|Curtis Wiley, Ato Blankson-Wood, and Jahi Kearse. Photo: Joan Marcus.|
By Lauren Yarger
Stew and Heid Rodewald, who brought us he musical Passing Strange, have reunited for another satisfying rock tale with The Total Bent getting a run at the Public Theater.
Stew writes the text and joins with Rodewald for the the music (and both even play in the on-stage band Music Directed by Marty Beller) to tell the story of a complex love-hate relationship between a father and son in Civil-Rights-era Birmingham, AL. Music prodigy Marty (Alto Blankson-Wood) has been the secret to the success of his father, Joe Roy (Vondie Curtis Hall), a gospel-singing evangelist and faith healer.
The young boy yearns to take his music in a new direction -- to bring the gospel to the streets and express his feelings about the recent protests taking place. His father wants to continue on a path that keeps the money rolling in. He isn't excited about lyrics that say, "That's why He's Jesus and you're not, whitey." He also is in denial about the possibility that his son might be a homosexual.
"Shut up and get back on the bus," is his response.
Joanna Settle (who collaborated with Stew and Rodewald up in Connecticut when she was Artistic Director of Shakespeare on the Sound), directs the anatomy of the deteriorating relationship on Andrew Lieberman's eclectic sound studio set set of platforms, microphones and musical instruments. She visualizes the cavern between father and son when Joe tries finally tries to reach out -- from a separate platform which doesn't allows him to really get close enough to fix things.
Filling out the cats of characters are Kenny Brawner as Deacon Charlie, Damian Lemar Hudson as Deacon Dennis, Jahi Kearse and Curtis Wiley as Andrew and Abee, back-up singers for Marty, and David Cale, as Byron Blackwell, a British record producer who thinks Marty -- without Joe Roy -- might be a music sensation.
The terrific score is bright and jazzy and spirit- satisfying. The tune "Meet My God" would cause me to walk into any church where its strains could be heard outside. A final number "Scared of Your Love" is just heart-wrenching.
"Their suffering remains after the myth of your live was explained."
It's hard, soul-searching stuff (and clocks in a just under two hours without intermission and I have to admit to enjoying watch a bunch of white audience members bop off beat). Religious themes are intertwined with the father-son story. Blackwell, for instance, questions why any black person would be believe in God any more. It's hard to believe a benevolent God would allow slavery and segregation, he reasons. Even Joe Roy appears to sell out with the questionable, but revenue-producing faith-healing. The strongest faith comes in Marty's unexpected response that "hell ain't bad when you know you're going to heaven."
The Total Bent has been extended at The Public Theater through June 26. Performances are Tuesday-Sunday at 7 pm; Saturday and Sunday at 1 pm. Tickets start at $65: publictheater.org; 212-967-7555.
Additional Credits: ChoreographyCostume Design by ighting Design by Sound Design by Hair and Wig Design by