For anyone who’s ever suffered a loss of faith in religious life, politics, or the American musical, Stew and Heidi Rodewald, creators of 2008’s rousing Broadway picaresque Passing Strange, have the cure. Their new show, The Total Bent — an electrifying and thoughtful meditation on the artist’s process of self-creation and the role faith plays in it — is sure to make you a true believer.
Initially set in Montgomery, Alabama, during the bus boycott years, but traveling into the rollicking disco decade of the 1970s, the plot follows the young musical genius Martin “Marty” Roy (Ato Blankson-Wood) as he struggles to overcome the legacy of his father, “Papa” Joe Roy (Vondie Curtis Hall), a former gospel blues legend turned faith healer who is looking for a musical comeback and more crossover appeal.
Marty wants to write (and eventually perform) music that directly addresses the civil rights struggle, while Papa Joe fears alienating white listeners. Eventually the son breaks with his father, turning both the Christian faith and the rhetoric of revolution to sensational new ends, surpassing Joe completely in a dizzying flight to pop chart success.
With music direction by Marty Beller and choreography by David Neumann, Stew and Rodewald’s score burns, blisters, and gets its audience totally lit — or totally bent. It’s an extended musical seduction, an act of divine energy transfer, and a sensitive reflection on the costs of fame, all in one. As the increasingly confident Marty, Blankson-Wood’s mesmerizing performance stands out as a masterclass in pure theatrical charisma. Sometimes he channels Prince or Michael Jackson, but the stardom he radiates is uniquely his own.
The Total Bent
Text by Stew
Music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Through June 16