Vaunted New Musical explores racial and gender divides—in a time before Shonda Rhimes.
Before Scandal examined the conversation of race relations in sex and politics, the nature of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings’ relationship swirled around the republic. And Before the House of Versailles was soiled by the Kimye wedding, it housed King Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette, a younger salacious couple with a bit more merit. On a Wednesday night in New York City, just a hop skip and a jump over some stale air condition, puddles, and tourist traps, I was transported to Virginia and Versailles by way of a refreshing new musical. Madame Infamy is the highly anticipated (it raised over $50,000 on it’s GoFundMe page by its supporters) period hypothetical by creative team Jp Vigliotti (Book), Cardozie Jones, and Sean Willis (Music and Lyrics) featured during this year’s New York Musical Theatre Festival. Told in a framed format, it transcends its audience to 1787, where America is plagued by the hypocrisy and depravity of slavery, (aside from the dehumanization, also characterized by the copious amounts of shadow families and enhanced devastation by public denials of such relationships) and France is at a mounting civil unrest due to debt and a colossal gap between the monarchy and its nation’s poor. While in the first sixty-seconds, the rousing string infused Immortalized confirms that this contemporary rock and pop sound will have you itching to dance along with the cast, it’s in the introduction of our two female leads as young women in their early teens at the foot of a crossroads, that solidifies the mutually beneficial relationship between the show’s story and its soundtrack. In a split stage, the similarities of these two historical figures come to light, with a charming shared dialogue. Although told in a different time period, the obstacles plagued by minorities (both in color and gender) that are presented on the stage are ever present in today’s society–just hidden better. An emphatic Briana Carlson-Goodman (Les Miserables) plays a-rough-around-the-edges Dauphine Marie-Antoinette with a heart breaking yet entertaining naivety, strengthened by her interactions with counterpart King Louie (a brilliantly awkward Jake Levitt). It’s in the evolution of the monarchy that painfully demonstrates the vilianization of women in any type of power. (See: Condolezza Rice and Hillary Clinton).
Madame Infamy wonderfully depicts the thin tight rope women are expected to walk thanks to a powerful and consistent story line: too much empathy and we are cast aside as having these raging emotions that are simply symptomatic of our gender. When we demonstrate unwavering strength, we are attached to the ever dreaded label: frigid.
Although this social commentary is ubiquitous throughout the performance, the songs are catchy enough to provide needed moments of levity (Chocolate and You Didn’t Hear It From Me are rib-tickling stand outs) alongside Xalvador Tin-Bradbury, who provides comic relief as the devilishly witty Count Mercy. Becoming Queen therefore inheriting a nations debt while still in your teens is daunting to say the least but it’s in the Hemings/Jefferson dynamic that bestows the most imperative societal conflicts. Bashirrah Creswell (The Lion King) soars as the love torn Hemings, displayed with a quiet strength yet, still a palpable fragility highlighted by her angelic range. Connecting the two heroines, is a poised Rachel Stern as the infamous wax sculptor Madame Tussaud (contemporarily one of the reasons for the stand-still foot traffic on 42nd and 7th), serving as the voice of reason throughout the musical. Though the cast carries this multi-dimensional show with ease, this musical’s métier comes from its ability to break through constraints the audience may hold. Quelling any fear that the jovial moments are flippant or even racially tone deaf is the role of Sally Hemings’ older brother James Hemings. The joy that these families found in the most deplorable, subhuman circumstances is a historically accurate depiction of the resiliency ingrained into the human spirit. The women of Madame Infamy struggle with when to follow their heart and when to follow their head, but it is James’ inner and outer conflicts that reflect contemporary problems that plague many minorities: who am I expected to be (to family, to society, to my co-workers etc.) versus who I am. Supporting the tangibility of this question are President Obama’s recent comments during the Walker Jones Education Campus Town Hall meeting on June 21, 2014:
“… the notion that there’s some authentic way of being black, that if you’re going to be black you have to act a certain way and wear a certain kind of clothes, that has to go. Because there are a whole bunch of different ways for African American men to be authentic.”
These comments are echoed by James, who struggles between his feared myopic desire to advance himself in contrast to the advancement of his people and the bittersweet binary that comes from the freedom to choose. The unfortunate culmination of all of his build ups and let downs come to a head during James’ solo number I Dreamed performed so intensely by an astounding, heartbreaking Justin Johnson (Rent), the audience was left examining his plight as the lights go to black, immediately at the scene’s climax. Any critiques for Madame Infamy are minor and lie in a few directing notes but with the ingenuity of the book’s plot, the brilliant music and fact that a range of audience members left busily checking the history behind the historical figures, don’t be surprised to hear of Madame Infamy‘s Broadway premier in the near future. “Was Count Mercy a real person?”, one fascinated audience member inquired during intermission. “How old was Sally when she left for Paris?”, inquired another. “Did history really go down like this?”, yet another. The crowd dispersed from the performance space with emotions that transferred from the characters onto them, with resonating certainty. And isn’t that the magic of theatre?