WHAT “The Total Bent”
WHERE Public Theater, 425 Lafayette St.
INFO $65; 212-967-7555; publictheater.org
BOTTOM LINE Another form-bending musical about race and gender by Stew.
“Passing Strange,” which won a 2008 Tony for its wildly unconventional book and was translated with extraordinary fidelity into a movie by Spike Lee, is on my short list of live theater I’d see again right now if I could.
Denied that, an alternative choice — for some of the same reasons and some different — is “The Total Bent,” the next form-bending musical by the unclassifiable artist named Stew and his co-composer, Heidi Rodewald. I didn’t understand the ending, or else the creators and director Joanna Settle didn’t know where they wanted us to end up. Still, even without a clear destination, the intoxicating music with the sly lyrics, the take-no-prisoners performances and the laid-back hipster unpredictability make a heady journey.
Like “Strange,” which opened in 2007 at the Public Theater before a Broadway transfer, the new piece is part indie concert, part performance-art cabaret and a big part coming-of-age black-identity musical. But this one, titled after a Martin Luther King Jr. speech about the “total bent of our lives” and not individual moments, has less rock and more intricate waves of blues, gospel and jazz.
The story, at least in a bald description, sounds like a familiar father/son conflict about the church, gender, mainstream fame and a white producer come to the South during the civil rights movement to exploit black musicians.
But the plot is more contentious and mysterious than that. We are seated around what simultaneously feels like a lived-in living room, an altar and a recording session. Five masterly been-around musicians are there, while Stew, a big, bald Buddha of a force with a guitar, occasionally makes trenchant comments from a sofa. Rodewald — regrettably the only woman this time — plays her guitar from a corner.
Vondie Curtis Hall is galvanizing as Joe Roy, a TV preacher with mystic powers who forswore a cult-legendary blues career but kept his serpentine sensuality. Ato Blankson-Wood is equally complex as Joe’s son, an androgynous prodigy who wants to make glam-protest albums. David Cale is admirably inscrutable as the British blues fan with complicated motivations and a big music-hall showstopper, while Kenny Brawner and Damian Lemar Hudson serve many characters and purposes as the winning backup duo.
Stew is a gifted, funny, sardonic lyricist, clearly enjoying the tension between “whitey” celebrity — what he calls a “court singer in the palace” — and “Negro authenticity.” One song jokes that its lyrics “will never make it to Broadway,” and, this time, I suspect he is right.