News Column

NY critics sing praise, take whacks at Rosen-Sax 'Venice'

June 17, 2013


June 17--"Venice," the futuristic, Shakespeare-inspired hip-hop musical, premiered three years ago at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, began performances in New York on May 28 and officially opened June 13 at the Public Theater in New York as part of the company's developmental LAB series. The run was extended a week through June 30 while the show was still in previews.

"Venice" was written by KC Rep artistic director Eric Rosen (book and lyrics) and Matt Sax (music and lyrics), who reprises the role of Clown MC, the show's narrator and Greek chorus. The cast includes Angela Polk, a native of Kansas City, Kan., who is now based in Los Angeles but appeared in productions at the Unicorn Theatre, the Rep and Coterie in Kansas City.

The reviews, while mainly positive, ran the gamut from undiluted praise to utter condemnation. Here's a sampling.

-- Love letter: "The rafters are shaking downtown at the Public Theater, where the dynamic new hip-hop musical, 'Venice,' is rocking the Anspacher Theater. It's a potent, dystopian mashup of rap music, Shakespeare's 'Othello,' sibling rivalry and political intrigue. And there's a sweet love story, too .... The fine performances, kinetic imagery, haunting melodies and memorable lyrics combine to make 'Venice' an adventurous, winning musical experience." --Jennifer Farrar, the Associated Press

--Mixed but reasonable: "The Public's production has energy to burn -- Chase Brock's choreography recalls advanced kickboxing classes -- and a spare, gritty look. But it still feels like a work in process as it explores big themes of ambition, betrayal, politics and love. The spoken-word rhythms by Sax, who nudges the narrative along as the Clown MC, give the show an intriguing sound that eventually gets a bit one-note. It's a relief when songs trade hip-hop for pop-rock melodies, as in the surprisingly pretty "Willow" and "Sunrise." -- Joe Dziemianowicz, New York Daily News

--Slaps and kisses: "A man of improbably elastic face and form, Mr. Sax, who in 2008 starred in the one-man show "Clay" (created with Mr. Rosen), is an original voice and presence, a rapper from the suburbs who regularly morphs from self-conscious square to wriggling, blissed-out Slinky. You can feel the joy he takes in summoning the characters into being as "Venice" begins, assessing the actors with sly and shy glances as they appear onstage. ... Unfortunately, the creatures that spring from this teeming imagination are, to outsiders, about as lifelike as toy soldiers." -- Ben Brantley, The New York Times

--Thoughtful and fair: "In 'Venice,' the lyrics can be playful, creative and even witty, but they rarely advance the story or enrich the characters. I never fail, however, to marvel at the freestyling acumen of Sax, who plays the Clown MC. And I eagerly await what he and Rosen do next." -- Brendan Lemon, the Financial Times

--Love-hate letter: "(T)he text of Eric Rosen and Matt Sax's new musical drama, now benefiting from an attractive, well-performed and energetic production ... is a leaden mess of banality that brings down what could be a fun evening. ... With a less wordy, more maturely expressed text, 'Venice' on paper could live up to the standards of the production, where Rosen shows himself to be more effective at visual pictures than written ones." -- Michael Dale,

--Dyspeptic and shrill: "'Venice' is a Frankenstein monster of unusual ungainliness. Stitched from lifeless parts, this dystopian hip-hop Shakespeare musical is a bleakly preposterous mess. ... The better performers, such as Uzo Aduba as Venice's martyred mother and Angela Polk as a pop star oozing Nicki Minaj-ery, provide some relief in small roles, as does Chase Brock's spiky choreography, well danced by the urgent ensemble. But 'Venice' is so sketchy and portentous -- it suggests the daydreaming of teenagers who've seen too much lousy sci-fi, and nothing else -- that it can only be scoffed at." -- Adam Feldman, Time Out New York

--Sneering and dismissive: "(The) banality is reflected in Beowulf Boritt's scaffold set and Clint Ramos' costumes -- skinny suits for the lead men, vague camouflage for the ensemble, and a black leotard and black pumps combo for Hailey Daisy (Angela Polk), the Minaj-Gaga hybrid whose big number looks like a bad '80s segment on TV's 'Video Music Box.' Terrible musicals are a dime a dozen, but what makes 'Venice' galling is its humorless grandstanding. Bad is bad, but self-important bad is worse." -- Elisabeth Vincentelli, New York Post


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