By Patrick O’Brien
It’s bigger. It’s badder. And it’s better than ever.
Underscore Theatre Company’s revival engagement of Haymarket, based on the titular labor skirmish, sets a high bar for storefront Chicagoland musical theatre to clear this upcoming season.
Really, it’s that good?
Its original 2016 production (reviewed for this publication here) was more than “promising” — it demanded to be heard again. Writers Alex Higgin-Houser (book and lyrics) and David Kornfeld (music) heeded the call, but not without diligently making changes. Not to mention, this new production, directed and choreographed by Nick Thornton, puts what was already there in a new light. Both to the piece’s advantage.
For one, they’ve scrapped an earlier framing device concerning the radical Lucy Parsons on her dying day. The Chicago laborers’ fight for fair wages and hours is front and center, here and now, and Lucy (Bridget Adams-King) is only second to her husband, brilliant orator Albert (Erik Pearson) in leading the charge. That he chooses the far less charismatic newsletterman August Spies (T.J. Anderson) to guide the group during a planned absence is but one of the choices that lead to the fateful explosion at a demonstration gone wrong, an act that would change the shape of the Labor movement entirely.
Not only making things more immediate, it also frees Lucy from the confines of flashback. She debates, she fights, she questions her values, and she becomes the leader she always wanted to be.
For yet another, Haymarket probes deeper into questions about the unstable relationship between peaceful protest and spectacular violence — each with their own dividends in short-term satisfaction and long-term relief — and this has made its band of brothers and their wives that much richer and compelling. The Haymarket Five were unquestionably railroaded by a hanging judge, but there was enough going on among themselves before the explosion to feel like a noose was tightening, especially after talk of raising the movement’s stakes perks up the ears of Louis Lingg (Joey Harbert), a tetchy bomb maker and the movement’s black sheep.
For another, they’ve shed its earlier subtitle: “The Anarchist’s Songbook.” Witty, yes, but it set up the idea, if only subliminally, that the songs were just kind of there, separate from the larger narrative. This is not music to dismiss; upon second listen, its deceptive simplicity of form reveals even more brains and guts (“Keep On Talking, August Spies”) but also pain and beauty (especially the calm-before-the-storm “Sing, O Muse of Fire…”).
But also joy. “We’re gonna have a parade,” indeed.
For his part, director Thornton — the Den Theatre, really — gives the piece much more room than it had before, revealing just how necessary physicality is to this piece. Not that Haymarket was ever mere historical pageantry, but this is a musical that needs playing room to jubilate, to testify, to throw itself about. When a major sequence of the musical calls for a literal circus to reenact the Five’s farce of a trial, with tumbling and conjuring tricks galore, it helps to have space.
And given that the actor are also the musicians (superbly directed by Robert Ollis), Thornton’s solutions for staging the Big Moments — the shootings, the bombings and the executions (those aren’t spoilers) — are inventive and eminently theatrical.
They’re not spoilers, but they’re still surprising. Shocking.
We’ll have to wait for the third production to see if there’s any more changes made — writers don’t complete shows, after all, so much as stop — but Underscore has put in the work and what-they-will. They’ll have their rest. All the more ready to surprise us again.
Underscore Theatre Company presents “Haymarket” through September 16 at the Den Theatre’s Heath Main Stage, 1331 N. Milwaukee Avenue. More information and tickets are available here.