Jonathan Abarbanel gets rock-solid over a promising yet troublesome new musical at Bailiwick Rep.
It's July 1920 in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood, a legendary South Side African-American community once noted for its rich social, musical and intellectual culture. Ginny (Penelope Walker), and her son, nine-year old Roosevelt (alternatively played by Adriane LeCesne and Khristopher Williamson), have come there from New Orleans. But Chicago's infamous race riots of 1919--sparked by the stoning and drowning death of a black boy who crossed an invisible divide and swam in the water off a whites-only beach--have made Ginny fiercely overprotective of Roosevelt. Their neighbors and best friends are Hannah (Felicia Fields) and her son Clarence (Lee Worthy), a fully-grown man with a child's mind. A gentle giant, Clarence collects and polishes stones with Roosevelt.
By chance, Roosevelt's father Frank (Percy Littleton) suddenly re-enters Ginny's life. A hustling, charming World War I veteran who left Ginny in New Orleans before he ever knew he had fathered a child, Frank now wishes to make a family with Ginny and Roosevelt. But can Ginny share Frank's dreams? Does she see life as an adventure or a search for security? This is the crux of the show.
But the chief problem with Stones is that it doesn't exploit its setting. The rich tradition for which Bronzeville is famous--from the 1930's and 1940's more than from the 1920's--doesn't show up at all. Neither book nor music is used to weave a community tapestry, with most scenes in the show confined to an apartment setting or an alley. Even the racial background and/or theme nearly is ignored, leaving little about Stones that's specific either to Chicago or the African-American community. At heart a love story, the show could almost occur in any time and any place.
And yet the opportunities are there--making it all the more distressing that Shannon and Reeger have cut off their writing hands to keep Stones a small-scale musical. Let it grow! The ensemble/chorus role needs to expand--creating a real Bronzeville voice. Scenes at a local church and at a nightclub should be shown and not described. A journey Roosevelt takes outside Bronzeville, on his own, might be shown from his point-of-view, rather than just from that of his worried, housebound mother. A relationship between Hannah and her would-be boyfriend--shown together only in one scene--needs to also emerge as a full, comedic subplot in contrast to the primary drama. Also, Stones cries out for more choreography--the music is there--even though it might not be possible on Bailiwick's limited stage.
Shannon's pastiche score, with occasional flashes of gospel and blues inspiration, is pleasant. The standout numbers are Frank's dramatic "Nine Years," the up-tempo tunes "Dance for Hannah Tonight" and "A Taste on Saturday Night," Virginia's big tune, "Lord, Help Him," and the company number, "One Breath."
Reeger--who is also an actor of distinction that can currently be found onstage in rotating rep at Court Theatre--could employ more humor, more period, and more ethnic flavor in his book, even if he should risk opening himself to charges of stereotyping if the language becomes too slang-based or idiomatic. Also, the show sags perceptively in the middle of Act II when Roosevelt's sojourn becomes predictable--partly because there is nothing more that we learn about Frank and Ginny. Their characters are solidly and swiftly established, but really need to be more complex. And yet another subplot, involving Clarence's ability at arm-wrestling, is also not utilized to maximum value.