A couple days ago, I finally got to see the much-anticipated Venice, the new musical at the Public playing in the Anspacher, which is now double-featuring with the extended run of Here Lies Love, just across the lobby at the LuEsther.
I really wanted to like Venice, I really was giving it an honest chance. And in several moments, it does meet my expectation, even exceeds it, but I really wanted these two musicals to be a one-two punch combination for the Public, especially with how the performances are stacked on Saturdays. I discovered several audience members were finishing at one show to catch the other.
Unfortunately, I think the best way to put it is that Venice just isn't as fully realized as Here Lies Love.
In a dystopian future, a divided city known as Venice is under rule by the Westbrook Corporation, widening the gap between the rich and poor. Two brothers stand on opposite sides of the divide, Markos Monroe, a military general for Westbrook, and Venice, named after the city he is fighting to reunite from below. Two lovers likewise stand separated, the aforementioned Venice, and childhood friend Willow, who is engaged to Westbrook, but at the outset of the story returns to Venice's side, in hopes of opening the borders, and because she doesn't love Theo, who wants to attend the wedding of the two lovers anyway because he actually does love her. All this is fodder for the manipulative Markos, who is the true villain of the tale. The proceedings are overseen by a character named the Clown MC, with other roles by the able ensemble, such as Markos and Venice's mother, a Venice pop star known as Hailey Daisy, head of security Michael Victor, and Markos' wife.
So it's basically Othello, though Markos' motivations are a bit more Richard III than anyone, the love story is Romeo and Juliet, set against a backdrop of revolution and a struggle for power. The way the plot unfolds though, is characteristic of the play as a whole: nothing fully develops into anything worthwhile.
The music is mostly hip-hop, but there's some good rock beats and some pop anthems thrown in, with Willow (played by Jennifer Damiano) and her songs being my favorites. Haaz Sleiman and Leslie Odom Jr. are great as the brothers, both more than capable of singing what they're given, Odom being the slightly more dynamic of the two, but that's also because he's the far more interesting character.
Like I said though, none of the characters really do all that much, and everyone loses steam pretty fast. Markos' motivations become more unclear as the play unfolds, and characters that start with high credibility fall fast, like Venice and Theo, and characters that started mostly uninteresting stay that way, like Willow or Markos' wife Emilia. As interesting as Hailey Daisy is in the show, this fun mix of Madonna and Nikki Minaj, she feels rather shoehorned in, as does Anna, the ghost of the brothers' mother, who in her appearances adds nothing to the motivations of either character. Save for a few moments, none of the characters transcend the dialogue they are given. They are flat characters talking about dynamic ideas in a flat way. We must have a revolution! But why? None of the characters can answer you. This isn't to say the cast isn't talented, or fun to watch, I just feel they're working more as devices than people, as if the answer to every 'why' is "because it was written that way."
Every other element falls in to a similar line; I want to like it all, and a lot of it I do, but the elements don't add up to an interesting show, it's just completely lacking in cohesion.
To start with, I never for a moment believe Venice is a city in a class struggle. The set, while sparse, never suggests anything more than what it is: scaffolding. And the costuming, while interesting, at least for some of the characters, doesn't have much contrast between the have's and the have-not's.
The music is all absolutely very interesting, but it can get a little monotonous, particularly the hip-hop narrations, which all sound like the same track, and feature some pretty liberal slant rhymes. I'd be fine with that, but we've already seen on Broadway writers capable of good rhyme in the hip-hop dynamic, like Lin-Manuel Miranda for In the Heights and the last couple Tony Awards.
And that pulls me into my essential point: Venice's parts are interesting to look at and listen to because we've seen it all before: It's adapted Shakespeare, the set looks like Rent, of which I have the same complaint because I'm not willing to suspend disbelief over it, the hip-hop narration is In the Heights, although Matt Sax, who plays the Clown MC and also wrote the piece, is borrowing the idea of an idiosyncratic caricature of the writer as narrator is Passing Strange, two men in conflict over a woman is The Trojan War, and the whole thing plays out like a war comic, or a political thriller. Again, the characters are simply moving parts, not people I'm interested in listening to. The deus ex machina is even more forced than it should be. Markos doesn't stay true to the Iago characterization. Nobody is communicating on a personal level, just big ideas and concepts, and there is mistrust on every level for no particular reason. It's everything we've seen before, but it's not brought together well.
And that's unfortunate for such a talented cast, spirited choreography, some of the more pop-inspired songs are really good, and there's some parts that make it an interesting set. I just don't think any of it lends itself to the show's supposed central conceit.
Venice is a lot to buy into: you have to quickly learn the status quo of a futuristic dystopia full of people you don't know (and ultimately do not care about), a love triangle that from the outset you are confused by, an antagonist who is unrelateable, and a political dynamic based on miscommunications that seem careless rather than dramatic. The morals, the motivations, and the lessons are all unclear, and worst of all, the show ends its 2-hour-plus run by breaking the fourth wall, everyone dropping character, and telling the audience what amounts to "I hope you learned something."
No, sorry, Venice. I didn't. I wanted to. But I didn't.