Friday, June 10, 2016

Off-Broadway Theater Review: The Total Bent

Curtis Wiley, Ato Blankson-Wood, and Jahi Kearse. Photo: Joan Marcus.
Father-Son Conflict Fuels New Musical from Passing Strange Team
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:; 212-967-7555.

Additional Credits: Choreography David Neumann; Costume Design by Gabriel Berry; Lighting Design by Thom Weaver; Sound Design by Obadiah Eaves and Sten Severson; Hair and Wig Design by Cookie Jordan.

-- Very strong language
-- The "N" word
-- God's name taken in vain

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Our reviews are professional reviews written without a religious bias. At the end of them, you can find a listing of language, content or theological issues that Christians might want to know about when deciding which shows to see.

** Mature indicates that the show has posted an advisory because of content. Usually this means I would recommend no one under the age of 16 attend.

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

Theater Critic Lauren Yarger

My Bio

Lauren Yarger has written, directed and produced numerous shows and special events for both secular and Christian audiences. She co-wrote a Christian musical version of “A Christmas Carol” which played to sold-out audiences of over 3,000 in Vermont and was awarded the 2000 Vermont Bessie (theater and film awards) for “People’s Choice for Theatre.” She also has written two other dinner theaters, sketches for church services and devotions for Christian artists. Her play "From Reel to Real: The Jennifer O'Neill Story" was presented as part of the League of professional Theatre Women's Julia's reading Room Series in New York in February 2018.

Yarger trained for three years in the Broadway League’s Producer Development Program, completed the Commercial Theater Institute's Producing Three-Day Training and produced a one-woman musical about Mary Magdalene that toured nationally and closed with an off-Broadway run.

She was a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the O'Neill Theater Center in Waterford, CT. She writes reviews of Broadway and off-Broadway theater (the only ones you can find in the US with an added Christian perspective) at

She is editor of The Connecticut Arts Connection (, an award-winning website featuring theater and arts news for the state. She is a contributing editor for She previously served as theater reviewer for the Manchester Journal-Inquirer, Connecticut theater editor for and as Connecticut and New York reviewer for American Theater Web.

She is a Co-Founder of the Connecticut Chapter of the League of Professional Theatre Women.

Yarger is a book reviewer for Publishers Weekly and freelances for other sites. She is a member of the National Book Critics Circle.

She is a freelance writer and playwright and member of The Drama Desk, The Outer Critics Circle, The American Theater Critics Association and The League of Professional Theatre Women. She served as a judge for the SDX Awards presented by the Society of Professional Journalists. She also is a member of the Connecticut Critics Circle. and the Episcopal Actors' Guild.

A former newspaper editor and graduate of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, Yarger also worked in arts management for the Bushnell Center for the Performing Arts, the Hartford Symphony Orchestra and served for nine years as the Executive Director of Masterwork Productions, Inc. She lives with her husband in West Granby, CT. They have two adult children.


All material is copyright 2008- 2018 by Lauren Yarger. Reviews and articles may not be reprinted without permission. Contact


Key to Content Notes:

God's name taken in vain -- means God or Jesus is used in dialogue without speaking directly to or about them.

Language -- means some curse words are used. "Minor" usually means the words are not too strong or that it only occurs once or twice throughout the show.

Strong Language -- means some of the more heavy duty curse words are used.

Nudity -- means a man or woman's backside, a man's lower front or a woman's front are revealed.

Scantily clad -- means actors' private areas are technically covered, but I can see a lot of them.

Sexual Language -- means the dialogue contains sexually explicit language but there's no action.

Sexual Activity -- means a man and woman are performing sexual acts.

Adultery -- Means a married man or woman is involved sexually with someone besides their spouse. If this is depicted with sexual acts on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Sex Outside of Marriage -- means a man and woman are involved sexually without being married. If this is depicted sexually on stage, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Homosexuality -- means this is in the show, but not physically depicted.

Homosexual activity -- means two persons of the same sex are embracing/kissing. If they do more than that, the list would include "sexual activity" as well.

Cross Dresser -- Means someone is dressing as the opposite sex. If they do more than that on stage the listing would include the corresponding "sexual activity" and/or "homosexual activity" as well.

Cross Gender -- A man is playing a female part or a woman is playing a man's part.

Suggestive Dancing -- means dancing contains sexually suggestive moves.

Derogatory (category added Fall 2012) Language or circumstances where women are referred to or treated in a negative and demeaning manner.

Other content matters such as torture, suicide or rape will be noted, with details revealed only as necessary in the review itself.

The term "throughout" added to any of the above means it happens many times throughout the show.

Reviewing Policy

I receive free seats to Broadway and Off-Broadway shows made available to all voting members of the Outer Critics Circle and The Drama Desk, the two professional critics organizations with journalists covering NY theater. Journalistically, I provide an unbiased review and am under no obligation to make positive statements. Sometimes shows do not make tickets available to reviewers. If these are shows my readers want to know about (I review all Broadway shows and pertinent Off-Broadway shows), I will purchase a ticket. If a personal friend is involved in a production, I'll let you know, but it won't influence a review. If I feel there is a conflict, I won't review their portion of the production.

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