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Mixed Messages

Jukebox musicals tend to come in two packages. The first centers a celebrity musician or musical group and uses the subject's body of work to tell a biographical narrative (“Carole King,” “The Temptations,” “The Four Seasons”). The second kind, rather than leading with narrative, starts with the score, and from that tries to pull together a story in a process like the word game Mad Libs, but instead of filling in individual blanks in a narrative context, you start with a handful of songs and try to fill in a story. Like Mad Libs, the latter often results in a plot full of holes and lacking in substance.

Performance

“Message in the Bottle,” choreographed by Kate Prince

Place

New York City Center, New York, NY, May 3, 2024

Words

Cecilia Whalen

“Message in the Bottle” by Kate Prince and Sting. Photograph by Christopher Duggan

These musicals have historically made great targets for critics, who’ve found the shows to be about as profound as “a giant singing Hostess cupcake,” which is how Ben Brantley, writing for the New York Times, described “Mamma Mia!” upon its 2001 Broadway premiere. Constance Grady, reviewing the 2023 Cinderella-esque Britney Spears musical, “Once Upon a One More Time,” for Vox, similarly used patisserie as a metaphor, stating that the show was “airy as a fallen soufflé from an Easy-Bake Oven.”

Some critics, in review of jukebox musicals, have been less sweet. Anthony Lane, writing about Mamma Mia! Here We Go Again for the New Yorker in 2018, said that the subtitle of the movie “wavers wickedly between a promise and a threat,” and that while “good musicals deftly stitch songs into the very weave of the drama, this one picks up a hammer and whacks them into place.” 

Kevin O’Sullivan, a writer for the Daily Mirror who covered the 2002 British premiere of “We Will Rock You” inspired by the music of Queen, chose not to mince words: “Ben Elton should be shot for this risible story,” O’Sullivan said of the musical’s writer. 

This brings me to my own critical dilemma. In writing about the ridiculous new jukebox dance show “Message in a Bottle” choreographed by Kate Prince and set to the music of Sting, do I curse it or candy it?

Let’s pop open the cork and see what comes out.

“Message in the Bottle” by Kate Prince and Sting. Photograph by Christopher Duggan

“Message in a Bottle, which had its New York premiere at City Center through May 12th, opens with Sting’s “Desert Rose” featuring Algerian singer Cheb Mami. A group of dancers dressed in vaguely North African clothing enter the stage powerfully and with joy. Kate Prince is a hip-hop choreographer whose troupe ZooNation is a resident company at Sadler’s Wells. 

The dancers in “Message in a Bottle” pop and lock and burst with energy. The group includes incredible B-boys who flip and spin on their heads, as well as contortion-trained ballerinas whose legs battement to 180 degrees and beyond. In “Desert Rose,” the dancers introduce a united community, highlighting a family of five who live in peace and happiness. 

That doesn’t last long. Soon, loud bangs and lightning flashes erupt, announcing an invasion. Dancers tumble backwards; the father of the family perishes. The community is destroyed, and the mother and three children flee in search of asylum. “Message in a Bottle” recounts the family’s perilous search for refuge.  

In theory, there’s nothing wrong with the plot. Prince said that she was inspired to tell a refugee story after seeing the horrific photograph of Alan Kurdi, the young Syrian boy whose lifeless body washed ashore. “It felt like a story I had to tell. I didn't feel like it was a choice,” she said in a New York Times interview.

It was a noble endeavor. Unfortunately, neither Sting’s music nor Prince’s choreography is equipped to recount the very serious story that Prince sought to share. Sting’s music is great, and certainly multi-layered, but none of those layers are really about the refugee crisis. Meanwhile, Prince’s dancers are technically impressive and energetically unmatched, but the movement focuses too much on tricks and lacks the sensitivity needed to properly address the subject matter.

“Message in the Bottle” by Kate Prince and Sting. Photograph by Christopher Duggan

When the community is invaded, a creepy gang of hooded figures hop down from a set and prey on a group of women, including one son's wife who is ultimately kidnapped. Here, they tussle to “Don’t Stand So Close to Me,” which is about a schoolteacher’s affair with a student. Granted, the story in the song is also shameful, but it depicts something very different from the war crimes that transpire onstage.

When the kidnapped woman's husband discovers her abduction, he is devastated. Still, it’s best not to dwell on the past, and his mother begins a solo to the upbeat, “Invisible Sun.” She is joined by the ensemble—the aforementioned son joins too—and with dazzling smiles, the group decides that not all hope is lost.

The ensemble put on life jackets and head to the sea. After a storm, the three siblings discover that their mother is missing, at which point an instrumental version of “Message in a Bottle” sneaks through the speakers to “send out an S.O.S.” (In this case, the song actually made sense with the plot, but it was so obvious a choice that any sympathy for the children was replaced by an eyeroll.)

Without their mother, the three children make their way to an unmarked border covered in barbed wire. They are promptly arrested. As lights go up on prison guards circling jail cells, “Every Breath You Take” lulls from above.

The context of this ballad implied that Sting was crooning from the guards’ perspective, who are watching the prisoners’ “every step and every breath.” This was a realization so preposterous, I couldn’t help but laugh out loud.

“Message in the Bottle” by Kate Prince and Sting. Photograph by Christopher Duggan

In turn, this marks the tragedy of “Message in a Bottle.” When Ben Brantley compared “Mamma Mia” to a Twinkie, he also acknowledged that he happened to like Twinkies, and predicted that the show “may be the unlikeliest hit ever to win over cynical, sentiment-shy New Yorkers.” He was right. Sure, “Mamma Mia’s” means were silly, but so were its ends: The whole thing is a big joke. It’s also a good time.

“Message in a Bottle’s” ends, however, are not a joke. The refugee crisis is real: The stories of refugees are not to be laughed at.

Unfortunately, “Message in a Bottle’s” means remain, inadvertently, silly, and so what should be a compelling story of love, loss, hope, and despair is cheapened into a series of competition-style dance-offs stringed together so absurdly that it winds up, well, risible.

The three orphaned siblings each eventually find their way. One ends up among a group of costumed aliens in what we assume from the song “Englishman in New York” (the chorus goes “I’m an alien, I’m a legal alien”) must be somewhere in the US. Another ends up in what appears to be Jamaica, just in time for one of Sting’s reggae tunes. The third sibling, whose wife was kidnapped in the beginning, decides to go back home to rescue his beloved. He discovers she’s been forced into prostitution. You'll never guess her real name (it’s Roxanne).

In spite of its shortcomings, “Message in a Bottle” has been well-received by British audiences, and in New York, I witnessed a standing ovation. I do believe that Prince and Sting, along with their cast, had the best intentions for this production, and so, unlike some of the jukebox critics who came before me, I wish no harm unto any of “Message in a Bottle’s” contributors. Neither do I find that a metaphorical sweet can accurately encompass the show’s essence as I experienced it. I might, however, compare “Message in a Bottle” to a different kind of dish. In conclusion, I found the show to be like an Impossible Burger: wrapped in colorful packaging, full of jaunty slogans, and yet unable to overcome the fact that, ultimately, it has no meat.  

Cecilia Whalen


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