By Ned Massey; Directed by Emily Hartford
Off Off Broadway, New Musical
Ran through 2.4.17
Gym at Judson, 243 Thompson Street
by Keith Paul Medelis on 2.4.17
Dyllon Burnside and Ned Massey in The Battles.
BOTTOM LINE: The Battles is a musical version of the behind-the-scenes story that (perhaps) inspired some of the greatest works of art.
You may have never heard of this story, but you’ve certainly heard of the artists Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo. While I'm sure there’s a great deal of artistic license here, Ned Massey’s compelling story paints (and sculpts) Salai (Dyllon Burnside), the lover of da Vinci (playwright Massey), as the inspiration for Michelangelo's (Joel Perez) famous statue of David. At the end of the first act we’re treated to a depiction of the inspirational sitting for the David sculpture. Massey offers us a lover’s quarrel between da Vinci and Salai, and Salai’s sitting for Michelangelo comes after a “chance” encounter in a bar. Payback is a bitch.
Characterized as a beautiful fuck boy with as much passion as sex drive, Salai fits right alongside the queens you love to hate on Looking, or, like, just about any over-produced reality show. So they tell me. The famous battles between these two great artists, lending themselves to the show’s title, are in fact much more personal here. And it works.
If you’re like me, however, you’ll wonder why musical theatre was the right medium for this story. Maybe you’ll wonder why, when two people are locked in a lovely moment, they have to cheat out to belt the high notes. Or why every number has to be a showstopper. But for the true-to-form musical lovers out there (you know who you are) The Battles is just the show for you.
Where the show fits the classic mold, it also notably departs from convention. For one, it’s unapologetically, refreshingly queer—restoring sensuality to the lives of notable historical figures Leonardo da Vinci, Salai, and Michelangelo. How often do we roll our eyes and just want the guys to kiss like the "sodomites" they are? The show’s word, not mine. This story is intimate and relatable.
Second, its grandiose figures are offered a sleeker, modern alternative with The Battles. The language feels fresh, the songs are appropriately R-rated, and the scenes play out on a simplified design with a contemporary score. The scenic design (from Stephen Dobay) serves up some IKEA Malm bed realness (you know the one) and the electric guitar is twanging at the all the places you expect it to be. The costume design, of earth tones, is one-part Lululemon, one-part H&M; the Renaissance garb occasionally tossed on play off this trendy, off-the rack gear nicely. Even da Vinci has a fashionable hair cut.
Perhaps it’s too sleek and intimate for the collection of showstoppers that the score wants to be. Or maybe this cast, with their assorted Broadway credits, are just craving a larger house than the Gym at Judson can provide. Although I suspect The Battles will be fought again soon after this workshop staging—I’ll make the prediction here: coming to a medium sized Off Broadway stage near you, followed by a cult-classic album that Jersey teenagers will sing for years to come.
(The Battles played at Gym at Judson, 243 Thompson Street, through February 4, 2017. The show is now closed. More information can be found at thebattlesmusical.com.)
The Battles is written by Ned Massey. It is directed by Emily Hartford. The choreography is by Madeline Hoak and Sam Stage. The music direction, orchestrations, and vocal arrangements are by Joshua Stephen Kartes. The scenic design is by Stephen Dobay. The costume design is by DW. The lighting design is by Kia Rogers. The Production Stage Manager is Jessica Kidwell.
The cast features Cheo Bourne, Shavey Brown, Dyllon Burnside, Missy Dowse, Ned Massey, Nicholas Park, Joel Perez, Ereni Sevasti, Brian Silliman.