Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of Isla Tuliro
Five Points was a notorious lower Manhattan neighborhood created in 1811 by filling in a fresh water pond to add residential land for the city's growing populace. Intended as a middle class enclave, the poorly engineered land fill led to rapid settling and deterioration of the structures. Houses were subdivided into small units that drew the city's immigrant poorin particular, the Irishas well as free blacks and escaped slaves. Five Points soon became a deplorable and dangerous slum, on par with the London slums described by Charles Dickens. Poverty, disease, and violent gangs were rampant, as seen in Martin Scorsese's film Gangs of New York, which was also set in Five Points.
Harrison David Rivers' book for the musical wisely focuses on just of slice of the spectrum of the district's history and humanity. Rivers has used several historic personages to spin the tale of two protagonists. John Diamond was an Irish immigrant whose quick and graceful jig-dancing landed him a spot touring with showman P. T. Barnum, billed as the King of Diamonds. After Diamond and Barnum had a falling out, Barnum replaced him with an African-American dancer named Willie Lane, giving him the stage name Master Juba. The twoDiamond and Lanefaced off in a series of contests, called "dance-offs," during the mid-1840s, with Lane winning all but one.
Rivers played a bit with these facts. He fabricated the cause of Diamond and Barnum's falling outDiamond broke his contract out of grief after his wife Bridget died, leaving young John Jr. in his care. For Willie Lane, he created a family that ran the popular dance hall Almack's, an actual African American establishment of the era, but not really owned by Lane's family. Rivers also moved the 1840s Diamond-Lane contests to the 1860s to coincide with the Civil War, when conscription of Irish immigrants into the Union army ignited anger against their black neighbors in Five Points, who did not serve in the army and who, many Irish averred, were the cause of the war for which they had to risk their lives. These plot strands are adeptly spun, leading to the culminating dance-off, as Diamond, Lane and Barnum each express their hopes in the powerful "Hero." Throughout, optimistic John Jr. is the thread that ties them together, a glimmer of hope for a future in which diversity and harmony coexist.
The score by Ethan D. Pakchar and Douglas Lyons provides songs that capture the hopes and dilemmas of the main characters, helping to advance the play forward. Parker and Lyons have devised pleasing tunes, musically amplifying the emotions of characters and plot. Lyons' lyrics tend to be a bit facile and repeat key phrases somewhat too often, but they convey their message. Kelli Foster Warder's choreography draws upon the traditional Irish and black dance forms common to 19th century Five Points, with a few rousing ensemble numbers, but the heart of the dancing is in the distinctive styles of Lane and Diamond, and the joyful melding of the two by John Jr.
As usual, Latté Da has cast the show flawlessly. The two leads, Ben Bakken as John Diamond and Lamar Jefferson as Willie Lane, are both triple threats, with superb acting, singing and dancing skills. Bakken projects Diamond's grief and self-loathing for the turns his life has taken, as in the aching "Without You" and heartfelt "Together." Jefferson expresses Lane's belief that his gift can break boundaries for himself and his people, coming fully into his own in "In These Shoes." Dieter Bierbrauer, a Latté Da mainstay, instills P. T. Barnum with the fast-talking "humbug" and opportunism associated with that character, and his beautiful voice is welcome on any stage.
Ann Michels is wonderful as Rona O'Callaghan, a good-hearted tavern keeper who looks after John Jr. when his dad is shackled by his moods, or by efforts to suppress them. T. Mychael Rambo is powerful as Willie's father Pete, who has toiled to free himself from the yoke of white men and will not stand for his son to lose that ground. Rambo's booming voice is especially stirring in "More Than." Ivory Doublette as Willie's supportive sister, and John Jamison as his friend Cornelius both give strong performances, but talented Thomasina Petrus is under-used as Pete Lane's partner, Pauline King. Matt Riehle is moving as Diamond's friend called by the army draft, and Kendall Anne Thompson is poignant as Bridget Diamond who appears in John's memories. Alejandro Vega, a youngster with heaps of experience ranging from Latté Da to Children's Theater Company to the Guthrie to Minnesota Opera, is a powerhouse as John Jr., his robust singing and dancing lighting up the house.
