The Body Politic
Presented as a Beta Musical (more than a reading, less than a full production), The Body Politic is an opera style musical about a transgender man who emigrates to the United States at the height of the Afghan War and settles in Chapel Hill, North Carolina. The show premiered in 2016, one month after North Carolina passed the “bathroom bill.” In response, a stripped down version of the show was then presented in the North Carolina State Legislature, apparently becoming the first opera or musical in American history to do so. Quite a backstory to consider when viewing this work.
Iphis, an Afghani girl, has been raised as a boy in the tribal tradition known as “bacha posh” that had a resurgence under Taliban rule when women were kept virtually under house arrest. Raising a girl as a boy makes her more useful to the family as a boy can escort females in public and get a job. The twist here is that Iphis discovers that she identifies as a boy and does not want to be a girl when she reaches puberty. The characters are Young Iphis and his Afghan mother, the older transgendered Iphis and his North Carolina mother, and Iphis’ best friend, a drag queen. The structure of the show takes us through both journeys simultaneously and is very effective.
The music is ambitious, complex and clearly indebted to Sondheim with a healthy dose of Middle Eastern rhythms and inflections. All of the show is sung and there are a number of gorgeous songs including “Peace and a Picket Fence,” “Sola/Fly” and “Snow.” I can envision many artists taking their stab at these and putting their own spin on them. At its best, the score is lush and poetic. But like many scores that force all dialogue into music, there is the inevitable overkill. Or is it listening discomfort? I would prefer a little quiet conversation between some of the songs to develop deeper emotional connections to the characters (especially Eugene, the best friend) and there are definitely scenes available for that treatment. The performers and demanding vocals were impressive throughout.
Presented in one Act, the show clocked in at 1:45 with an ending that seemed a bit rushed to wrap things up, perhaps due to NYMF time constraints. Adding my two cents: break The Body Politic into two Acts and reconsider singing nearly every single word. As I left the theater, however, I needed time to process what I saw and heard, in order to discuss all the depth, emotion and details. A solid offering and a great example of what this festival does so well.
Numbers Nerds is appropriately titled. A girl’s high school math team from Waukesha, Wisconsin participates in a Regional Math competition to try to get to Nationals. Difficult math problems and teen drama abound, but of the relatively light-hearted, mean but not so mean that we can’t have resolution and belt out together “I’m a numbers nerd …” at the end in celebration of not only nerdiness, but healing, resolution and acceptance. The program notes that the intended market for this show is high school, college and community theaters. There are funny bits for sure but hard to pinpoint the target audience here given the Carson Daly-era pop cultural references (albeit very funny), the Eliza Doolittle references (less so) and the fairly standard issue teen angst (unicorns, Catholic school girl uniforms, popular girl cliques… you get the drift). What about the score for Numbers Nerds? Hard to say as much of the singing was so big (and dare I say pitchy – I feel mean doing so!). Perhaps more modest voices in a high school with less amplification would solve the equation. A fun idea but a bit too long for my tastes.