Monday, June 10, 2024


Review of the Saturday, June 8, 2024 matinee performance at The Music Box in New York City. Starring Kim Blanck, Ally Bonino, Tsilala Brock, Dana Costello, Hannah Cruz, Nadia Dandashi, Laila Erica Drew, Nikki M. James, Jaygee Macapugay, Anastacia McCleskey, Grace McLean, Emily Skinner and Shaina Taub. Book, music and lyrics by Shaina Taub. Orchestrations by Michael Starobin. Scenic design by Riccardo Hernandez. Costume design by Paul Tazewell. Lighting design by Lap Chi Chu. Sound design by Jason Crystal. Choreography by Mayte Natalio. Direction by Leigh Silverman. 2 hours 30 minutes, including intermission.

No matter what I thought of the musical Suffs, I admire the achievement of the creator of the piece, Shaina Taub. That a whole team of writers and composers can shepherd a new show to Broadway is a minor miracle, but to do it all as one person is epic. Even more admirable in my book is the completely unselfish way she took to revising and reworking each moment and beat of her musical to better it for the Main Stem. How many times have we lamented the fact that little to no work was done to a clearly imperfect, troubled piece after an out-of-town try out/off-Broadway staging? Ms. Taub has written a terrific article for Playbill where she chronicles the metamorphosis of each of the 36 (!) songs in Suffs, a worthwhile read for fans of musical theater.

And yet, even with all of that considered, it pains me to give the show what I consider my worst review: it was o.k.. I didn't love it. I didn't hate it. I simply felt nothing either way. 

Trust me when I say that I never go into a new show hoping for its failure, and I am still genuinely surprised when I am disappointed. 
But, when I am aware as I'm watching that "I think I'm supposed to be moved to tears here," and "I think I'm supposed to want to run out of the theater after that song, ready to fight for what's right," there's a problem when not a tear is shed (and I cry at the drop of a hat), and I'm thinking about running out of the theater to get either the big box or three finger combo at Raising Cane's. I wish I was exaggerating, but that was my disappointing experience.

Throughout the performance I kept having the nagging feeling I'd seen it all before, and then it hit me: the staging was very much like the Hall of Presidents and The American Adventure Show at Disney World/EPCOT, fact packed and straightforward. Director Leigh Silverman shows little flare or imagination, relying mostly on center stage blocking and singing right at the audience, and a strange reliance (and overuse) on silhouettes. 
Mayte Natalio's choreography (what there is of it) is also similarly repetitive, with marching, posing, and more marching. The settings by Riccardo Hernandez are just as frustrating, not because it is pretty spare, but because it was dull and mundane, and felt like it was designed to fill up the larger Music Box stage, making whatever few set pieces there were seem small and insignificant. On the plus side, Lap Chi Chu has a way with lovely lighting color washes, and Paul Tazewell's costumes are worthy of their Tony-nominated status.

Given the historic change brought about the events of the play, not to mention the current political climate, you'd think Taub's book and lyrics would have more weight and power. Instead, both rely heavily on naming names and dates, with little additional thematic substance. The result is more Wikipedia/Encyclopedia Britannica in dialogue and Schoolhouse Rock in song. While her score is definitely varied - no two songs sound alike - it is also unmemorable. It wants so badly to be Hamilton, and maybe a bit of Ragtime, but it isn't even close. Only occasionally, does it soar on its own. Despite its "I Feel Pretty" staging, "Great American Bitch" is a clever bop of a song, and "Wait My Turn" is a powerful anthem. "I Was Here" and "The Young Are at the Gates" are also quite moving. That said, if you asked me to hum the tunes or recall any lyrics, I couldn't do it. Well, that's not exactly true. I haven't stopped singing, "I demand to be heard" for two days...and just when I finally stopped singing "I'm not giving away my shot," too. 

The main conflict in this isn't just women versus the government, but also with a focus on the battle of wills between contemporary suffragists Carrie Chapman Catt and Alice Paul. At the performance I attended, Catt was played by Dana Costello (on for Jenn Colella), and, while she was fine, it felt like she was in a different show than the rest of the cast. She played musical comedy, and everyone else was in full drama mode. Paul was played by Shaina Taub, who, frankly, gives the very definition of a one note performance: earnestly angry, and, by the time it was over, more annoying than inspiring. Sadly, it also serves as a reminder that writing a part for oneself doesn't usually serve the piece very well. Unfortunately, these portrayals also bring both characters perilously close to becoming the stereotype they rail against throughout the show.

It's not that there aren't good (great, even) things to say about Suffs. Several new (to me, anyway) actors have made my "I can't wait to see what they do next" list including the charismatic Ally Bonino as Lucy Burns, who made Burns' transformation from sidekick to a fully voiced leader riveting. Nadia Dandashi made a similar impression in a role that could easily have been forgettable - as secretary of the movement, she does a lot of facts and dates type dialogue - and yet she was still compelling. As President Wilson's Third Assistant Secretary of State, Dudley Malone, Tsilala Brock was simply terrific (especially when playing against the overindulgent, comic book villainy of Grace McLean). And finally, Hannah Cruz bolts right to the top of my list with her powerful performance of the tragic heroine, Inez Milholland. Every time she took the stage, I saw what Suffs could've been. And there were predictably wonderful turns by two veterans, Nikki M. James as Ida B. Wells, and Emily Skinner as both Alva Belmont and Phoebe Burn. The latter was a breath of fresh air with comic, yet grounded moments - not to mention a set of amazing pipes, while the former was a beacon of stoic dignity. She made Wells the emotional centerpiece of the musical, and I assure you my mind was sharply focused every second she was onstage.

And so it is. The other female empowerment musical of this season was not perfect, but Lempicka made me feel something and took chances. I was hoping for the same and more from a show about some of the greatest American women in history.

📸: J. Marcus

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