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The jury meets jazz in Asolo Rep's 'Twelve Angry Men: A New Musical'

Asolo Rep's "Twelve Angry Men: A New Musical" runs through June 9 at FSU Center for the Performing Arts.
Asolo Rep's "Twelve Angry Men: A New Musical" runs through June 9 at FSU Center for the Performing Arts.
Image courtesy of Sorcha Augustine
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The jury of Reginald Rose’s “Twelve Angry Men” has been in session since 1954. It’s a good bet that most readers have seen it at least once. Counting various plays and movies, I’ve seen it at least five times. 

But I’ve never seen anything like “Twelve Angry Men: A New Musical” — a 2020 musical adaptation. David Simpatico penned the script; Michael Holland wrote the music and lyrics. These two brilliant minds created a brilliant new musical.

In case you somehow missed the American classic it’s based on, here’s a breakdown of the story.

New York City, 1954: A 16-year-old Puerto Rican boy is accused of murdering his abusive father. There’s an orgy of damning testimony. One ear-witness heard the kid shout, “I’ll kill you!” to his father. Seconds later, an eyewitness saw the dad get stabbed — and said the lad did it. After a few more seconds, another eyewitness saw the kid flee. The case against him seems open-and-shut.

Twelve angry dudes accept the jury summons. After the murder trial, they gather in a stifling room, on the hottest day of the year, to deliberate the pubescent defendant’s fate. But they’re not in a chatty mood. 

Most jurors have a verdict in mind. They aim to cast it, and escape the sweatbox room in less than hour. They first hold a straw vote; 11 jurors say the kid’s guilty. But Juror No. 8 (Curtis Bannister) has a reasonable doubt. For the rest of the story, he argues with the others. 

That narrative’s the backbone of Rose’s 1956 play — and Simpatico and Holland’s 2020 adaptation. Their “new musical” sticks fairly close to Rose’s story and characters. That said, its new jury is a multicultural mix of identities and origins. The diversity adds nuance to the jurors’ arguments.

Asolo Rep Producing Artistic Director Peter Rothstein directed this musical’s premiere at Theater Latté Da in Minneapolis. This Asolo Rep production is his second time around. But I figure it’s not a cakewalk. This show has a tricky scene structure — a constant counterpoint of gritty reality and trippy musical interludes. 

The jurors will have a normal discussion (or shouting match) for a minute or two. Bang! Without warning, they’ll burst into song. These leaps from realism to musical fantasy could easily get confusing. But Rothstein keeps your eye on the ball. You follow the jury’s arguments. The stakes of their verdict are never in doubt.

This musical’s 12 angry men come to life thanks to 12 talented actors. They’re all in top form. Here are a few highlights:

Bannister’s Juror No. 8 is the one stubborn hold-out, and the voice of reason. The irrational jurors all hate him. But Bannister’s character isn’t on a self-righteous high-horse. He’s always respectful, and never loses his cool. That earns him even more hate.

Charlie Clark’s Juror No. 3 pretends to burn with moral outrage over the defendant’s act of patricide. But it’s a smokescreen. The character’s son once violently assaulted him. That’s the true source of his anger. 

Juror No. 11 (Conor McGiffin) survived the Holocaust. He became an American citizen because he believed in the American idea. His character boils with rage when other jurors cynically dismiss our democracy. But he’s self-controlled and polite.

Benjamin Olsen’s mercurial set design serves this musical’s world-building. On the ceiling: rows of steel girders with industrial lights. Back stage: a painted backdrop of towering “Metropolis”-style skyscrapers. Center stage: a huge turntable with a long conference table on top. The director puts it all to work. Throughout the angry action, Rothstein uses the chairs for bits of business, and constantly turns things around. Nothing’s certain; nothing stays in place.

Holland’s jazzy music is whip-crack smart. It's smartly realized by conductor and musical director Jenny Kim-Godfrey, and her sizzling six-piece band. As to Holland’s songs, this lyricist/composer is skilled at both jobs. His lyrics serve the musical’s story; his music matches its mood. 

Holland’s score combines a syncopated Be-Bop beat with subtle echoes of 1950s detective shows. (Like the dangerous themes from “Perry Mason” and “Peter Gunn.”) Holland’s tunes are like ticking bombs. They hint of blow-ups to come. 

Mathew LeFebvre’s costumes capture the era’s wearable signifiers of class, race and status. (Back in the Fabulous Fifties, clothes made the man. Or unmade him.) LeFebvre knows the dress code. Paul Whitaker’s lighting has an apt film noir feel. Jurors disappear into the shadows at times. At other times, the lighting gets as harsh as a police interrogation.

Having considered this evidence, here’s my verdict … “Twelve Angry Men: a New Musical” is a very moving musical. Is it a faithful adaptation of Rose’s American classic? Not so much.

Rose’s original drama was claustrophobic. Twelve angry jurors were locked together in one room. They’re trapped and fighting to breathe. The musical’s jazzy interludes let oxygen into the room. And that kills the pressure cooker vibe.

Rose’s story was also an outside-in character study. You heard the juror’s words, but didn’t enter their minds. In Holland and Simpatico’s musical adaptation, the jurors sing their feelings out loud — along with a few civics lessons.

Thanks to these radical revisions, “Twelve Angry Men: A New Musical” goes beyond mere adaptation — and enters the realm of re-imagination. Sure, it remains fairly true in its spirit. But it’s not the claustrophobic crucible of the original play. This new musical is a very different animal. 

Don’t miss it. Then just for fun … stream the 1957 Henry Fonda movie.



Marty Fugate

Marty Fugate is a writer, cartoonist and voiceover actor whose passions include art, architecture, performance, film, literature, politics and technology. As a freelance writer, he contributes to a variety of area publications, including the Observer, Sarasota Magazine and The Herald Tribune. His fiction includes sketch comedy, short stories and screenplays. “Cosmic Debris,” his latest anthology of short stories, is available on Amazon.

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