Pyramid scheme


Cleopatra: A Life Unparalleled


Book, Music and Lyrics by Cheryl E. Kemeny

Directed by Char Fromentin and Cheryl E. Kemeny

Music Direction by Cheryl E. Kemeny

Produced by Crystal Theatre

Midtown International Theatre Festival

Equity showcase (through August 3, 2008)

Review by Michael D. Jackson


In Cleopatra: A Life Unparalleled, the life of the titular Egyptian queen and her relationships with Julius Caesar and Marc Antony is told through a pop-opera score in the vein of the early works of Andrew Lloyd Webber. This show was first produced a decade ago by Connecticut’s Crystal Theatre, a theatre studio and community theatre that has made original musicals a regular part of their programming. They have mounted a new production for MITF, helmed by the author Cheryl E. Kemeny with co-direction by Char Fromentin. The near two hour musical leapfrogs through history to depict Cleopatra’s reign, up to her alleged suicide by snake bite. With all that history to cover, the show only has time to give a sketch of the central historical figures. But, a musical about such a person can never hope to tell accurate or detailed history, so it might have been better to focus on a smaller portion of Cleopatra’s life, allowing us to really get to know her––or at least Kemeny’s take on her. What we get is a whirlwind reading of the Queen of the Nile’s resume.


The score is energetic and allows for some powerful voices to shine, but after a few songs in, the music begins to wash over in an ocean of sameness. Nothing special stands out, perhaps as much as for the lack of variety in the composition as the failure to build scenes toward the showcasing of what might have emerged as a great song here and there. A few of the songs have some good hooks: “Walk the Fine Line” spoke of how to handle Egyptian vs. Roman politics and was a song early in the show that did well at setting up the basic situation of the political aspect of the story. “Come Into My World” depicted the uniting of Cleopatra and Caesar with a seductive rhythm and suggesting the couple’s possible future of glory together.


Most story-based musicals are about love and Cleopatra has two love affairs to contend with. In the first half, Cleopatra is connected to Rome by her relationship to Julius Caesar, with whom she has a son. Romans aren’t too keen on this and the son’s life is put in jeopardy, but more importantly to history, Caesar is assassinated. The second half of Cleopatra’s story is dominated by her romance to steadfast soldier Marc Antony, who also falls into disfavor of the Romans leading to detrimental results. However, unlike the depictions of these famous characters by Shakespeare and Shaw, there is no serious delving into the two love affairs and barely a sense of how these three characters work on each other to win their super objectives. Very good songs might have come from such an exploration, but it was not to be.


As the Queen, Melissa Labbadia is visually ideal and her singing is quite lovely. Matthew Surapine as Julius Caesar has a spectacular voice that gives full power to his material. Between these two is a believable age difference that lines up with history and the essence of what we know about the relationship registers as truthful. Greg Kisken as Marc Antony, however, is only loud and imposing, strutting through the show as if he were acting in a silent movie version by DeMille. All of the supporting cast sing very well and do what justice can be given to the score; however, the acting is unacceptable. Even little 10-year-old professional Kyle Brenn as Cleopatra’s younger brother, who boasts the highest profile and the only Actor’s Equity status of the company, was allowed to be overblown.


There is a questionable tone to this show about historical characters, known best to us in classical terms, which are now singing and speaking in some sort of bridge between the classical and contemporary attitudes. Then there are the ridiculous killings with over sized wooden blades painted silver and invisible snakes to accept. On top of this are the costumes, coordinated by the author, which looked like the results of raiding a Halloween costume shop. They aren’t even fully Las Vegas enough to evoke purposeful camp. Were the show being presented in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan, the acting and the physical production might have made sense, but we were supposed to take the characters seriously. The production wasn’t classical, it wasn’t camp and it wasn’t rock ‘n roll––it was misguided.


What is unfortunate is that a well-trained director should have been able to make more out of this show as written. Although Kemeny’s resume boasts directing nearly one hundred shows, little of that experience is in evidence in this production. Kemeny could not steer her cast towards believable performances, but she could musically direct them to show off her score rather well. Too bad all the elements couldn’t come together to present a more intelligent overall production.


Box Score:


Writing: 1

Directing: 0

Acting: 0

Sets: 0

Costumes: 1

Lighting/Sound: 1


Copyright 2008 by Michael D. Jackson


Return to Volume Fourteen, Number Five Index


Return to Volume Fourteen Index


Return to Home Page