Off-Broadway Review: “The Last Word” at the New York Musical Festival at the Duke on 42nd Street

Off-Broadway Review: “The Last Word” at the New York Musical Festival at the Duke on 42nd Street (Closed on Friday July 29, 2016)
Book, Music, And Lyrics by Brett Sullivan
Directed by Michael Bello; Musical Supervisor Conrad Helfrich
Choreography by Nick Kenkel; Additional Lyrics by Ryan Cunningham
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

Brett Sullivan’s “The Last Word” is a delightful new musical with a great deal to offer. Mr. Sullivan and his creative team have carefully thought through a musical that features an outstanding cast, a fully developed story with a clear dramatic arc, and an engaging theme that readily connects to the audience. “The Last Word” is one of the few “winners” in this year’s New York Musical Festival.

“The Last Word” here is not simply about one having the last word in a conversation: it is part of the clever trope used by Mr. Sullivan to develop his characters and their conflicts that drive an intriguing and comedic plot. That trope here is the extended metaphor of the iconic Scrabble game that protagonist Jay Subasinghe (Nathan Lucrezio) and his sister Santine (Jessica Jain) learned from their father Nish (Herman Sebek) prior to his death.

After his father’s death, Jay and sister inherited Paradise, their father’s Indian Restaurant in East Cleveland that Jay has neglected – Santine moved west – and now does not have the money to maintain the mortgage. Jay’s friends Neil Jackson (Travis Kent) and Benny Jacowitz (Philip Jackson Smith) are also struggling, not quite able to find the resolve to move forward in life. The musical centers around Jay’s attempts to save his father’s legacy from Earlene Floyd (Felicia Finley) who holds the deed to Paradise and wants to tear it down to put up a parking lot (yes, they go there more than once).

Neil is convinced to make a road trip with Jay and Benny, make a detour to Atlanta to pick up Scrabble star Carl (now Carlise), then head back west to make money on Scrabble (“Scrabble Hustle”). Sounds easy? Two minor problems. Santine does not know about defaulting on the restaurant yet. And Earlene gets wind of the scheme to raise the money and get the restaurant back and she and her two Billy Joes (Michael Graceffa and Kit Treece) plot to beat the team at their own game. To say more would spoil the fun. It is enough to say the Paradise team does not achieve what it expected but comes out on top in an unexpected way.

Nathan Lucrezio, Travis Kent, and Philip Jackson Smith are pure delight as the Three Musketeers-like band of childhood buddies bonding together to save Paradise. MJ Rodriguez delivers a moving performance as the transgender Carlise Washington who celebrates her true identity with grace. Felicia Finley’s Cruella De Vil-like Earlene is over-the-top nasty. And Michael Graceffa and Kit Treece who portray Earlene’s twin sons (why not have the same name?) are a seductive pair of powerhouse singers and dancers. Jessica Jain’s Santine is a young woman living with disappointment and loneliness. Ms. Jain gives her character the right balance of vulnerability and deep inner strength. And Herman Sebek as the spirit of Jay’s father Nish provides a calm spiritual presence in the midst of the musical’s fast-paced action. The ensemble is equally skilled at bringing their characters to level of authenticity and believability. Kudos to Amanda Braun, Kristian Espiritu, Haley Hannah, and Andreas Wyder.

Mr. Sullivan includes several allusions to Broadway shows and iconic personalities. Look for some choreography from “West Side Story” and a riff on the “Village People.” There are also some twists and turns and unexpected outcomes. Elizabet Puksto’s set provides spaces for all of the musical’s scenes and ties everything together with her Scrabble Board floor. Isabella Byrd, Christopher Vegara, and Josh Leibert have crafted appropriate lighting, costume, and sound designs. The musicians, under Conrad Helfrich’s direction are splendid. And Nick Kenkel’s choreography is the perfect blend of originality and a mashup of Broadway’s best. Michael Bello directs with a careful and sensitive hand throughout.

There are several musical numbers that show the Mr. Sullivan’s strength as a songwriter: Neil’s “Who Needs Friends Like Mine;” “The Word Is Out” the delightful song that reveals that Benny’s old roommate Carl is now “Carlise” (MJ Rogriguez); “Left on Rack” a captivating number that captures the lost hope and missed dreams of the pack of misfits; “Find My Way Home;” and the charming duet between Neil and Santine “Lost for Words” – words of affection between them and winning words in the National Scrabble Tournament. There is only one number that could easily be omitted. It is full of offensive stereotypes and though some found it funny, it is not and detracts from the overall musical.

“The Last Word” raises rich enduring questions about loyalty, letting go of the past, new beginnings, and the importance of friendship. It is a well-constructed and engaging musical that could easily have a future beyond NYMF. Just please dump the “Dementia” song. A musical that handles a transgender character with such sensitivity and care, need not disparage the aging and a terrible and insidious disease.