Director Peter Rothstein has assembled the many elements of Five Points into a seamless, engaging whole, and music director Denise Prosek brings its score to sprightly life. Design wiz Joel Sass has created a highly functional set, with Almack's Dance Hall on one side, and O'Callaghan's pub on the other, reflecting the proximity of these conflicting haunts within Five Points. A set of rear doors open, when needed, to reveal the splendor of P. T. Barnum's world, and the rear wall is covered by an advertisement for the Cunard ship line, from Liverpool to New York, attesting to the transit of the multitude of immigrants who find their way to Five Points. Trevor Bowen's costumes embody period detail, with Mary Shabatura's lighting and C. Andrew Mayer's sound design supporting a solid physical production.
As a brand new work, a natural question is, what future life does Five Points have? The basic foundation of the work is strong, the book thoughtfully wrought, and the music, if not memorable, services the story and theme well. Some strengthening might be in the form of giving greater evidence of the dangers of life in Five Points. While it is spoken of, the only actual violence built into the story is a riot related to the Civil War draft (even that, not depicted, but seen in its aftermath), which is historically accurate, but not the same as living with the fear of day-to-day mayhem. The opening "Five Points" number might be expanded to provide more of this context. And, while the choreography on stage is very well done, let's have more of it, as a vehicle not only for enhancing but for advancing the story. After all, the creative team has chosen to use dance masters Lane and Diamond as the lens through which to shed light on Five Points.
A visitor to Manhattan today would not find Five Points. The area is now occupied by the Civic Center, a monument to the African Burial Ground (a cemetery for free blacks and escaped slaves that pre-dated Five Points), and has been partly incorporate into Chinatown. But for about eighty years it was a storied part of New York City, and in many ways the first cauldron in which our societal melting pot was stirred. The setting, its history, its diversity and what it reflects about our current culture make it a great source for musical theater.
Rivers, Pakchar and Lyons have some work to do for Five Points to stand on solid ground as it moves on to other audiences, but with the strong foundation already in place, that work without question should be done. The story and the message have so much to offer our fragmented society, which knows too little of the history that brought us to this point. This is musical theater with a mission: bring it on!
Five Points, through May 13, 2018, at the Ritz Theater, 345 13th Avenue NE, Minneapolis MN. Tickets: $30.00 - $55.00. Student and Educator Rush tickets, $15.00, cash only, maximum of two tickets per valid ID one hour before curtain, pending availability. For tickets call 612-339-3303 or go to latteda.org.
Book: Harrison David Rivers: Music: Ethan D. Pakchar and Douglas Lyons; Lyrics: Douglas Lyons; Director: Peter Rothstein; Choreography: Kelli Foster Warder; Music Director: Denise Prosek; Orchestrations: Charlie Rosen and Ethan D. Pakchar; Scenic Design: Joel Sass; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Mary Shabatura; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Wig and Hair Design: Tricia Stogsdill; Properties Master: Abbee Warmboe; Fight Choreographer: Annie Enneking; Dialect Coach: Keely Wolter; Dramaturg: Elissa Adams; Technical Director: Bethany Reinfeld; Stage Manager: Tiffany K. Orr; Assistant Director: Derek Prestly; Assistant Stage Manager: Jared Zeigler
Cast: Ben Bakken (John Diamond), Dieter Bierbrauer (P.T. Barnum/Patrick), Shinah Brashears (Mariah/Kathleen), Ivory Doublette (Stella Lane), Daniel Greco (Hugh O'Neil), John Jamison (Cornelius King), Lamar Jefferson (Willie Lane), Ann Michels (Rona O'Callaghan), Thomasina Petrus (Pauline King), T. Mychael Rambo (Pete Lane), Matt Riehle (Ryan Askin), Kendall Anne Thompson (Bridget Diamond/Noreen/Jenny Lind), Evan Tyler Wilson (Military Enroller/Richard Barrett), Alejandro Vega (John Diamond Junior).