REVIEW: THE TOTAL BENT IS TOTALLY MESMERIC

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Ato Blankson-Wood (foreground), Curtis Wiley, and Jahi Kearse in The Total Bent, with a book by Stew, music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, and directed by Joanna Settle, running at The Public Theater. Photo credit: Joan Marcus. 

"He forgave my sins and then we made amends. And, you know, that's why, that's why, that's why He's Jesus and you're not 'whitey'.

That's the opening lyrics to the song that filled the Public Theater's stage Saturday night from the new, electrifying musical, The Total Bent, from the creative team of Stew and Heidi Rodewald, who penned the 2008 Tony-Award winning, "Passing Strange."

The lyrics, sung by notable actor, Vondie Curtis-Hall, who portrays Papa Joe Roy, a smooth, tawdry preacher with a shady past, brings us into the first act with classic blues tropes and air.

It's all about the spotlight here—literally. Centered around the Civil Rights era at a recording studio in the Deep South, the play intertwines its tale on the foundations of pride, prejudice and religion, surrounding a father—Papa Joe Roy—and son conflict. The son here is breakout actor, Ato Blankson-Wood, who is not only looking to steal the spotlight from his famous father in character, but does so literally in his energetic and spellbinding performance of song and dance that would have made both the late Michael Jackson and Prince drop their jaws in awe. Yes, he's that good.

When Marty (Blankson-Wood) sets out to make his own mark in the music world, away from becoming the brightest star of the gospel like his father, a succession of trials hurls our protagonist into a kaleidoscope of transformations—all of them bad. It's the classic and all too familiar "forbidden fruit" story here, However, it's rendered agreeably through a flavorsome mixture of Rock ’n’ roll, show tunes and gospel that the play's creators, Stew and Rodewald, have fused rhythmically into the narrative.

The antagonist presents itself in the devilish form of an English music producer named Byron Blackwell, played with comedic charm and congenial zest by British actor, David Cale. When Blackwell convinces Marty to branch out on his own, the monster that ensues plays out to the materiality we've seen from so many famous figures in history who traded in their souls for fame and fortune.

The Total Bent takes us into familiar territory, but it does so with an artsy sensation and musical arrangements that not only had the audience in standing ovation mode by the play's end, but demanding the release of the musical soundtrack before leaving the theater.

 

The Total Bent opens Wednesday, May 25th at the Public Theater. 

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