Theatre Review: ‘Motel Rasdell’ at 14th Annual Midtown Theatre Festival, NYC

Residents of Motel Rasdell: Tim Young (Matt), Sami Horneff (Lacey), Justin Liebergen (Little Sully), Emily McNamara (Darlene), Jonathan Hadley (Mickey), Aléna Watters (Crystal), Jamie Cook (Amber), and RJ Woessner (Big Sully). Photo by Genevieve Rafter Keddy.

Residents of Motel Rasdell: Tim Young (Matt), Sami Horneff (Lacey),
Justin Liebergen (Little Sully), Emily McNamara (Darlene),
Jonathan Hadley (Mickey), Aléna Watters (Crystal), Jamie Cook (Amber), and RJ Woessner (Big Sully).
Photo by Genevieve Rafter Keddy.

Motel Rasdell was one of the shows presented at this year’s Midtown Theatre Festival. The festival, now in its fourteenth year, runs for three weeks in July/August at the Abingdon Theater Arts Complex in New York City and, like Fringe festivals, it is a testing ground for new work. The opportunity of speaking to some of the cast members and production team after the performance gave some interesting insights into the show. Motel Rasdell was presented in the June Havoc Theatre, the largest of the small theaters within the complex and the response was so positive another performance was added.

Motel Rasdell is a musical by two recent graduates of Hofstra University, the largest private college on Long Island, New York.  Christina Bracco penned the book with Danielle de Matteo who also wrote the music and lyrics (additional lyrics by Caitlin Angelo). Bracco and De Matteo had interned for the show’s director, Donnie Kehr, working on his annual Rockers on Broadway benefit concert. Kehr is the co-founder and executive director of The PATH (Performing Artists That Help) Fund that raises money for charities and educational programs supporting people working in the performing arts. He also has an impressive resumé as a veteran Broadway performer. He began performing at age 12 in a production with F. Murray Abraham and Elizabeth Ashley called Legend. Throughout his career, he starred in such award-winning shows as The Who’s Tommy, Billy Elliot, and The Mystery of Edwin Drood as well as directing musical concerts. Motel Rasdell was Kehr’s directorial debut at this festival.

The voices were so strong and blended so well that the actors received thunderous applause after each number.

With only two weeks to rehearse the play, Donnie Kehr tapped into a pool of experienced production people and actors with impressive stage credits and with whom he has worked in the past. (John Gardiner just came off seven years of touring, first as Timon in The Lion King then five years in Jersey Boys working his way into the role of one of the Four Seasons, Tommy DeVito. Jonathan Hadley was on the same tour as Bob Crewe and Kehr joined the cast in the last nine months as mobster Gyp de Carlo). Kehr added some fresh, new talent and, despite the subject matter (and what was described as organized chaos backstage) the result was a surprisingly sweet and satirical musical performed by an exceptionally talented cast.

Emma Hunton (Eve) and John Gardiner (John). Photo by Genevieve Rafter Keddy.

Emma Hunton (Eve) and John Gardiner (John).
Photo by Genevieve Rafter Keddy.

The setting is a suburb of Boston in 1947 where we are introduced to the characters that live at the seedy Motel Rasdell. The device is a radio reporting the news about one of the ladies being attacked by a “client” with a toilet bowl brush he lit on fire. The residents are a group of young hookers and young men dealing in reefer (marijuana) just to survive. It’s no secret what goes on at the motel but the police can never make any charges stick.

Each person has a tragic history that brought them to Motel Rasdell but they have managed to create a family and a home. The women include a very pregnant Amber (Jamie Cook), Lacey (Sami Horneff), Darlene (Emily McNamara), Crystal (Aléna Watters) – and Eve (Emma Hunton). The men are Mickey (Jonathan Hadley and brothers Big Sully (RJ Woessner) and Little Sully (Justin Liebergen). The brothers carry their mother’s ashes around in an urn (also a convenient place to hide their stash) and speak to her as if she was living inside the receptacle.

Matt (Tim Young) is an energetic, amiable young dealer and petty thief whose close friendship with Eve (Emma Hutton) has sparked deeper affections on his part. Unaware of his feelings, Eve has a master plan to start a new life and move to the Cape – her late mother’s favorite place. Not only does she manage the books and pays the bills at the motel, she has a faithful customer. However she is at risk falling “In Too Deep” with him as one of the songs explains, breaking a cardinal rule at the motel. Tim Young and Emma Hutton also happen to be best friends and it shows in the wonderful chemistry they have on stage. Young was in the original cast of Next to Normal that had its preview run at Arena Stage in Washington, DC before going to Broadway. Hutton is a seasoned veteran at 21. She began her career touring with Les Miserables at the age of seven and was in Spring Awakening on Broadway and in both the Broadway and touring companies of Next to Normal. Ironically this the first time the two have performed together.

