Venice, a musical by Matt Sax and Eric Rosen (with additional music by Curtis Moore), comes to the Public Theater's Lab by way of Kansas City Repertory Theatre (of which Eric Rosen is artistic director) and Center Theatre Group; Venice had its world premiere in 2010 at CTG's Kirk Douglas Theatre in a co-production with KCRT and was named by Time Magazine "Best Musical of 2010" according to the show's program. It is, thus, not exactly the sort of fresh, undiscovered work that often comes to the Public Lab; is the Lab now a home for tryout productions of potential Broadway musicals?
Whatever its pedigree, Venice is a serious disappointment artistically. It's set in the future in an unnamed country that, I think, contains a city called Venice (probably neither the one in California nor the one in Italy). Twenty years ago, a terrorist attack killed 20,000 people in Venice and led to the installation of a kind of martial law under the auspices of a giant corporation called Westbrook Enterprises and the abandonment of the dangerous city by its leaders to something called the "Safe Zone." Now a young man, also called Venice, is leading a revolution against Westbrook Enterprises and by his side is Willow, daughter of the country's former president in the pre-Westbrook Era, who is also coincidentally the fiancée of the current head of state (young Theo Westbrook).
I found very little to grasp onto in this turgid, complicated plot. We're in the future but no one seems to have access to any modern technologies (for example, Willow and Venice have been literal pen pals, exchanging letters for two decades). All of the key players in the story seem to have known each other from childhood, suggesting that Venice and its surrounding country are very small places indeed. And, as my companion pointed out, all of the leaders in this society are about 27 years old. Where are the grown-ups?
Venice seems to me mostly to be a bid for Matt Sax to become the next Lyn-Manuel Miranda, a job he is sadly not particularly suited for; but nonetheless he wanders through the show in army boots and goth chic black narrating and sometimes vaguely participating in the action in a role that seems based not only on Miranda's ingratiating hero in In the Heights but also on Evita's Che and Cabaret's Emcee (the Alan Cumming version). Indeed, my main impression of Sax's work (and that of his collaborators) is how many musicals they have soaked up in their lives: echoes of Rent, Les Miserables, Fela, and West Side Story are also evident throughout Venice. Oh, and Shakespeare, too: the main story line is essentially that of Othello (the Iago-like character here is even married to a woman named Emilia!) and the final lines where the show's portentous moral is announced come from another of the Bard's famous works.
Sometimes mashups are interesting, but this only feels derivative. For me, it was extremely tedious to sit through. I wish I could say that the performances or other aspects of the production made the nearly three-hour running time worthwhile, but they don't (though I was impressed by the talent and energy of Victoria Platt, who plays Emilia). And I wish I didn't have to point out that the female characters in Venice are almost all objectified and/or treated as second-rate humans: I kept wondering, for example, why Willow, who seems to be the most intelligent and well-put-together of our story's young heroes, isn't the one leading the revolution.
Speaking of which: revolution in musical theater is certainly a welcome idea, but as long as NYC's important nonprofits spend their precious dollars on work like this, we'll need to look elsewhere for it.