This undated theater publcity image released by The Public Theater shows actress Jennifer Damiano in the Public Lab musical “Venice,” running at The Public Theater at Astor Place in New York. Damiano is following up her role as Mary Jane Watson in “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark” with a darker, less cartoonish young woman in “Venice,” a thrilling musical that debuts at the Public this month. It marks her return to the stage after taking time off after a five-year nonstop grind. (AP Photo/The Public Theater, Joan Marcus)
NEW YORK (AP) — The rafters are shaking downtown at the Public Theater, where the dynamic new hip-hop musical, “Venice,” is rocking the Anspacher Theater. It’s a potent, dystopian mashup of rap music, Shakespeare’s “Othello,” sibling rivalry and political intrigue. And there’s a sweet love story, too.
Intricate vocal harmonies infuse the pulsating anthems and ballads performed by a youthful, energetic cast, and the staging is acrobatic and effective, in the irresistible Public Lab production that opened Thursday night. Director Eric Rosen co-created the book and co-wrote the lyrics with Matt Sax, who wrote the music.
The complex, often-operatic score, which includes additional music by Curtis Moore, delineates character and creates a moody atmosphere while compellingly advancing the story. Chase Brock’s versatile choreography creates a feverish sense of foot-stomping rebellion, as well as somber, elegiac moments.
Haaz Sleiman and Leslie Odom Jr. play half-brothers on opposite sides of a feud that has divided the citizens of a once-peaceful city. Sleiman is charismatic and regal as Venice, the leader of the freedom movement, while Odom gives a sly appeal to Markos, his jealous, Machiavellian brother who heads the military occupiers.
Jennifer Damiano exudes angelic goodness and sings beautifully as Willow, the symbol of unity that could reunite the divided city. As Venice’s childhood sweetheart, Willow has several ardent duets with Sleiman, including the lovely, “Waited All These Years.” Damiano’s voice soars on “If Only,” a song of regret over the death of a dear friend.
Sax affectingly plays an emcee called Clown, who narrates the turbulent story, often rapping while the walls of the Anspacher fill up with typed projections of his dialogue. Powerful bureaucrat Theo Westbrook (given heart by Jonathan-David) surprisingly sings one of the show’s sweeter refrains, “I wanna love and be loved,” even in the midst of the uprising.
The rest of the cast is terrific, with Claybourne Elder providing gravitas as Willow’s and Venice’s staunch ally, Michael. Uzo Aduba makes a powerful impression as Anna, the mournful ghost of Venice and Markos’ mother. Victoria Platt expressively portrays Markos’ duped wife Emilia, and a sexily feral Angela Polk stands out in a sizzling, cat-suited number called “Hailey Daisy.”
The fine performances, kinetic imagery, haunting melodies and memorable lyrics combine to make “Venice” an adventurous, winning musical experience.