Thursday, August 2, 2012

Zapata! The Musical

Revolution continues to ferment in musical theatre, at least as engaging subject matter. First came Les Miz, then A Tale of Two Cities, and now Zapata! the Musical, a promising new show which just completed its world premiere at the Pershing Square Signature Center as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

Inspired by the life of Emiliano Zapata (1877–1919), hero of the Mexican revolution, the two-hour show offers a fight for justice, a love story, colorful costumes, lively dancing and songs that capture the soul of each scene.

Director Elizabeth Lucas and choreographer Luis Salgado had to work hard to fit it all on the off-Broadway stage. Even with no scenery except projections and a few props, the 17-member cast, plus the larger-than life story, seemed crowded in the space. I like small musicals, but this isn’t one of them. It needs a Broadway theatre and I hope it gets one.

The strong (for the most part) cast is headed by Enrique Acevedo (third from left in photo) as Zapata, with standout performances by Maria Eberline (second from left) as Josefa, his girlfriend and then wife, and Natalie Toro (left) as his mother-in-law, Senora Espejo. (Zapata! is Toro’s second recent theatrical revolution; several years ago she took command of a Broadway stage as Madame DeFarge in A Tale of Two Cities.)

I found Zapata’s story compelling, but was thrown off by the modern day story of a young Occupy Wall Street member (Andrew Call, fourth from left) that frames it. The young man travels back in time to participate in Zapata’s movement, but if I hadn’t read the press release I’m not sure I would have understood what that was all about. It doesn’t fit well with the rest of the drama, which is certainly strong enough to play on its own.

(Interestingly, this is at least the second time Zapata has found his way into musical theatre. At the end of Ragtime, as Edgar is recounting what has happened to his family members, he mentions that Younger Brother fled south to join “the great peasant revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.”)

This Zapata! features music and lyrics by Peter Edwards and a book by Peter Edwards and Ana Edwards. The songs are rousing or festive, depending on the scene, and Emiliano and Josefa have a couple lovely duets. I was startled several times, though, to hear strains of Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita in the score, almost to the point of what sounded law suit provoking.

While the music was appealing, the sound was not. The show was horribly overly amplified, which was unnecessary in that small theatre and with belters like Toro. This really detracted from the quality of the production. Jesse Vargas provided musical arrangements and orchestrations. Kenneth Gartman was the musical director for the onstage (but unseen) band of eight musicians.

Visually, though, all was well. Asa Benally’s colorful costumes were delightful and Herrick Goldman’s lighting excellent. The show is off to a good start with this production, and I really do hope to be seeing it again on Broadway. It was a high-quality production for the bargain basement New York Musical Theatre Festival rate of $25.

Now in its ninth year, the Festival is the largest annual musical theatre event in America and is widely regarded as the essential source for new material and talent discovery, earning it the name the "Sundance of Musical Theatre."

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