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Monday, June 15, 2009

Review- Cleopatra: A Life Unparalleled (Planet Connections Festivity)

The Fab Marquee review by David Stallings.

There is a new festival gracing New York City, The Planet Connections Theatre Festivity, from June 11th through the 28th at 440 Studios. The festival has two main objectives: to nurture new works by talented directors, playwrights, and theatre professionals, and to nurture our environment and community. Every one of the shows featured in this festival is working to benefit a non-profit organization of their choice. The fact that all the theatre companies are themselves non-profits, is a testament that this festival is a great movement, and to top it all off, eco-friendly.

Having said that about the festival, I now need to talk about Cleopatra: A Life Unparalleled.

One would think that "Cleopatra the Musical", if told with a Webber-esque score and with an Evita punch, would be a promising endeavor. To one’s utter dismay, Cleopatra: A Life Unparalleled with book, music, and lyrics by Cheryl E. Kemeny falls so short of any mark one would expect, that very little can be salvaged. The fatal flaw that serves as the kernel of this melodrama lies in the concept. Telling the entire life of Cleopatra from puberty to death in under two hours—all in the guise of examining the gossiping pettiness of the sexual-political arena of the time is a bit much. It is also insulting that Cleopatra seems more like a Gossip Girl than the regal beauty who serves as an icon for strong sexual women. If the musical was conceived as such and told in the modern context of the afore mentioned prep school, the work would have fared far better. Unfortunately, Kemeny expects us to take her seriously.

Cleopatra: A Life Unparalleled
, begins with a monologue from a bratty insipid Cleopatra. The monologue is followed by a song, which retells the message of the monologue. This pattern is repeated for the next two hours. Pointless scenes only motivated by history itself and not by any relevant action or tension are followed by songs that serve the same purpose. Kemeny makes no distinction between Caesar and Antony, both of whose relationships with Cleopatra seem like they belong in Spring Awakening instead. To further matters, Kemeny brings in every person alive at the time and gives them a solo. This includes: Fulvia, Octavia, Brutus, Cicero, Calpurnia, Ptomlemy, and many more. Everything Kemeny ever heard about the life and times of Cleopatra are thrown into this pot, with no point of view or direction.

The piece is not aided in the least by director Barbara Labbiada, who decided to cast the musical with no one who seemed over the age of twenty-three. Even Caesar himself looks like he can barely shave. To further dire straits, the actors are directed to constantly touch each other in the increasingly adolescent love scenes. The production numbers are crowded and clumsy in this small space. And it would be remiss of me to not mention that the house seemed to be a fifty-seat black-box and they were mic'ed.

None of the young performers should be mentioned here, as they are thrust into roles beyond their years or abilities. If this were a college production, my hat would come off to them. As it was not, I can only look to the writer and director and worry about their taste level.

Kemeny’s one redeeming quality is her score—if at times bombastic. It definitely is reminiscent of pop-rock Webber without being obvious. Unfortunately, not a single lyric or line of dialogue bears insight or life. The line, “Stand by me, together we’ll make history” sums up the simplistic rhyming throughout. Kemeny would be best served finding a book writer and lyricist as collaborators. Her melodies have potential.

It saddens me that so much money, time, and energy were poured into this work without attention being paid to the basics. Even Shakespeare and Shaw knew better than to pack the life of Cleopatra into one tale. And cinema shows us what an undertaking it is. (Can anyone sit through the Liz Taylor film in one sitting?) Kemeny’s potential as a composer is evident. One hopes in the future, she finds a book writer and lyricist to support her efforts.

It is honorable that The Planet Connections Theatre Festivity
and Cleopatra: A Life Unparalleled are benefiting Women for Women International, a non-profit organization dedicated to helping women survivors of war rebuild their lives.

Planet Connections Festivity

Crystal Theatre & L2 Entertainment, presents
Cleopatra: A Life Unparalleled

June 13-27, 2009

The Robert Moss Theater

For tickets, detailed schedule and more information on the festival, visit

The Robert Moss Theater | 440 Studios, 440 Lafayette St, 3rd Floor | Manhattan.

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