Which would you rather experience in the theater: too many ideas or too few? The Total Bent, at the Public, is in the maximalist camp, offering in less than two hours a dense sociological history of the evolution of black church music into mainstream American pop. But even that is an insufficient characterization of the ambition evident in this musical by the mononomic Stew and his writing partner, Heidi Rodewald. (He wrote the text; they wrote the music.) If their previous Public musical, Passing Strange, was about a young man and his mother, The Total Bent is about a young man and everything else. Fathers, funk, televangelism, integration, appropriation, protest, Birmingham, homophobia, and innumerable other issues come into it. What comes out of it is harder to specify, a problem the authors are unable to reframe as a virtue despite taking their title from a speech by Martin Luther King Jr.: “God does not judge us by the separate incidents or the separate mistakes that we make, but by the total bent of our lives.”
There is no total bent here, only a series of incidents. Even these are difficult to parse because the setting is so impressionistic; judging from textual, sartorial, and hairstyle references — conks and early Afros — we are apparently in Birmingham around 1956, at the dawn of the civil-rights movement. The characters, too, are sketchy, more than halfway dematerialized into symbols. At least they are complicated symbols. Joe Roy (Vondie Curtis Hall) is an old blues singer turned Holy Roller, a church-going sinner in need of a comeback. Marty Roy (Ato Blankson-Wood) is his son: a talented but rebellious songwriter who may hold or withhold the key. Their Oedipal drama, despite familial and sexual components (Marty is gay), is mostly played out as a conflict in which musical styles stand in for politics. Joe, an accommodationist, expresses his credo in an anti-protest song called “Shut Up!”:
And get back on the bus
And take a back seat with a smile.
And stop makin’ a fuss
And suffer your oppression with style.
But Marty wants to be part of the revolution; his songs, including one called “Jesus Ain’t Sittin’ (in the Back of the Bus),” reject the tradition of churchy deference to God and fearful restraint toward the white man. From now on, he will sing what older black musicians like his father only say in private. “The music of the future,” he proclaims, “will put a mic on the indoor voice.”
This would have been enough to explore, and indeed Marty’s rise and fall as a crossover star is already too rushed to make sense. (Toward the end, songs demonstrating his musical journey through the sounds of the late 20th century just pile up concert-style, as if the show had been hastily cut from a much longer work.) Still, Stew expands the story even further to focus on a third character, a white British producer and blues aficionado with complicated motives. He allows the show to raise a fascinating question of appropriation: When does love for a form of music — or for a particular musician — become theft?
By that point though, the characters, never fully believable, have basically ceased to function as such; they are now mere delivery systems for Stew’s ideas about race and music. As a result, you could call The Total Bent a mess of a musical — or you could look at it, as it evidently means to look at itself, as a different sort of entertainment. Certainly it is compelling as a performance piece; the songs are mostly terrific, and are sung, by Hall and Blankson-Wood especially, with immense panache and authority. (The seven-person band, including Stew and Rodewald, is also a joy.) But then why does the director Joanna Settle attempt to place it in a physical reality? (Andrew Lieberman’s set appears to be a basement recording studio, with mismatched furniture and with insulation hanging down from the ceiling.) Why bother with the ridiculous gay subplot? Why juggle ten balls when seven of them always fall?
* * *
If The Total Bent is often mystifying, at least the mystification reflects a real artist’s eccentricities and his desire to communicate real things. The multiple mystifications of Paramour, which also opened tonight, reflect nothing but incompetence; to call it cynical would be to overestimate its creators’ abilities. Who those creators are I cannot rightly tell you because the production’s credits are understandably opaque as to blame. (Among others, there are a “director and conceiver” and a “creative guide and creative director” but no book writer.) What I can say is that Paramour, the brainchild of Cirque du Soleil’s theatrical division, is a bizarre mutant entertainment bred from the worst traits of Vegas circus shows and Broadway musicals. If you love either of those things, you’ll hate this.
Paramour’s idea of the Broadway musical is particularly disturbing, evincing as it does only the skimpiest knowledge of the form. If we broadly describe a musical as an entertainment that offers a story about characters through song, we have already raised the bar too high. What Paramour offers is more of a series of clichés about humanoids accompanied by sounds. The main cliché is the one that glorifies Old Timey Hollywood as a land of tragic romance and glittering sophistication. (“Welcome to the Golden Age / Tux and tales [sic] it’s all the rage,” the opening number helpfully explains.) The main humanoids are AJ Golden, Hollywood’s greatest director, who has “the world upon a string,” as another apparently mistranslated lyric has it, and the starlet he loves, who despite being a redhead is named Indigo James. But Indigo, if only she knew it, is in love with the young composer Joey Green (no relation), who must write a love song for the movie in which Golden will introduce Indigo to the world. Even were I not dazzled by the symbolism of these color names, I couldn’t continue with the plot description because, in its idiocy, it defies encapsulation. I will only say that what comes out of the characters’ mouths is not even as interesting as what almost came out of mine while watching them.
From Vegas circus shows we get the usual daring acts and awesome tackiness. The daring acts — including teeterboard, cyr wheel, juggling, trampoline, strap work, hand-to-hand, and an apparent homage to twin incest — are performed with evident skill. For Cirque fans there are too few of them. For the rest of us, the problem is that with only one exception they have nothing to do with the “narrative.” Repeatedly in my notes I wrote, “What is going on?” — for instance, when acrobats got involved in a number about Calamity Jane, or when a chorus of zombies performed Chinese pole tricks. Another time, for reasons I could not fathom, eight or nine fringed lampshades lifted off of their lamps and did an aerial dance, like drunken medusa jellyfishes. (They were drone-controlled, so at least that was cool.) The one circus bit that successfully commented on the action was a hand-to-trapeze trio in which a woman was passed back and forth between two men as the three non-acrobat leads sang a song called “Love Triangle.” This rose briefly to the level of sensible banality.
But it did not suggest larger applications; I do not anticipate a funambulist revival of A Little Night Music no matter how apt the image. Some things just don’t belong together, and you’d think that Cirque, having failed so miserably with New York productions of Banana Shpeel and Zarkana to force this unwanted conjugation, would by now have understood that, or at least have chosen better models and hired a team familiar with the workings of real musicals. It’s an especially arrogant form of carpetbaggery to think that, with enough money, you can do anything. Paramour was capitalized at around $25 million. That’s twice the cost of Hamilton, which admittedly does not include even one drone-controlled lampshade. That must be its problem.
The Total Bent is at the Public Theater through June 19.
Paramour is at the Lyric Theatre.