Just blocks from the site of the former Triangle Shirtwaist Factory, where 146 workers burned alive in 1911, a new musical conjures their memory. Presented as part of Theater:Village 2014, Solitary Light is the creation of Axis Company Artistic Director Randy Sharp and former Blondie guitarist Paul Carbonara. An epic lullaby from New York's industrial past, it will astound you with its uncommon beauty, if it doesn't lull you to sleep first.
The show begins in total darkness, with only a few isolated flashes of light illuminating the cast members as they begin to sing. David Zeffren's lighting keeps the remainder of the proceedings dim, with faces occasionally emerging from the shadows. When the actors step into the light, Karl Ruckdeschel's stunningly authentic period costumes come into full view. It's like discovering lost photographs in a trunk in an antique store. You don't know the subjects, but there is something incredibly compelling about their expressions. A ghostly echo on the amplified voices reinforces the show's haunted tone.
Sharp's inscrutable story largely keeps us in the dark about the characters we're witnessing: Frank (Jared Young) is an Italian immigrant with a winning smile who discovers a love of photography in transit to America. He takes pictures of the beautiful girls of New York, some of whom are labor organizers. Evelyn (Emily Kratter) is a wealthy young New Yorker with a love for pretty things, especially Frank. The only problem is Frank can't keep his eyes off Louise (Shira Averbuch), a worker in the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory.
As Frank, Young has a winning smile that makes you understand the magnetic attraction he holds for Evelyn and Louise. Equally alluring, Averbuch strums a mandolin like a Taft-era manic pixie dream girl. Kratter does a particularly good job of interpreting Sharp and Carbonara's highly poetic lyrics into real and recognizable human emotion. Everyone in the ensemble sings like an angel.
That's a good thing, because the entire musical (which lasts approximately an hour) is sung through, with new themes and motifs seamlessly rising out of the endless tide of beautiful music that washes over the audience. Sharp's staging reflects this fact, with scenes blending from one to the next, never stopping the play's forward motion. Cabonara's melodies are reminiscent of Gotye, Led Zeppelin, and Claude-Michel Schönberg and Herbert Kretzmer's score of Les Misérables. At times it feels almost liturgical, but it is among the most beautiful music heard on the New York stage this season.
Sharp and Carbonara have created an emotional soundscape rather than an explication of the circumstances that led up to the Triangle Shirtwaist disaster. However, passages that try to shed light on the socioeconomic realities of 1911 fall flat. For instance, a song called "Think of the Riches," in which Evelyn's wealthy father (Spencer Aste) tries to convince Frank to marry his daughter by handing him a large wad of cash, is confusing at best. Few rich New York patriarchs circa 1911 would encourage their daughters to marry unemployed Italian immigrants, much less explicitly encourage those immigrants to dig for gold. When the actual disaster of the Triangle Shirtwaist fire finally comes, it feels like an anticlimax. It's quickly over, with little time spent reflecting on this horrific incident that galvanized America into a decades-long struggle for workers' rights and better safety measures in the workplace.
Unlike Juárez: A Documentary Mythology (also appearing in the festival), Solitary Light eschews cold, hard facts for something more akin to a beautiful bedtime story, which comes with its own danger of soothing its audience members into a gentle slumber. This is a shame, because Sharp's stage pictures paired with Carbonara's magical melodies make for a pleasant (although not very illuminating) hour in the theater. Caffeinate yourself for this one.