The topical revue has all but disappeared from Broadway, but if the Jewish Repertory Theatre's concert production of Pins and Needles is any indication of what the genre still has to offer, it may be time for a revival.
Of course, this Pins and Needles isn't exactly the one that opened in 1937, a production of the International Ladies Garment Worker's Union which became a huge Broadway hit. In the volatile political climate of the time, the lengthy run (1108 performances) necessitated changes to the songs and sketches, and this version represents selections of various entries from different points during the show's run.
Yet, little in Pins and Needles truly feels dated. If we can't exactly relate to the radio climate of the time, small-minded people forcing their concepts of sanitization and lack of daring on others is still a problem in 2003; unscrupulous people still do whatever they can to avoid paying taxes; and unions still can't agree on anything that will really help their members (the musicians strike, anyone?).
Joseph Schrank could have written his sketches and Harold Rome his songs today, and had to change very little. The "musical chairs" quality of "Four Little Angels of Peace" (enemies of America who claim peace one minute and declare war the next - sound familiar?) makes it instantly accessible and recognizable, while the plaints of anguished workers in songs like "Men Awake!" and "Back to Work" are equally timeless.
Aside from sharp topicality and heavily tuneful music, there's not much more one should expect from a revue other than great performers. Luckily, Pins and Needles has seven: David Brummel, Louisa Flaningam, Allie Laurie, Karen Mason, Linda Romoff, Tia Speros, and Jim Walton. Each gets a moment or two at the forefront, and participates in a lot of group work. Walton's "When I Grow Up," in which he dreams of his future as a G-Man, and David Brummel as the beleaguered tycoon in the "A Matter of Principle" sketch are particular highlights, but no one quite matches Karen Mason's undulating revival meeting in "Mene Mene Tekel." That number, with its simple yet stirring melody line and remarkably dense and cleverly-constructed lyrics - is one of the most insidiously infectious songs to be heard in New York in quite a while.
Though the show is accompanied only by a piano (played by musical director Nathan Hurwitz), it's more than enough to fill the small theater, and it's great to hear these talented performers - as they would have been in 1937, and could pull off today - unamplified. Though all the performers carried their books and referred to them often, and there were a few slip-ups or fudged lines or lyrics, the show still felt remarkably solid, except for the forced, cloying nature of the opening and closing narrations.
Pins and Needles - like the almost extinct genre to which it belongs - should not be easily dismissed, and, as it is not likely to be seen in New York (or anywhere else) any time soon, it's definitely worth a look. Go in expecting a good time, but don't expect to leave all real world realities at the door. As Rome requests, during the song used to open and close the show, "Sing me a song with social significance / There's nothing else that will do."
Jewish Repertory Theatre