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The Total Bent

From 28 critic and 103 member reviews
Members say: Great singing, Confusing, Original, Entertaining, Ambitious

About the show

The Public Theater presents a new musical by Stew and Heidi Rodewald (creators of 'Passing Strange') set at the intersection of the sacred and profane, survival and liberation, gospel and rock ‘n’ roll. More…

When a British record producer arrives in Montgomery, Alabama to sign Marty Roy, a young black musical prodigy, we're launched back into the songwriter's tumultuous past. The son of a gospel star and self-proclaimed healer, Marty spent his childhood writing the tunes that made his charismatic father famous. But in an America on the verge of social upheaval, with an unrelenting appetite for celebrity, Marty finds himself at odds with his spiritually forceful father as he strives to make a name for himself—no matter the cost.

The Wrap

"Utterly original. Just like Blankson-Wood’s breakthrough performance…'The Total Bent' is a very pared-down all-male 'Dreamgirls,' with all of the emotional impact under Joanna Settle’s compelling direction...Most musical-history shows offer up ersatz versions of classics. Stew and Rodewald write songs that are the real thing and destined to be classics in their own right." Full Review

Front Row Center

"A mind-bending tale that grips you by the lapels from the first note...This production moves so swiftly that backstory is just not that important. Stew keeps our noses focused on the present, and that is such a circus we never look away...In spite of the fact that, once again, the direction has 90% of the action facing the center section of the audience, this is a spectacular production. Stew is a magician, and Rodewald is a brilliant partner for the road trip." Full Review


"The newest great musical to launch at the Public Theater...A bit more ramshackle than 'Passing Strange,' 'The Total Bent' is no less thrilling...If you’re at all familiar with the Stew/Rodewald collaboration, you know it produces wildly pleasing music across pretty much every contemporary genre. 'The Total Bent' is no exception and, as always, this one is just packed with heart." Full Review

The New York Times

"A blazingly entertaining new musical...'The Total Bent' can get a little fuzzy when it comes to the details of its story. Stew’s book is not always cogent, although it’s consistently funny...Even if you may scratch your head at a few points, 'The Total Bent' keeps you hooked through the surging power of its sensational score...At its best, 'The Total Bent' feels more like an ecstatic combination of revival meeting and rock concert." Full Review

Epoch Times

“A fascinating piece of work, ‘The Total Bent’ unfortunately falls somewhat apart toward the end. Characters drop in and out of the narrative abruptly, without the chance to give the audience the sense of closure the situation calls for...The score, on the other hand, is simply amazing. The various tunes and styles—ranging from gospel to hard driving rock—perfectly capture the spirit of the show’s era, as well as the temperaments of the characters." Full Review

NY Theatre Guide

"'The Total Bent' has left us rocking and rolling to just about every genre of music including gospel, jazz, rock, blues, and rap...In the midst of all the joke telling, at times it is a bit difficult to determine what is needed to propel the story...'The Total Bent' will leave you laughing uncontrollably, and with visions of yourself dancing on stage with the actors. This musical is an unapologetically honest portrayal of such heavy conflicts of race, gender, and politics in the most fun way." Full Review

Time Out New York

"'Total Bent' is a daring and overreaching sophomore musical…It’s a shaggy, idiosyncratic patchwork…Director Joanna Settle’s great achievement is crafting a physical production that looks like it sprang organically from a jam session…At close to two intermission-free hours it has its repetitive and dull stretches. However, the music is funky, fierce and sticky-sweet and you might get burned from the heat coming off the performers." Full Review


“A lofty jumble of a show that deals with God, the civil rights movement, the music industry, sexuality, and a haunted microphone, ‘The Total Bent’ only intermittently makes sense. But when the spitfire cast and outrageously phenomenal band burst into song, it's a religious experience of the highest caliber…A thrilling new score...Lyrically, the songs are sharp and often bitingly funny...At once messy and transportive, and thoroughly mesmerizing from start to finish.” Full Review


