Venice, The Public Theater, New York

In Venice, a new hip-hop/R&B musical loosely inspired by Othello, the titular city has spent 20 years in the grip of civil protest. In this dark-hued, energetic fable of a totalitarian future, a corporate entity called Westbrook has divided the state, with Willow, the daughter of Venice’s former president, exiled to a Safe Zone, where she is romantically allied with Westbrook’s kingpin, Theodore.

Willow, however, is in love with Venice Monroe, standard-bearer of those rebelling against Westbrook’s rule. She escapes back to the central city. In a plan to foment peace, Theodore – at the urging of Venice’s Iago-like half-brother, the military leader Markos – arranges for Willow and Venice to marry. Will all be well in the city-state?

As this is most decidedly not a comedy (the nuptials conclude the first act, not the second) the answer can hardly be yes. The interest, then, must lie in how we arrive at the conclusion. That trajectory sometimes strains credulity. We are asked to believe that Theo would consent to his mortal enemy marrying the woman he loves, and that the insufficiently suspicious Venice would do so publicly.

The conflict between Venice, portrayed by the charismatic Haaz Sleiman, and Markos, played by Leslie Odom, Jr, who displays a terrific singing voice, provides more engaging interplay. Their memory of their mother Anna gives the production, tautly directed by Eric Rosen, a stirring combination of tenderness and tension.

The music, by Matt Sax, and the lyrics, by Sax and Rosen (the latter wrote the book), can be frustrating. Too many of the songs rely on just three or four notes: it is as if the elements of an opera’s recitative had also to provide the arias. The ballads, taken by Willow, the sweet-voiced Jennifer Damiano, and by Markos’s wife Emilia, given rousing life by Victoria Platt, soar a bit more – and the finale, “We’re Not Children Anymore”, is authentically stirring.

More than 30 years after seeing Grandmaster Flash perform in the South Bronx, I have yet to see a musical in which hip-hop carries the storytelling duties of a book musical in an utterly convincing fashion. In Venice, the lyrics can be playful, creative and even witty, but they rarely advance the story or enrich the characters. I never fail, however, to marvel at the freestyling acumen of Sax, who plays the Clown MC. And I eagerly await what he and Rosen do next.

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