Review: ‘Baghdaddy’ at St. Luke’s Theater

“Alternative facts” and “fake news” are nothing new with the current presidency; they led to the Bush administration’s justification for the war in Iraq and its still-ongoing dire consequences. Marshall Pailet (music and book) and A.D. Penedo (book and lyrics) take a very smart and hysterically funny look at all the behind-the-scenes international machinations in the Off-Broadway return of their 2015 hit musical comedy Baghdaddy. Based on an original screenplay by J.T. Allen, the newly revised high-energy political satire, produced by Charlie Fink (Founder and Producing Artistic Director of The New Musical Foundation), is not just wildly entertaining, but also dead-serious in its reaffirmation of the ever-relevant maxim that Those who fail to learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

The cast. Photo by Ambe Williams.

Staged in the church basement at St. Luke’s Theater, the immersive show is presented in the format of a support group meeting, in which those from the US and German intelligence communities who were responsible for the debacle have gathered (along with the audience of “new faces”) for coffee and donuts to discuss their culpability in AA style (“I’m Berry, and I started the Iraq War”) and to revisit their actions during the momentous period of 2001-04. From the airport in Frankfurt, to the headquarters of the CIA and the BND (Germany’s equivalent), to war-torn Iraq, they relay how they all fell willing victim to the lies of an unstable Iraqi defector and [mis]informant under the codename of Curveball, who sought asylum in Germany and bettered his chances of getting it by fabricating an increasingly inconsistent story about mobile units of biological “weapons of mass destruction” that gave Bush all the ammunition he needed to wage the war he craved against Saddam Hussein.

Directed by Pailet with a fast pace and a tongue-in-cheek taste for Pop culture, the spirited ensemble (Brennan Caldwell, Jason Collins, Bob D’Haene, Brandon Espinoza, Joe Joseph, Claire Neumann, Larisa Oleynik, and Ethan Slater) sings, dances, and enacts a series of go-back segments (blocked on stage, down a central runway, and throughout the theater and audience) that parody the egotism, ineptitude, blind ambition, and egregious pay-offs of the key operatives, as they ignore protocol, violate the chain of command, and use the obviously false testimony to their own advantage.

Each member of the cast captures the distinctive personality and motivations of the eminently laughable but ultimately dangerous characters in consistently terrific performances that include classic comedy routines, a running joke about the non-existent German accent of an inexperienced BND junior interrogator, groan-inducing puns on German words, and across-the-board over-the-top dedication to climbing the ladder of success despite its cost to the rest of the world (as proclaimed in the group’s anthem of entitlement “We Deserve Better”).

The cast, with Joe Joseph (center) as Curveball. Photo by Ambe Williams.

Zany choreography by Misha Shields brings sidesplitting physicality to the hilarious narrative and score (with music direction by Rona Siddiqui and orchestrations by Charlie Rosen), referencing Arabic folk music, body percussion, and Broadway show tunes, boy bands and Europop (“Das Man”), male striptease revues, hip-hop, and rap (“Who’s Your  Baghdaddy?”). Costumes by Summer Lee Jack (the stripper-wear is especially funny) and lighting by Jennifer Schriever (including strobe and black-light effects) lend appropriate visual support to the scenes, while clever props and a simple set by Caite Hevner provide witty transitions to the different locales and imaginative uses for the empty donut boxes.

Baghdaddy will have you laughing out loud at its absurdist humor, while shaking your head in horror at the true absurdity of what really happened and the shocking casualties that resulted. If you’d like to do some additional fact-checking on your own, the team recommends Bob Drogin’s Curveball: Spies, Lies, and the Con Man Who Caused a War and Frank Rich’s The Greatest Story Ever Sold: The Decline and Fall of Truth in Bush’s America. You can’t make this stuff up – nobody would believe it. But you can, like Baghdaddy, keep it in the spotlight, so “fake news” doesn’t continue to dominate our so-called ‘intelligence’ or dictate even more calamitous foreign policy. Word up.

Running Time: Approximately two hours, including an intermission.

Design by John Christon (Konrad and Paul, Inc.).
Design by John Christon (Konrad and Paul, Inc.).

Baghdaddy plays at St. Luke’s Theater – 308 West 46th Street, NYC. For tickets, call Telecharge at (212) 239-6200, or purchase them online.

Baghdaddy from Baghdaddy Musical on Vimeo.


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