By Walter Rutledge
The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2011 presented the musical TUT for six performances October 12- 15. The Festival has built a reputation, and impressive track record of offering new and innovative works with the potential to move from workshop, to performance, to off Broadway and Broadway. TUT is a musical that is following in the festival tradition.
TUT tells the story of Tutankhamen the boy Pharaoh, who was striving to bring peace to his country, but is murdered as a teenage ruler. British archaeologist Howard Carter, played by Sean Maclaughlin, narrates the story. Carter’s life becomes obsessed to salvage his career with one great discovery, finding the lost tomb of the boy king. The musical effectively interweaves the lives of these two men who are separated by over three thousand years.
The production was choreographed, directed and staged by Abdel Salaam, with Grammy Award-Winner Marcus Hummon who supplied the book, music and lyrics. The musical also featured members Salaam’s dance company Forces of Nature Dance Theatre. The successful collaboration of Salaam and Hummon produced a musical of melodic power and beautiful imagery; and the entire cast of actors/singers and dancers were impressive.
Jesse Means as the sinister AY was the kind character audiences love to hate. Throughout the musical his treachery, usually delivered in stellar tenor fashion, had us hoping that TUT’s inevitable fate could somehow be rewritten. He was assisted General Horembeb played by Kris Coleman, whose stoicism perfectly compliment Means.
Curtis Wiley and Nkenge, as Tut and his child bride Anknesenamun, approached their roles with a naïveté and innocence that endeared the doomed couple to the audience. Each time they were on stage we felt an immediate empathy with their characters. Both performers were accomplished actors with outstanding vocal ability.
In many instances the choreography provided a visual narrative; it also produced concise and fast paced transitions. The Forces of Nature Dance Company performed the multifarious movement with aplomb and conviction. Dancers Karama Butler, Courtney J. Lewis, Johari Mayfield, Ryan Rankine, Georgey Southette, and Charmian Wells were all standouts.
The original concept was to produce TUT as an opera, this explains why this musical theatre production has such strong harmonies and a rich full sound. Hummon’s well-conceived and developed book placed this tale of romance, deception and betrayal in a dual historical context of the ancient world of Tutankhamen and the near history of Egypt at the turn of the twentieth century. The latter was an era when post-Victorian Englishmen still used the entire globe for their personal glory in the name of science.
Salaam’s choreographic and directorial treatment helped produce a hybrid musical/dance Theatre work of considerable depth and subtlety. The upstage singers were staged as Hierogliphs, which ingeniously never overpowered the primary action. The afterlife scene combined theatrical elements and movement driven staging, and gave the production an odd happy ending; which was the type of resolution the audience needed. The subtext of the scene followed the Egyptian belief that life was preparation for the afterlife and was a satisfying and unexpected plot twist.
Throughout the production Salaam used the sparse set to his theatrical advantage. This is usually the challenge a production at this stage of development encounters. It is also one of the reasons audiences enjoy The New York Musical Theatre Festival. The absence of grand production design allows the talent to shine. We look forward to see the “reincarnation” of Tut.
In Photo: 1) Nkenge 2) Jesse Means Kris Coleman 3) cast 4) cast 5) Curtis Wiley
Jeff Larkin photographer