By Patrick O’Brien
Coming into Edgewater’s new Edge Theater—home of Underscore’s rousing new musical, Haymarket: An Anarchist’s Songbook—there are the usual warnings about haze and loud noises, which this musical has, no question. And they’re certainly necessary to tell the story of the bombing that inflamed Gilded Age labor tensions.
Then, there’s the unusual warning about its leftist politics, which this musical definitely has, and are also necessary to tell the story. But there’s a cheekiness in that warning that doesn’t quite sit right. It’s one thing to be confronted with the ugliness of this unduly obscure episode of Chicago history (right on the corner of DesPlaines and Randolph, even), though it betrays a certain glibness that rears its head throughout this otherwise strong debut production.
But finding out what burns and what fizzles is what debut productions are for—what Underscore is for—and with writers as gifted as Alex Higgin-Houser and David Kornfeld, things will certainly change, the powder will get packed in tighter and dryer, and this “explosive new musical” will only gain in power.
It’s a musical of utmost historical fidelity—also necessary when telling the story of a great miscarriage of justice, a la Parade or The Scottsboro Boys—and Higgin-Houser (words) and Kornfeld (music) pack a lot of it into the two-hour run time, with a knack for ably lining a lot of information into the homespun idiosyncrasies of the folksong style. (The recurring call of “Hear the News,” for example, or the taut sequence leading up to the fateful explosion.)
Their grip on tone, though, as mentioned, could be firmer. On one hand, they fortunately know that, by God, there’d better be some laughs along the way. (“I’m angry! What’s better than when you’re angry? German!”) On the other hand, that there’s an intermission and applause breaks slackens the tension. A one-act, ninety, hundred-minute go-around would instill a vital sense of breathlessness, of watching misunderstanding turn into miscommunication result in miscarriage and tragedy.
That would mean losing a few songs, and when one of those songs is explicitly about, say, biding time (“Rise Up”), it could be dropped, or at least condensed and combined with another song. However, there are already enough songs devoted to the unionists’ oratory, which—considering one of the musical’s themes is ‘Talk is one thing, action is another”—could also, on the whole, be condensed further into, say, a single sequence. (To their advantage, though, the writers portray how the oratory evolves to explicitly condemn violence, and James Smart as de facto leader Albert Parsons is sympathetic as a naturally hopeful man who must endure stating something so apparently obvious.)
Also in need of a reexamination is the trial sequence, which garishly stands out against the working-class drabness (artfully rendered by Kurtis Boechner and Carolyn Christofani, sets and costumes, respectively), but not for the best reasons. Simply put, it turns the historical kangaroo court—nepotistic jury, shut-out defense, all that sickening jazz—into a curb-stomp battle, something so ridiculously stacked against the unionists that, again, tension flags. Perhaps the growing realization on the part of the defense that the prosecution has endless resources to frame them could work. It certainly would be more interesting than the “come one, come all” carnival-barker narration currently in place. However, as much as it would provide some balance to hear from the defense—historical inaccuracy aside—“Keep On Talking, August Spies,” a rant performed with steely conviction by same (Mike Mazzocca) seems just right for these men who’ve been shut out and are being packed off for the gallows.
Lastly, the framing device—the house fire that claimed the life of the very old Lucy Parsons (LaKecia Harris), widow to Albert Parsons—is a sound idea, but needs more to, well, frame the story. As is, it comes and goes, delaying the action, slackening the tension. (And the couple’s reunion in the beyond doesn’t quite work for a resoundingly atheistic group.)
But the stuff that remains is as strong as the broad-shouldered city that these writers call home. Higgin-Houser’s words are perfectly sensible for working-class strivers, and Kornfeld’s music struts and shimmers, especially with these homegrown orchestrations. (Paging Andre Pluess and Ben Sussman, your Eastland would get along with Haymarket quite nicely.) And director Elizabeth Margolius takes full advantage of the cramped scenery and ensemble to create a world where breathless tension—news of workers’ triumph or disaster—is the order of life, but also—in very Once-like movement—sets them free of burden.
And, as all first go-around musicals can only be blessed to have, the casting fits beautifully. LaKecia Harris as Lucy Parsons bears the emotional cross (er, noose) of the story, and her strength and voice never waver, even when the world is at its cruellest. Royen Kent smolders as the renegade among renegades, Louis Lingg, and David Kaplinsky and Tyler Merle Thompson, as Adolf Fisher and George Engel, respectively, are effectively malleable so as to fall under the spell of Lingg’s rhetoric.
So, can a revolution make its mark without bloodshed, as the musical asks? Can a revolution ever truly coalesce into unity? Who can say? New musicals certainly can’t make their mark without some growing pains, that’s for sure. That’s how they can coalesce into a unified whole. And with talent like this—in our own neighborhood, even—sparks are gonna fly and blow us all away, that’s for sure.
Edge Theater presents, “Haymarket: An Anarchist’s Songbook,” through June 12th at 5451 N Broadway, Chicago. Performances are Fridays at 7:30 pm; Saturdays at 3 and 7:30 pm; Sundays at 5 pm; and Mondays 7:30 pm. There will be an added performance on Thursday, June 2 at 7:30 pm, however, there will be no performance on Monday, June 6. Tickets ($20-25) are available by calling (312) 646-0975 or online here.