(Please click on the title to see the complete review.)
After productions in Kansas City and Los Angeles, this hip-hop musical “inspired by” Othello has arrived at the Public Theater. Shakespeare’s plot has been so substantially reworked that you would do well to forget that connection. Shakespeare did not give us a dystopian society, chemical warfare, government by corporation enforced by mercenaries, revolution, half-brothers, a Lady Gaga-type singer or a bomb at a public occasion (too soon after Boston, in my opinion). The book by Eric Rosen, who also directed, is cluttered and overcomplicated. The music is by Matt Sax, who collaborated with Rosen on the lyrics. There is also a frustratingly vague credit for additional music by Curtis Moore. Sax, who appears as the play’s MC, bears an uncanny resemblance to Lin Manuel Miranda. So do his lyrics (maybe all hip-hop just sounds alike to my uneducated ear.) The cast is generally strong. For me the standouts were Leslie Odom Jr. (Sam on “Smash”) in the Iago-like role and Victoria Platt as Emilia, his wife. Haaz Sleiman (“Nurse Jackie”) and Jennifer Damiano (“Next to Normal”) are fine as the central couple, Venice and Willow. Jonathan-David (“A Civil War Christmas”) and Claybourne Elder (“One Arm”) make the most of their parts. While I found hip-hop appropriate for “In the Heights”, it seemed monotonous and alien here. Some of the musical numbers that break away from sing-song are quite moving, particularly a duet for Willow and Emilia in Act Two. The ending with the MC’s reminder that it’s just a play, followed by an upbeat song, struck a false note. Since this is a Lab production, the set and costumes, by Beowulf Boritt and Clint Ramos respectively, are simple but effective. The audience was wildly appreciative. I would not be surprised if it moves to an extended run at another venue. Running time: 2 hours, 25 minutes with intermission.