Salvation awaits at The Total Bent, the bitingly irreverent musical satire from Haven Theatre. Papa Joe is a gospel preacher and singer hell-bent on saving souls through televangelism. His son, Marty, is the real talent, though, a radical singer-songwriter during the tumult of the civil rights era. Enter Byron, a British record producer who wants to capitalize on their music, and the passions that divide father and son grow, pitting religion against revolution.
From the hilarious opening number in which he proclaims “that’s why he’s Jesus and you’re not, whitey” to his conservative-leaning song “shut up and get back on the bus,” Robert Cornelius is mesmerizing as Joe. Gilbert Domally brings electrifying physicality as Marty, turning religion into an emotional mix of rock ‘n’ roll, gospel, and R&B. Michael Turrentine and Breon Arzell shine as amusing backup singers, and Arzell’s tight choreography makes the most of the unfortunately wide stage. The songs, with music and lyrics by Stew and Heidi Rodewald and performed by a six-piece band, sometimes suffer from awkward arrangements and sound issues and require nearly inhuman vocal ranges, but the cast pulls them off with aplomb.
A self-aware musical, occasionally vulgar and often hilarious, this is an emotional ride through familial and religious resentments before the characters find reconciliation. When Marty sings “my suffering remained after the myth of your love was explained,” his relationship with his father carries powerful religious overtones that make The Total Bent more than a great musical: it’s also great art. v