After premiering in KC, hip-hop musical ‘Venice’ gets a workout in New York

The Kansas City Star

“Venice,” the dystopian hip-hop musical that had its world premiere in 2010 at Kansas City Repertory Theatre, is to receive a second workshop at the Public Theater in New York, moving it a bit closer to a full-fledged production on or off Broadway.

A previous workshop performance for an invited audience was staged in August.

KC Rep artistic director Eric Rosen, who co-wrote the book and lyrics for “Venice” with Matt Sax, said a final run-through is set in New York on Dec. 11 for an invited audience of Kansas City Rep donors and supporters, followed by a Dec. 12 performance for supporters and producers associated with the Public Theater.

The Public is a nonprofit company founded in the 1950s by Joseph Papp and since 1967 has been based in the former Astor Library, where it operates several performance venues.

Rosen is directing the workshop, which will have a new cast member: Chris Jackson, who co-starred in “In the Heights,” a Latino hip-hop musical, on Broadway. Jackson plays the central sympathetic figure of Venice Monroe, a military leader who wants peace. Kevin Mambo, another Broadway veteran who played the title role in “Fela,” a musical based on the life of Nigerian music icon Fela Kuti, repeats his performance as the villainous Markos, Monroe’s brother.

Also in the workshop are Rebecca Naomi Jones (“American Idiot”), Claybourne Elder (who starred in the Rep’s production of “Cabaret”); J.D. Goldblatt, who appeared in “Venice” in Kansas City and a subsequent production in Los Angeles; and Angela Polk, another original cast member and a native of Kansas City, Kan.

“We’ve been working with the Public’s artistic staff since April to refine the show, and this is the culmination of eight months of work,” Rosen said from New York. “That was the agreement we made when we all agreed to work with each other, that we would do these two workshops.”

Eric Rosen, left, and Matt Sax

Rosen said that in developing the piece, he and Sax had made quite a few changes to the material, especially in the early part of the show.

“We’ve rewritten the beginning quite a lot,” he said. “I think the first 25 minutes are substantially different music-wise and storytelling-wise. We condensed the first half-hour of the play into a 12-minute prologue. Getting the exposition out of the way was tricky.”

Rosen said he and Sax have, in effect, moved the backstory on stage. The original show took place in the wake of a revolution. Now audiences will see the revolution itself.

“In this version the revolution is the beginning of the play,” he said. “The play used to take place over the course of a year and five days. Now it takes place in five days.”

If all goes well — meaning if the Public signs off on a New York production — the show could open in the fall of 2012, according to Rosen.

“But who knows?” he said.

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© 2011 Kansas City Star and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved

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