For anyone wondering if the New York Musical Festival has a genuine hit in this year’s line-up, The Goree All-Girl String Band is it in flying colors. Michael Bradley, responsible for book and lyrics, and Artie Sievers, the composer, have taken a real-life story and turned it into a rousing two-act evening of fun and genuine social concern.
It’s the 1930s—or is it already the 1940s?—and a group of women inmates at the Huntsville, Texas Goree State Farm learn that a radio station broadcasting statewide has introduced a weekly half-hour program, “Behind the Walls,” to host incarcerated music groups.
That none of the Goree women play an instrument doesn’t stop any of them from taking up the bass or violin or so on and eventually getting on the show—with the long-range hopes of being pardoned for their talents and efforts.
The persistent leader of the ambitious ensemble—many of them convicted of murder (think the homicidal Chicago ladies)—is Reable Childs (Lauren Patton). The even more persistent member is 17-year-old and initially timid Mozelle McDaniel (Ruby Wolf). Another is African-American Hattie Ellis (Nattalyee Randall), who is barred from performing with the other five on racial grounds but eventually gets her own moment at the microphone.
The Bradley-Sievers tuner doesn’t let the Ellis issue stand alone but unflinchingly addresses other racists conditions, too, as it country-swings on its harmonious way. Though the actual all-Girls band probably performed recognizable songs of the era, this score is entirely new and rousing as all-get-out.
Ashley Brooke Monroe directs the cast (Brandon Powers is credited with movement)—all of whose girl-group members play their own instruments. Every one is strong, but Randall may be the standout. The program indicates she’s played Effie in Dream Girls, and she certainly should.
I Am, I Will, I Do won’t and doesn’t. It begins with unlikable composer Dave Abbott (Nic Cory, who can’t help his assignment) complaining to married wedding-planner business partners Nancie Faith Hope Connolly-Peterson (Claire Neumann) and Richard Peterson (Peyton Crim) about his trouble nailing down dates—even through online services.
The first thought any theater-goer is bound to have is, “A dating-site musical in 2017? Still!?” But here it is, filled out with relationship troubles experienced by the Petersons and by the soon-to-be-wed Valerie Ashley (Grace Leszynski) and Tony Grammonzonioni (Devon Goffman). Added to the mix are lawyer Harris Farnsworth (Kyle Robert Carter), with whom Dave has an on-again-off-again romance, and mixed-up psychotherapist Lara Lewinski (Stephanie D’Abruzzo, soon to open in the York Theatre’s Jerry’s Girls revival; lucky her).
Dan Manjovi is the I Am, I Will, I Do book-music-lyrics creator. He’s also the piece’s producer, which explains a lot. As bookwriter he strings together a series of scenes during which the participants bicker and reconcile and bicker again so that, as composer, he can insert one of his generally stick-free songs of the “I love you/You know I do” sort. (He’s really big on you-do-true rhymes.)
There is one ditty that has power, “Sittin’ in the Driver’s Seat,” but its appeal may have more to do with the Crim-Carter-Goffman delivery than the material. Director Christopher Scott could also have something to do with the heat generated. Incidentally, Crim has an especially mighty baritone worth hearing under other circumstances.
Lord Graham Russell, who co-founded the Top 40 band Air Supply, supplied the songs for A World Apart. For the first act, he’s written “Do You Mind If I Adore You,” which impresses as a peak-period Air Supply ditty. It may be second-drawer Air Supply, but Air Supply all the same. For act two, he’s drawn on harmonies reminiscent of the huge and enduring click, “The Air That I Breathe.”
Aside from those, he hasn’t come up with much more than adequate numbers in a story about three brothers—Hans (Daren Ritchie), Mickey (Josh Tolle), Kurt (Jordan Bondurant)—living in East Berlin before and during the horror of the wall (1961- 1989).
Although Hans is proud to be a guard protecting the city’s dividing line, Micky longs to be in West Berlin with his Mickey and the Angels rock band and Kurt wants to West-ward with his new girlfriend, Suzanne (Emily Behny).
The rock musical’s often plodding dramatic arc, authored by Sam Goldstein and Craig Clyde, rests on whether either Mickey—with his new wife Esther (Maddie Shea Baldwin)—is able to escape once the wall is built and/or whether Kurt, who’s influenced by Hans to enlist in the guards, joins Suzanne for good.
Those stories unfold within a dark, somehow pretentious production embellished by six singer-dancers whom Keith Andrew directs and choreographs. This regularly black-garbed contingent marches on stage every so often, frequently carrying tall, grey planks that rhythmically bang on the floor with confrontational menace.
All involved would obviously like to be perceived as tackling one of the most scabrous 20th-century historical events—one that speaks to today about the deleterious effect of walls—and that’s a fine goal. Unfortunately, the uninspiring quality of A Wall Apart doesn’t set it apart.
By the way, the programs for The Goree All-Girl String Band and A Wall Apart include thanks to numerous donors. So does My Dear Watson, the only other NYMF presentation I’ve seen this year. Dan Manjovi thanks no donors, but since he’s also the I Can, I Will, I Do producer, it can probably be deduced that he’s his own well-heeled donor.
Since I have only seen the four musicals, I can’t generalize about NYMF capitalization (the projections of the A Wall Apart frightening Berlin sites must have run into a not inconsiderable expense), but neither do these four wannabes disabuse me of my concern about the NYMF’s selection process as it affects outstanding musicals for which those creators cannot find sufficient donors. It raises the thorny question: Of what lasting benefit is a festival that isn’t committed to the absolute best work over the generously-backed second- and third-rate?