Early in Denis Woychuk’s new rock musical, Attorney for the Damned , a narrator poses the question: “What makes a hero?” The musical, a warped, nonsensical journey through the criminal justice system, doesn’t really try to deal with this question. So, instead, let’s contemplate another question: What makes a good musical? Is it a good book with catchy songs? A heavy moral issue? Spectacle? It’s not an easy question to answer, but I think it’s fair to say that Attorney misses the mark. Even with lots of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, the show fails to sustain audience interest, as well as its own credibility. Founded on a weak premise (an innocent attorney who had wanted to help "widows, orphans, and the poor," but now defends "perps who like to fuck, then fight”), the production completely devolves into a bizarre farce that, more bizarrely, tries to make a statement.
The plot, though wandering and incoherent, initially focuses on Laura Skyhorse (Allison Johnson), a young defense attorney who tries to assuage her guilty conscience by defending the mentally ill. Skyhorse is part Native American, but it seems that the sole purpose for this background detail is to allow her counterpart, the bitter Assistant District Attorney Vancussy (Juliana Smith), to make racist comments. The ADA’s racism is just one of several jabs Woychuk throws at lawyers. As with the show’s other criticisms, his complaints about the profession are often silly one-liners (e.g.: “where do vampires learn to suck blood? Law school”). Though some of these lines are humorous, their appeal is overshadowed by the show’s meaningless preoccupation with sex.
Woychuk is a former lawyer himself, who for some years defended the criminally insane. The job left him with guilt and inspired much self-analysis, some of which has taken public form: a book, articles, this musical. Yet, no matter how exciting and emotional his cases were, this presentation is a ridiculous romp that rouses confusion, if it rouses anything at all.
The show’s lyrics are among its faults, but though the actors are required to sing such lines as "I thought I'd died and gone to heaven/But my wife turned out to be/Not in love with me,” their performances are the most entertaining parts of the show. In the lead role, Johnson sings with a sweet conviction that matches her character, while Denny Blake and Pat Mattingly, playing the mentally ill, bring a soulful, raspy sound to their numbers. As Vancussy, Smith offers an appropriate contrast—she opts for the pop style and brash belting that go with her pumps.
Even with the cast’s solid performances, the production drags. Part of the problem is the frequently awkward positioning of the actors. They spend so much time serenading the audience that there is no chemistry between them; their relationships are unbelievable and uninteresting. Perhaps, if more scenes featured shared numbers, rather than solos, this would be less of an issue.
As the production drags, the plot plows ahead with a series of extremely unlikely romances. First, the headstrong prosecutor, who happens to be a nymphomaniac, desperately solicits the sexual attention of a psychologist, Dr. Marcus Blake (a peculiarly jubilant Ray Fisher). Another scene features Dr. Blake and Skyhorse testing the doctor’s mind control device in a perverse way. The show ends with the dizzyingly incomprehensible: sex between the ingénue attorney and her recently freed client, a criminally insane man who had cut off his former girlfriend’s finger, in a deserted subway tunnel where the two are hiding from another criminally insane man who is hunting them down and trying to kill them.
At this point, are you thinking about heroes? Are you thinking about the plight of the insane, or the errors of the “justice” system? Or, to put it in the words of Vancussy, who directly asked the audience, “are you still with us?” The delayed and weak response from the audience answered her question perfectly. And how could one be expected to be interested in a show that can hardly stay on one topic long enough to offer insight, that opts for cheesy, glib, and offensive jokes over wit, that somehow, no matter how unlikely, finds sex when its looking for heroes?
For a man who has taken some time to reflect on his past, Woychuk’s musical is full of odd choices: why has he created a show that treats its characters cruelly, and is so explicitly sexual, yet confounded? If the writer and his director want the audience to ponder questions of heroism, to be entertained, or even just to “stay with them,” creating unsympathetic characters and dull songs isn’t the way. Perhaps Attorney for the Damned is not as unredeemable as its characters, but it would take quite a bit of rehab to make things work.