By Tulis McCall
The Public Theater is shining brightly because The Total Bent is lighting up the joint in magnificent fashion. Stew and Heidi Rodewald have created a mind bending tale that grips you by the lapels from the first note.
That note would come from the smooth-as-silk talking preacher man Joe Roy (a brilliant Vondie Curtis Hall) who croons
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.
The Whitey would be the majority of the people in this audience (surprise) and Preacher Joe sends the message home.
Joe and his son Marty (Ato Blankson-Wood) are in the middle of a tussle that we know is not going to be resolved any time soon. Marty, who used to spend time in the bathtub looking in the mirror and composing, wrote the old timey preacher songs for Joe until Joe was busted for being a fake healer. There is some vague chatter about hoochie-koochie women, and the upshot is that Joe needs a come-back. The comeback that Marty is proposing is for Joe to get with the program in “Bluntgomery” and perform songs that will insult/challenge the white folks in the Civil Rights movement. There is a bus boycott going on, and Marty wants to ride that wave.
Joe wants things to stay the way they are, which is predictable and safe. Marty wants Joe to use his “inside voice” and sing new lyrics that speak the private truth they all know. And the twain are never going to meet.
Swirling around this duo are more men (the only woman on the stage is Heide Rodewald). Andrew (Jahi Kearse) and Abee (Curtis Wiley) are school chums of Marty who show up – kind of out of the blue – and become his backup singers. Also out of the blue is Byron Blackwell (David Cale) a Brit who has abandoned his homeland in search of the blues and the black people who create it. The fact that these characters appear out of nowhere and fall into lockstep with Marty and Joe is a mere detail. In addition the band moves in and out as characters in the story. This production moves so swiftly that backstory is just not that important. Stew keeps our noses focused on the present, and that is such a circus we never look away.
Byron is a catalyst who drives everyone apart as he questions religion, race and sexuality. He is swept away by Marty (and does some sweeping himself in the implied sexual relationship) until he gets an earful of Joe. Byron bounces back and forth between father and son, lost in a haze of bliss displayed in his twitching English music hall delivery of “Bluntgomery.”
Father and son battle on with crashing soaring music and a throbbing intensity that seems to achieve a climax more than once. Marty ends up in London as a tricked out icon (Blankson-Wood is spectacular) who seduces the audience with his power and relentless passion. Meanwhile Joe is turning up the heat on TV, advising his watcher to shoot their damn TV sets.
Somehow the London police arrest Marty – another of those wonky plot points that seem to be missing but who cares? – and Joe comes to bail him out. The gloves are off and the stakes are high. These men are messed up and equally matched. The battle is short and swift. The Final-Final-Final number, “I’m Afraid of Your Love” sneaks up on all of us, and we realize that we, like these two men, are raw and alive and mystified. In spite of the fact that, once again, the direction has 90% of the action facing the center section of the audience, with the folks in the far left and right sections of the house seeing a lot more butt than they had planned on, this is a spectacular production. Stew is a magician, and Rodewald is a brilliant partner for the road trip.
PS – not for nothin’, but it came to my attention during the performance that Oskar Eustis might want to give the Public’s Emergency Procedures Manual a look. There was a fire alarm in the middle of the second act (the exact song being performed was “Fire Bomb”) and everyone had to exit. It took almost 15 minutes for us all to make down the sinlge stairway available and out to the street, where we waited for another 10 minutes before we returned into the building. Had it been a real fire, I would not be writing this review because I would have been burned to a tiny crisp.
The Total Bent Text by Stew; music by Stew and Heidi Rodewald; directed by Joanna Settle
WITH: Ato Blankson-Wood (Marty), Kenny Brawner (Deacon Charlie), David Cale (Byron Blackwell), Vondie Curtis Hall (Joe Roy), Damian Lemar Hudson (Deacon Dennis), Jahi Kearse (Andrew) and Curtis Wiley (Abee).
Sets by Andrew Lieberman; costumes by Gabriel Berry; lighting by Thom Weaver; sound by Obadiah Eaves and Sten Severson; hair and wig design by Cookie Jordan; music director, Marty Beller; music contractor, Dean Sharenow; choreography by David Neumann; production stage manager, Chris DeCamillis; associate artistic director, Mandy Hackett; associate producer, Maria Goyanes; general manager, Jeremy Adams; production executive, Ruth E. Sternberg. Presented by the Public Theater, Oskar Eustis, artistic director; Patrick Willingham, executive director. Through June 19 at the Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, Manhattan; 212-967-7555; publictheater.org. Running time: 1 hour 50 minutes.