Music & Book by Marshall Pailet; Lyrics & Book by A.D. Penedo
Directed by Marshall Pailet
Off Broadway, New Musical
Runs through 11.22.15
The Actors Temple, 339 West 47th Street
by Michael Hartung on 10.6.15
Brennan Caldwell backed by Brandon Espinoza and Claire Neumann. Photo by Jeremy Daniels.
BOTTOM LINE: A whip smart musical comedy based on a true story that’s sure to leave you laughing and thinking for days.
Nothing is better to me than a mimosa. And that’s exactly what I got when I walked into The Actors Temple on Sunday afternoon. But what's really impressive is how quickly I forgot about my favorite drink. There’s been little transformation to the Actors Temple aside from the seats arranged in a circle around a table of doughnuts, wine, and wonderful, wonderful mimosas. Though I hadn’t realized it yet, this was the first of many brilliant moves by director/composer/writer Marshall Pailet to engage the audience in what could be a dense 2 hours and 15 minutes. But before we know it, the show has started and we are part of a strange sort of support group. “I’m Berry and I started the Iraq War.” Inspired by a true story, Who’s Your Baghdaddy? Or How I Started the Iraq War follows five mid-level employees of the CIA that played pivotal roles in what could be considered one of the worst intelligence blunders in modern history.
Though the subject matter is heavy, Baghdaddy is a true musical comedy. How Pailet and lyricist/book writer, A.D. Penedo make this work is nothing short of brilliant. Their source material is a 2005 screenplay by J.T. Allen that, though admired in Hollywood, went untouched. Pailet and Penedo have proved that this story was eagerly waiting to be adapted into this seemingly unfitting medium. They are able to harness musical comedy in an intelligent, creative, and witty way that makes this shocking, true story, palatable. This is not only impressive, it is deeply important.
As the meeting continues, the action flashes back to how each character may have “started” the Iraq War. As we see their individual pasts unfold, we also see them intertwine. This show is in the hands of a truly outstanding ensemble of actors. They handle the fine line of drama and comedy with ease and often made me laugh before sending chills through my bones.
Every person on stage is a standout. Brandon Espinoza and Claire Neumann take control of the evening as the “male and female ensemble.” Their versatility shines as they use impressive vocals and physicality to become every other character in the story. Nehal Joshi is Curveball, the controversial Iraqi source of information. His powerful voice soars through this score and brings a tenderness to a complicated character. Olli Haaskivi gives a heartbreakingly heartfelt performance as Jerry Samuel, part of the analyst duo “Berry and Jerry.” Larisa Oleynik (who you may recognize from the '90s Nickelodeon hit, The Secret World of Alex Mack) plays overbearing Berry Stanton with conviction and surprisingly capable rapping skills. Bob D’Haene as weapons expert Martin Bouchard skillfully toes the line between intelligence and vulnerability. Brennan Caldwell’s spunk brings a likable eagerness to German junior intelligence officer, Richart Becker (not to mention his killer voice). Jason Collins perfectly rounds out the cast as Tyler Nelson, a CIA operative that is the only character who struggles to take responsibility for the Iraq War.
Misha Shields’ smart choreography expertly brings to life the story within the genre of musical comedy. Her work paired with Pailet’s direction creates a wildly imaginative in-the-round experience. The creative use of simple effects (flashlights, baby powder, rope and pulley, etc.) are profoundly effective and a refreshing success that at times rivals even some of the most technical shows on Broadway. Rona Siddiqui’s music direction and arrangements are every bit as creative as the rest of this production. Though the only instrument in the “orchestra” is Siddiqui on synthesizer, the use of out-of-the-box percussion and acapella-like vocal arrangements create a full bodied accompaniment to the exciting score.
Baghdaddy is nothing if not resourceful. It is truly magical to see what can be created with little more than a table and chairs, and a box of props. This show is a testament to bold and brave writers, a group of committed, fiercely talented actors, and a collaborative team of theatre artists. They have dared to do away with spectacle and in doing so, have allowed this important story to come to life with engaging brilliance.
(Who’s Your Baghdaddy? Or How I Started the Iraq War plays at The Actors Temple, 339 West 47th Street, through November 22, 2015. Performances are Saturdays at 3 and 8, and Sundays at 3 and 7. Tickets are $15-$47 and are available at telecharge.com For more information visit whoisyourbaghdaddy.com.)