The New York Times

Before the Fall Theater Rush, a Festival Full of Song


"Caligula: An Ancient Glam Epic" - This big, brash show has received a lot of attention at the festival, and for good reason: it rocks, in that unapologetic way that favors volume over content and spectacle over subtlety. Euan Morton, who portrayed Boy George in the short-lived ``Taboo,'' is sensational in the title role, and so are the players around him: Brooke Sunny Moriber as Caligula's sleepmate sister; Michael Hayward-Jones as lecherous Uncle Tiberius; Gilles Chiasson as Seutonius, the fellow recording it all for history.

The story is the one you know and love, about the Roman emperor with the profligate ways - not in a league with the scandalous 1979 film, but close enough to satisfy the closet voyeurs in the crowd. Book, music and lyrics are by Eric Svejcar, who works twin themes: that paranoia can kill, and that - as is repeated several times in the play - ``sometimes people just get what they deserve.''

The music is not so much sung as blasted at the audience, but the best of it works nicely: a ridiculous chorus number early on called ``Daddy Leads the Army''; a rousing return from intermission, sung by Mr. Chiasson, called ``Stop Me if You've Heard This.'' The band is big and the cast is huge, and sometimes it seems the small Theater at St. Clement's won't hold them. But Michael Unger, the director, handles the traffic nicely and keeps it all balanced on several tightropes at once: the show is almost camp, almost parody; almost funny, almost a tragedy. When Mr. Morton brings Caligula to his drawn-out end, it may occur to you that Tim Curry circa ``The Rocky Horror Picture Show'' deserves a program credit.

by Kevin Manganaro

Trying to wrestle the sprawling, historical pop-opera out of the hands of Frank Wildhorn, Caligula - An Ancient Glam Epic has emerged as the hottest ticket at this year's inaugural New York Musical Theatre Festival. This daring new show a crowd pleaser in the making.

The story of Caligula begins in a Rome plagued by the paranoia of its current ruler, Tiberius. Innocent citizens are routinely put to death for even the slightest suspicion of treason, and this fate eventually befalls Tiberius' own nephew, Germanicus (Sebastian Arcelus) and his wife (the excellent Shorey Walker). Their son, Caligula, and their daughter, Drusilla, are taken in by Tiberius and raised as his own children, largely because Caligula is considered a threat to the empire. As adults (Euan Morton and Brooke Sunny Moriber), Caligula and Drusilla engage in an incestuous relationship, which further blossoms after Tiberius dies and Caligula ascends to the role of emperor. Forced to take a bride (public opinion scorns the siblings' relationship), Caligula becomes despondent about his title, and after Drusilla's death, he descends into madness, violence and debauchery. He tries to make his horse a senator. He even turns the imperial palace into a whorehouse.

This is dark territory to be sure, and to adapt it for the stage is a formidable task, especially for a first-timer. Luckily, composer/lyricist/librettist Eric Svejcar is well suited to the task. He's written a dynamic, energizing score. In particular, the Act One closer "Fall Down On Your Knees," in which Caligula's elevates himself to the status of a god, is flawless work. Svejcar, when he hits his target, has an admirable sense of how to use early '70s musical styles (various songs suggest artists like David Bowie, T-Rex and Queen) to convey the hedonism and excess of the Roman Empire at its full power. With the help of director Michael Unger's admirably kinetic staging, Svejcar highlights the majesty in Caligula's madness and its seductiveness. Jamie Fagant's sets, essentially just drapes and scaffolding, are entirely effective, as is the lighting by Joel E. Silver.

As he proved earlier this year with his Tony-nominated performance in Taboo, Morton is a major talent. He bravely looks at Caligula's complexities, showing us the wounded child inside this tyrant. His performance is the linchpin the show is built on, and he more than meets the challenge. His Caligula references a wide range of characters, from Rocky Horror's Frank N. Furter to Blanche DuBois to Hannibal Lecter to Catwoman. Cooing like a child one moment, growling out of his lowest vocal register the next, Morton always keeps the audience riveted. It's an outstanding star turn.

There are pros and cons to the Theatre at St. Clement's, where the show has been extended through October 9. Using this space, with its vaulted ceilings and stained glass windows, adds a certain element of grandeur that perfectly compliments the glam-grotesque feel of the show.

This show is almost certainly bound for a life beyond a festival setting, and with some of these issues ironed out in its next incarnation, Caligula is sure to rock even harder than it does now.

Book, Lyrics & Music by Eric Svejcar
Directed by Michael Unger
The Theatre at St. Clement's

From the start, "Caligula" feels like a winner. With its catchy glam-rock-inspired score and solid book (by Eric Svejcar), plus a strong cast headed by "Taboo" Tony-nominee Euan Morton, the well-paced (Michael Unger directed) show, a finalist for the 2003 Richard Rodgers Awards, has hardly a weak moment.

The narrative unfolds absorbingly. It's 16 A.D., and the paranoid Emperor Tiberius arranges for his nephew to be killed, fearing a plot, then takes in the nephew's young son, Caligula, who eventually strangles him, and becomes emperor himself.

Unwholesomely attached to his sister Drusilla -- there's even a nude bedroom scene -- Caligula becomes unhinged after she dies of a fever, and turns into a depraved and murderous autocrat.

Though the score was influenced by '70s rock acts, "Caligula" is constructed very like the early Lloyd Webber-Rice pop operas, though with dialogue. There's even a narrator providing (musical) commentary. Whatever their inspiration, Svejcar's songs are unfailingly good.

Morton conveyed the effete Caligula's petulance, cruelty, and vulnerability while singing powerfully. Denise Summerford, Brooke Sunny Moriber, and Gilles Chiasson registered in a first-rate cast. David Andrews Rogers' band provided exciting accompaniment.

With some fine-tuning, "Caligula" should soon be ready for the big time.