By Sarah Downs
A Turtle on a Fence Post owes its title to a political expression for something that doesn’t make sense. Like a turtle perched on a spot it could not have possibly reached on its own. It’s out of place. You know someone or something had to help it get there. But what? Unfortunately, instead of illuminating the musical’s narrative as intended, this metaphor more accurately characterizes the production itself. It just doesn’t make sense.
With its numerous vignettes and songs, the piece is choppy and overlong. It does have potential, however. As a vehicle for a tale of a personal journey through trial to redemption, Morris’s real life story is well poised for success but only if the author cuts extraneous scenes and redundancies. He has tried to pack too many bells and whistles into one tale. Instead of moving at breakneck speed, slowing down the action and focusing on one coherent storyline would get the point across far more effectively.
In 2010, Hank Morris (Garth Kravitz), a political consultant and broker, pleaded guilty to involvement in a fraud scandal, despite being innocent. In the face of vigorous prosecution by then state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo, Morris eventually copped a plea and went to jail for what should have been only a short time. For some reason his appeals and parole requests were continually denied. As Prisoner #11RO731, he found himself thrown into an unfamiliar and frightening world, but one which eventually taught him some valuable life lessons.
The author has framed the narrative in a stand-up routine Kravitz delivers in bits througout the musical. The conceit works well as a threshold to the action, complete with a dynamite ‘Goldiggers of 1933’-esque opening number. It’s a great way to start the show. A similar number later on, with a kind of vaudeveille/”A Chorus Line” inflection is far less successful.
The excellent, versatile cast valiantly tries to make the best of uneven material, but saddled with constant character changes and songs of inconsistent quality, they can only do so much. Nevertheless each has a moment to shine. Garth Kravitz as Hank Morris showcases a little of everything. He’s funny and sober by turns, and has pop singer chops that belie his intentionally nebbishy exterior. He delivers throughout, especially in a powerful eleven o’clock number, Morris’s moment of true epiphany. (It just should not take place actually at eleven o’clock.)
As his girlfriend Leslie, Kate Loprest is lovely. She combines excellent comedic timing, emotional authenticity and a classic musical theater soprano with a lovely shimmer in her head voice. Loprest and Kravitz create a believable, dimensional relationship. Joanna Glushak as Morris’s mother draws laughs and sympathy in her portrayal of a broadly drawn character.
The show has good production values, with a modest stage set of gray, multi-level platforms arranged around a central turntable. Café tables frame the action as in a comedy club. Set changes are minimal and well suited to prison drama, enhanced by stark lighting and imagery of prison bars projected upstage on video screen. In this lonely sphere David Aaon Damane delivers a powerful performance, culminating in a moving, gospel-touched anthem to a more positive future. His strong voice and characterization resonate fully.
The lighting by Yael Lubetsky and projections by Stefania Bulbarella add dimension to the set, with projections of a dash of color here, an image of brighly printed fabric there, or delicious purple lighting and gobos to bathe a scene in starlight. Lubetsky turns the very air green when Richard E. Waits as the Abyss gets his Las Vegas on in a terrific uptempo number. Erik Gratton and Josh Marin play a variety of smaller roles and the occasional set piece. They are charming and fun, but we don’t really get to know them.
Prisoner #11R0731’s goal of creating a piece that examines complex relationships, conflict, integrity and redemption is admirable and worthy of exploration; the narrative just needs to be drawn out of the maelstrom.
A Turtle on a Fence Post, book by Prisoner #11RO731 (a/k/a Hank Morris), music by Austin Nuckols, and lyrics by Lily Dwoskin. Directed by Gabriel Barre, choreographed by Kenny Ingram; music direction by Aaron Gandy, orchestrations and arrangements by Steve Orich. With: Garth Kravits, David Aron Damane, Erik Gratton, Joanna Glushak, Kate Loprest, Josh Marin, Richard E. Waits, Janet Aldrich, Joel Newsome, and Robbie Serrano.
Scenic design by Walt Spangler, costume & make-up design by Vanessa Leuck, lighting design by Yael Lubetzky, sound design by Twi McCallum and Rachel Kolb, projection design by Stefania Bulbarella, hair & wig design by Bobbie Zlotnik.
A Turtle on a Fence Post plays at Theater 555 (555 W 42nd Street) through January 2, 2022. Tuesday – Friday at 8PM, Saturday at 2:30PM and 8PM and Sunday at 7PM. Tickets start at $69 and can be purchased here. All attendees will be required to show ID and proof of COVID vaccination and to wear masks.