NYMF Reviews: Leaving Eden. Till. Flying Lessons.

 

The three shows reviewed below from this year’s New York Musical Festival are all, each in its own way, naïve…or one of the near synonyms for the word naïve, each of which offers a different spin — a different judgment — on the same quality: innocent, fresh, childlike, simple, unsophisticated, ignorant.

 

Leaving Eden

‘Leaving Eden” tells the Adam and Eve story with a twist – two twists.

First,  the couple has been expanded to a threesome, adding in the character Lilith. Lilith is not in the Bible, but the Lilith legend was so popular that her image is included both in the Sistine Chapel and Notre Dame Cathedral. Lilith is said to have been Adam’s original wife, born of the same earth as he, but she refused to be subservient, so she was banished, and a far more pliant Eve was created out of Adam’s rib.

As this story unfolds, “Leaving Eden” pairs it with a parallel modern-day story of Adam and Lilith, who are a couple, and Eve, who is their lesbian friend. If I understood correctly, modern Lilith recently had a miscarriage, followed by a hysterectomy. Now, after a period of mourning and looking into adoption, Lily and Adam enlist Eve to be a surrogate mother.

The promise of the added Lilith was intriguing enough for me to see a show I normally would have avoided.  To be upfront about it: I could live a happy life free of regrets if I never again saw a new show inspired by the stories of Peter Pan, Frankenstein, or Adam and Eve. Each coincidentally – or maybe not coincidentally – focuses on naïve/innocent/ignorant characters.

I wish I could report that “Leaving Eden,” with a competent score by Ben Page and book and lyrics by Jenny Waxman, made me overcome my aversion. But the script has some awful writing — forced rhymes, unintentional howlers, awkward couplets like

 

Why are man and woman in two different factions?
Why are naughty bits more critical than the spirit of our actions?

And the presence of Lilith did nothing  to reduce the faux-naïve coyness that afflicts so many of these “In The Beginning” stories. Their Nautilus bods discreetly draped in Tarzan and Jane attire, Adam and Lilith sing as if they’re Dick and Jane:

And I saw some good, and I saw some bad
and I met creatures that made me feel happy and sad

Together they discover rain, and fire  (“It is good… but sometimes… fire is bad. So is it good or bad?”/”It is…well, I guess it is both?”), and learn the meaning of death. For the first time, they experience dreams at night…and sex. Lillith realizes she doesn’t like being on the bottom all the time, and sings some double-entendres that are less clever than crude:

 

I wanna try it on top I’ll till your share of the crops
I’ll use your tool if you’ll drop it
You’ll beg me never to stop…

The modern-day scenes, which more or less alternate with the ancient ones, at first held my attention. I wanted to know what would happen next, and it struck me that “The Joys of Parenthood,” an ironic song in which the characters imagine their future bratty kids,  suggested what the musical could be like if the modern story were more developed. But the creative team seemed to tire of the story they were telling, and “Leading Eden” dissolves into the musical equivalent of speechifying by Ancient and Modern together, facing the audience and looking grimly triumphant.

Leaving Eden ended its run July 21.

 

Till

I saw “Till” on the day that Emmett Till would have celebrated his 78thbirthday. Instead, he was murdered at the age of 14,  the victim of inarguably the most famous lynching in the history of the United States.

A six-member all-black cast sings the gospel-inflected score by Leo Schwartz, with a book by Schwartz and DC Cathro that tells the story of Emmett Till starting shortly before his visit to his relatives in Money, Mississippi.   We first see Emmett (impressively portrayed by Taylor A. Blackman) in Chicago as a church-going, fun-loving teen, something of a clotheshorse and a prankster, but devoted to his mother Mamie (Denielle Marie Gray.)

Meanwhile, Carolyn Bryant,  introduced in her husband’s General Store in Money, Mississippi, is shown talking about the Marilyn Monroe movie “The Seven Year Itch” with her sister-in-law. Later we meet her husband Roy, who’s gruff and adulterous  (All three wear odd half-masks and white gloves to indicate that their characters are Caucasian, a costume choice that feels like a mistake.)

It’s only in the last 20 minutes of the 90 minute musical that we see a version of the events (the details of which are still much disputed 64 years later) that led to his death. Emmett buys gum from Carolyn Bryant in her store, putting the money in her hand rather than on the counter, and then goes back outside to hang out with his cousins, who are playing a game of checkers. Unnerved, Carolyn goes out to her car to fetch her gun, at the same time that Emmett lets out a whistle. The other black teens panic.

