Bent Out of Shape

Dana Watkins in the title role of Eric Swanson Marianna Rossett’s “Edwin: The Story of Edwin Booth.” | JEREMY DANIEL

Dana Watkins in the title role of Eric Swanson and Marianna Rossett’s “Edwin: The Story of Edwin Booth.” | JEREMY DANIEL

One cannot regularly go to Off-Broadway or even Off-Off-Broadway theater and fail to be impressed by the talented performers on these small, often obscure stages. Let’s face, it, New York is awash in talent. That observation seems particular poignant when a piece showcasing a gifted group of professionals leaves something to be desired. Or, in the case of “Edwin: The Story of Edwin Booth,” a new musical now at St. Clement’s, is an outright disaster.

The show, with a book and lyrics by Eric Swanson and music by Marianna Rossett, ostensibly tells the story of Edwin Booth and his attempt to overcome the effects that his brother John Wilkes Booth’s assassination of Abraham Lincoln had on his career and his family. He is about to perform in “Hamlet” in New York City as angry mobs are massing in the streets. And some, I assume, are good people, as there is lots of excitement to see Booth, too. Well, at least that seems to be the basic premise.

The book quickly gets lost in its own storytelling and often borders on incoherence. Edwin is haunted by ghosts. In fact, his whole family comes back from the grave to torment him as he prepares to face the mob. These spirits are anything but blithe; they criticize and torment Edwin. John accuses Edwin of killing Mollie, Edwin’s wife, through neglect and alcoholism, when John was in love with Mollie all along. One can’t be sure, but at one point John appears to imply that if he had been married to Mollie both she and Lincoln would have lived.

A new musical contorts Edwin Booth; Cirque du Soleil has a new acrobatic sensation

Don’t count on that being accurate; the entire narrative is so jumbled that it’s often tough to know where we are, who’s alive or dead at which point. The transitions between times and places are so confusing and abrupt that one often feels whiplashed. There’s a lot of Shakespeare thrown in, too. The Booths did Shakespeare… all of them — a lot. Obviously, one way to flesh out an incomplete book is to put in a lot of someone else’s writing, especially if it’s in the public domain. This has unintended —and laughable —consequences.

At one point Edwin is playing Richard III and Mollie is Lady Anne. Offstage, Edwin and Mollie are falling in love, and the Shakespeare drops away just as Edwin and Mollie are getting married, at which point they burst into song. The startling effect is that “Richard III” is now a musical, which, come to think of it, might be an improvement over this, ghastly as that sounds.

Speaking of music, it’s not very good. For the most part it’s derivative. The opening number that sets the scene is a Sondheim knock-off. I fully expected the company, assembled downstage and facing the audience, to start singing, “Attend the tale of Edwin Booth…” There is a duet in the second act between John and Edwin that is a replica of “In Lily’s Eyes” from “The Secret Garden,” without the soaring melody or heartfelt lyrics. Much of the rest of the score sounds like snippets from Michael John LaChiusa or children’s television. Clearly, this is a composer who has yet to find her voice.

The lyrics are no better. Obvious, moon-June-spoon rhymes are at best leaden. In the final moments when singing about the positive reception Edwin received for his performance, with the lyric, “The audience rose/ They rose to their toes,” Swanson has gone full-on Dr. Seuss.

The company, on the other hand is uniformly wonderful. Dana Watkins as Edwin has the requisite matinee idol presence and a terrific voice. Paul DeBoy is appropriately domineering and egotistical as the pater familias, Junius Booth. Ben Mayne as Rob, the man hired to protect Edwin from the crowds, has a mature and beautifully developed voice that’s remarkable in a young actor. The women, Deanne Lorette as Junius’ wife Mary Ann and Patricia Noonan as Mollie, have clear, precise voices that are often thrilling, even when singing doggerel. Todd Lawson as Johnny has the most challenging and well-written role, and he fills it with color and heat that far outstrip the material. Adam Bashian stands out as the other brother, June, for his authoritative baritone and commanding presence. These are all impressive, accomplished performers who made the evening tolerable; each deserves to be seen in better material.

There might have been an interesting story or two to tell about Edwin Booth and the fallout from the tragic events, as Thomas A. Bogar did in the fascinating book from 2013, “Backstage at the Lincoln Assassination,” but Swanson hasn’t found it. Instead, I was left with the distinct feeling that had Honest Abe gone to see “Edwin” instead of “Our American Cousin” on that fateful night he might have been tempted to shoot himself.

Cirque du Soleil’s “Toruk” is at Newark’s Prudential Center through Sunday only. | CIRQUEDUSOLEIL.COM

Cirque du Soleil’s “Toruk” is at Newark’s Prudential Center through Sunday only. | CIRQUEDUSOLEIL.COM

Cirque du Soleil is back —do they ever really go away? —with a new show called “Toruk,” inspired by James Cameron’s “Avatar.” What this means, superficially, is that most of the acrobats and performers are painted blue and have tails, which makes some of their feats even more exciting.

The basics of a Cirque du Soleil show don’t change: a series of acrobatic acts are strung together around a story. In this case, the story is about a quest to defeat the evil Toruk, a death-bringing birdlike creature, and save the Tree of Souls.

It doesn’t matter if you don’t get it all. What you do get is one of the most dazzling and technologically advanced Cirque shows to date. In fact, more than any of the company’s recent shows, the projections and technology are easily as important as the human element. The effect is nothing short of stunning. From lava floes to waterfalls to magnificent puppetry and, of course, spectacular circus acts, “Toruk” is dazzling. There’s even an app that you can download that allows you to interact with the show. Though this is probably the least sophisticated technology the show employs, it does add a level of contemporary engagement and interaction that’s impressive.

“Toruk” is currently touring in the New York area and around the country. For fans of Cirque and lovers of spectacle, it’s a dazzling must-see.

EDWIN: THE STORY OF EDWIN BOOTH | Theater at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th St. | Sep. 15-17 at 7:30 p.m.; Sep. 17 at 2 p.m.; Sep. 18 at 3 p.m. | $59 at ovationtix.com or 866-811-4111

CIRQUE DU SOLEIL TORUK | Prudential Center, 25 Lafayette St. at Mulberry St., Newark | Sep. 15-17 at 7:30 p.m. | Sep. 17 at 4 p.m. | Sep. 18 at 1:30 p.m. & 5 p.m. | $65-$135 at cirqueticketsonline.com

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