By Sandi Durell . . .
Labeled a musical comedy, A Turtle on a Fence Post, is an expose of the serious corruption prevalent in our political environment – a play with music to lighten the load – – In this case, referred to in the program as “… a fictionalized story inspired by true events.” The explanation in the program is lengthy but covers all the gory details.
With a book by Prisoner #11R0731, music by newcomers Austin Nuckols and lyrics by Lily Dwoskin, this is a story based on true events as told by Hank Morris (played to the hilt by Garth Kravits), who is the intense registered broker dealer who, for a fee, made lots of money for and giving advice to the NYS Common Retirement Fund, as well as a powerful political strategist. However, he refused to work for Andrew Cuomo’s political campaigns when Cuomo was Attorney General, making Morris the target of Cuomo’s relentless revenge.
We meet Morris in a stand-up comedy club setting where his story begins “This Is a Play About Prison” as he’s put under scrutiny by a group of reporters (the creatively tiered set-design, with band on upper level, tables with masked dummies seated on both ends, even a pop up cell commode by Walt Spangler speaks its own volumes). Significant time is spent on lambasting the power of the press and its inconsistencies as the press relentlessly throws questions at Morris.
The two key women in his life are his very Jewish mother played by Joanna Glushak (who, as most of the cast, plays other roles). Eventually, Hank finds time to fall in love with Leslie (the lovely voiced strong Katie Loprest) who becomes second fiddle to the endless phone calls Hank takes to do business with his growing clientele and hunger to succeed.
And then, as they say, the sh*t hits the fan, when Hank Morris became the poster boy to the political world of what happens when you say ‘no’ to Andrew Cuomo. Hank finds himself under investigation, speared by Cuomo, resulting in a 123-count indictment of fraud claiming Morris was a State employee (he wasn’t) and controlled the pension fund (he didn’t) even claiming Morris was running an organized crime ring, with a news media remaining steadfastly on Cuomo’s side. Cuomo used the Martin Act (first and last time it was ever used) which is NY Securities Fraud Statue designed to protect the public from stock market rip-offs.
Morris winds up pleading guilty to a single count – much to his wife and mother’s chagrin – he’s put into prison for what was to be one and a third to four years, but the rigged system kicked in to make certain his stay would be much longer.
We’re now privy to Morris’ schooling in the prison system (where this musical took shape), being shuffled into six different facilities. His new surroundings, the inmates and prison guards provide a good education – – “We’re All the Same In Here”- like Sars (Richard E. Watts) and Chasten (Josh Marin), Johnson (Erik Gratton) and others. An eye-opener for Hank, to say the least, especially when he meets the well muscle-toned chess playing “Z” (David Aron Damane) who sets the record straight (“Spin It”) adding another dose of humility to the self-assured Morris. They become inmate buddies, of sorts. Wife Leslie comes to visit offering hope (“Look at the Stars”) surprising him with a pregnancy that sadly results in her getting a dog (“Leave It All Behind”) – ballad with tearjerker substance.
Act II opens with Hank and the talented inmates in top hats with canes in a lively, campy “There’s Always a Second Act” later reprised by the nefarious ex-Governor as “New York Tough” . . . (“They won’t try to impeach/’Cause I’ll be off at the beach/Buying time for my second act”)
Theater of the absurd rings loud when The Abyss makes his entrance with a bluesy “Sliver of Hope” (including backup singers).
In the meantime, Morris, up for parole, is denied six times within 14 months and, according to Morris, it was all ‘illegal’. Although he appealed, the Cuomo administration intentionally delayed the appeals, making it impossible for Hank to go to Court and when he finally does, he gets another parole hearing repeating what he calls the “sham process” – – – Denied!
“Z’ gives a notable performance in his swan song going away party “There’s a Light,” while Hank, now in solitary confinement, sings a powerful “Alone in the Darkness.”
The cast is uniformly talented with notable voices (special kudos to Garth Kravits, Kate Loprest, David Aron Damane), under the direction of Gabriel Barre and choreographed by Kenny Ingram.
This is a story that touches on all things current including race, human behavior, politics, the skewed press, the parole system and its need for reform and gives a chilling description of Cuomo’s grip on corruption as he falls, more recently, from grace dealing with sexual harassment suits, the toxic environment he created and his Covid coverup. . .resulting in his recent resignation. “The Emperor never had any clothes.”
It’s a story of a New Yorker caught in a web who learns humility and how to forgive in one unusual place under very unique circumstances as it seeks truth. How much is truth, how much is fiction – you’ll decide.
Congrats to Yael Lubetzky for lighting design, to Twi McCallum & Rachel Kolb on sound design and costume & make up’s Vanessa Leuck. Projection design is by Stefania Bulbarella.
Aside from Hank Morris spending a lot of time feeding his ego, the production suffers from over-writing and needs a dramaturg’s hand to rein in the 2 ½ hours which could easily become 90 minutes with no intermission. Although many of the song lyrics are geared to and do tell and sell the story, you may find a lot lacking and simplistic.
Kudos to the band – Music Director/Keyboard 1 Aaron Gandy, Assoc. Conductor Keyboard 2 Nissa Kahle, Cello/Electric Bass Clerida Eltime, Drums Brandon Brooks, with orchestrations and arrangements by Steve Orich.
And what of the Turtle on a Fence Post? He found a way to get down!
The Turtle on a Fence Post at Theater 555 (West 42nd Street) (formerly The Pearl and Signature Theater’s home) runs 2 ½ hours with one intermission. www.TurtleMusical.com
Photos: Jeremy Daniel