Cleopatra - A Life Unparalleled
nytheatre.com review by Judith Jarosz
July 16, 2008
There are always inherent challenges when producing a large-cast musical (or one that should have a large cast) in a festival such as MITF. The time and space constraints can be particularly detrimental to the end result. My hats off to Crystal Theatre for giving it their best shot.
Cleopatra is of course one of the best known female figures of major power in history. In this musical we revisit her life in its entirety from infancy through puberty, and on through her young adulthood and untimely death. That's quite a story to try to tell in one sitting, but at two hours (without intermission), Cleopatra-A Life Unparalleled fits it in pretty well. Co-directors Cheryl Kemeny (who also wrote the book, music, and lyrics) and Char Fromentin (who also choreographed) manage to get in the more commonly known events of her life, such as her infamous relationships with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony, as well as generally lesser known tidbits like her dealings with her rival brothers.
The cast of 12 play all of the characters, most portraying two or more characters with varying results. This sometimes makes for some unfortunate comic moments, such as when the actor playing Julius Caesar after being brutally murdered on the Ides of March, comes back onstage as a messenger in a motley wig, prompting unintended laughter from the audience. Another scene, when Marc Antony stabs himself, evoked similar laughter which I don't think the creators where aiming for.
Most of the cast have very good voices. As the adult Cleopatra, the attractive Melissa Labbadia vocally maneuvers the pop rock style with relish, and acts well throughout. Mathew Surapine as Julius Caesar (among other roles) has a healthy operatic tenor that manages to blend in and balance the pop score, but I felt no chemistry between him and Labbadia. Gregory Kisken's Mark Antony strains a bit vocally, and does not muster the machismo to make me believe that he lusts for Cleo. Other standouts both in acting and singing are the robust Cidalia Alves as Mardian, advisor/minister to Cleopatra, and Samantha Kulish as Caesar's put upon wife, Calpurnia.
The music is an interesting blend of pop, blues-rock, Latin, and reggae rhythms, with thick harmonies, and very infectious at times. The weakness lies in the lyrics, which rhyme throughout, somewhat unsuccessfully ("you see it's all so very simple / go out and squeeze him like a pimple"; "you can't be serious / now dear, don't be imperious"; or "please don't leave me / husband you aggrieve me"). The staging is effective and the choreography alternates intriguingly between serious and tongue-in-cheek. The set of two simple white pillars is a smart choice by Mariner Pezza, but the costumes (which are not credited with a designer) run the gamut from garishly effective to thrift store tacky. The lighting by Michelle Mahar makes nice use of the limited facilities. The singers are ably supported by Cheryl and Alexandrea Kemeny on keyboards, Mikael Pivovarov on bass and guitar, and John Montagnese on drums.
All in all, this piece needs some work, a bigger budget and cast, and a larger venue. It might be beneficial to do it as a reading in the future until it gets on its feet, since the idea is a good one and the compositions show promise.