THE TOTAL BENT: Not a Total Disaster. Not a Total Triumph.


Ninety-one years later, THE JAZZ SINGER is still with us – well, in a manner of speaking.

The famous 1925 Samson Raphaelson drama pitted an Orthodox Jew cantor against his son who had secular music inside of him and wanted to sing in beer gardens.

Now, with Stew and Heidi Rosewald’s THE TOTAL BENT, a similar plot occurs but with an intriguing twist. Yes, Papa Joe Roy (Vondie Curtis Hall) is an African-American religious zealot with (he insists) “overwhelming charisma” who insists that “If folks don’t have anything to believe, they don’t have anything at all.” But he’s a singer, too, who sings “the type of song that keeps our revival tents packed” in ‘50s Montgomery.

His son Marty (Ato Blankson-Wood), however, thinks “music can serve a liberation movement” with “songs that make history.” So Marty has far more belief in civil rights than organized religion. He says that at home his “Bible is next to Genet” and that he “wants to bring the wrong one to church someday.”

The by-the- Bible father has a bigger problem with his son who likes Danny Kaye but – here comes a cliché – doesn’t like sports. Stew thinks that Marty’s rebuttal of liking tennis only helps Papa Joe’s obvious point. Director Joanna Settle has Blankson-Wood vamp around the stage, making perfectly clear what he’s thinking before he sings of “the price I might pay for living my own way.” That Marty never states even in an inner-thought song “I’m gay” is period-appropriate.

Into their lives comes Byron Blackwell (a solid David Cale), whose surname may have been chosen by Stew in an aim to be symbolic. Byron’s a Brit who sees worth in Marty’s body and soul music, although not necessarily in that order. When Papa Joe infers what’s going on, he offers Blackwell a deal in order to stop the man from sleeping with his son.

Here’s that the famous musical theater conflict once again: love vs. career. This time, however, there’s more conflagrational potential. Can a black man trust a white man and vice versa in ‘50s Alabama when they weren’t used to collaborating?

The songs aren’t listed in the program, but there are plenty of them. The current generation of songwriters maintains that perfect rhymes aren’t necessary — unless, of course, a perfect rhyme occurs to them; then they grab it. Of the current crop of lazy lyricists, Stew offends the least. He does put some wrong accents on syllables, but by and large, his craft suggests that he owns a rhyming dictionary and often consults it.

So craft-concerned lyricists will nod in approval at his rhyming “flawed” with “God.” But born-again or, shall-we- say, congenital Christians won’t like the two words linked. They’ll have issues on the many questions that Stew asks about faith: “Why do black people still believe in God?” “Where was Jesus when they turned the ovens on?” As for “Religion is the drug of the oppressed,” it’s delivered as an offhand observation, although it’s a theme worthy of an entire show.

Stew is content to sidestep the issues and make much of the second part of his 110-minute intermissionless show a mere nightclub act. Sixty years ago, Sammy Davis was excoriated for doing this same thing in his vehicle MR. WONDERFUL. Today’s audiences don’t mind as much if a story is abandoned; they accept a detour and simply enjoy hearing song after song. When a singer holds a note for an inordinate length of time, they enjoy guessing where the halfway mark is located so they can yell out “Whoo!” (although, as any trained singer will tell you, holding a note is not the be-all and end-all of singing).

There are some sobering statistics about life in ‘50s Montgomery. Blacks and whites were forbidden to play any games or sports together. Even more startling: a black man could not wear clothes that had already been worn by a white man, or vice versa. Many of these observations are buttressed by some frank talk. Even Papa Joe isn’t above using profanity. Stew uses the N-word and references “backwards” and “uppity Negroes.” No, he’s not afraid to be period-appropriate (although some theatergoers could assume from “my bad,” which came into use in the ‘70s, that the show is set later).

Although Stew was center stage in his 2008 Tony-winning flop PASSING STRANGE, here he’s content to be a piano-and-guitarist pit musician. Every now and then he steps forward to give an observation or two, but so do the other half-dozen musicians (which include Rodewald, on bass and keyboards).

Much of the show has the dynamic Curtis Hall and spectacular Blankson-Wood singing into a stand-up microphone. They’re so close to it that they seem to be fellating it. Let’s lower it a little, shall we? The top of the ‘50s era large and heavy silver-grilled microphone obscures everything from upper lips to chin-bottoms. Seeing half a face isn’t much fun.

Many a song has an intoxicatingly “wrong note” that made Richard Rodgers’ music both famous and fascinating. Is either Stew or Rodewald responsible? Who can say? Both share a “Music by” credit. Whatever the case, their music is excellent and surprising. You’d never expect that a beautiful song would start with “Shut Up” and repeat it.

Lyrics are endlessly repeated. Remember “Poppa’s Blues” from STARLIGHT EXPRESS, in which a grizzled black man sang, “The first line of the blues is always sung a second time”? We all easily guessed what the next line of the song would be. Poppa then sang in the next section “Ain’t no law that says third line’s gotta be different at all.” Stew apparently agrees, for the line “Are you scared of your love?” is sung four times in a row; then when another character chimes in, we get it eight more consecutive times.

(Caloric counts are now routinely listed at fast food joints. Will theaters ever post advance warnings on how many times lyrics will be repeated in songs?)

Do give Stew credit for one of the best lines of the year. In a show that deals with the possibilities of religion as mass-media entertainment, nothing says it better than “I am the way, the truth and the spotlight.” How nice that he and Rodewald wrote a show that shines it so brightly on Curtis Hall and Blankson-Wood.