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Theatre Review by James Wilson - June 9, 2024

Timothy Warmen and Ethan Zeph
Photo by Russ Rowland
A program note states that New York's AMT Theater in Hell's Kitchen was established for several different purposes, including serving "as a launching pad to Broadway" and presenting "children's shows which get young people involved at an early age." AMT's new musical, David, based on the biblical king, is certainly not ready to conquer Broadway, but with further development, this tuneful show could be a staple in schools, churches, and community centers. In the theatre world, that in itself would be a triumph akin to besting Goliath.

With music by Albert Tapper and book and lyrics by Martha Rosenblatt, Gary Glickstein, and Tapper, David is set in Ancient Israel circa 1000 BCE. (James F. Fenton's scenic design, Mary Ellen Stebbins's lighting, and Ashley Soliman's costumes simply and effectively convey Old Testament imagery combining elements of Broadway-style resourcefulness and visual references to Hollywood Bible epics.) The musical begins with the older King David (Timothy Warmen) facing (not-so) imminent death and preparing to pass the throne to his son Solomon (Caleb Mathura). He summons his political nemesis, the prophet Nathan (Kenny Morris), to officiate over the funeral.

With the arrival of Nathan, the old king recounts his royal ascent, beginning with his experiences as a servant (Ethan Zeph plays the Young David) in the army of King Saul (Danny Arnold). The callow young man is duped into combatting Goliath, the colossal Philistine warrior, and David's fate is sealed when, with a well-aimed shot from his sling, he slews the giant with a single stone.

David quickly earns the favor of Saul's family, including the awestruck prince Jonathan (Jacob Louchheim) and his sister Michal (Olivia Vadnais), who, against her father's wishes, eventually marries David. A shameless self-promoter and arrogant warrior, David falls out of favor with the king and becomes a pariah. When Saul and Jonathan are killed in battle, David is anointed king over all of Israel.

The first act of this musical that is directed by Kyle Pleasant sets up the story efficiently, although it gives over too much time to the bickering king and prophet. (Running two and one-half hours, David could use some cuts since there is a fair amount of repetition and unnecessary tangents.) Young David, like his biblical-musical compatriot Joseph, of Technicolor-dreamcoat fame, is a haughty and self-professed dreamer. Zeph brims with boyish charm, and he is immensely appealing in the role. The Goliath take-down scene, however, is disappointing because, using onlookers' narration and uninspiring shadow play, the stakes never really mount. On the other hand, David's triangular relationship with Jonathan and Michal is intriguing.

Things, unfortunately, fall apart in the second act. The musical hints at, but instantly backs away from, the eternally debated erotic attraction between Jonathan and David, and David's affair with Bathsheba is mentioned but not represented. Additionally, the warring factions in the narrative are not clear. People not familiar with the story would probably not understand how David, who at one point is protected by the Philistines, became king of Israel rather than being identified as a traitor to the nation.

Most egregiously, the act includes an excursion to Sodom and Gomorrah, which Bible historians place at least one thousand years earlier, but here it is used as the cause for the disintegration of David and Michal's marriage. (As was the custom of the time, David had several wives.) The ensemble cheerfully sing, "In the good old days of Sodom's boom/ You couldn't get a hotel room/ At Sodom and Gomorrah by the Sea," and the scene incorporates a dance (choreographed by Pleasant) that resembles Bob Fosse's hedonistic ballet as part of the "With You" segment in Pippin.

The score contains a lot of songs, perhaps too many, as they often get in the way of the storytelling. Yet, while there is a generic quality to several of the big, belting ballads and ensemble songs that are perfunctorily directed and choreographed, there are some affecting and rousing numbers. Warmen and Zeph, for instance, deliver a poignant "Strong of Heart," and Arnold earned sustained applause for "I Do Not Hate Him," Saul's vocally demanding Javert-like justification for bringing the insolent David down. Brother and sister Jonathan and Michal each have a chance to musically ruminate on the heartbreak David has caused them, and Louchheim and Vadnais are standouts among the cast.

David Wolfson is the music director, and he leads a three-piece, off-stage orchestra. Regrettably, the vocals and arrangements are not well served by Elisabeth Weidner's sound design, which gives the impression that the music is canned and programmed in the show by tracks.

As a new, Off-Broadway musical, David is undeniably worth rooting for, and hopefully, with work and modifications, this scrappy underdog of a show will have another shot at the bigtime.

Through July 13, 2024
AMT Theater, 354 West 45th Street between 8th and 9th Avenues, New York NY
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