It’s less than 24 hours before the first performance of “Nero,” and the titular lead is still looking to the director and crew for line prompts for an alarming number of scenes. Watching such a tableau, one thinks of bad improv. But “Nero,” the brainchild of composer John Hansen-Brevetti ’07 and writer Greg Edwards ’05, was conceived eleven months ago.
The production is billed as a “new epic rock musical” and will be sponsored by the Yale Undergraduate Musical Theatre Company.
Certainly, “Nero” is laudable for its very existence. The cast and crew of Yale students have put in the requisite hours of late nights, grueling rehearsals, and academic sacrifices all in the name of the production, and in quaint Yalie style, Hansen-Brevetti even received the inspiration for the show after learning about the infamous emperor in Latin class.
But all this hard work and dedication is being obscured by ill-advised last-minute changes that appear to have thrown the entirety of the talented cast, crew and orchestra into a tizzy. On Wednesday afternoon (i.e. just a day before the first, attendance-by-reservation-only production of “Nero” was to hit the Off-Broadway Theatre’s stage) many of the principal characters received new lines, music and stage directions. The very plot of the musical was under consideration, as the creator and producers overhauled and revised elements that, as Executive Producer Elisabeth Schneider ’06 said, “didn’t work with the characters.”
And indeed, the characters are for the most part engaging and believable. Sam Frank ’06 plays a stoic and outwardly reserved Nero; David McIntosh ’07 makes a fatherly Seneca (Nero’s tutor) with an ever-present deep baritone to boot. Agrippina, Nero’s mother (Sarah Minkus ’08) and the vixenish Poppaea (Carly Zien ’08) square off for a space in the emperor’s bed. Each makes a convincing (and successful) play for control-via-seduction.
Bix Bettwy ’08, as well as directing “Nero,” plays a charismatic, downtrodden Britannicus, who throughout Act One makes both rousing speeches and inexplicably diva-esque vocal arpeggios on his personal slogan, “displaced.”
When the actors hit their strides and feel at home in their roles, “Nero” is a marvel. Lyricist Greg Edwards ’05 imbues the libretto with liveliness and wit, from an ode to statecraft by Seneca and Agrippina in “Diplomacy and Tact” to Poppaea’s louche euphemizing of lovemaking as music in “Make a Little Music with Me.”
And while many of the spoken rhymes in the musical’s dialogue sound ludicrous for their forced quality and gratuitous rhyming, Edwards turns a phrase with the best of them.
Poppaea’s assertion that “When you strum my lyre / I’ll sing an octave higher!” or Seneca’s assessment that there’s “No time to bring a war on / every time you meet a moron” could have come from the pen of a resolved Rodgers or a horny Hammerstein.
Shortly before the end of the two-act play at dress rehearsal Wednesday night, director Bix Bettwy ’08 called cut on a scene grown turgid with forgotten lines and fumbled blocking. “Just go on to the death of Agrippina!” he shouted with increasing exasperation. At this point (the end of Act One), I was unceremoniously ushered out of the theater and told that my services were no longer needed.
The anti-climactic condensation of a pivotal element of the plot into merely a frustrated director’s cue (not to mention the shunning of press) represents the squandered opportunity of “Nero.” While the play was rehearsed for five hours Thursday afternoon and the crew have high hopes for Friday night’s fully-booked show, the hesitancy and level of discomfort with the material this late in the game hurt the production.
A polished, Broadway-here-we-come rendition of “Nero” would have been the perfect culmination of weeks of work for the cast, crew and musicians. But in a world where rehearsals conflict with sections and writing a play comes at the cost of completing assigned reading, shortcomings must be accepted. Hopefully, by the time “Nero” opens to the public, it will have overcome its perfectionistic tendencies and will rely on the strength of its performers to carry the show.
Otherwise, what better way is there to mitigate the believability of a great story than by having the most reviled emperor of all time have his lines spoon-fed to him by offstage castmates?
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