Monday, July 02, 2018

Labor of Love: Underscore's 'Haymarket' Musical Delivers a Fine History Lesson, Rather Melodically -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

a new folk musical
by Alex Higgin-Houser and David Kornfeld
directed by Nick Thornton
Underscore Theatre Company
at The Den Theatre, Chicago
Thru July 22

The term "Broadway" serves essentially as shorthand--and iTunes classification--for the musical theater genre.

And though far from exclusively, especially over the past dozen years or so, "Broadway musicals"--denoting shows that play officially designated theaters on or near Manhattan's Broadway thoroughfare through Times Square--typically feature a number of common characteristics:

Big production numbers, lavish scenery & costumes, large ensembles, intricate choreography, 20+ piece orchestras, chorus lines, "show tunes" and more.

But "musicals" have long taken myriad forms.

Hair brought rock music to the idiom in 1967. The 2000 Tony Award-winner Contact utilized only pre-recorded music. "Jukebox musicals," featuring well-known songs by big-name artists, have been ubiquitous in the 21st century since being ushered in by Mamma Mia.

Arising since 2007 or so, Spring Awakening, Next to Normal and Fun Home have been highly dramatic musicals with few of the typical trappings, while Lin-Manuel Miranda's In the Heights and Hamilton have brilliantly fused hip-hop onto Broadway.

Photo credit on all: Michael Brosilow
But "Broadway" itself needn't even be part of the equation as many a musical has developed far beyond New York.

And no tenets or trademarks are really sacred other than the use of songs--commonly performed live--to help tell a story.

Over the years, I've seen many a homegrown musical on Chicago area stages, and Haymarket is the third such enterprise in mere weeks, following Striking Out: A Gay Baseball Musical and Burnham's Dream: The White City.

Presented by the Underscore Theatre Company at the Den Theatre, the current production of Haymarket furthers its development from a more skeletal version I didn't see in 2016.

It is quite impressive, simply as an undertaking, and well beyond that, even if it eschews most traditional trappings of musicals.

Underscore ensemble members Alex Higgin-Houser and David Kornfeld are responsible for Haymarket's book, music and lyrics, while Nick Thornton directs and Robert Ollis provides the music direction.

The talented, young 12-member cast not only sings the songs, they also perform the music--on guitars, violin, piano, trumpet and more (though at times I felt a drum was sorely missing).

Beyond the folksy, brassy score, Haymarket is worthwhile simply for documenting an important piece of Chicago history, with worldwide reverberations.

You can read more about the Haymarket affair on Wikipedia--or just see this show--but though there were various underpinnings well in advance and a famous trial after, the key events took place over the first 4 days of May in 1886.

On May 1, labor strikes were held nationwide, with a huge turnout at Lake & Michigan in Chicago. Among those leading the fight for an 8-hour workday and other demands were union leaders Albert Parsons (played by Erik Pearson in the musical), August Spies (T.J. Anderson) and Parsons' wife Lucy (Bridget Adams-King).

Early numbers such as "Look at All the Glory Here" and "Hear the News" powerfully voice sentiments for change, and I couldn't help think of Les Misérables, especially as the activists pay homage to a French movement in "La Commune de Paris."

Spies spoke to a rally of striking workers at Chicago's McCormick Harvesting Machine Company on May 3, a gathering that turned deadly for a handful of workers as police fired on the crowd.

A subsequent rally was planned for May 4 at Haymarket Square--Randolph & Des Plaines Streets--and while Spies and Albert Parsons tried to curb cries for violent revenge, as the show depicts some in their circles weren't so set against it.

This included Lucy, as well as a bomb maker named Louis Lingg (Joey Harbert), who sings an ode to "Lady Dynamite."

Several Act I songs have an anthemic ring--Lucy's "Leading the March" and the powerful group numbers, "Workingmen, To Arms!" and "Rise Up"--before the act culminates in events at Haymarket Square, in which a bomb exploded and seven policemen were killed, along with at least four activists.

Act II deals with the aftermath, which saw Parsons, Spies, Lingg and five other men--only two others within the show--tried and convicted of conspiracy to commit murder, despite rather dubious evidence that those charged were involved in the mayhem.

Though not so much as a song as a spoken performance piece, Adams-King as Lucy cheekily leads "The Courtroom Circus," an inventive chronicle of the trial, although it sometimes seems to tried too hard.

And that still only leaves us early in the second act, as "Keep on Talking, August Spies" gives us much of Spies actual pre-sentencing courtroom speech, and "The Order of the Gallows" features Lucy, an activist woman named Nina Van Zandt (Amanda Giles) and other defendants' wives taking their case to the public, nationwide.

There is even the possibility of a governor's commutation, and the eventual consequence for Parsons, Spies, Lingg, et. al.

Although without taking the history much deeper than you can read about on Wikipedia, Haymarket does a fine job of covering the happenings through the eyes of key participants (including Lucy Parsons, who would find fame as a labor activist well into the 20th century).

This makes it quite entertaining and informative, and especially with strong performances--vocally and instrumentally--the score by Higgin-Houser and Kornfeld is impressive enough to call Haymarket a good musical.

Given what I explained at top, the show nicely aims not so much to be a rousing "Broadway musical" as an engagingly smaller-scale one, with folksy musical stylings to match.

While this may more appeal to some who don't love the often "over the top" approach of Broadway, I think Haymarket could stand to venture a bit more overtly toward Les Miz territory, as particularly in Act II, the songs seem to lose some of their melodic and anthemic panache.

Though I enjoyed the show in the moment, I only really recall a few tunes three days later, and don't sense I would want to simply listen to a cast recording.

Haymarket is a stellar piece of theater--considerably better in my estimation than the somewhat similarly "Chicago-themed" Burnham's Dream: The White City--but though it deserves considerable kudos for being a different kind of musical, I can't quite deem it a phenomenal one.

Still, it's the kind of work I champion being created on a local level, and especially with tickets for under $20 (pre-fees) on HotTix, this look at a key moment in the labor movement--and the kind of authoritarian miscarriage of justice that still prevails and maddens--is an estimable effort that merits your attention...and attendance.

1 comment:

Ken said...

I applaud this ensemble effort. Doing something new while utilizing historical events is a great idea. We need more such efforts.