John Walker: the Musical
nytheatre.com review by Matthew Trumbull
August 15, 2004
Any show title that contains the name of a real person and ends in ‘The Musical” makes me nervous. I worry that it names a concoction that removes the marrow from a true story. The darkly funny, surprisingly thoughtful satire, John Walker: The Musical, The Adventures of an American Taliban, does the opposite at this year’s FringeNYC festival. Creators Jean Strong and John McCloskey embrace the details of John Walker’s life, and declare them too bizarre to form anything but a musical, with live rock &-roll supplied by the four-piece Taliband.
At the opening, the eponymous Walker, sung with a passionate rasp by Brian Charles Rooney, is being delivered to an extremely influential government fear-monger, E.D. (Scoop Slone), after being captured by his own country’s army in Afghanistan. E.D. plans to get as much political mileage as possible out the American Taliban, and arranges for Walker’s sham escape to set the stage for a brilliant chase and re-capture, further slaking America’s bloodthirst for justice. Walker and E.D.’s escape plot accomplice, Don the reporter (L.J. Mitchell), have different plans, meaning to get the accused to Jackie (Valerie Clift) at the Justice Department, who possesses papers exonerating Walker. These fictional plot points are juxtaposed with flashbacks to the actual life we read about in the papers: the awkward teenage years in white-bread Northern California; the conversion to Islam; the joining up with the Taliban and the capture thereafter.
I was able to vividly comprehend Walker and the forces that stand against him thanks to McCloskey and Strong’s bold, moving score, and its compelling interpretation by Rooney and company. John Walker’s oblivious mother, played with gentleness by Amy McKee, sings a pretty ballad of parental leniency called “I Support You” that is sweetly insane. The dry Mitchell powerfully grieves for the compromised debacle called the American media in the stark number “I’m No Hemingway.”
Through these deep explorations of what lies at the heart of the Walker saga, an interesting table-turn is pulled on the present administration. Their driven efforts to prosecute Walker in the court of public opinion, to cast him as a teenage maniac who went native, are parried by this musical’s offering of dignity to a young man who sought religious fulfillment, and found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time. The satirical element of the show is where we find our cartoonish villain with the Texas drawl, and Slone gleefully lets us know who he is really playing when E.D. confesses his baseball failures to a dominatrix.
The show requires Walker to confess none of his views on the practices of his beloved Taliban, such as public execution, male-only schools, and beatings for Muslims with beards that are too short. He may be the “good boy” his parents call him, but his shy smile might be a little brighter for getting off easy on these points in this musical.