NEW YORK — It's five o'clock in the morning in Rio de Janeiro on the day before Carnival, but little Pipito is not having a good time.
The 12-year-old has just witnessed the police chief kill a group of children on the steps of a church and is then surrounded by dancing spirits. His cries for help are ignored by a priest and a vendor – but not by a predatory drug dealer.
"You're one of us," the boy is told, ominously.
He is then grabbed by the bad guy and two street kids as they tear through Rio, singing a song with lyrics that include: "You dream with the rats/you swim with the snail/the gutter's your pillow/the city your jail."
Luckily, a guy named Scott Faris steps in.
"That was great, you guys," he says. "Fantastic."
Faris is director of "Rio," one of the 30 entrants in this year's New York Musical Theatre Festival, which kicks off next week. In a basement rehearsal space closer to the Port Authority than the slums of Rio, he and his team put the final touches on this ambitious musical.
"Rio" is a reinvention of "Oliver Twist" set in modern-day Rio with a 12-person cast playing over 60 characters, including tourists, nuns, waiters, prostitutes, revelers and spirits.
The musical, with book, music and lyrics by Mitch Magonet and Joey Miller, has been germinating for eight years and has enticed quite a few actors into making their festival debut.
"As an actor, getting to do something from scratch and create the role yourself is amazing," says Tanesha Ross, who was in the recent national tour of "Hair" and is making her first festival bow. In "Rio," the Spokane, Wash.-raised Ross plays a samba teacher and mother figure for Pipito. "I fall in love with the show more and more every day."
`THE SUNDANCE FOR MUSICAL THEATER'
Since its inception in 2004, the festival has premiered more than 250 new musicals, some of which have gone on to a further life on or off Broadway, such as "Altar Boyz," "title of show" and the Pulitzer Prize-winning "Next to Normal."
This year, the festival – traditionally held in the fall – makes its summer debut, avoiding competition from the start of the Broadway season and taking advantage of more empty theaters. An estimated 40,000 people attend the festival each year and all tickets are $25 or less.
The festival – called by the initials NYMF – provides shows with theater space, lights, sound equipment, front-of-house staffing and marketing – all key to emerging artists trying to mount resource-heavy musicals in one of the most expensive cities in the world.
"This is pretty much like the Sundance for musical theater," says Nik Walker, a 24-year-old from Boston who plays a drug dealer and love interest for Ross' character in "Rio."
Walker, whose favorite novel just happens to be "Oliver Twist" and whose regional credits include "Miss Saigon" and "Into the Woods," gravitated to the darker material in "Rio" – poverty, drugs and desperation. "I love pushing those kind of boundaries and seeing what bold storytelling can do to an audience," he says.
He's joined in that by fellow actors J. Manuel Santos, a 24-year-old Texan who was on Broadway in "West Side Story" and on NBC's "Smash," and Nicholas Gonzales, a 13-year-old playing Pipito who was in the national tour of "A Christmas Story, the Musical."
"I want to be part of the next big thing," says Santos.
`AN INTERESTING RIDE'
The offerings this year are typically eclectic, scattered across several theaters in the city. There's "Swing State," a two-person musical about a born-again Christian kindergarten teacher and her gay, atheist chiropractor. There are musicals about James Joyce and Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata.
There's a musical about a lovable chocolate-frosted doughnut with rainbow sprinkles called "Arnie the Doughnut," a horror musical about a green serum that brings back the dead titled, "Re-Animator the Musical," and another about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping called "Baby Case." For those who like enclosed spaces, there's a show about six strangers stuck between subway stations.
There will also be some established talent for the two performances of "Stealing Time," a musical about two couples that stars Broadway veterans Jeremy Kushnier of "Jesus Christ Superstar," Rachel York of "Dirty Rotten Scoundrels" and Jack Noseworthy from "A Chorus Line." The writers, Tor Hyams and Lisa Neubauer, got great reviews for their "Greenwood" at the festival last year.
There will be one returning show: "Central Avenue Breakdown," the musical about two jazz musician brothers in 1940s Los Angeles, which was praised last year, has been worked on a little more and will return for an encore after traveling to South Korea. It will compete for an audience with "Foreverman," a love triangle complicated by immortality.
One of the more delightful offerings will be "Flambe Dreams," the story of a young man from Idaho who comes to New York City to pursue his dream of becoming a great maitre d' like his father, who was tragically killed in a freak flaming bananas foster dessert accident.
"Flambe Dreams" began life in 2004 as a cabaret act and was even once staged at a real restaurant as the audience ate dinner. It's currently led by Jarrod Spector, who has played Frankie Valli on Broadway in "Jersey Boys," J. Elaine Marcos, fresh off "Priscilla Queen of the Desert, the Musical" and Catherine Cox, whose Broadway credits include leading roles in "Footloose" and "Oh, Coward!"
One thing the team had to work around is the lack of a live flame – a strict no-no at the 45th Street Theatre where the musical will be shown. "We can't even turn on a lighter. I mean, nothing. We found this out and thought, `Well, that's tough for a show called `Flambe Dreams,'" says West Hyler, the director.
Hyler, inspired by the pop-up books he reads to his 2-year-old son, found a way around it: He and the creative team now use paper flames that shoot up or fold out. It's that kind of makeshift creativity that many participants say keeps the festival so exciting.
Though "Flambe Dreams" has been changed and rearranged and worked on for seven years, its debut at the festival is really just the beginning of the line for its creators. It has just five characters playing a dozen roles and can be produced with just a piano – all positives for a life beyond the festival.
"We're hoping from here to have other opportunities, whether it's in a restaurant, whether it's at regional theaters, whether it's off-Broadway," says Matthew Hardy, the book writer and lyricist. "This is a really great opportunity to grow our audience and hopefully have it have a life."
The folks behind "Rio" have the same dream. They're hoping growing interest in Brazil – the upcoming World Cup and the Olympics – will entice a regional theater to produce it.
"I see it. It's not something far out," says Pinny Gniwisch, who helped found the online jewelry store ice.com and is the show's lead producer. "The doors that I've knocked on have opened and most people have been really, really beautiful."
Gniwisch agreed to help bankroll the show eight years ago when co-creator Magonet, his former study partner, approached him with the idea. Since then, Gniwisch has sunk about $80,000 of his own money as the musical went through revisions, workshops, a reading at Catholic University and early rejections from both the Goodman Theatre in Chicago and the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle.
"It's been an interesting ride," he says with a smile.
Mark Kennedy is on Twitter at http://twitter.com/KennedyTwits