REVIEW Soylent White: NC Stage Boldy Explores “Brave New World” in Premiere Musical

Sargent Photo by Duncan Chaboudy
Justin Matthew Sargent in “Brave New World” Photo by Duncan Chaboudy Photography

BY SANDY STAGGS
DRAMA CRITIC

Enter the bizarre realm of a “Brave New World” where babies are only born in test tubes, orgies are mandatory and there is a rave every night in North Carolina Stage Company’s world premiere musical set to the classic dystopian novel by Aldous Huxley.

“Brave New World” is the third in an impressive string of brand new shows that have chosen NC Stage Company as a testing ground, after previously mounting “Stalking the Bogeyman,” before its Off-Broadway and West End runs, and this season’s “Someone Else,” currently slated for an Off-Broadway run this spring.

Red Awning is Executive Producer of this delightful spectacle penned by some heavy-hitters to the North: music by Jonnie Rockwell (Off-Broadway’s “The Anthem”) and Grammy and Emmy Award-winner John McDaniel (Broadway music director/supervisor for “Bonnie & Clyde” and “Catch Me If You Can”) and lyrics by Tony-nominee Bill Russell (“Side Show”).

This dazzling venture is rooted in a salient, faithful adaptation by Ben Andron (“White’s Lies” Off-Broadway) of the 1932 source material — aside from one major character/plot change that I will withhold because it’s a spoiler — that combines the futurist qualms of H. G. Wells with the hedonistic sexual attitudes of D. H. Lawrence and a hearty dose of “Barbarella,” “Flash Gordon” or “Austin Powers” camp.

Like the novels it inspired — George Orwell’s “1984” and Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” — the story is set in the future (2540 A.D.) but the ideology and prescience are classic 20th Century conventions: genetics,   psychological conditioning, capitalism, communism, mass production, etc.

The government controls the population through genetically-modified embryos at “hatcheries.” All citizens look alike are assigned their lot in life (and job title) at birth in one of five social castes with Greek letter names, from Alpha (the highest) to Epsilon (the lowest). Free love is encouraged, but free thought, literature and dissent are banned.

The region is ruled by Resident World Controller Mustapha Mond (an ebullient Justin Matthew Sargent who sells this part craftily). This handsome engaging actor could sell you desert land on Mars. Part-gameshow host, part John Travolta in “Saturday Night Fever,” and part-CEO with a streak of mad scientist, Sargent enters the proceedings like an Alpha pop superstar with glitzy acumen in the show’s cornerstone anthem “Year of Our Ford’ as his Mond both embraces and mocks American industrialism and Henry Ford’s factory innovations and lays the groundwork for the time setting and corporate power structure in the World State.”

Marissa O'Donnell, Justin Matthew Sargent and Robby Haltiwanger in "Brave New World."
Marissa O’Donnell, Justin Matthew Sargent and Robby Haltiwanger in “Brave New World.” Photo by Ray Mata

Mond keeps order through mass distribution of the free blue hallucinogenic party drug Soma (no it’s not Soylent Green but Andron does cleverly reference it if you’re paying attention), which turns the lower caste into mindless, content drones and the higher social ranks into unapologetic nymphomaniacs who live by the mantra “Everyone belongs to everyone else.”

Enter, rather “re-enter,” into this sterile, sanitized world (from the Andrew Mannion’s pristine set design to George Martinat’s lily-white costumes and Lady Gaga-as-Andy Warhol wigs), Linda (Robin Skye), a former Beta who was left behind pregnant years earlier while on vacation outside the city at the Savage Reservation, and her “natural-born” son-in-black John (Robby Haltiwanger).

Haltiwanger plays our hero with earnest empathy and articulate intensity. John frames every situation in Shakespearean conflict and the Bard’s quotes. Shakespeare is the only author John had access to while in exile, and the play’s title is taken from a speech by a similar character, Miranda, in “The Tempest.”

The authors were quite generous with John anointing him not only the possible Messiah that could lead a revolution (“To Be A Man”), but also as a love-struck, conflicted young man caught between two incompatible worlds and codes of morality (“Should I?”) when he falls in love with Lenina (Marissa O’Donnell, who originated the role of Teen Fiona in Broadway’s “Shrek The Musical”).

