Woman's work is never done

Belles of the Mill

Book by Rachel Rubin Ladutke
Music and Lyrics by Jill Marshall-Work
Directed by Arlene Schulman
Musical direction by Brian Allan Hobbs
Midtown International Theatre Festival
Raw Space Theatre L
529 W. 42nd St. (279-4200/www.ticketcentral.org)
Equity showcase (closes Aug. 3)
Review by Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen

Out of the dark rises the rhythmic sound of machines at work. The lights fade up on a slow-motion tableau of women miming working in a mill. They start to sing, inaudible over the machines until with a collective stamp of the foot the machines stop and we are treated to the opening number, "Pennies in our Pay," leading into the defiant "We Strike."

It’s a strong, effective opening to a show with a strong, serious subject. The musical is an adaptation by Rachel Rubin Ladutke of her own play; this in turn is based on the real-life events of 1912 when immigrant female workers in the mill-town of Lawrence, Massachusetts decided to strike for decent pay in the face of police brutality, the National Guard, and town officials. Ultimately successful, their victory came at a great personal cost to the families involved.

Ladutke’s musical tells this story through the experiences of a few individual characters, although a handful of smaller roles (played with conviction by Phoebe Geer and Bridget Harvey) and the chorus of mill-workers (Eileen Luscombe, Heather Bloomgren, Heather Larson) help to suggest the wider community. The story follows two main families -- first that of Sarah, the midwife whose license is revoked due to her support of women’s suffrage (a warm, intelligent performance from Sharron Bower), her shopkeeper brother-in-law Hiram (an intense Bill Quinlan) and her nephew Jacob (young Cohlie Brocato). Into their life comes Irish teenager Bridget (a vivacious Elissa Ann Yudofsky). In a sense, her journey is that of the show: first introduced as the sexual victim of her boss Albert (a slimy Richard Bacon, teetering deliciously on the edge of melodrama), she seeks help from Sarah; confronts the entrenched ideas of her uncle Father Paul (Joseph E. Murray, intermittently forceful but not the "holy terror" called for); talks back to the unsympathetic chief of police (David A.Green); confronts her romantic feelings for Sean, the Irish policeman (a winning Patrick Porter); and ends up as a spokesperson for downtrodden workers through the encouragement of union organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (a warm but uncompromising Amanda Weeden).

There are some effective period details. In addition to depicting the actual historical events, the immigrant experience is evoked through Hiram ("Cossacks in the Night") and Bridget and the question of women’s suffrage is introduced through the three female leads. However, the downside of this breadth is that there is an awful lot of exposition to get through -- not always inherently dramatic -- and this holds up the narrative thrust. It also impedes character development as the actors -- especially Bridget -- go through very rapid emotional shifts without time for them (or the audience) to process. In addition, there is a tendency to overuse the period-style score for exposition and to repeat refrains a little too frequently, further impeding the flow of narrative and character development.

While the story is rooted in real events and is told through individual characters, there is nothing here that hasn’t been seen or heard before, and the moments where Ladutke and Jill Marshall-Work really succeed occur when they focus on individual characters and very specific situations. A jaunty chase for a compromising photograph ("Get the Picture"); the union worker and the factory owner (a suitably patronizing Joe Enderson) singing and dancing the "Negotiating Rag"; the love song between Bridget and Sean (complete with Irish jig) on either side of a prison cell; and Bridget’s unsentimental evocation of life at the mill to the Congress. These are the defined, detailed moments that stay in the mind.

It is perhaps no accident that these were also the moments in which director Arlene Schulman made the best creative use of the tiny stage and limited resources. She was aided in this by lighting designer Peter Leonard, costume designer Robin McGee, and sound designer Ann Warren, all of whom worked hard to transform a small studio stage into a busy 1912 mill town – as did musical director Brian Allan Hobbs, who valiantly accompanied the entire show on piano.

 Box Score:

Book: 1
Music and lyrics: 1
Directing: 1
Acting: 1
Sets: 1
Costumes: 1
Lighting/Sound: 1

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Copyright 2002 Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen