rocking song after another, “The Total Bent” has become what it has been bending towards from the very start – a concert.
In their latest musical at the Public Theater, Stew and Heidi Rodewald offer the kind of witty lyrics and propulsive score that propelled “Passing Strange,” their 2007 innovative musical at the Public, onto Broadway, where it was nominated for four Tony Awards, winning for best book. What’s missing this time around is the best book.

Click on any photograph by Joan Marcus to see it enlarged.

Yes, there is a story in this sung-through musical, enough of one for marketers and critics to relate more or less accurately in a few straightforward sentences: Byron Blackwell (David Cale), a white British enthusiast for black Gospel music, travels to Montgomery, Alabama during the heyday of the civil rights struggle there, and, struck by the talent (and beauty) of Marty (Ato Blankson-Wood), he decides to become a record producer. As a youth, Marty wrote the gospel songs for his father (Vondie Curtis Hall), but Byron believes he can make a crossover hit of Marty, a youth of outsized talent and outsider sensibility. As Byron sings in “Meet The Poet Preacher,”
Songs of freedom, songs of loss
He’s a savior entertainer
Robert Johnson on the cross.
What a picture I’d paint
With that voice in my tableau
He may look like a saint
But close your eyes it’s rock and roll.

Joe objects, suspicious of Byron, but he is also reluctant to give up the spotlight to his son, whom Byron calls a genius.
“Genius, Mr. Bidwell?” says Joe (who habitually gets Blackwell’s name wrong.) “He ain’t invented no penicillin.”
“The pop charts are diseased,” Byron replies. “His music will be
the cure.”

If all this suggests shades of Ray Charles, who harnessed Gospel music to invent the secular Soul, “The Total Bent” bends in a different direction than a bio-pic like “Ray.” The plot exists in the musical as little more than an outline; it is not where Stew has focused his energy. “The Total Bent” is a concept album whose creators are besotted with its concepts. Among these are the relationship between religion and the African-American community, the thin membrane between sacred and profane music – and indeed, between sacred and profane existence. Stew mischievously offers a fresh angle on the civil rights era, presenting black people who did not support the bus boycott, seeing it as a nuisance. He also uses the set-up to poke fun at the intricate connection between black music and white fans, especially the British obsession with obscure Southern black musicians. He also explores the nature of success in the music business.

Much of the sharp wit feels thrown in, rather than part of an overall design. Some feels like an inside joke: Nobody refers to the city as Montgomery; it’s called “Bluntgomery” so many times that the thought occurred to me that this was not the characters’ label for their city, but Stew’s effort to assert some kind of parable.

This is also suggested by the fact that the title of “The Total Bent” is reportedly derived from a quote by the Reverend Martin Luther King. Jr.: “God does not judge us by the separate incidents or the separate mistakes that we make, but by the total bent of our lives.”

A larger point for the musical is thus implied, but this larger point is unclear. The details of the plot are also vague and confusing. But every cast member sings wonderfully, the band – which includes both Stew and Heidi Rodewald – is in top form, and the music provides all the momentum that the typical concert-goer (if not necessarily the typical theater-goer) would need.

The Total Bent

Text by Stew
Music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald
Directed by Joanna Settle
Cast by Marty Beller, Ato Blankson-Wood, John Blevins, Kenny Brawner, David Cale, Vondie Curtis Hall, Damian Lemar Hudson, Jahi Kearse, Brad Mulholland, Heidi Rodewald, Stew and Curtis Wiley
Choreography by David Newman, musical Direction: Marty Beller
Scenic Design: Andrew Lieberman
Costume Design: Gabriel Berry
Lighting Design: Thom Weaver
Sound Design by Obadiah Eaves and Sten Severson
Hair and Wig Design by Cookie Jordan

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About 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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