American Dreams: Lost and Found, a dramatization-with-music adapted by Peter Frisch, with lyrics by Lois Walden and music by Nana Simopoulos, has neither the energy of a musical nor the drama of a serious play. Instead of leaving one humming tunes or deeply moved, or both, the show inspires a new American dream in its audience: that of a better staging of this material.
First of all, one can't help but wonder why this book was chosen for stage treatment over others by Terkel. Although the topic is of perennial interest, American Dreams isn't the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian's most compelling or even most recent work, having hit shelves 20 years before 2001's Will the Circle Be Unbroken? While both books are worth reading, the interviewees' take on the American Dream in the earlier tome is so '70s-centric that the show frequently feels like a period piece.
The fact that Terkel's books have been adapted for the stage is unsurprising; they are the popular-history equivalent of A Chorus Line, featuring a parade of people emoting and spilling their guts. The books have a unique poignancy and dignity precisely because they traffic in unadorned human communication. But the members of the creative team of American Dreams apparently believed that theatricality would have undermined the material's power; so the actors in this production perform their monologues on a nearly bare stage, clad in simple costumes. As for the songs, they sound unfinished.
Presenting material gleaned from interviews on stage is not as easy as Anna Deveare Smith makes it look. Though several of the monologues contained in American Dreams are highly dramatic, many others are just informative anecdotes without much profundity. Frisch's adaptation doesn't surmount this obstacle, failing to carve a satisfying evening of theater from a book that hasn't a story or consistent characters. Even with the help of dramaturge Douglas Langworthy, Frisch hasn't been able to create an arc for the evening or to conjure thematic unity through editing and arrangement of the monologues.
Happily, there are a few worthy moments among the work's 21 disconnected bits; unhappily, they aren't the first few, which would have permitted theatergoers to depart early without missing anything. (At the performance I attended, a sizeable chunk of the audience left at intermission.) Michael Lluberes is brilliant as Ray Kaepplinger, a mild-mannered family man whose quest to overcome a fear of public speaking leads to hilarious, heroic, and controversial public confrontations with the administration of Richard Daley, Sr. in Chicago.
Another standout from the first act is Christen Simon as Emma Knight, a former Miss USA whose attitude toward the pageant is that of a newly minted '70s feminist. As Frank Willis, the security guard whose watchful eye helped catch the crooks in the Watergate scandal, Lamont Stephens does nice work; he's also fine when he later plays Vernon Jarrett, a city-dweller who has seen an entire community collapse around him. And Siobhan Juanita Brown is memorable in both of her roles.
But where is director Rebecca Guy in all of this? The performances hardly ever rise to the level of passion, and none of them are aided by inspired staging. The use of a microphone for Lluberes' public speaking bit, plus one of the few lighting changes that makes any sense, are among the rare variations from sit-or-stand. (Jeremy Kumin is the lighting designer.) Backdrop projection is used in one scene and never again. Looking at Narelle J. Sissons' set -- three risers with a bunch of mismatched chairs on them -- one wonders if Guy met with her collaborators at all.
Finally, as mentioned above, the music and lyrics are bland rather than simple. The same could be said of the production in general. American Dreams gains virtually nothing from being staged in this manner; the book has lost much and gained almost nothing in the translation.