This review is by Lo-Down contributors AndrewAndrew and John Sherer.
The Total Bent, a new musical by Passing Strange creators Stew and Heidi Rodewald, has debuted at The Public’s Anspacher Theater. Like its predecessor, The Total Bent tells of a young black musician’s artistic development, features a band onstage, and relies heavily on music for its narrative work.
Joe Roy and his son Marty, both blues/gospel musicians, compete for fame in 1960s Montgomery, Alabama. Marty is gay, to his father’s disbelief. He has written Joe’s songs since childhood, but now wants to use their platform to record protest music. Joe makes a series of bad career moves—first becoming a faith healer, then causing scandal by sleeping with a woman he has “healed.” A British con-man with a taste for black American music shows up and offers to produce the band, then has an affair with Marty before the father/son pair part ways and each find their own success. It changes their lives, but at a cost: their music has been subsumed into mainstream white culture.
If these sound like elements of a good story, you would be right. But in The Total Bent, these elements are overwhelmed by the music itself. The show felt more like a concert than a musical, as various storylines were drowned out by the increasingly longer tunes that did little to propel the plot forward, while other storylines were muted entirely.
Admittedly, the show boasts a rich, complex score with clever lyrics, and the musicians gave superb performances. Vondie Curtis Hall (Joe Roy) sang with swagger and heartache, and Ato Blankson-Wood (Marty) electrified the stage with the limitless energy of his singing and dancing. Some of the band members also play minor characters, most notably Kenny Brawner as Deacon Charlie. There are smart musical references to a host of sources, including the Beatles, John Coltrane, Tina Turner, and others.
That the show is heavy on music and light on story is a missed opportunity, since its various conflicts have the potential to perform, rather than gesture at, deeper thematic work. The British “producer,” Byron Blackwell (played by David Cale), is overjoyed to have discovered in Joe “a blues singer cloaked in religion and morality.” The show comments on the resemblance between blues and gospel not for musicological interest, but as a sociopolitical statement about how religion is often used as a tool for profit.
Blackwell has no problem exploiting this tendency (or the black musicians he stumbles upon) for his own gain, yet he also has enough well-meaning curiosity to ask, “Why do black people still believe in God?” After centuries of white people using Christianity as a means of coercion, it’s a fair question; the band members’ heartfelt response is a powerful demonstration of just how little Blackwell understands the culture he is appropriating. A major theme of the show is the musicians’ commitment to Christianity (despite its history) and to gospel music (despite its steady absorption into white culture). The most pointed example of this commitment is the refrain of the opening number, “That’s why he’s Jesus and you’re not, whitey.”
In one of the most remarkable moments, the now-famous musicians remark that their audiences are mostly white. Spotlights roam around the real audience in The Public’s Anspacher Theater to point out how true this is. The show presents a thorny problem—Marty has found fame by bringing black music to a larger, mostly white public, but would it be fair to accuse a musician who rose from obscurity of selling out? No. To suggest that mass culture (and the riches that go with exploiting it) should be enjoyed only by white people is the height of hypocrisy.
If you want to hear a hot band play sizzling blues and gospel music, The Total Bent is worth seeing. The story, however, has many loose ends. If only a few of these had been tied up, the show would have kept the crowd engaged in the plot, and not just tapping their toes.
THE TOTAL BENT runs through Sunday, June 26th, 2016 // Tuesday – Sunday at 7:00 p.m., Saturday matinees at 1:00 p.m. // $45 // The Public Theater // 425 Lafayette Street