Composer-lyricist Matt Sax loves hip-hop. He also loves Shakespeare. These enthusiasms unite—not always smoothly—in Venice, a rap and pop musical loosely tied to the tragedy of Othello, but more concerned with post-9/11 America.
A terrorist attack 20 years ago has thrust the citizens of Venice (which does not seem remotely Italian) into an era of corporate-sponsored martial law and a strict demarcation between the safe zone, where the elites live, and the city, where the underclass survives. Now a proletarian leader, also named Venice (Haaz Sleiman), has plans for civic reunification and a romantic reunion with his childhood sweetheart, Willow (Jennifer Damiano). Unfortunately, his scheming half-brother, Markos (the ever-excellent Leslie Odom Jr. in ultrasleaze mode), has other ideas.
Sax has scripted a plum part for himself as narrator, the Clown MC. Under Eric Rosen’s direction, the shifts between the Clown’s expository narrative, the dialogue, and the songs are sometimes awkward, the recourse to Shakespeare’s plot unilluminating. (And the character of Venice, the Othello stand-in, remains an unfortunate cipher.) But the songs are never less than propulsive, the performances committed, and the overall energy infectious. And all this without a single gondola.