theater (reviews)

review: Edwin, The Story of Edwin Booth

Music by Marianna Rosett
Book and Lyrics by Eric Swanson
Directed by Christopher Scott
Featuring Dana Watkins, Patricia Noonan, Deanne Lorette
Great Circle Productions @ Theatre at St. Clement’s 423 West 46th Street
September 4, 2016 – September 18, 2016
production site

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Six of the seven cast members welcome the audience and herald Edwin’s story. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

Attend the tale of Edwin Booth. Edwin Booth (Dana Watkins) was one of several acting brothers, illegitimate son of renowned actor Junius   (Paul Deboy) and a mother Mary Ann (Deanne Lorette) who gave up performing to raise several children, several actors and an assassin among them. Others have tackled these stories on stage (e.g. The Brothers BOOTH! by W. Stuart McDowell and The Brothers Booth by Marshell Bradley) and film (e.g. Prince of Players in 1955). This musical treatment, built around the book and lyrics by Eric Swanson and featuring alternately Gothic and warm music by Marianna Rosett, reflects on the acting profession during  a certain phase of American history, and provides elements of the personal, professional, and political legacies the Booth family of grand actors, magnificently tawdry drunkenness, children born in- and out-of-wedlock, financial neglect, and the killing of an American president. The historical settings of the lives of the musical’s characters radiate drama that this new musical has yet successfully to hone.

Our journey takes us to theaters (backstage, onstage), with several resonant layers added by this production’s location in St. Clement’s theater that has been carved out of a church sanctuary. Characters morph and disappear, with a final dramatic historical reveal that is based on a historical event that occurred on a train platform and has been fictionally extended for additional dramatic punch by this book writer, a moment that is unnecessarily tidy.

There are many choices that could used for the location of the musical, many of them used as individual song settings. There’s 13-year-old Edwin getting life advice from his mother Mary Ann before being sent off to monitor and learn from his errant and talented actor father for a multi-year acting apprenticeship (sweet soliloquys of advice related to Edwin’s father such as “You Don’t Know Him” or “Open The Door” on taking the next life chance or “Now You Know” about the reveal of Edwin’s illegitimacy). There’s the young actress Mollie (luminous and delicate-voiced Patricia Noonan) Edwin meets, marries, and who dies in childbirth while Edwin is on the road, who justifies her young love in “A Man” that evokes Jesus Christ Superstar’s “I Don’t Know How to Love Him” and the lyrical phrase “He’s a man / He’s just a man.” There’s the historical occasion of the three acting brothers Booth appearing in a benefit performance of Julius Caesar, a one-night-only fundraiser in 1864 (John Wilkes as Marc Antony, Edwin as Brutus, and Junius Jr. as Cassius) yielding the splendid almost slapstick three-part harmony stand alone piece “Filli, Patri” with Watkins as Edwin joined by Junius Jr. or June (Adam Bashian) and John Wilkes or Johnny (Todd Lawson).

Instead, the book writer lands on the conventional frame of backstage recollections between key life moments, much as Funny Girl‘s structural “pause” where Fanny waits for Nicky to be released from his stint in prison, remembers with us the course of her life leading to that moment, considers the rest of her life, and the play resolves with her own anthem to her man, her life, her career. Backstage at the old Winter Garden in post-War 1866, Edwin reflects on his education by his talented lout of a father, his estrangement from his family, the death of his wife Mollie. He is appearing to redeem his own career and his family legacy, with this evening’s performance of his signature role of Hamlet, not long after brother John Wilkes has assassinated the American President, in a theater that is soon to burn to the ground and be rebuilt. The backstage-pivotal-moment choice is familiar but the details around that moment are complexly layered in a manner that too often confuses rather than illuminates.

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Dana Watkins as Edwin Booth. Photo by Jeremy Daniel.

There are genuinely moving moments in this production’s dimly lit 19th-century spare aesthetic executed by lighting and scenic designer Chad McArver. There are many moments when other writers are called to mind (chief among them Sondheim but also traditional folk tunes). And there are many times that this often luscious piece feels without clear focus and presenting too many perspectives at once.

The piece could possibly be rethought as intermission-less — some of the story-telling energy leaves the room with Edwin’s first act denouement naming his career challenges “Father, Wife and Brother” musing “How can I atone?” I for one just wanted the story to continue rather than stopping dead. The same tune, “The Truth of Edwin Booth” begins the show and is reprised at the top and conclusion of Act two, perhaps a call back but in a show with a focused punch like this one could have, these reprises dilute the power of this family history. We might as well have named the tune “The Ballad of Edwin Booth” to complete the homage to Sondheim’s Sweeney.

This history is rich, the characters are endlessly fascinating, and the structural frame here feels unnecessarily twee at moments. Let the stories fly, let us know the legacy in real terms, let us know about the location of Edwin’s birth and death, decide if the story is about The Booths or about Edwin and re-tweak the balance of storytelling.There are gems here, homages to existing musical theater, and indeed to another murderous Victorian legacy. Attend the tale.

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© Martha Wade Steketee (September 12, 2016)

Music | Marianna Rosett
Book + Lyrics | Eric Swanson
Director | Christopher Scott
Set and Lighting Design | Chad McArver
Costume Design | David Zyla
Graphic + Interactive Design | Ifaat Qureshi
Orchestration | Ljova Zhurbin
Fight Director | Ron Piretti

 

 

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