Venice -- Theater Review

  An ambitious new hip-hop musical that, at this point and despite being well-staged, has serious problems to overcome.

A postapocalyptic hip-hop musical loosely based on “Othello” sounds like a promising idea for a major theater’s New Play Production Program. So it is that we have “Venice,” debuting at the Kirk Douglas Theatre after a lengthy workshop and developmental process commissioned by Center Theatre Group and artistic director Michael Ritchie.

The results at this stage of development are decidedly mixed and not a little schizoid. On one hand, we have a striking illustration of just how powerful a narrative form hip-hop and rap can be in support of an overall story (book by Eric Rosen, who also directs). On the other hand, the story being told isn’t nearly as compelling as the style in which it’s being staged, sung and acted. At times, it’s a toss-up as to whether the show’s abundance of attitude or abundance of platitudes will gain the upper hand.

“Venice” is set in a fictional Venice of the near future, a city trying to recover from a devastating 20-year-war. A charismatic leader, also named Venice (Javier Munoz), returns from political exile along with many of the city’s “disappeared” citizens. He announces his forthcoming marriage to his childhood sweetheart, Willow (Andrea Goss), a union that promises to unite the city and again set it on the road to peace and prosperity.

The Iago role in this tale goes to Markos (Rodrick Covington), Venice’s vengeful half-brother. A captain in the army who has been passed over for promotion, the scheming Markos is a nasty piece of work who would prefer to turn the city into something like a police state. Through a series of deceptions and violent strategies, he manages to undermine Venice’s marriage to Willow and threatens to take control of the city.

Although the characters express plenty of emotion in their musical numbers, there is little meaningful conflict in the piece. The love story is prearranged and predictable, and the show’s political sentiments are simplistic along the lines of war, violence, terrorism, militarism, rape and corruption are bad; peace, love, hope and change are good. What else is new?

Neither Venice and Willow’s love story nor Venice and Markos’ battle of wills is genuinely engaging. The chief problem is that Venice is a rather bland, well-meaning schnook whose charisma, intellect and depth of character fail to make an appearance. Markos is by far the more interesting character, and Covington burns up the stage with his incendiary riffs and rants.

Matt Sax, who wrote the music and co-wrote the lyrics with Rosen, does a superb job as the rapping narrator who guides us through the story. Other strong performances come from J.D. Goldblatt as a corporate head hopelessly in love with Willow; Victoria Platt as Markos’ duped wife, Emilia; Erich Bergen as Venice’s trusted friend Michael Victor; Uzo Aduba as the shade of Venice and Markos’ dead mother; and Angela Wildflower Polk as an angry, whorish pop star.

Special kudos to John Carrafa and Tanisha Scott, whose choreography is fluid, natural and visually expressive. If only the story were nearly as dramatic and affecting.

Venue: Kirk Douglas Theatre, Culver City (Through Nov. 14)
Cast: Javier Munoz, Rodrick Covington, Andrea Goss, Uzo Aduba, Erich Bergen, J.D. Goldblatt, Victoria Platt, Andrea Wildflower Polk, Matt Sax, Morgan Weed, Preston Mui, Donald Webber Jr.
Director-book: Eric Rosen
Music: Matt Sax
Lyrics: Matt Sax, Eric Rosen
Additional music: Curtis Moore
Set/costume designer: Meghan Raham
Choreographers: John Carrafa, Tanisha Scott
Lighting designer: David Weiner
Projection designer: Jason H. Thompson
Musical direction/arrangements/orchestrations: Curtis Moore