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'The Last Word' and Singing Scrabble

This 70s road trip musical delights audiences at NYMF.

It's 1976 in East Cleveland, and perpetual slacker Jay Subasinghe has a secret—after defaulting on a loan, he is about to lose the Indian restaurant his father built from the ground up and passed on to him after he died. The only way to save beloved neighborhood staple Paradise is to get $10,000 in ten days, and the only way he can think of to do it is to win the National Scrabble Championship. His nemesis in the plot? A shrewd businesswoman named Earlene Floyd who wants to pave Paradise and put up a parking lot.

This delightfully silly idea for a musical comes courtesy of book, music and lyrics writer Brett Sullivan, with additional lyrics by Ryan Cunningham and directed by Michael Bello, and makes its premiere at the 2016 New York Musical Theatre Festival. The Last Word is the story of five childhood best friends now grown up, some Scrabble prodigies and some not, who have to work together as they travel cross-country in a last-ditch attempt to save the legacy of a beloved father figure. Standing in their way is a predatory parking lot mogul and her two sons/henchmen, a host of talented Scrabble aficionados and their own complicated history with one another.

The Last Word is a true ensemble show in which all five friends have their own overlapping stories and motivations. There is Jay's resentment of his sister Santine for getting to go to college while he was left to take care of Paradise, Santine and Neil's failed almost-romance that Neil desperately wants to rekindle and Benny's rediscovery of a new relationship with his former best friend now that Carl has become Carlise. And from its sensitive portrayal of a transwoman as nothing to be concerned about to its trio of Indian characters whose culture infuses how they remember the dead, this musical does racial and gender diversity right.

From costumes to dance routines, The Last Word manages to evoke the heart of the 1970s without overdoing it. It also successfully captures the fun and energy of a road trip narrative, a challenge for live theater. The music and dancing is a mixed bag, sometimes innovative and other times feeling simplistic and dated; the most moving, powerful songs are often the simplest ones with just the central five characters, like "Left on the Rack" and "Fishing for Bingos." And for all its specific board game jargon, this piece could use a little more actual wordplay rather than just creative dance interpretations of Scrabble.

Creativity however abounds in The Last Word, from a set reminiscent of a Scrabble board with road signs to indicate the various stopping points to the delightful visitations of Jay and Santine's deceased father Nish from his urn to provide advice—or fatherly scolding. Though the trio of villains, Earlene and the two Billy Joes, are forgettable, this musical is far more about the journey our heroes go on and the obstacles they put in each other's way. From comedic romps like when the team is solidly vanquished at a retirement home to the simple emotional vulnerability they display when they stay the night at a motel, this silly little musical exhibits surprising depth.

Broadway aficionados may recognize one familiar face among this cast; Nathan Lucrezio, who plays ringleader Jay, is currently starring in Aladdin. Lucrezio's effortless confidence and charisma onstage is hard to match, though Herman Sebek delights audiences as exasperated father from beyond the grave Nish. Other standouts are the two true Scrabble nerds of the bunch; Jessica Jain has a quiet star power as Santine, while Neil Jackson's beautiful singing voice gives added depth to the unremarkable-looking Neil.

The Last Word is subject to the same minor bumps and slip-ups of any complex show operating on a theater festival schedule, but what the cast and crew have managed to achieve in the time given is remarkable. This isn't just a musical that will make you smile; it will leave you wondering what friendship really means—and what the best Scrabble words you know are.

The Last Word plays at The Duke on 42nd Street through July 29 as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival.

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