"I didn’t understand the ending, or else the creators and director Joanna Settle didn’t know where they wanted us to end up. Still, even without a clear destination, the intoxicating music with the sly lyrics, the take-no-prisoners performances and the laid-back hipster unpredictability make a heady journey...The new piece is part indie concert, part performance-art cabaret and a big part coming-of-age black-identity musical...Stew is a gifted, funny, sardonic lyricist." Full Review

Act Three - The Reviews

"Much of this show is about the music and the band - it seems the plot is secondary - with Stew leaving much up to your imagination to connect dots. It seems that it is really about ideas and themes rather than linear story...The concert-stage ready actors never fail to dazzle and blow the roof off the joint. I don't think this one is destined for Broadway given the holes in the storyline. But an enjoyable evening at the Public Theater is nothing to rattle your tambourine at." Full Review

Theatre Reviews by John Clum

"'The Total Bent' is well worth seeing for its dynamic music, the star-making performance of Ato Blankson-Wood, who is filled to the brim with talent, and the great band. Everyone in this all-male cast is excellent. The production is more staged concert than full production, which doesn't help the muddle of the ending. Stew's attempt at rhymed dialogue and his lyrics are best when they are taking a humorous view toward a very serious topic." Full Review

Theatre's Leiter Side

"Gold glistens most brightly in the galvanizing performance of star-in-the-making Ato Blankson-Wood, the top-notch company surrounding him, and the foot-stomping, finger-clicking gospel, blues, rock, funk, and jazz score. The book..., though, is dross...The storytelling is vague and the characters more shadows than substance. But the performances...are all terrific, most extraordinary being newcomer Blankson-Woods." Full Review


"Musically, it excels, but the surrounding narrative, which is at times awkward or chaotic, lacks the fine polish of the songs and performances. One of the show's strongest assets is its skillfully assembled cast...All of this gives 'The Total Bent' plenty of substance to underlie its style, and all the more reason that clarifying the show's confusing aspects would be worthwhile...It's already a very strong piece, but there's still some fine-tuning to be done before 'Bent' becomes total." Full Review


"Director Joanna Settle keeps up the pace and holds things together as much as possible in this soulful, nonlinear, and humorously serious work. But the music-driven trajectory with scattered story fragments floating in and out seems more like separate bents than a total bent...Toward the end the convoluted narrative arc bends, and the musical becomes a rock concert. The music is so entertaining that you almost don’t care that the text is a bit of a rambling mess." Full Review

New York Theater

"'The Total Bent' is a concept album whose creators are besotted with its concepts…Much of the sharp wit feels thrown in, rather than part of an overall design…This larger point may be lost. The details of the plot may be vague and confusing. But every cast member sings wonderfully, the band is in top form, and the music provides all the momentum that the typical concert-goer (if not necessarily the typical theatergoer) would need." Full Review


"The terrific Vondie Curtis Hall plays the seductively slithering gospel singing preacher and faith healer Papa Joe Roy...The story gets fuzzy in this one, which, after establishing its themes, evolves into more of a concert with a thin narrative. As directed by Joanna Settle, this keenly-performed premiere production displays the piece as an enjoyable work in progress with high potential." Full Review

Times Square Chronicles

"Joanna Settle's direction keeps the show moving and brings out phenomenal performances but does not flesh out the show's story or meaning. It takes a village to build a show and Stew and Settle fail at telling a story that doesn’t leave the audience confused. The intoxicating score played by a superb seven-piece onstage band is the reason you will walk out of this show wanting to see it again and again. It is intoxicating and will draw you back despite the flaws in its structure." Full Review

The Hollywood Reporter

"As theater, the hopelessly muddled 'The Total Bent' makes a great concert...I was hard-pressed to figure out exactly what was going on in the narratively confused proceedings whose plot elements include a seemingly haunted microphone. Fortunately, the rousing score — played by a terrific seven-piece onstage band including Stew and Rodewald — provides ample compensation for the befuddling storyline." Full Review

New York Daily News

"Stew and Heidi Rodewald’s new musical is sometimes thrilling. It’s also sometimes snoozy, without much to say — or at least to say clearly...At the dawn of the Civil Rights movement, sexually adventuresome Marty (Ato Blankson-Wood, magnetic) must break away from his gospel-singing father (Vondie Curtis-Hall, supercool) to make his own mark. That’s pretty much it. But when there’s music, 'Total Bent' grooves with bluesy, funky urgency." Full Review

