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Timely, Political, Must-See Americana

...Based on E.L. Doctorow’s novel with a score by the writers of Schoolhouse Rock –who taught every human being of a certain age in the United States how to sing the preamble of the Constitution–it’s a highly political show. Set in the last Gilded Age when yellow journalistic, sensationalist media scandals whipped up frenzies that distracted from the ways in which America was failing parts of its population, it’s the story of an upper-crust white family who are forced to confront how America is changing and the new people its struggling to embrace, an educated black man and his girlfriend who are attempting to gain the respect they deserve, and a Jewish immigrant in search of the American dream. ..

...If you believe in an America where diversity is strength and xenophobia and racism are to be wiped out through shared humanity and giving one another a hand up instead of a slap down – you will be with your people. The show has strong opinions and this production serves the script.

It’s also an absolutely exceptional production in every way.

If you know anything about Doctorow’s novel, you know that the story contains tragedy, but also triumph, and this production ably serves the story with perhaps the strongest cast I’ve ever seen at the Marriott. The four principals Kathy Voytko as Mother, Benjamin Magnuson (no relation) as Tateh, Nathaniel Stampley who bleeds righteousness as Colehouse Walker Jr. and Katherine Thomas as Sarah, ably filling the very, very big shoes of Audra McDonald in the role, lead a cast full of standout performers appearing variously as upper-crust New Yorkers, union activists, immigrants at Ellis Island, and scrappy residents of Harlem.

...when it gets to the heart of the three stories – the native-born Americans dealing with change, the up and coming African-Americans and the new immigrants and their struggle – this show earns its place in the American Musical Theatre Canon. There’s a reason it was nominated for 13 Tonys the year it premiered and the score remains strong with showstopper songs for all the major characters, plus some of the minor ones and chorus members.

While her character is all about exposition and meta-commentary, Christina Hall as fiery labor agitator Emma Goldman has some really exceptional moments as does Michelle Lauto as Evelyn Nesbit, her whispy and frothy delivery is perfect for the ephemeral and tabloid-driven source of Nesbit’s fleeting fame. Keirsten Hodgens pops out of the chorus to wail a eulogy for Sarah “Till We Reach That Day” that is as good as the star’s turn at “Your Daddy’s Son.” Adam Monley plays a kindhearted but overwhelmed 19th Century man in Father convinced of the inherent goodness of the status quo even as he confronts its cruelty head-on. And Patrick Scott McDermott As Edgar, the Little Boy, takes a part that could be overly cutesy or annoying and shows us a real boy who could be our neighbor today. The ensemble baseball piece, “What a Game!” is a highlight of the show.

While Marriott always hires incredible talent, this is probably the strongest ensemble I’ve seen there overall. Every single human on that stage is absolutely bringing their A game the entire time. The show is powerful, despite the unevenness of the book and that has a lot to do with the people making sense of something that could be incredibly fragmented.

Kudos also to the design team, Jeffrey Kmiec (Sets), Jesse Klug (Lighting), Theresa Ham (Costumes) and Robert E. Gilmartin (Sound). And to director Nick Bowling, who took this sprawling piece and made it make total sense. As always, the singers are beautifully supported by the Orchestra conducted by Patti Garwood.

This show also works incredibly well in the round. With segments of the stage rising up and sinking down, a working Model T (golf cart, I’m sure) on Stage and minimal props, it transforms from ships, to Atlantic City boardwalk, to New Rochelle mansion, to Harlem music hall, or Lower East Side tenement with ease. The costumes are splendid and period appropriate...