Creepy musical ‘Mortification of Fovea Munson’ premieres at Kennedy Center

Although the TYA show is cleverly centered on the whimsy of the dead — singing cadaver lab specimens! — the script could use a little more life.

The Mortification of Fovea Munson has all the markings of a cohesive production: a tight ensemble with excellent chemistry, costume and set design epic in scale and vision, and a smart audience hungry for strange, creepy tales like this one. Although the show is cleverly centered on the whimsy of the dead, the script could use a little more life.

Adapted by Mary Winn Heider from her novel by the same name, Mortification is a Kennedy Center world premiere that begins with one of the most original premises in TYA musical theater of late: lonely pre-teen Fovea Munson (Justine “Icy” Moral) works at her parents’ cadaver lab one summer when three bodiless human heads start speaking and singing to her. Yes, you read that correctly — disembodied heads (puppeteered and voiced skillfully by Dylan Arredondo, Jonathan Atkinson, and Michael Mainwaring) start singing to a 12-year-old, and they desperately need her to find a tenor for their barbershop quartet. Fovea reluctantly enlists Howe (Christopher Michael Richardson), a peer from school, to be their tenor and help make their dream of recording an album come true.

While facing pressure from the dead, Fovea must also bear the weight of the living in the familial expectations thrust upon her by her doctor parents and aging grandmother. Her mom and dad expect her to be a “Future Doctor of America,” though she isn’t sure that’s something she would want. Her Grandma Van, a Filipina immigrant, also constantly checks in on Fovea with new ideas for her upcoming funeral, though she is not actively dying at this time. This family and their problems felt real and familiar — the script is at its most salient and structurally sound in this storyline, particularly in the moments between Fovea and her Grandma Van (Regina Aquino).

Justine ‘Icy’ Moral as Fovea Munson and Regina Aquino as Grandma Van in ‘The Mortification of Fovea Munson.’ Photo by Teresa Wood.

Their relationship is the heart of the story. In each interaction with her granddaughter, Grandma Van puts out her hand for a pagmamano, or mano — an honoring gesture in Filipino culture that is performed as a sign of respect to elders. It is a way of requesting a blessing from an elder, and it involves the younger person bowing toward the offered hand of the elder and pressing their forehead on the offered hand. Over time, Fovea grows more exasperated with this gesture as Grandma Van grows weary of having to remind her of its importance. This deeply personal cultural conflict felt more alive than anything else onstage — though filled with humor, their scenes ground the screwball comedy and challenge the audience to think of what it means to live and die as an elder in America. It underscores how the United States treats the elderly — Fovea dismisses her death-obsessed grandmother as a melodramatic kook, but as she comes to see death through the eyes of her dead friends, she comes to understand, respect, and listen to those closest to death, including Grandma Van.

Now, that is already a rich enough story for an 80-minute musical, yet somehow, there is also a scattered plot involving the cadaver lab’s assistant (Farrell Parker) and a quasi-villain lab inspector (Jonathan Atkinson). While this thread is hard to follow, it is elevated by the strongest bops of the whole score (written by Justin Huertas), performed brilliantly by Jonathan Atkinson and the incomparable Farrell Parker. Their songs, including “Inko the Cremator Guy” and “My Dean,” drip with the spooky tone that fits the story’s aesthetic so well, especially compared with the thinner ballads Fovea typically sings. Most of her solos are repetitive and take up precious time that could be better spent fleshing out other characters. It is a mismatch — the best songs are paired with the flimsier plot points while the duller numbers get more stage time. This is no fault of the actors, who all perform their characters with nuance and spirit despite the constraints of the book and score.

Justine ‘Icy’ Moral as Fovea Munson and Farrell Parker as Whitney with ensemble in ‘The Mortification of Fovea Munson.’ Photo by Teresa Wood.

In trying to fit all this plot into a tight runtime, everything feels rushed — story points are covered in a breath, characters are underdeveloped (including Fovea’s best friend, who is introduced and forgotten swiftly), and entire arcs feel superfluous. There is even an ornate frog costume that features the detailed and gorgeous work of Erik Teague, but I could not possibly explain to you why the frog was needed at all. Though Mortification received a workshop at the Kennedy Center, it could use a few more edits to strengthen the script and streamline the story. While the most engaging storyline involves Fovea and her family, both her parents are one-dimensional, and the double casting of the mother and grandmother prevents either from getting enough stage time. The book emphasizes the external conflict over the pressing disputes in the family, and this is a missed opportunity to dive into the interpersonal family troubles that are all too familiar to its young audiences.

On its website, the Kennedy Center recommends this production for grades 5 through 12 — a surprisingly wide age range — but the book and direction underestimate the abilities of these audiences and ages. Kids, and especially teenagers, will likely feel talked down to in the many moments where the narrative’s momentum is halted to pivot to a redundant direct address by Fovea. During a talkback after Saturday’s performance, director M. Graham Smith mentioned that most of the creative team behind the book and music had not worked in TYA before, which confirmed my suspicions that both direction and script misunderstood their middle and high school audiences.

Michael Mainwaring as Lake, Christopher Michael Richardson as Howe, Dylan Arredondo as McMullen, Justine ‘Icy’ Moral as Fovea Munson, and Jonathan Atkinson as Andy in ‘The Mortification of Fovea Munson.’ Photo by Teresa Wood.

While so much of the book is torn between being rushed, unexplained, or overexplained, the characters themselves are so rich, funny, and worthy of a longer script. In trying to restrict themselves to an 80-minute show, moments that could pack an emotional punch are completely lost. If given the opportunity to more fully develop these characters and plot points, this musical could have the life it is begging for.

Running Time: 80 minutes, with no intermission.

The Mortification of Fovea Munson plays through March 19, 2023, in the Family Theater at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, 2700 F Street NW, Washington, DC. Tickets ($20) are available at the box office, online, or by calling (202) 467-4600 or (800) 444-1324.

Most enjoyed by ages 10+.

The program for The Mortification of Fovea Munson is online here.

The Saturday, March 18, 11 a.m. performance is a sensory-friendly performance designed to create a performing arts experience that is welcoming to all families, including those with children with autism or other sensory sensitivities.

COVID Safety: Masks are optional in all Kennedy Center spaces for visitors and staff. If you prefer to wear a mask, you are welcome to do so. See Kennedy Center’s complete COVID Safety Plan here.


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