Onalea Gilbertson in MATA HARI IN 8 BULLETS.
BOTTOM LINE: This musical retelling of the story of Mata Hari gives the historical figure her due.
The scintillating story of real life historical figure Mata Hari seems so befitting to theatrical productions that it’s surprising her life story isn’t depicted on stage more often. In David Rhymer’s Mata Hari in 8 Bullets, the life of this exotic dancer turned World War I spy inspires a number of rousing musical numbers. As a divorced woman at the turn of the century, Mata Hari supported herself by working as an exotic dancer and a courtesan for politically powerful men in Germany and the Netherlands. Mata Hari was later sentenced to death via a firing squad for allegedly working as a double agent and giving secret information about the French to the Germans. Hari’s brutal death is repeatedly shown during the play as many musical numbers end with loud gun shots and flashing lights. The show is divided into eight "bullets," one for each of those shot at her by the firing squad.
Other than a prologue at the beginning, this musical consists almost solely of songs. Actress Onalea Gilbertson performs the show mostly solo, although the musicians sometimes interact with her or play the role of nightclub emcees. While the emotions and tones of her life are well depicted in the musical numbers, the particulars of her story are not fully fleshed out (which may be hard to do as some of it is legend rather than documented fact.) The dramatics of each number could be stronger, perhaps with a bit more grounding in history. Gilbertson is an engaging performer with a strong, commanding singing voice, and is able to convey both vulnerability and seductiveness. As a dancer she shows great confidence in conveying her character’s sexual prowess, and moves with an appealing sensuality. While some of the songs, such as the dynamic “The Little Black Book,” capture the tone of Hari’s story well, many are slower paced. Given the dramatic nature of Hari’s life and her taboo profession, more dynamic numbers could have been created reflecting her story, particularly her exotic persona. Nonetheless, Mata Hari in 8 Bullets is an entertaining show that gives credibility to a historical figure sometimes made out to be a villain.
(Mata Hari plays at The Studio Theatre, at Pershing Square Signature Center, 480 West 42nd Street as a part of The New York Musical Festival through July 20th. The remaining performances are Thursday July 18th at 9:30 PM and Saturday July 20th at 5:30 PM. Tickets are $25 and are available at www.nymf.org or by calling 212.352.3101.)