Los Angeles Theater Review: VENICE (Kirk Douglas Theater in Culver City)

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by Harvey Perr on October 30, 2010

in Theater-Los Angeles


A thousand years ago, when Los Angeles theater was still taking baby steps (1968, to be precise), an Englishman, Jack Good, had the idea of a musical version of Othello – it wasn’t the first time, of course, Verdi’s opera having quite brilliantly executed the same idea quite a few years before – and it was to create an Othello-Iago conflict in terms of rock and roll, with Little Richard as Othello and Jerry Lee Lewis as Iago hammering out both the music and the battle at separate pianos. Of course, it never got on stage as planned. The powers that were at the Ahmanson decided that Jerry Lee Lewis could do it, but a compromise had to be made and the part of Othello was given to a conventional Shakespearean actor (William Marshall, best known for his title role in Blacula) so that the end result – Catch My Soul – was a peculiar hybrid, neither rock musical nor good Shakespeare, but nevertheless memorable for Lewis’s mad, strutting, musically thrilling Iago. A more successful version, closer, as intended, to rock and roll, but still not what Good dreamed of, appeared in England a year or so later (failure did not deter Good, as it should not deter anyone with a dream). It was clearly an idea ahead of its time. And, if it had been done as Good wanted it done, it might also be more than just a memory today, because the music was wonderful and enough of what was good (Good) about the concept came through, despite the fatal compromises.

Fade. Dissolve.

It is 2010 and we now have Venice, the hip-hop version of, guess what?, Othello. Commissioned by the same Center Theatre Group who once brought us Catch My Soul, Venice is having its world premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre after years of workshops both here and at the Kansas City Repertory Theatre. Since this reviewer has seen only this version and none of the workshops, all I can say is that, outside of bringing back the memory of Catch My Soul and making me pine for a revival of that version, done as intended, all that Venice prompted in me is to ask why anyone would want to spend so much time and so much money on a project that seemed ill-fated from the word Go!

It’s because everyone wants to create a musical. Everyone, to give the artists responsible their due, wants a contemporary musical that will stand up right alongside the classics we are in danger of reviving at least once too often. But, let’s face it, it’s the money factor. A musical, if successful, makes everyone rich and, one supposes, famous. Caught between commerce and art, a new musical must make compromises (has nothing changed since Catch My Soul?) and, when those compromises work, everyone feels great about the years of sweat and hard work and crazily shifting emotions that they have gone through, and when they don’t work, the question remains: Go back to square one or forget the damned thing?

If you are reading into all this that I recommend forgetting the damned thing, you are only partially correct. Nor am I suggesting that going back to square one is an option, either. Good work has already been done. It’s just that it’s a long, long way from being good enough. The music, for example, rocks. At least, it does every now and then, but it isn’t always certain whether it is the Matt Sax score itself or the sophisticated musical arrangements by Curtis Moore that make it rock. Clearly some reviewers find “The Wind Cried Willow” a haunting tune, but a song that rhymes “Willow, Wilow, Willow” with “pillow, pillow, pillow” doesn’t make the grade for this reviewer. So, chances are the score is better than the lyrics, which Sax collaborated on with Eric Rosen (who also wrote the book and directed the show). Is it possible that Rosen wears too many hats? And, though Sax is clearly a brilliant performer who knows how to sell a song, was it such a good idea to turn him into the Tadeusz Kantor of Kansas City Rep, on stage continuously, figuratively writing Venice as we watch it, literally directing it (or, at least, keeping his eye on the way things are going)? It seems, at the moment, like a bit of theatrical overkill. Not to mention the degree of narcissism on display.

The book is a mess. It is overstuffed with clever ideas. But, really, why choose to do Othello and then change every character’s name (except, for reasons known only to its creators, Emilia)? Why has Othello become Venice? Why has Iago become Markos and why is Iago now Othello’s brother? These sorts of changes only complicate things. Muddy the waters, so to speak. Of course, if one cared for a single moment about any of these characters, it would make no difference what their names were, but, without a scorecard, it’s virtually a guessing game as to what’s going on and why who is doing what to whom. And so, without real people, we are stuck with all these gifted performers with almost nowhere to go except to sing and dance their hearts out, much of it to little avail. Besides, as talented as the performers are (Victoria Platt, Angela Wildflower Polk and Rodrick Covington are standouts), most of the cast seems to be somewhat deprived of real acting chops. It isn’t enough anymore to just be able to sing and dance. Or is it? It is no secret that, as stirring as a beautiful voice can be, I find myself growing a little tired of vocal brilliance alone. What ever happened to personality? I am also tired of those little microphones attached to the heads of the performers, which suggest that every musical is about aliens from outer space. Can’t those big voices fill the Kirk Douglas Theatre without mikes?

Also, there is nothing wrong with setting Venice in Venice, and in the future, but why do the soldiers coming home from war have to look as if they are Americans returning from Iraq or Afghanistan? And why does Venice/Othello, the commander-in-chief, have to look like Barack Obama? Would that the actor playing the part was half as charismatic as our president. These are political references that are, at best, naïve and superficial. And, at the risk of repeating myself in order to get the point across, why, when Othello has so much to offer, is everyone bent on adding all this superfluous stuff that never really adds up to too much and actually makes us long for Shakespeare instead of what’s before us?

And why, given the energy the dancers are bursting with, does the choreography look a little too much like the dances in early music videos? Like variations on the same monotonous pattern? Choreographer John Caraffa should know better; his partner, Tanisha Scott, should learn.

The design elements are smashing. That is where a good deal of the money has gone. It shows. But, as everyone knows, you can’t leave a theater humming the set! It just makes expenditure look a lot like waste. The disappointing news is that the forty years between Catch My Soul and Venice have not yielded much that is new. The truth is that we should be grateful that we have Verdi’s opera. Oh, yes, and Shakespeare’s play. And the memory of Jerry Lee Lewis banging away at that piano. Now that was an Iago!

photos by Craig Schwartz

Center Theatre Group
Kirk Douglas Theatre
9820 Washington Blvd. in Culver City
ends on November 14, 2010
for tickets, call 213.628.2772 or visit CTG


Chante November 3, 2010 at 1:02 pm

Why are you ripping the artistry in this play? Yes it is “loosely” based on Othello but you can’t not compare it to the original. It is new and ground-breaking material being presented in a way that connects with a younger generation in Theatre. Everyone has their opinion, but to keep it real (as they say) the audience (at least on opening night) loved the play so much you could hear interaction from the crowd and interest as they clapped along with the music. I think this was a great show, even greater for the world of Theatre and the beginning of more breath taking performances and projects to come! Go see it, you will not be disappointed (unless you are as closed minded and not in touch with the voices of today’s generation like the writer of this review).

Idil November 12, 2010 at 2:10 pm

Mr. Perr:

I saw Venice last night and was mesmerized by it. The show touched me in a way that musical theater hasn’t for years and years and years. In my view, Sax and Rosen have created a fascinating new world and speak with a new musical voice that is so needed in the theater today.

Is it possible that you saw a different show? Are you of the mind that musicals should conform to a specific structure and style? Don’t we have way too many revivals out there already? You mention that it was difficult for you to follow the story line of the show. That it was a “guessing game” for you. I had none of those issues. Maybe the language of the show was difficult for you. Since most of it is sung or rapped in a funky, ultra-cool hip-hop style, it’s possible that much of what was going on onstage just flew by you.

To me, the show was a total original. It was Les Miz and Rent and In the Heights rolled together and taken to a whole new level. Sax’s songs produced magnificently memorable melodies and Curtis Moore’s orchestrations tied everything together to further enhance the story. Ah yes, the story. This was not a retelling of Othello. If anything, it was an homage to Othello told for modern times. The most overtly Shakespearean device being used was the presence of Clown MC (brilliantly performed by Matt Sax) who effectively breaks the fourth wall, bringing us into the world of Venice. (Come to think of it, with Sax helping us understand what was going on, how could you have been so lost?)

The performers are universally good and I would agree that Polk, Platt and Covington were standouts (I would add Goldblatt and Aduba to this list too). Even the Ensemble players were good (loved the little “Andrews Brothers” ditty at the end of the first act – a throwback reference to classic Andrews Sisters. Didn’t you think that was clever?). You say the book is a mess – not exactly sure what you mean by that, but if you’re saying that the story could be tightened a bit, I might agree with you, but only when the final tragic death plays out. Otherwise, the show was crisp, wonderful, emotionally involving and extraordinarily moving. The crowd I saw it with last night gave a rousing standing ovation.

Harvey – maybe you should give it one more try before it closes this weekend.

Summer November 19, 2010 at 2:36 pm

I go to Culver City High School; we went to the play, and I loved it — the cast was really good.

Scott November 22, 2010 at 2:06 pm

The problem I had with Venice is not really the songs or the acting. In fact, the songs were quite good. My problem was that I didn’t care about any of the characters. Like, at all. And I never wondered what was going to happen next — because I didn’t really care.

Matt Sax has modeled himself amazingly similarly to Lin-Manuel Miranda of In The Heights, from writing the musical with everything from “legitimate” songs to rap/hip hop-esque songs, and singing the latter himself. He even mildly resembled Miranda. I was surprised no one mentioned that.

But in any case, it’s clearly an ambitious work with its sights set on Broadway. But even if it “only” makes it to Off Broadway (and it probably will eventually), the New York critics are ruthless and will tear this show apart if it’s not improved-upon before then. It’s off to a great start, but it’s got a long way to go.

Amanda Burnett December 12, 2010 at 1:47 pm

I loved this play, but the storyline is too young for me, and therefore I could not sympathize with it. Venice is more for high-school girls and boys. (I’m in college, so you could see why I would say this.) The music is AWESOMEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEEE!!!!!, the choreography is on point, and Rodrick Covington has a wonderful voice — I would say true talent that gives inspiration to all; makes you want to do better in life; and makes me want to become an actress/model even more. Keep on rocking.

Cozette January 5, 2011 at 2:53 am

Thanks for commenting on Catch My Soul. I danced in it. One big problem it had was a lack of dancing. There had been only one big number of seven minutes. Then a problem arose about the music being too similar to the Mission Impossible song and they threw it out. But it was too late to add another. Besides Jerry Lee Lewis at the piano, it was pretty much a standard production of Othello.

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