‘The Total Bent’: Theater Review

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Stew and Heidi Rodewald, creators of the Tony Award-winning ‘Passing Strange,’ collaborate on their latest musical project at the Public Theater.

Watching the latest theatrical collaboration between musicians Stew and Heidi Rodewald, it’s hard to believe that the former won the Tony Award for best book of a musical for Passing Strange. That gift for storytelling seems to have eluded him in this new effort, about the contentious relationship between a charismatic gospel music star and the brilliant composer son who longs to break away from him and start an iconoclastic career. At least, I think that’s what the show is about; because as theater, the hopelessly muddled The Total Bent makes a great concert.

That’s hardly surprising, because Stew is a brilliantly talented composer who has been highly regarded since his first album, Post Minstrel Syndrome (with his band The Negro Problem), was released in 1997. His music is an unclassifiable mixture — probably the reason for his lack of mainstream commercial success — of rock, funk, blues, jazz, gospel, hip-hop and virtually every other style you can think of.

Stew’s gifts are well represented in this new offering, for which he wrote the text and, as with Passing Strange, collaborated on the music with Rodewald. Directed by Joanna Settle, the show is set during the Civil Rights era at a homey, carpeted recording studio in the Deep South, littered with chairs and sofas. We’re introduced to Papa Joe Roy (Vondie Curtis Hall), who’s recording his latest single, “That’s Why,” featuring the incendiary lyrics, “That’s Why’s He’s Jesus and You’re Not, Whitey.” The song was written by his son Marty (Ato Blankson-Wood), and Papa Joe has issues with it.

“Martin, that song featured 11 mentions of the word WHITEY!” Joe complains.

“Twelve, one for every apostle,” Marty corrects him.

It’s not the only problem that Joe, described by one of his backup singers as “the blues singin’ bard of Bluntgomery,” has with his offspring. The other concerns Marty’s indeterminate sexuality.

“He wore his momma’s high heels when he was little,” Joe complains, adding, “Had an unhealthy obsession with Danny Kaye.”

The two men’s conflicts, both professional and personal, form the heart of the piece, although they mostly remain vague. Their tensions are exacerbated by the arrival of Byron Blackwell (a drolly amusing David Cale), a white, British music producer enamored of black music — “Whites make music you can listen to/Blacks make music you can use,” he sings — who immediately recognizes Marty’s star potential. His prescience is uncanny, as during the course of the proceedings Marty blossoms into an androgynous, Michael Jackson-style performer who attains stardom.

Again, at least I think he does, because I was hard pressed to figure out exactly what was going on in the narratively confused proceedings whose plot elements include a seemingly haunted microphone.

Fortunately, the rousing score — played by a terrific seven-piece onstage band including Stew and Rodewald, whose members frequently deliver random lines of dialogue — provides ample compensation for the befuddling storyline. Such hard-rocking songs as “Shut Up!” and “Grope,” featuring Stew’s incisive lyrics, provocatively deal with issues like religion and race relations.

It’s no surprise that Hall, who appeared more than three decades ago in the original Broadway production of Dreamgirls, is a charismatic musical performer. The real revelation is Blankson-Wood, whose dynamism is evident throughout, especially in the show’s climactic concert sequence in which his dazzling skills are on ample display (his backup singers, played by Jahi Kearse and Curtis Wiley, are no slouches either). By the time it ends, you won’t have much of an idea what The Total Bent is about (even its title, derived from a Martin Luther King Jr. speech, goes unexplained). But you’ll know that you’ve witnessed a star on the rise.

Venue: The Public Theater, New York
Cast: Marty Belle, Ato Blankson-Wood, John Blevins, Kenny Brawner, David Cale, Vondie Curtis Hall, Damian Lemar Hudson, Jahi Kearse, Brad Mulholland, Heidi Rodewald, Stew, Curtis Wiley
Text: Stew
Music: Stew, Heidi Rodewald
Director: Joanna Settle
Set designer: Andrew Lieberman
Costume designer: Gabriel Berry

Lighting designer: Thom Weaver
Sound designers: Obadiah Eaves, Sten Severson
Choreographer: David Neumann
Presented by the Public Theater

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