They face off as a battling father and son in numbers penned by the creators of Passing Strange (Stew, text and music; Rodewald, music). It’s an ever escalating battle that pits generation against generation—ego against ego—for musical, spiritual, political and moral dominance. That it cannot be resolved is a given, but the journey is remarkable to behold.
It is the height of the Civil Rights Sixties and “Papa” Joe Roy (Hall), former blues star turned felon turned passionately profane white-hating churchman is dependent on the talents of his son Martin “Marty” (Blankson-Wood) who writes all of the songs Joe passes off as his own.
Marty, encouraged by a sleazy English music producer, Byron Blackwell (David Cale, wonderfully sly and predatory), makes a break from his father and his hip, profane preaching style to create his own music which astonishes first Byron, then the public. Marty is now free to explore his gayness, possibly even with Byron.
With Byron’s support Marty’s career explodes, taking its emotional and physical tolls. It leads him off to tours and glam-rock heights. The fly in the ointment is that Joe’s career is resurrected, also with the help of the sleazily fickle Byron. He forges his own, more mature path to musical glory, leading to an exciting climax of dueling songs and an emotional finale, “I Am Scared of Your Love,” in which they both finally admit how they feel.
In addition to the three leads, Joe has two side-kicks, a veritable funky Greek chorus, played with astounding energy and style by Jahi Kearse and Curtis Wiley. From the expert band, led by Stew and Ms. Rodewald, two “Deacons” emerge: Kenny Brawner and Damian Lemar Hudson, who help keep Joe grounded with their wry commentary.
Stew and Ms. Rodewald’s command of the musical genres of the 1960’s and 1970’s—gospel, Motown, soul, glam-rock, funk, R&B, blues, etc.—is astounding. The songs are organic extensions of the dialogue. In fact, this show could easily have been a straight drama or a sung-through opera.
However, their command of storytelling isn’t quite as remarkable with the plot moving in fits and starts, leaving the audience to fill in too many details.
Gabriel Berry’s costumes chart not only the different periods—both chronological and musical—but the changes in the characters’ personalities. These garments are a pictorial representation of the inner and outer lives of everyone on stage, from Byron’s overdone checkered three-piece to Joe’s stab at a new-found glamour and Marty’s platform shoes and velvet outfit as he prowls a runway, bumping and grinding along with his two backup singers-cum-Greek chorus.
Andrew Lieberman’s scenic design effectively divides the Anspacher, with its notoriously difficult-to-adapt support columns, into discrete playing area, creating an entire world on that odd stage. Thom Weaver’s lights put the finishing touch on the ever-changing stage pictures.
Obadiah Eaves and Sten Severson’s sound design adds to the excitement of the songs.
David Neumann, the choreographer, truly knows his stuff, from the period dances to skillfully moving this cast around the odd Anspacher space.
Joanna Settle does a remarkable job molding what might have become a disorganized—but wonderful—mess into a satisfying whole, honoring both the actors and the material.
Total Bent (through June 26, 2016)
The Public Theater
Anspacher Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-967-7555 or visit http://www.publictheater.org
Running time: one hour and 50 minutes with no intermission