Theater Life

“An uneven production...The new rock musical from Stew and Heidi Rodewald of ‘Passing Strange’ fame, starts out with a potentially strong premise...Vondie Curtis-Hall and Ato Blankson-Wood give thrilling vocal and dramatic limning of the combatants and the score is sizzling. But the plot becomes repetitious and feels drawn out at less than two hours.” Full Review


"It's a show with ambition and talent to spare, but also a frustratingly muddled story…The musical numbers by Stew and Rodewald move fluidly from gospel to James Brown-flavored funk to Prince-ified pop, and Blankson-Wood is a wonder…But the text by Stew lacks focus and refinement. The central conflict between Joe Roy and Marty is undercooked…There's a great musical buried somewhere inside 'The Total Bent,' but it will take some further excavating to draw it out." Full Review


"Blankson-Wood and Hall are dynamic performers, and they’re particularly powerful in the intimate performance space. But the generational conflict is only fitfully involving, in a production, directed by Joanna Settle, that tends to meander, and slows at the end despite the decibel level being ratcheted up. Ultimately, 'The Total Bent' impresses with its cleverness while never quite becoming satisfying." Full Review

Lighting & Sound America

"Somewhere around the halfway point, 'The Total Bent' becomes little more than a song cycle...Joanna Settle's direction emphasizes the star's scintillating vocal performances, otherwise maintaining a tight pace that allows Stew to step in and out of the action in rapid-fire fashion...If only the text were more intelligible. Stew remains a gifted musician with something to say, but, as of now, he is still looking for a totally coherent way of saying it." Full Review

Talkin' Broadway

"'The Total Bent' suffers from the limited dramatic abilities of its writers…There's nowhere unexpected for it to go or grow, and a cursory knowledge of recent American and musical history is enough to know how all this is likely to end up…No number stands out—and not in a good way. Though, to be fair, not in a bad way, either...This is exactly the kind of show that needs a galvanizing star performance to tie everything together. As it is, you get that only in limited quantities." Full Review

New York Magazine / Vulture

"You could call 'The Total Bent' a mess of a musical — or you could look at it, as it evidently means to look at itself, as a different sort of entertainment. Certainly it is compelling as a performance piece; the songs are mostly terrific, and are sung with immense panache and authority. But then why does the director Joanna Settle attempt to place it in a physical reality? Why bother with the ridiculous gay subplot? Why juggle ten balls when seven of them always fall? " Full Review

Entertaining, Ambitious, Delightful

See it if You love music and outstanding performances

Don't see it if Only like conventional musicals

Delightful, Absorbing, Intelligent, Epic, Great singing

See it if you want astonishing performances in a thrilling, outspoken, playful, and wild musical about Black music and Black stories

Don't see it if you're going to get overly antsy when the plot goes a little haywire (the fabulous music will get you through)

Ambitious, Absorbing, Refreshing

See it if You like Stew, riveting rock musicals, or good music in general

Don't see it if You need a strong book and story

Dynamic performers, Knockout music, Thrilling to be in the theater

See it if You like electrifying live performance, you love the music of Stew & Heidi Rodewald, you want an inside look at gospel, rock, rap world.

Don't see it if You want a big budget, glitzy Bway type show, a happy ending, a blond blue eyed heroine finding Mr Right in a big duet!

Clever, Funny, Ambitious, Thought-provoking, Great singing

See it if you want stimulating ideas thrown at you and want to be transported by exhilarating music

Don't see it if you want a tidy plot

Funny, Original, Absorbing, Entertaining, Great singing

See it if you are interested in a musical experience encompassing father/son conflicts, black culture and music, greed, being true to oneself and more

Don't see it if you crave linear thinking, quiet theater and a tightly woven script - it's all about the music and the mind sets of the father and son.

Original, Intense, Entertaining, Ambitious, Great singing

See it if You like creative blues, gospel, rock, and R&B music with electrifying performers.

Don't see it if You don't like a fragmented story (but I enjoyed piecing together the changing relationship between father and son, God, race and music).

