By Iris Wiener
Free donuts and coffee. Name tags. A church basement. Is this an AA meeting, or is it a musical? Actually, it’s a bit of both. Factor in political satire, vigorous choreography, dark humor, strobe lights and rap and rock music, and you get Baghdaddy, a show with a title just as bizarre as its storytelling technique.
The audience is a part of the show as disgraced spies sit among guests revealing their truths: “I’m Martin. I started the Iraq War.” The true story shifts from the church basement to Frankfurt Airport, where a mysterious Iraqi defector claims he built secret Iraqi bio-weapons labs. At CIA headquarters, other characters are contending with their own ambitions and crazy decisions when a fax arrives from Germany with a special opportunity. If the defector’s story has any legitimacy, it will be their way of climbing up the ladder.
The executive responsible for passing false intelligence all the way through the CIA (to become the justification for the Iraq War) was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2004. In a time when “alternate facts” are prevalent and the person responsible for them is in the highest office, this becomes an important fact to remember. Baghdaddy’s humor is based in the irony of horrific truth, but the musical’s message is as important and informative as it is entertaining.
The cast of eight is spread throughout the audience and on a stage that slips into its house. Just a touch away from being immersive, the scene is set to be that of a support group meeting. Once the action gets going, the actors are off like a gunshot and never slow down- much to the audience’s delight. An Iraqi engineer (Joe Joseph), an interrogator for the German intelligence (Brennan Caldwell), a biological warfare expert (Bob D’Haene), an analyst (Larisa Oleynik), a translator (Ethan Slater), and a company man (Jason Collins) lead the talented cast, while Brandon Espinoza and Claire Neumann, two of the most versatile actors on the New York stage, round it out with characters that are hysterical mockeries of different aspects of the perennial system.
Though Oleynik (a 90s staple from The Secret World of Alex Mack) is a standout performer with gestures so emotive they beg not to be followed, all of the actors here are uniquely exceptional. Choreographer Misha Shields managed to orchestrate a complex and energetic slate of numbers in an incredibly small space, making her achievement that much more engaging. Marshall Pailet’s direction is on point and clever, though some of his book (co-written with A.D. Penedo, who also wrote the lyrics) is a bit too metaphorical and quick for audiences to deftly appreciate. However, the music is catchy, so the book is mostly forgiven. With Baghdaddy, the gist of the story is what is important, while its nuances get lost in the chaos; perhaps that is meant to reflect the catastrophic mess that lead to the terrorist attacks of September 11th and the Iraq War. Either way, the overarching theme of embracing blame is worthy, and harkens back to a time when President Bush’s voice elicited disgust. Towards the end of the musical, one of Baghdaddy’s characters reflects on the events with weighty words, a tone of solemnity that is missing from the rest of the show: “Any of us could have stopped it, but we were all waiting for someone else to do it.” Baghdaddy can be a head-scratcher at times, but at its best it is a mirror for a society that very much needs to look at its reflection, even in the form of a quirky, Off-Broadway musical.
To learn more about Baghdaddy, visit baghdaddymusical.com or telecharge.com for tickets. Baghdaddy is now in performances at St. Luke’s Theatre through May 29th.
Follow Iris Wiener on Twitter @Iris_Wiener or visit her at www.IrisWiener.com.