In stark contrast, we are introduced, with wonderful satire, to the “perfect” family. The arrogant John Applegate (John Gardiner) has just been promoted to chief reporter at the Boston Globe. At home is his loving housewife Jane (understudy Emily Larger), and the children – Junior (Ryan Powell), budding high school baseball star and Nancy (Sami Horneff), the perky, straight A student.

These worlds soon collide when John must step in for another reporter to finish a story about the Motel Rasdell to keep his new job. The problem is that John is Eve’s regular customer. Though it appears that he has affection for her, he is willing to use the unsuspecting Eve to get the story. To protect himself, he publishes the article anonymously. A fly in the ointment is John’s son. After winning the big game, Junior’s teammates (Justin Liebergen, RJ Woessner and Tim Young) introduce him to the evil weed at the infamous Motel Rasdell.

The perfect family: John Gardiner (John ),  Emily Larger (Jane), Sami Horneff (Nancy)  and Ryan Powell (Junior). Photo by Genevieve Rafter Keddy.

The perfect family: John Gardiner (John ), Emily Larger (Jane), Sami Horneff (Nancy) and Ryan Powell (Junior).
Photo by Genevieve Rafter Keddy.

After John’s article is published, the residents and the motel are at risk and Eve is blamed. John works with the Sheriff (John Hadley) to shut the place down and this perfect father and husband proves to be even more despicable. He makes one small gesture of redemption – connecting Eve to a publisher who is interested in turning her story into a book. This is her ticket out and into that home at the Cape.

Jane comes to suspect John’s infidelity and runs away to the Cape, abandoning the family. Eve, who has also run away, meets Jane by chance. Neither is aware of the other’s identity but they both realize, they must return home to their “families.” Jane’s decision is a bittersweet compromise expressed in the poignant “Home to Me” while Eve’s reunion with her Motel Rasdell family ironically gives the most hope and a happy ending. Amber has her baby – a Tiny Sully whom Big Sully proudly introduces to his mother in the urn.

Utilizing a very limited set and props, Rob Bursztyn was able to effectively set the scenes. With a card table, four folding chairs and a group of black wooden boxes, the actors reconfigured each scene to represent a kitchen, a front desk, or a jail cell while also giving dimension with different levels on which the actors could perform. (The one small, portable painted backdrop of a window can be forgiven due to the time constraints of the production). The choreography by Greg Graham was sparse given the space but excellent. Since many actors played dual roles, the simple but period costumes by Jaime Torres were key in creating the characters. By adding a vintage apron and a string of pearls, ladies of the evening were transformed into the ladies of Jane’s book club.

The orchestra consisted of Mark Verdino on bass and musical director/arranger/conductor Evan Rees on keyboard. The songs were jazzy and reminiscent of the era. The voices were so strong and blended so well that the actors received thunderous applause after each number. The musicians sat on the left side of the stage and the director allowed John Gardiner to improvise interaction with them during what could have been very dry monologues on the phone. The result added humor and pace to the scenes. A little cliché with a touch of Sweet Charity and a dash of Pretty Woman, Motel Rasdell has great potential to go to the next level. Given the time and budget restraints, everyone involved in this production pulled off a fun evening of musical theater as evident in the standing ovation it received from a full house.

A wonderful postscript to this story is shortly after the show ended its performance schedule, it was announced that director Donnie Kehr was cast as “Norm Waxman” (the role he originated on Broadway) in the film version of the Tony award-winning musical Jersey Boys, directed by Clint Eastwood.

Advisory: Contains adult language.

Running Time: 2 hours with a 15-minute intermission.

Six performances only.  For more information about Midtown Festival, click here.

About Lynne Menefee

Lynne Menefee is the creative director/owner of Menefee Creative (www.behance.net/menefeecreative), a graphic design/marketing company. After earning her BFA from Maryland Institute College of Art, she worked at the Museum of Man and with San Diego’s Old Globe Theatre as a graphic designer and in the costume shop. In Los Angeles, she worked for CBS. Lynne returned to Baltimore and started her own business with clients that include the art organizations, musicians, nonprofits and educational institutions. She is a member of the Memorial Players in Baltimore and a member of the LA-based Costume Designers Guild Local 892 as a costume illustrator. Lynne manages and creates content for a vintage record show site and does concert reviews for martiniinthemorning.com, an online radio station based in Studio City, California. She writes reviews for both the Maryland and New York Theatre Guides, as well as interviews.