Confusing, Entertaining, Epic, Edgy, Original

See it if you love Passing Strange/Stew, or want to have your mind blown.

Don't see it if you need things to make logical sense.

Great staging, Thought-provoking, Intense, Original, Great singing

See it if U like Stew,know Passing Strange,know the 60's & 70's racial tensions,love funk,get how religious boundaries mess up artistic freedom Chill

Don't see it if U r religious,narrow minded,cannot feel a plot & need to have it explained to you Want melodic music and life Live in a square box

Entertaining, Great staging, Resonant, Riveting, Great singing

See it if you appreciate raw talent in an exciting setting; you love spiritual music; you lived through the 80s, shaking on the dancefloor

Don't see it if you don't like tapping your feet, or if you like plain old vanilla theater

Edgy, Original, Absorbing, Confusing, Great singing

See it if you want to hear one of the best scores outstandingly performed in the theater today.

Don't see it if you want a conventional musical. Except for a confusing book, everything else is exceptional.

Original, Confusing, Epic, Electrifying, Great singing

See it if It's all about the music and performances, which are thrilling. Set in the 60's, it explores the formation of one musician's artistic self.

Don't see it if Plot is muddled; themes of race, religion, civil rights movement, birth of rock n' roll and being gay are touched on but not fully explored.

Immersive, Hilarious, Dizzying, Original, Great singing

See it if You have eclectic music tastes and enjoy a show with many themes. If you put in the effort to piece together the story, you'll enjoy this.

Don't see it if You like a linear plot and need a straight-forward, strong book. If you aren't willing to think while you watch, then this isn't for you.

Absorbing, Great music, Original, Riveting, Great singing

See it if you love great music and brilliant performances.

Don't see it if you need a script to be as focused and brilliant as the show's music.

Original, Great writing, Thought-provoking, Riveting, Great singing

See it if You want to hear original music that combines many different music genres. You want issues about identity, race & family.

Don't see it if You want a more traditional Broadway or rock score. You don't want a story that deals with big issues.

Masterful, Refreshing, Great score

See it if if you want to hear an amazing and refreshing score. Stew and Heidi bring back hope to the musical theater genre.

Don't see it if If you want a linear narrative. The book can be very confusing and could use some work. Not for everyone.

Relevant, Profound, Refreshing

See it if you like good old rock and roll.

Don't see it if you're basic.

Ambitious, Absorbing, Original, Edgy, Powerful

See it if you like live music and want to see the up and coming Ato Blankson-Wood in a knockout performance.

Don't see it if you didn't like Prince or Michael Jackson.

Absorbing, Dizzying, Entertaining, Original, Must see

See it if you like off-beat shows; like STEW; like gospel-ey, blues-ey, jazz=ey music; like shows with a religious theme; like to tap your toes.

Don't see it if don't like religious themed shows; don't like live band music in a show; like shows with linear clear stories (this is mostly music)

Original, Delightful, Absorbing, Entertaining, Great singing

See it if love a poignant story with great voices and a gospel/blues mix of music by Stew and Heidi. He enjoyed watching his show while he performed

Don't see it if don't enjoy gospel music and a religious text

Intense, Dizzying, Original, Edgy, Great singing

See it if your interested in quirky musicals. The story was a bit confusing but the lead singer was good.

Don't see it if if your not open to the LGBT world

Great staging, Intense, Original, Confusing, Great singing

See it if You love great music, are a fan of Passing Strange, like experimental, non-lineal storytelling

Don't see it if You like traditional musicals, or if don't like funky, gospel-tinged music and edgy storytelling

Great staging, Great writing, Original, Entertaining, Great singing

See it if you like how offensive Stew's stuff can be for some people.

Don't see it if you are the one that get offended by it

Entertaining, Confusing, Great singing

See it if You enjoy gospel music with a dose of cynicism. Enjoy watching and listening a cute, talented singer.

Don't see it if Need an understandable plot line.

Ambitious, Clever, Entertaining, Quirky, Great singing

See it if a roaring r & b, blues-gospel, rock n roll score sung with intensity, passion, flair and precision.

Don't see it if you find father-son as musical rivals story-lines problematic

Cast & Creatives (23)