This confused duo impeccably contemplates marriage and fidelity in “Where I’m From” and sexy foreplay in “What Are You Doing?” And Miss O’Donnell is effervescent in her portrayal of blissful ignorance and the damaged sex kitten in the cute girl group ditty “Be A Woman.”

Haltiwanger’s solo “Nowhere” in the second act is certainly one of the finest performances in the play as is Ms. Skye, in her raspy Elaine Stritch alto voice, in the disco-infused reprise of “Mommy’s Boy.” Ms. Skye’s metamorphosis is priceless during her hilarious re-integration into society (and Soma) when her appearance and persona begin to alter dramatically.

And as the peculiar, short redhead Alpha, Bernard, Jason Edward Cook’s is winningly nuanced with mannered freneticism and craftily mentors and identifies with the celebrity savage John.

Cook’s talents dominate the bombastic hip-hop tune “What An Event” and the witty “Shakespeare is Dumb” vignette with Blake Logan and Tyler McKenzie from the ensemble that renounces and rejoices the Bard simultaneously. This tune and its delightful direction/choreography is a keeper and, with the right catchy riff, has potential for being THE comedic hit tune in the show.

This adaptation is well-balanced in lyrical exposition and compelling dialogue. And the authors, believe it or not, don’t make up any of the outlandish elements in the script: The free-love tour in “Orgy-Porgy” and the zippy psychedelic “I Wanna Take You to the Feelies” are taken directly from Huxley’s novel which has been banned in numerous locales over the years. The feelies scene (“talkie” pictures in the book) is an impressive segment with some interesting props and special lighting effects, but I think this was a missed opportunity. For a hallucinogenic drug trip it was a wee bit sedate. I would have gone even grander here with the lights and projections!

The musical gets several light years of mileage (at least three numbers) from “Year of Our Ford,” which is a robust, bouncy upbeat song, but the production could benefit from an equally-approachable, new pop piece to buttress the finale.

Except for the few club tracks by Kevin Frost (Boy George’s music partner on “Taboo”) the lovely score is primarily traditional musical theatre and played live under the baton of New York-based music director Brad Simmons (with Aaron Price as assistant music director).

The direction by Thomas Caruso (most recently “Southern Comfort at NYC’s Public Theatre, “Dynamo: Seeing Is Believing” in the West End, national tours of “Matilda” and “Ghost”) is sublime, stylish and slick. It’s safely salacious but adventurous, especially given the small confines of the space.

Ryan Kasprzak’s choreography is crisp and effective with enchanting robotic, automated moves and I really fancied the gals in “Mommy’s Boy” that revive the Robert Palmer video dancers.

And while the stars and artistic team may be imported, the production’s design team is strictly local. Mannion’s sterile, monotone scenic design is brilliant when its light panels are beaming in hot neons from CJ Barnwell’s stellar light show, especially in the techno music bits. And the dual ultra high-def video screens are fodder for vibrant optics and the best use of video/projection of any theatre in the area so far this season.

And Martinat’s playfully, inspired looks and costumes beckon a plethora of influences: those creepy kids in “Village of the Damned,” Devo’s “Whip It” video, Britney Spears’ “Toxic” video and the fem bots in “Austin Powers.”

Matt Nielson is on sound design, Catori Swann is Technical Director, Kenneth Horgan is assistant technical director and CM Garrison is Production assistant. Stage Manager is Andrea Jess Berkey assisted by Jessica Tandy Kammerud.

Maria Buchanan, Alice Eacho, Sean Michael Jaenicke, Kaylor Otwell, Billy Steeves and Marthaluz Velez comprise the rest of the awesome ensemble.

General Manager is Aaron Grant; Jon Farber is Company Management Coordinator and casting is through Daryl Eisenberg Casting.

“Brave New World” continues through June 5, Wed.-Sat. at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. at NC Stage Company, 15 Stage Lane in Asheville. Call (828) 239-0263 or visit http://ncstage.org.

Sandy Staggs, a Spartanburg native, is Drama Critic and Publisher of Carolina Curtain Call and has been a journalist and arts critic for 20 years with staff positions and/or articles in the San Francisco Examiner, Greenville News, Spartanburg Herald-Journal, San Francisco Bay Guardian, San Francisco Observer, Oakland Tribune, San Mateo County Times and more, as well as an essay in the Hub City Press book “Stars Fell on Spartanburg.”

 

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