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NYMF 2014: Mother Jones and the Children's Crusade; Oprahfication; The Travels

This is TheaterMania's fourth roundup of reviews for the 2014 New York Musical Theatre Festival.

Lynne Wintersteller (center) and the cast of Cheryl E. Kemeny's Mother Jones and the Children's Crusade, directed by Michelle Tattenbaum, at the PTC Performance Space.
(© Shira Friedman)

Mother Jones and the Children's Crusade

by Hayley Levitt

Before the Occupy movement, there was Mother Jones' "Children's Crusade," the subject of Cheryl E. Kemeny's new historical musical. The plight of early-20th-century America's 99%, however, is particularly gruesome, with child labor abuse running rampant in dangerous coalmines and textile mills.

We meet Kemeny's characters at the Kensington textile factory near Philadelphia and follow them as they begin to organize for an impending strike, led by the timid union organizer Jenny Markem (sweetly played by Lizzie Klemperer), recently appointed to her post by the handsome Alexander Gottlieb (Kevin Reed). Professional hell-raiser Mary Harris Jones — most often referred to as Mother Jones — is enlisted to light a fire under these protesting workers. A sudden tragedy in the factory, however, shifts the focus from basic wage grievances to the unprotected population of child laborers — a shift that leads to her famous 1903 march from the Pennsylvania factory to the home of President Theodore Roosevelt in Oyster Bay, New York.

The show opens with the sound of cast member Lulu Lloyd's striking voice singing a soothing chant "Mother Jones, The Miner's Angel." A similar Irish flavor peppers the rest of Kemeny's score, though none of the remaining tunes meet the promise, nor match the tone, of this opening number. The production overall, directed by Michelle Tattenbaum, treads lightly on its somber subject matter, often resembling the depiction of the 1899 New York City Newsboys Strike found in Broadway's Disney musical Newsies.

Lynne Wintersteller lends a powerful presence and strong voice to her title character — an outspoken woman to whom a jail cell is as familiar as her own Irish brogue. Meanwhile, the always charming Robin De Jesús offers comic relief as the shy law student and fellow protester Jack Dorsey, who perpetually swoons over the sassy Mary Jo Sanders, played by an entertaining Marissa Miller. A collection of talented young performers (Frenie Acoba, Zachary Mackiewicz, Johnny Marx, and Grace Matwijec) are also heavily featured in the cast, bringing some authenticity to the story, though not quite enough to drive home the urgency felt by the protesters banging down the gate of Teddy Roosevelt's summer home.

Rachel Dunham as Oprah in Oprahfication, written by Dunham and directed by Dirk Hoult, at the Pershing Square Signature Center as part of the 2014 New York Musical Theatre Festival.
(© 3 Fates Media)


by Pete Hempstead

Making one of television's most influential people the subject of an 80-minute musical is a tall order, but Rachel Dunham does a bang-up job of it in her gentle satire of the life and career of Oprah Winfrey. With an eclectic roster of 14 songs (lyrics by Dunham and music by Shanon D. Whitelock), Oprahfication paints a lighthearted, entertaining, funny portrait of the talk-show legend while showcasing Dunham's impressive set of pipes.

Dunham, who also wrote the musical's book, came up with a modest plot as a vehicle for telling Oprah's story. We are the audience at a live anniversary special that promises the "ultimate interview" with an unnamed guest. During show breaks, Oprah makes calls to longtime friend Gayle and partner Stedman, but panic ensues when her special guest cancels at the last minute. A prayer and a song later, she returns to her studio audience and announces that she will hold her ultimate interview with — who else? — herself.

Oprahfication doesn't attempt to be a comprehensive biography. We're given the well-known bullet points of Oprah's life, from her upbringing in Mississippi to the founding of her cable TV network, OWN. There's loads to like about the show's songs, which range from gospel to '50s doo-wop to ballads of self-empowerment. "Who Do You Think You Are?" and "Do It on TV" are bouncy critiques of celebrity egos (including Oprah's). "A Simple Idea" pays homage to her love of literature, and "Fat, Black & Woman" soars with its strong message of self-affirmation. "Oprahfication!" rounds out the solid one-woman performance with a rousing anthem that sends us home on a high note.

Through it all, Dunham portrays Oprah as strong-willed yet fragile, altruistic yet self-important, inspiring yet a bit delusional, but she keeps the satire at a low boil, making the show pleasant for Oprah's admirers while recognizing Oprah's inevitable flaws as a human being. With Dunham's strong vocal performance and the show's polished writing and fine collection of songs, Oprahfication should top your list of NYMF shows this year.

Jamie Bogyo as Adonis Perfect, Holland Mariah Grossman as Teeny Travel, and Jose Ramos as Pinto in Aaron Ricciardi's The Travels, directed by Travis Greisler, at the Pershing Square Signature Center as part of the 2014 New York Musical Theatre Festival.
(© James Higgins)

The Travels

by Pete Hempstead

The title of Aaron Ricciardi's wacky tuner The Travels gives you absolutely no idea what it's about, but if you like the thrill of surprise, stop reading now and buy your ticket to this potentially funny but mind-bogglingly confused musical play.

In a dystopian, Orwellian United States, where the government monitors its citizens in their homes, dictates moral behavior, and forbids travel to other countries, Teeny Travel (Holland Mariah Grossman) has a rebellious streak that's constantly landing her in trouble (she's forced to wear an eye patch and walk with crutches as punishment). Her father, Mr. Travel (J. Anthony Crane), has a government-sponsored TV show that decries the liberalism of other countries, yet he's having a homosexual affair with his show's sidekick, Warren (Matthew Patrick Quinn). Meanwhile, Ecuadorian tourists Pinto (Jose Ramos) and Consuela (Michelle Rios) are forced to become servants for the Travels, with dire results for both. But when the nation holds its annual celebration, Teeny must decide if she wants to speak out against the government's close-mindedness and its draconian punishments.

The Travels feels only incidentally like a musical, with a mere four songs breaking up the action during the show's 90 minutes. To be fair, the show is billed as a play "with songs," but only one of them, the satirically racist "The Saga of Constance the Pilgrim," seems sufficiently related to the play. And the narrative often strays from its satirical path, becoming overly serious and dramatic in several scenes when its earnest critique of bluenosed conservatism ought to have been cloaked in humor. A storyline as over-the-top as this play's always needs a light touch to avoid the tonal clashes that director Travis Greisler seems unaware of.

Though the show does poke well-deserved fun at the extreme right-wingification of the United States, it suffers from an underdeveloped score, heavy-handed direction, and a book that often takes itself too seriously. While The Travels could be workshopped into a smart piece of writing, it still has a ways to go on its journey.