Monday, April 20, 2009

Been to the Kingdom

Attended the performance of "Kingdom" at the VFW Theater in Asbury Park on Sunday night. On the whole I think the cast and the production team did a great job and I applaud ReVision Theatre for bringing an ambitious new musical on a sensitive topic to our little shore town. I was impressed by the acting, although I think some of the leads were playing to a bigger theater and could have done more by lowering the intensity and upping the nuance. My favorite performance of the night was Dell Howlett, who plays Cano, a key character in the plot. Cano is complex and commanding and Howlett was totally at ease and convincing in the role. The lighting was flawless. The orchestra--keyboard, guitar, bass and drum set--was great, although the score didn't ask much of the musicians.

As a musical however, "Kingdom" is a disappointment. The best part is the lyrics: Basically the entire play is done in rhyme, most of it in rapping rhythms. Within the conceit of constant rhyming, the poetry is well crafted and often clever. The melodies and raps that set this text are mundane, but at least they don't get in the way. There aren't any memorable musical moments (although there are some memorable dramatic ones). Most depressing for me was the lack of imagination in the band's accompaniment. There was just nothing there. I'm certainly glad the ReVision producers saw fit to use live musicians. I wish they had had something worthwhile to play.

The music also never seems to alter mood--the tension and melodrama of the opening just continues unabated throughout. Every song is another opportunity for searing emotional trauma--some variation would have made at least some of those moments more meaningful.

Along with being the vehicle for Howlett's performance, Cano is also the most interesting character in "Kingdom," from a literary point of view. As the head of the local chapter of the fierce gang, the Latin Kings, he advocates self-discipline, conflict resolution through dialog and working for the betterment of the community. Once deprived of his leadership, the gang chapter becomes a rabble, descending immediately into spiral of pointless, vengeful violence.

Like the mafia of old, Cano's Latin Kings are a crude blend of social support group, religion, militia and criminality as a means to noble ends. The character of Cano, who sees only the good the Latin Kings can do and tries to cultivate the good in those around him, makes the story more complicated and worthy of discussion than it would be otherwise. In all other respects, the play is a two-dimensional portrait of gangs or ghetto life. Marisa's plea against violence at the end is well-written but predictable. A little too noticeably, it is also a recreation in aggressive modern vernacular of Maria's speech at the end of "West Side Story."


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