The 16th New York Musical Festival (NYMF) is underway. This line-up of diverse and daring musical productions, concerts, and readings has given rise to 23 commercial Off-Broadway productions and catapulted four more (including the acclaimed Next to Normal and clever In Transit) all the way to the Great White Way. It’s a specular opportunity for budding artists and audiences alike to experience fresh thinking in a nurturing environment.
This weekend’s offerings included the tuneful LadyShip, with book, music and lyrics by sisters Laura and Linda Good of The Twigs. Inspired by true events that took place from the 1780s to the 1860s, it tells the tale of a sampling of the 25,000 women sentenced by London courts for petty crimes to serve out their time in Australia. The concept was that the city could simultaneously reduce overcrowding of their prisons and accelerate the colonization process by sending females of marriageable age to the new land. The journey was harrowing and many of these women found themselves forced into prostitution in order to afford housing and basic necessities in their new home.
LadyShip does a good job of encompassing many of the grimmer facts. All of the women depicted are victims of a male dominated culture and were reduced to stealing by drunken fathers, gambling husbands, or complete abandonment. The focus is on the orphaned teenage Reed sisters, Alice and Mary, who were caught shoplifting in an effort to feed themselves. As performed by Maddie Shea Baldwin and Caitlin Cohn, their soaring duets such as “No Matter Where We’re Bound” well-represent the tight and loving bond that keeps them moving forward under the most bleak of circumstances. Unfortunately we learn less about the other four convicts. Jennifer Blood’s educated Lady Jane Sharp biggest number is “I Need An Anchor” alongside Quentin Oliver Lee’s Captain, which seems a lost opportunity given her character’s potential for a superior life in an officer’s household. Also sublimated is Lisa Karlin’s bold and witty Abigail Gainsborough, whose know-how might just help her escape traditional fate. The potential for 11 year old Kitty MacDougal (an angelic voiced Noelle Hogan) comes into sharper view with her dreamlike solo “So Many Stars.” Rounding out the group is Brandi Knox as the defeated Mrs. Pickering, who tells rather than sings most of what we learn of her backstory.
All of the women develop variations of relationships with the male crew — exemplified by Trevor St. John-Gilberts’s swaggering Lt. Adams and Justin R.G. Holcomb’s perpetually wasted Zeke Cropper — bargaining for writing paper or bribing them with rum. One even establishes a true connection with Jordon Bolden’s charming and sweet Marcus “Finn” Findley, something which did often occur on these transportation voyages. Clear ties are also made to current events including the notion that women and children will be separated upon arrival in their new land and that tougher levels of justice are meted out for the poor. But there is little light shown on the few more hopeful stories of women who were permitted to marry emancipated men and lived more traditional married lives, much less any inclusion of the inspiring rebels such as entrepreneur Mary Reibey. More emphasis on these story elements would have made the optimistic ending feel more earned than it currently does.
The level of talent that went into this production is obvious. Coming from the pens of an indie rock band, the music and lyrics are surprisingly subdued. Under the direction of Simone Allen with Christopher Anselmo on guitar, Charlotte Morris on violin and herself on piano, most of the numbers are dulcet, easy to listen to and filled with luscious harmonies. Karlin leading the women in the rollocking “Only the Strong Survive” is the closest we hear to the anticipated battle anthem. Director Samantha Saltzman keeps the women realistically contained with scenic designer David Goldstein deftly providing the no-frills pieces that make up the dreary London jail, the dark bowels of the ship, and the sparse dockside. Costumes by Whitney Locher appropriately telegraph class and rank, though they all stay a bit too clean throughout. Sam Gordon’s lighting and Patrick Calhoun’s sound go a long way to completing the picture of life at sea.
NYMF continues through August 4 at Alice Griffin Jewel Box Theatre in Pershing Square (480 W 42nd St, New York, NY 10036) and other nearby venues. This is a not-to-be-missed affordable and rewarding chance for fans of musical theater to indulge their passion. Passes for four or more tickets as well as individual tickets are available at http://www.nymf.org.
A Letter to Harvey Milk
A Letter to Harvey Milk is a slightly flawed gem of a musical, giving voice to some little seen characters. The work is based on a Lesléa Newman’s short story which follows mildly eccentric but loving Jewish characters as they discover and embrace their identities as lesbians. In this case the seeker is Barbara, a Connecticut transplant earning a little extra money by teaching a writing class at the JCC in San Francisco. Her unexpected partner in self exploration is Harry, a widowed retired butcher who finds himself drawn to her classroom and her energy. What binds them is the titular letter that Harry composes as an assignment. The honest love and sincere appreciation expressed to his activist friend pulls Barbara into Harry’s story. She revels in the company of someone who is seemingly so comfortable with his choices. Their developing friendship takes them both to unexpected places.
Adam Heller and Julia Knitel with Aury Krebs in the background. Photo by Russ Rowland
The book by by Jerry James, Ellen M. Schwartz, Cheryl Stern and Laura I. Kramer provides enough detail to follow both Harry’s and Barbara’s struggles with love and loneliness. Throughout are two culturally significant threads about homosexuality and Judaism through time and in context. There are a few small gaps in logic such as how Barbara can be making any money with only one student, but those are easy to set aside. What doesn’t come through with sufficient clarity is the critical figure of Harvey Milk. He is painted in such broad strokes, those unfamiliar with his ground-breaking achievements will see a badly dressed kook with terrible eating habits. Perhaps the script suffered from too many cooks. Lyrics by Ellen M. Schwartz work better to move the story along and provide atmosphere. Music by Laura I. Kramer isn’t very memorable, but it does suit the words, particularly the Yankee Doodle Dandy treatment of some of Harvey’s most famous speeches.
Generally, the women in the cast outshine the men. Julia Knitel — who previously starred as Carole King in the touring company of Beautiful — has a soothing voice and magnificent articulation as she shapes Barbara’s story. As Frannie, Harry’s deceased wife who is by his side for the journey, co-lyricist Cheryl Stern is the comic relief, delivering Elaine Stritch-style patter and emphasis. And in her one big number, Aury Krebs is a dream. Michael Bartoli captures Harvey Milk’s patterns and mannerisms, but as described earlier, he isn’t given enough to work with. Supporting players Jeremy Greenbaum and CJ Pawlikowski do a fine job playing multiple roles. The weak link is Adam Heller who was off key as a singer and lacked sufficient variation as an actor. He has extensive Broadway experience, so perhaps it was just an off night.
Evan Pappas’s staging is clever, especially in the more intimate moments. The charming set by David L. Arsenault captures the feel of the Castro district of San Francisco complete with muted colors and a big Bay window. The orchestra, under the direction of Jeffrey Lodin, is perched on a balcony above so they are in view and adding to the ambiance. The costumes by Debbie Hobson are pitch-perfect, notably Barbara’s anklets and sweater vest and Frannie’s tidy suit. Christopher Akerlind’s lighting effectively changes color palette to the match the mood of each scene.
While A Little to Harvey Milk is still at a “great potential” stage of development, it is already a genuine crowd pleaser (for the right crowd) and impressive bang for the buck. Struggling with shame and the need for self-truth resonants even with those who are straight and/or gentile. It runs through May 13, 2018 at the Acorn, part of Theater Row. Tickets are $79 – $99 and can be purchased at Telecharge.com or by calling 212-239-6200.