The gentrification of the Upper West Side in the early- to mid-1980s is an interesting topic for a musical, one potentially rife with conflict and sharp-edged social commentary. While an entire neglected portion of New York City was revitalized, the poor minorities who populated the area were forced out by skyrocketing rents and luxury construction built for a newly wealthy middle class.
Unfortunately, Children of the House Afire, the musical fashioned by award-winning poet D.H. Melhem, composer Grenoldo Frazier , and director Lissa Moira from two of Melhem's books, was an overplotted, confusing mess, an uneasy combination of Street Scene, The Bonfire of the Vanities, Balm in Gilead, and any one of Clifford Odets's kitchen-sink dramas of the 1930s. Subtitled "a New York story of passion, greed and revenge," the new musical at Theatre for the New City stubbornly sidestepped the very issues it raised and concentrated instead on a standard T.V. movie story detailing the (many) stock problems of the (many) stock characters. But with no clear through line to follow, the audience was left with stilted expository dialog leading into arbitrarily placed song cues. The lyrics were mind-numbing in their naivete ("Let the buildings be tall, let the streets be clean, let the dogs be small...") and did nothing to build character or further plot. The music, at best, was unobtrusive, and as played on two synthesizers, had a tinkly sound reminiscent of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood, rather than the gritty Upper West Side of the early 1980s. The weaknesses in the score were further exposed by a cast that did not have the vocal resources required, unforgivable in a city that has a talent pool like New York's.
These difficulties were further compounded by acting, direction, and production values that rarely rose above the community-theatre level. Ms. Moira, lauded by oobr earlier this season for her work on Time It Is (also at Theatre for the New City), misfired spectacularly here. With so many plots going on at once, clear concise direction is crucial. However, there was no directorial point of view in evidence, little or no character development, and, most damaging in a musical, no sense of excitement, urgency, or energy to propel the evening forward. The performers were left to wander aimlessly around the stage, looking either excruciatingly self-conscious or like star pupils from the Isabel Sanford School of Over-Acting. (Adding insult to injury, during the performance Ms. Moira was spotted sitting downstage left, in view of the audience and bopping along to the music, encouraging her performers and further pulling focus.)
The lack of a cohesive vision extended to the overall look of the show, with appropriately drab sets (Donald L. Brooks), lights (John D. Andreadakis) and costumes (Ms. Moira), and pedestrian choreography (Larl Becham).
Still, it must be noted (and inevitably quoted), the sold-out audience gave it cheers, whistles, and the now obligatory standing ovation. How nice for Theatre for the New City. And how sad.
(Featuring Monica Callan, Israel Cruz, Dennis Horvitz,
Reginald James, Yolanda Karr, Miron Lockett,
Thelma Medina, Alexandra Noailles, Nina Onuora,
Merry Jo Pitasi, Edgar Anthony Roman, Stacy J. Dotson,
Felicia Griffith, Giancarla Naslenas, Mary Catherine
Naslenas, Nicholas van Pittman, David D. Sanchez,
and Cathleen Silva. Sound by Bill Bradford.)
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Copyright 1999 Doug DeVita