(l to r) Dani Spieler, Edward French, Daisy Hobbs and Joshua Hobbs in ‘Illuminati Lizards From Outer Space.’ (Photo: Michael Kushner)
Life was taken, interrupted, and re-established in three separate shows during the first week of this year’s New York Musical Festival. This year’s festival features 30 musical works and continues at various venues (all located within a two-block radius of 42nd Street) through August 4.
Tom Williams and Cordelia O’Driscoll’s Buried has had quite a long journey to New York. The pair wrote this tale about serial killers at the University of Sheffield during their final semester in 2017. It went on to play London and two consecutive sold-out years at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Harry (Sebastian Belli) and Rose (Lindsay Manion) have something in common: They both like homicide. So much, in fact, that their first date leads to them to nearly kill one another. Instead, they revel in their mutual passion, forging a romantic and often tumultuous bond.
The last time a high-crime couple sang together on Broadway was in the ill-fated 2011 Frank Wildhorn musical Bonnie and Clyde starring Jeremy Jordan and Laura Osnes. While Buried lacks that kind of star power, it certainly fares better. Much better.
Belli and Manion have been with this production since 2017 and bring extraordinary chemistry to the piece. The same can be said for Wilf Walsworth and Laurence Hunt, who interject with scenes from the fictitious television show, “The Psychopath Next Door.” Niamh Finan and Rebecca Yau round out the cast in a variety of roles ranging from date partners, restaurant employees and victims at the hands of our leading players. Collectively, they are a taut and hugely talented cast who pull of the macabre material with great precision.
Williams and O’Driscoll’s gorgeous score combines elements of American folk, lilting Gaelic melodies, and traditional showtunes — along with the contemporary sound reminiscent of Duncan Sheik. Much like Harry and Rose’s journey, it is a score that is always in forward motion, both musically and narratively, enticing the audience to wonder what’s next.
Buried also has a distinctly droll tone, one that American writers frequently fail to perfect but is often mastered by British writers. It also credits the audience with having an imagination. There are no screams of attack or terror for those who fall prey to Harry and Rose during their homicidal spree. A simple walk off stage suggests that they’ve been left for dead until the killer duo returns to the car to resume their murderous melodies.
Though it sounds like a contradiction Buried, is a completely original musical with more life and breath than many of its peers.
Illuminati Lizards from Outer Space
Eager to catch the final performance of NYMF’s headliner, Illuminati Lizards from Outer Space, a packed audience assembled into the theater for the 9 p.m. Saturday evening performance. A few hours before, a massive power outage had crippled midtown Manhattan and parts of the Upper West Side. “Is the show still happening?” I inquired of the host. “So far…yes,” she replied.
Lisa Renkel and Wayne Bryant’s video projections welcomed us, projecting the title in neon green, pink, and purple lettering. After a brief curtain speech from Hannah Lang, Producing Artistic Associate, the show began with the high-spirited title song. Paul Western-Pittard provided book and lyrics with Yuri Worontschack’s music and arrangements.
And then the lizards went limp. We were held captive by Con-Edison. Finally, a stage representative announced that the show would not go on.
What’s to be said for a single number? It seemed promising. The energetic opener was reminiscent of a B-52s video. But since it was closing night, we had to slither away in the darkness, left to wonder if Tina won the battle against these now unilluminated lizards. Such are the deep mysteries of life.
A return trip to the Alice Griffin Theater on Sunday night proved to be (pardon the pun) more electrifying. Audiences assembled for the final performance of LadyShip: The Musical
Laura and Linda Good, twin sisters best known for their indie-pop group, The Twigs, have teamed up to write the book, music and lyrics about this relatively unknown slice of history,
Though the time frame isn’t specified in this musical, a quick Google search suggests that it takes between 1788 and 1868. During that time, various petty crimes committed in London were subject to punishment through The Transportation Act. Through this government law, prisoners didn’t serve time in London. Instead, they were forced onto ships, taken away from their native land, and left to begin their new lives abroad.
The Good siblings hone in on Alice Reed (Maddie Shea Baldwin), Mary Reed (Caitlin Cohn), Kitty MacDougal (Noelle Hogan), and Abigail Gainsborough (Lisa Karlin). All four were accused of acts they did not commit and forced to bond together as they make the 10-month journey from London to Australia.
With a 10-person cast, the scope of LadyShip is impressive. Equally impressive is Director Samantha Salzman’s ability to assemble an entire group of performers who sing with such vocal excellence. Three superb musicians, conductor/pianist Simone Allen, guitarist Christopher Anselmo, and violinist Charlotte Morris, accompany the ensemble, with the trio truly enhancing the Irish folk- and Celtic-inspired score.
One wishes for less formulaic storytelling and dialogue. With some further workshops, a trim of extraneous characters, and more focus on or two of these women, it’s possible that LadyShip would be more impactful. For now, though, it is still an enjoyable and inspiring ride.
All three of the reviewed productions have one common denominator: women power. Scott Pyne, NYMF’s executive director and West Hyler, NYMF’s producing artistic director shared their views via email with the Broadway Blog:
“What has struck me this year that is many of the shows in the Festival this year have female protagonists,” Pyne said. “Just last week in our fully staged productions and concerts nearly all the shows featured a strong female lead. Tina in Illuminati Lizards, the Reed Sisters in Ladyship, and Rose in Buried. The upcoming productions this season will see even more strong female leads in Flying Lessons, Leaving Eden, My Real Mother, Overture and Till.”
Hyler observed other commonalities. “ I’m seeing lots of work in which the main storyline revolves around the oppressed voices of traditionally underrepresented communities; e.g. women, persons of color, and the LGBTQIA+ community. I’m also seeing a theme in the shows by writers in their 20s, which focuses on struggling to find meaning in a world which often seems meaningless.
Both Pyne and Hyler strike an optimistic chord when it comes to the future of NYMF and for the state of musical theater.
“I believe that the NYMF community is strong,” Pyne declared. “Each segment of this community knows what this organization does for the creation of new musical theater and they want to be a part of that experience. The challenge for us is nurturing this community and channeling the tremendous energy they have together to work collaboratively to lay the groundwork for tomorrow’s festival today.”
Hyler emphasized the enthusiasm, “We’ve also gained a large army of successful and loyal alumni over the years and we’re seeing them both inside the festival (Joe Iconis) and as audience members cheering on the artists of the future,” he said.
For more information on NYMF visit nymf.org.
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram.