Magic Moments: Two Unconventional Musicals Celebrate Love, Doughnuts
In Black Wizard/Blue Wizard, at Incubator Arts, two sorcerers undertake a metaphysical duel with cosmic implications. Or maybe several Dunkin' Donuts cashiers amuse themselves on a late shift. Or possibly a few theater-makers meditate on the sacrifices art requires. Which is it? Who knows! But there are free Munchkins, some of them jelly-filled.
An unusual and sometimes alluring musical by Dave Malloy and Eliza Bent, who also star, Black Wizard/Blue Wizard plays out on a stage (designed by the invaluable Mimi Lien) resembling an unholy alliance between Death Star and strip club. Here, the wizards — dressed as glam-dork samurai — "fight to the death at midnight in the End-Moon Battle, to save our souls from the Great Mediocrity."
Two referees, Mikéah Ernest Jennings and Nikki Calonge (both delectable), arbitrate, calling out "Shakespeare Violation" and "Tropical Drink Violation" when the wizards falter. A cheerful chorus, whose costumes illustrate the sexier side of tinfoil, provides garbled backup.
This is a generous show. In addition to the doughnuts, director Dan Safer and the cast offer cocktails, necklaces, groovable dance pop, and harmless audience participation. The characters speak in formal, faux-ominous tones at odds with the content: complaints about hamstring injuries and Ethernet connections. In between the bouts of dialogue, a live trombonist kicks off upbeat electro ditties about aesthetic philosophy and pet fish.
In past works — like Bent's The Hotel Colors and Malloy's Natasha, Pierre . . . — the writers startled us with real emotive force, plumbing surprising depths even in the seemingly lightweight. But the trick doesn't work as well here, likely because the show's lightweight bits are such good fun and the morose ones more indulgent.
Once the marvelous yields to the mundane — drab uniforms and sniping over creamer refills — the play stutters, unsure how to resolve itself. Sure, it's fine to return to the pain and tedium of everyday life, but what's wrong with a little more magic? And maybe another round of doughnut holes?
Toward the end of Black Wizard/Blue Wizard, the Blue one sings of "A simpler time and place/When all we had to do was yearn with youthful zest." Well, that time is now and that place is New York Theatre Workshop, where seven young musicians revive the Burt Bacharach/Hal David catalog in What's It All About?: Bacharach Reimagined. (Just how young they are, I couldn't say. But I did catch myself worrying over their bedtimes.)
Kyle Riabko, a Spring Awakening vet with sad surfer good looks, conceived the show with David Lane Seltzer in order to introduce a new generation to the arguable delights of "Raindrops Keep Fallin' on My Head" and "I'll Never Fall in Love Again." On a set that features a suburb's worth of rec room couches and enough soundproofing to hush a TNT bomb, the button-cute cast croons three dozen hits in stripped-down form. They sing each with mournful sincerity — the songs of a pre-ironic age remastered for a post-ironic one.
Under Steven Hoggett's direction, Riabko and co. mostly avoid the kitsch factor, but they don't truly reimagine, recuperate, or innovate. The great tunes ("I Say a Little Prayer," "Walk on By") are still great; the middling ones ("Trains and Boats and Planes," "Mexican Divorce") still middling. At some point, all begin to blur into a sweetly mopey sameness. What's new, pussycat? Not much.
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