By Stanford Friedman
Baghdaddy is a great musical trapped inside of a good musical. Written and scored by Marshall Pailet and A.D. Penedo, and based upon the actual events that led the United States to invade Iraq in 2003, the production is sometimes at battle with itself. At its best, it is a touching look at how small, human flaws can escalate toward catastrophe. At its worst, it is sketch comedy, albeit with free donuts and coffee for the audience. In its 2015 Off-Broadway run, the show was called, Who’s Your Baghdaddy? Or How I Started the Iraq War. Trimming the title was a good idea. Decluttering some of the on stage action would have been an even better one.
The story follows six characters in search of the recognition they believe they deserve, but who end up seeking redemption and forgiveness instead. There is Curveball (Joe Joseph), the code name for the questionably reliable Iraqi chemical engineer who comes forward with information on Saddam’s supposed mobile biological weapon labs. He is interrogated by Richart (Brennan Caldwell), an underling in the German Intelligence who yearns to be “Das Man.” Meanwhile, the CIA is keeping close tabs on the investigation. Biological warfare expert Martin (Bob D’Haene) sees it as a way for his research to finally be appreciated. Berry (Larisa Oleynik), an analyst, hopes to prove her mettle by landing the case. Jerry (Ethan Slater), a translator, hopes to prove himself to Berry, and company man Tyler (Jason Collins) tries to keep everyone playing by the rules, with mixed results.
The creative team would have had a marvel on its hands if they had managed to craft the show with just these half dozen players, each missing signals from one another, an incorrect translation here, a lapse of protocol there, until the situation grew beyond their control. But instead, they add two interlopers to the mix. The Man (Brandon Espinoza) and The Woman (Claire Neumann) assume a variety of one dimensional tertiary characters including bumbling State Department officials, TV announcers, disco dancers and erstwhile narrators. They burn up a lot of stage time. Ms. Neumann brings a detached irony to each of her caricatures that seems at odds with the rest of the play. Mr. Espinoza, with a slew of Broadway musical credits in his young career, has more energy than he knows what to do with. His presence is magnetic but he seems to be performing to the 25th row of this 13 row theater.
Given more to work with, the rest of the troupe fare better. Blissfully unamplified, and drawing from a sturdy score that encompasses rap, rock, and ballads, each have fine moments singing, not at Broadway caliber but, even better, in the voice of weary subordinates, from Mr. D’Haene’s angry, “We Deserve Better,” to Mr. Joseph’s elegiac, “Speak to Me Tomorrow.” With locales that include Langley, Frankfurt and Baghdad, scenic designer Caite Heavner wisely employs a less is more approach with bare bones tables and folding chairs. Much of the action takes place in 2001 and intermission falls along with the Trade Center towers. Director Pailet, choreographer Misha Shields and lighting designer Jennifer Schriever deftly handle the second act opening number, “Change of Tone.” Lit only with flashlights carried by the cast members, the beams of light and moments of darkness provide a proper, ominous ambiance for the truths and consequences that lie ahead.
Baghdaddy – Book and Music by Marshall Pailet; Book and Lyrics by A.D. Penedo; Directed by Marshall Pailet.
WITH: Ethan Slater (Jerry), Brennan Caldwell (Richart), Jason Collins (Tyler), Bob D’Haene (Martin), Brandon Espinoza (The Man), Joe Joseph (Curveball), Claire Neumann (The Woman), and Larisa Oleynik (Berry).
Musical direction by Rona Siddiqui, orchestrations by Charlie Rosen and choreography by Misha Shields, based on a screenplay by J.T. Allen. Caite Heavner (Set Design), Jennifer Schriever (Lighting Design), Summer Lee Jack (Costume Design), Courteney Leggett (Production Stage Manager). St. Luke’s Theatre, 308 West 46th Street, 212.239.6200, http://baghdaddymusical.com. Through June 6, 2017. Running time: 2 hours.