“He forgave my sins, and then we made amends.
And you know, that’s why, that’s why, that’s why he’s Jesus, and you’re not, whitey.
That’s why, that’s why, that’s why he’s Jesus, and you’re not, whitey.” (That’s Why, THE TOTAL BENT)
Lights come up on Papa Joe Roy as he sings That’s Why. For a moment the only light in the room exists on him, allowing us to fully invest in Joe and the meaning of his words. Slowly a light comes up to the left on Marty Roy, whom we eventually learn has written the song for his father to sing. These opening moments of the musical may be brief, but turn into the perfect introduction for that which the audience is about to experience. There is a conflict in this father/son relationship, and it is quickly growing as Marty becomes more invested in the fight that is taking place right outside the recording studio doors. He wants to write a song that can change America, and his father may not quite be ready for that kind of social change. Regardless, what the audience quickly discovers is that they are in for a musical full of dark comedy and drama, with some sensational music spread throughout.
Haven Theatre, in association with About Face Theatre, presents Midwest Premiere of The Total Bent
With text by Stew and music and lyrics by Stew and Heidi Rodewald, The Total Bent follows Marty Roy (Gilbert Domally, bringing a striking emotional connection through the music), a young black musical prodigy. When somewhat sleazy British Musical Producer Byron Blackwell (Eric Lindahl) arrives on the scene to make Marty a star, we are thrust into the challenging and heartbreaking story of this young artist’s upbringing. Marty must try to navigate how his relationship with his father can fit into his quest for a successful musical career, a journey that may quickly spin out of his control as the political landscape drastically changes and he comes to terms with his sexual identity.
A Heartbreaking Story Grounded in History
Stew’s musical is by no means told in a linear, traditional fashion, creating a puzzle for the audience that this writer found exciting to watch unfold. Director Lili-Anne Brown masterfully crafts the pacing of the piece, allowing just enough time for the audience to catch up before the next twist or turn arrives. At the heart of it is a story of a father and son relationship set within the context of the Civil Rights Movement. Marty’s father, Joe Roy (Robert Cornelius with impeccable comedic timing, as well as emotional depth) is a Gospel Star, and Marty writes much of his music – that is, until Joe and Marty realize their political differences may cause too many challenges to overcome.
Projection Designer Joe Burke helps ground the audience in the time period, with slides and videos that offer glimpses of that which is occurring on the streets – including elements of Martin Luther King Jr’s speeches. As we move forward in time, some of the projections become darker and tougher to watch. Two especially striking videos involve recordings of Marty sharing segregation laws. The first video is perhaps more expected, detailing how African Americans are not allowed to swim in white pools, or enter white-only establishments. The second video appears later in the play, and details the restrictions on African Americans’ ability to bleed or show emotion. The intensity of Burke’s projections increases along with the drama of the story, and sharply reminds the audience of the true challenges that exist for Marty outside of the recording studio.
Though the projections offer useful reminders of the very real hardships on the Alabama streets, much of the play itself takes place within the recording studio. The intimate feel of the Den’s space thrusts the audience right into the action of Scenic Designer Arnell Sancianco’s world, whether we are intruding upon the artistic-difference battles between Joe and Marty, or observing Blackwell slowly driving the duo apart with his own agenda.
A Light-Hearted Touch
As dark as the musical may be, in this writer’s view it certainly does not lose its fun, more light-hearted moments that become necessary releases in the storytelling. Surrounding this journey of father and son is a hit-score that at times almost invites the audience to dance along – particularly during some of the wilder moments of Breon Arzell’s choreography.
One especially fun scene was during Marty’s tour – specifically the “Marty Roy and the Up to Something Bible Belt Tour.” The stellar band lives at the back of the stage for the entire show, and for this scene the intimate space makes it feel as if the audience is in the middle of a concert. Marty takes the lead, with Abee and Andrew (Breon Arzell and Michael Turrentine, with hilarious stage chemistry) as his backup dancers. Arzell’s choreography takes up the entire stage, and when combined with Lighting Designer Jason Lynch’s flashes of bright colors, it was truly an event to see.
Powerful script and impeccable storytelling make The Total Bent, in this writer’s opinion, is a theatrical event like no other.
Note: This is now added to the Picture this Post round up of BEST PLAYS IN CHICAGO, where it will remain until the end of the run. Click here to read – Top Picks for Theater in Chicago NOW – Chicago Plays PICTURE THIS POST Loves.
Running through March 10, 2019
Thursdays at 8:00pm
Fridays at 8:00pm
Saturdays at 8:00pm
Sundays at 3:00pm
Running Time: 105 minutes, without intermission
The Den Theatre
1331 N Milwaukee Ave.
Chicago IL 60622
If there are no Goldstar Discounts when you click above, make sure to check the Haven Theatre Website to find out the full-price ticket availability.
For tickets and information, see the Haven Theatre website.
Photos: Austin D. Oie
Note: Excerpts of Picture this Post reviews appear in Theatre in Chicago.
About the Author:
Lauren Katz is a freelance director and dramaturge, and new to the Chicago Theatre Scene. She recently moved from Washington DC, where she worked with Mosaic Theater Company of DC in Company Management, as well as directed around town with various theaters.
Click here to read more Picture this Post stories by Lauren Katz.