The Tenth Floor
nytheatre.com review by Case Aiken
October 1, 2010
The Tenth Floor, a piece now showing at the American Theatre of Actors' Chernuchin Theatre as part of this year's New York Musical Theatre Festival, tackles the interesting conundrum of doing a musical about a person in solitary confinement, without resorting to being a one-man show. It highlights the story of a young man, Victor (Justin Gregory Lopez), accused of murder and awaiting trial. Isolated and wracked with guilt and fear, he is visited by visions of fellow inmates and people from his past, like A Christmas Carol but with a rebellious Latin version of Tiny Tim as the focal point.
A combination of the band being too loud and the actors not enunciating (they had microphones but it didn't make any difference) made it very difficult to understand what was going on in the opening number, but once the characters of Clayton (Gilbert L. Bailey II) and Cheche (Jeffrey Nunez) appeared, things became clear and interesting. Clayton and Cheche, who may be figments of Victor's imagination, or ghosts, or even demons, drive the story by bringing up visions of Victor's past life, tempting him to lash out even further and seal his fate; but they are in effect combatted by the visits from Victor's social worker, Georgia (Farah Alvin), who struggles to get through to him. The show is never too heavy handed, the biblical overtones are only truly apparent upon reflection, and Victor emerges a sympathetic and well-rounded character. We understand the circumstances that led him down his path and stand with him on his harder decisions, feeling just how terribly difficult those choices can be.
There is a lot to like in The Tenth Floor. It tells a compelling story, which is well served by J. Sebastian Fabal's good, if not memorable, score; and while Lopez and Alvin stand out among the cast, I was generally very impressed with the talent of the actors. The design of the show is also very slick. Representing the solitary confinement cell is a barrier of lights on the floor that Victor can never cross. However, when the scenes shift to Victor's imagined reality, the hallucinated characters pick those lights up and use them for a variety of effects, such as tattoo needles or the energy of an electric chair. It makes for a very strong though minimalist design choice, which I highly applaud. Conversely, the scale of the show I found distracting. The chorus of dancers came off as overly large, rarely relevant, and at times ridiculous. Seeing orange-jumpsuit-clad dancers spin about and do the splits almost made me laugh out loud, which I can safely say was not the intended reaction. This is an introspective show and having big dance numbers doesn't really work with that. A more defined role for the ensemble, and maybe a bit of paring down, would go a long way towards aiding the intimacy of the piece.
Despite a rocky start, I found myself enjoying The Tenth Floor, even more so in retrospect. There is a lot of potential that could be brought out with a little polish, but it is perfectly enjoyable as is. While not a show for children, The Tenth Floor is an excellent example of raw theatre: smart and uncompromising.