The Washington Post

Daisey’s ‘Agony’ in another key

Poster art in promotion of the production "The Agony and The Ecstasy of Steve Jobs: The Musical." Courtesy Bernhard Handick. (Courtesy Bernhard Handick/Courtesy Bernhard Handick)

First, he was a storyteller. Then he was a scandal. And now, at last, he’s a musical.

You know who I’m talkin’ about: the controversial Mike Daisey, immortalized in the rhythms of soft rock by Washington playwright and composer Tim Guillot in “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs: The Musical.”

Guillot, audience services coordinator at Folger Theatre (and one-time student of mine at George Washington University), takes a respectful route in compressing Daisey’s oft-performed, 105-minute monologue into 70 minutes of song and commentary. Smoothly directed by Ronee Penoi, this fringe festival piece is as faithful a translation of Daisey’s monodrama — the monologuist allows others to present the work without paying royalties to him — as one could imagine.

It’s surprisingly effective, especially when the multiple-role-playing cast of five embodies the assembly-line workers in a Chinese electronics plant and sings the plaintive “Factory Floor” — a song sadder than any in “Working,” the ’70s Stephen Schwartz musical about everyday labor.

You can imagine a songwriter taking a far more abrasive tone with the material, given the trajectory of Daisey’s original piece, “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs,” an account of the harsh conditions that workers in Shenzhen, China suffer while putting together iPads, iPhones and other Apple electronics. After portions of the monologue ran on “This American Life,” Daisey acknowledged that some of his material was fabricated, while maintaining that the essence of his allegations was true.

Guillot and Penoi allude to this aspect only once, late in the show. Their more earnest concern is illuminating the suffering Daisey sought to expose. The counterpoint track of the musical concerns the rise and fall and rise again of Jobs as Apple’s visionary leader. These sequences attempt to replicate Daisey’s jaundiced take on Jobs, and one can see, as this musical is refined, a fuller embrace of the comic possibilities.

Backed by a live band — the vocal amplification inside Mount Vernon Place United Methodist Church, by the way, needs work — Steve Isaac sings the lead roles of Daisey and Jobs. It’s a nifty idea, the suggestion that one actor might try to convey the size of both men’s egos. The enigmatic smile Isaac attributes to Jobs is a good starting point for a deeper investigation of this intriguing stage character, in a musical with lots of promise.

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs: The Musical

Written and composed by Tim Guillot. Directed by Ronee Penoi. With Mike Cafarelli, Phil Dickerson, Gillian Jackson Han, Emily Kester. About 70 minutes. Through July 28 at Capital Fringe Festival.

Peter Marks joined the Washington Post as its chief theater critic in 2002. Prior to that he worked for nine years at the New York Times, on the culture, metropolitan and national desks, and spent about four years as its off-Broadway drama critic.
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