“You whistled at a white woman, Emmett! “ his cousin Maurice says.

“I did not,” Emmett replies. “I whistled at the game. Besides, what does it
matter? What if I did whistle at her? She never been whistled at?”

“Not by a colored boy! It matters down here, Emmett. “

Roy eventually finds out, and, enraged, goes to Emmett’s uncle’s house, and drags Emmett away, hands bound.

Back in Chicago, Mamie gets a phone call, and collapses.

The musical ends with rousing back-to-back numbers, Mamie singing “I Want Him Back,” where she insists on an open casket to show his brutalized body, and then “Come and Follow Me,” accompanied by the ensemble in choir robes, in front of a series of projections – portraits of  Rosa Parks, Medger Evers, Martin Luther King Jr., and Barack Obama. Cast members briefly portray each of these real-life figures and recite quotes from them about Emmett Till. (MLK: “The death of that child had a profound impact on my life…” )

Why is Emmett Till so important? Why does his lynching so stand out from the reportedly more than four thousand in the country over some 60 years before his?

The answer to that question strikes me as the heart of the Emmett Till story. It is the reason why a stronger and more sophisticated musical could surely have been written that begins with Emmett Till’s lynching rather than ends with it, replacing some of the mundane scenes and songs of the Tills’ everyday life (which can feel like filler) with some of the rich details of the aftermath.  We don’t learn in “Till,” for example, that his two killers actually went on trial – not usual for a lynching in the South — but were then acquitted by an all-white jury….and then a year later, they sold their story to Look Magazine, confessing to the killing.   We don’t see what is evident in old video footage of Mamie Till in Civil Rights documentaries — her strength, dignity and resolve as she attends the trial, and calmly, straightforwardly answers questions from unsympathetic Southern interviewers. The story of Emmett Till is really as much the story of Mamie Till as it is of her son.

Till will be performed one more time, today, Sunday, July 28 at 9 p.m. at Signature Theater Center

 

Flying Lessons

Isabella, a bored, smart eighth grader, is assigned a final paper for the school year – write about an inspiring figure from history.

”Like, how am I supposed to choose someone who inspires me when I don’t even know who I want to be or what I want to do?”

Suddenly, two choices appear before her, as in a dream – Amelia Earhart and Frederick Douglass. Over the course of “Flying Lessons,” the two narrate and re-enact their respective stories, interspersed with scenes of Isabella’s fights with her mother  and her life at school with her classmates and teacher Ms. Young.

There is much that is wonderful in this show, including a soaring, eclectic score by Donald Rupe and Cesar De La Rosa delivered by a terrific nine-member cast.  I hope and expect that “Flying Lessons” will take flight in the future, in one form or another. But it needs to be rethought.

Book writer, lyricist and co-composer Donald Rupe began “Flying Lessons” in response to a grant to produce a show for the eighth grade students of Osceolo County, Florida. This is how I know that Isabella is supposed to be in eighth grade. Otherwise, it wouldn’t be clear.  The dynamics of Isabella’s tensions with her mother, as well as the hopes, fears and (G-rated) sexual awakenings of her three solidly etched classmates make the show seem geared for high school or older. But sometimes the characters are so naïve and the tone so childlike that it feels a better fit for elementary school.  At the performance I attended, I talked to the parents of a six-year-old, who loved the show so much she was there for a second time.

Similarly, the show is divided into three distinct storylines, maybe four, that are sometimes an uneasy fit. It seems just odd that the stories of Earhart and Douglass are shoehorned together. In a musical called “Flying Lessons,” wouldn’t it make more sense to pair Earhart with, for example, the real-life women from the movie “Hidden Figures” who worked for NASA, or other female aviation pioneers?   And the stories of the historical figures can feel like an interruption to the scenes in the classroom,  which are funny and touching and have little to do with Isabella and nothing to do with Amelia Earhart or Frederick Douglass.

The best solution may be to split up “Flying Lessons” into separate musicals – one could tell the story of Amelia Earhart (and possibly other aviation pioneers), another Frederick Douglass, both 30 minutes long and aimed at young children; a third could flesh out the already substantial interactions among Isabella, her mother, her teacher and her classmates, and aim for a higher age group.

Flying Lessons will be performed one more time, today, Sunday July 28 at 5 p.m., at Signature Theater Center.

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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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