The violent and prolonged strike by the immigrant coal miners of Ludlow, Colorado in 1914 is little remembered, but the repercussions for American workers are still being felt today. A musical retelling of these events would appear to be a natural, full of vivid historical characters and wicked social commentary as underdogs fight to attain their dreams. Unfortunately, Laurel Vartabedian and Bill G. Evans's American Story is curiously as bland as its title, an uninspired blend of Ragtime, Les Misérables, and a History Channel documentary.
It may be unfair to pass judgment on the work as a whole, for the production on view at the Pantheon Theatre (as part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival) has been cut to fit the hour-and-a-half time slots required by the Festival. But what is being presented of Vartabedian's book is a disjointed, incoherent scramble that skips willy-nilly from emotional highlight to emotional highlight. Because situations and relationships are never fully delineated, it is difficult to tell who these people are, or even to care for them or their plight. The strike itself is glossed over with a swiftness that is shocking considering that it is the work's raison d'être, and assumptions concerning the audience's emotional connection are made that aren't earned.
The score also suffers from this lack of personality. While it was sung with impeccable artistry by the hugely talented cast, Evans's music has a repetitive, earnest quality, settling for a synthesized pop sound that gives no flavor of the period in which the musical is set. Similarly, Vartabedian's lyrics are politically heart-on-sleeve, although one ballad, "Kiss to Nowhere," does touch with its aching simplicity.
While Stephen Hilton's placid direction amounted to little more than playing traffic cop, the lack of urgency or style did not defeat the one true asset of the production: its glorious cast. As already mentioned, their voices were terrific, and the energy and commitment they brought to the evening were commendable. Christian James, Keralee Johnson, and Joe Ceriello gave impassioned portraits in underwritten roles, Lisa Adams and Ted Anderson made much of their tiny parts, and the big-voiced Victoria Tralongo gave the evening its most fiery moments as the irrepressible labor agitator Mother Jones. Only David Phillip Brooks as a smug spy failed to impress; giving only enough energy to get through the performance and no more, it seemed as if he were ill.
Aside from a few archival slides (incomprehensibly blocked by the performers - really, Mr. Hilton! Blocking 101!), the physical production was nothing to boast about, although the period costumes were lovely in their accuracy and detail.
It is a pity that this American Story does not live up to the promise of its author's passion. Perhaps the full-length version is more successful in focusing the sprawling elements of the tale into one cohesive, heart-rending musical. But as it currently stands, the production is a disappointing example of lofty, admirable goals that remain unattained.
(Also featuring Jeanne L. Austin, Kelly
Fleck, Christopher Lewis, Bellavia Mauro, and
Jim Taylor McNickle. Sets, lights, and costumes uncredited.)
Writing: Book: 1 Music: 1 Lyrics: 1
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Copyright 2000 Doug DeVita