When Yasmine Lever wanted an original but authentic-sounding punk rock score to fuel her new musical-in-development, Punk Princess, she turned to her friends Stew and Heidi Rodewald, the creators of Broadway’s 2008 critical smash Passing Strange.
The result, revealed to the public for the first time yesterday in two readings at The Theatre at St. Clement’s as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, was a lively show with memorable music, a winning cast and tons of promise.
The music was deeply informed by Stew and Heidi’s exuberant punk side.You can easily recognize their voices in the melodies. (Lever wrote the book and lyrics.) The score no formulaic response to the theatrical problem at hand. The music always managed to prevail with its memorable melodies and propelled the show even when the words stumbled — as they did more often than I would have liked.
The anthemic “Watford Slumdog,” which recounts Venetia/Clare’s fictional background, is one of the cases where the words and music work well together, creating a memorable song that could audiences could easily leave whistling. And while Stew is no fan of songs with “buttons” — as applause-cues are known in musical theater — I’m pretty sure there were a few in last night’s reading.
At heart, it’s a rags-to-riches story knocked sideways. Venetia (the splendid Kelly J. McCreary, a Passing Strange understudy) is a rich London private-school teen who can’t find acceptance at home (she has a sexually abusive father, Kiki and Herb’s Justin Bond, and a codependent, neglectful mum, Erin Buckley) or on the still-new punk scene, where she is smitten with the sound and energy. One thing leads to another, and Venetia falls in with Andy (Frank Liotti), who persuades her that the only path to punk success for her is in New York City, where she could create a new past, a new present and a new future!
Although clearly a strong, determined young woman, Venetia takes Andy’s advice and reluctantly becomes Clare, a “Watford slumdog.” That persona launches her into U.S. stardom and into the arms of her bandmate, Dante (Passing Strange‘s Chad Goodridge). But maintaining her fictional back story becomes increasingly impossible to maintain as her star rises and her life spins out of control.
The story was a touch awkward in spots, with some cringe-worthy stereotypes, over-wordiness and naked self-consciousness. The characters for the most part were strong and fairly well developed (Justin’s role as dad deserves more) and the plot line generally amusing and fairly clear, albeit entirely implausible.
The great chemistry between the romantic leads provided the glue that held the production together. But there were plenty of other strong performances. Justin’s turns as Venezia’s idol, punk rocker Sadie Songstress, and Venezia’s horribly abusive dad were outstanding. He inhabited both roles, oozing horrible vibes as the dad forcing his daughter to give him a blow job and pulsating with punk attitude (flipping the bird authentically Brit-style with first and middle fingers in a V) as Sadie. Our Lady J, the rising NYC transgender star, also shone as the narrator.
Other cast members included Rebecca Hart (Rebecca Hart and the Sexy Children), Laurel Holland (Love/Stories), Debargo Sanyal (Sitta Sings the Blues, Ashes) and Lucas Steele (Threepenny Opera).
And while Passing Strange had Stew and Heidi onstage to keep the music to their liking, Punk Princess put control into the hands of a four-piece combo. Directed by Joe McGinty of Loser’s Lounge, it featured the stellar Christian Gibbs (Passing Strange, Lucinda Black Bear, C. Gibbs Review) on guitar, Jeremy Chatzky (Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Bruce Springsteen) on bass and Clem Waldman (Blue Man Group) on drums.
It was a splendid evening that has the potential to become an excellent show with some fine-tuning of the language as it grows and develops further. I’ll be looking for it to turn up again on a New York stage soon.