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Belles of the Mill

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

If you're familiar with The Pajama Game, you're probably already aware that a musical comedy about labor relations can be entertaining. But you might not be aware at how much entertainment can be wrung from what is otherwise a musical drama. Belles of the Mill is one of the most jarring combinations of serious and silly to come around in a long time.

Rachel Rubin Ladutke's book for Belles of the Mill was based on her play about the strikes in Lawrence, Massachusetts in early 1912. The women of the mills of Lawrence, after having their hours and pay reduced without a lesser workload, went on strike against the factory owners with tragic and far-reaching results.

Ladutke has highlighted many of the subject's strong dramatic possibilities, and brought the conflicting emotions of all the characters to the forefront. The book is swift and compact, covering an amazing amount of ground in two hours. The show's director, Arlene Schulman, occasionally seems to have trouble negotiating the tiny stage in Raw Space, and some of the scene changes take almost a distractingly lengthy period of time. But many of the scenes are written and staged so convincingly, you wish Ladutke had chosen to dramatize more of the strike instead of having most of it happen offstage.

A trio of strong central performers helps tremendously. Sharron Bower is delightful in the major role of Sarah, who is unwillingly thrust into the middle of the conflict. Elissa Ann Yudofsky, as the young Bridget, who seeks help from Sarah but finds her friendship, is very convincing and moving in her role, and has a very strong voice. Amanda Weeden is pretty dynamic in her two roles, one as a factory worker and one as the union organizer, Elizabeth Gurley Flynn, who takes on Lawrence as her cause. The chorus of women strikers creates an unbelievably full sound for such a small group, but the men of the cast never make the impression that the women do.

Then there's the score. Though it frequently feels like a combination of The Pajama Game, Ragtime, and Parade, Belles of the Mill lacks the strong, unified score present in each of those shows. That's not to say that the songs Jill Marshall-Work has provided for this show aren't good, because many of them are. But very few of them actually work in Belles of the Mill.

For one example, after a dynamic opening number suggesting a tense musical labor conflict, the first song, entitled "Hurry Home," stops the action dead so that Hiram (Sarah's brother-in-law, played by Bill Quinlan) can tell his son a story about his own experience stoning Cossacks in Russia.

Later, when Sarah and Bridget attempt to catch the mill foreman (played by Richard Bacon) in a compromising situation, they sing the inordinately peppy "Get The Picture" about, you guessed it, a camera. When Bacon arrives onstage, it's not long before he starts singing the song as well, turning the entire number into a surreal vaudeville turn.

There are effective numbers, too. All of the strike numbers are particularly strong and explosive, finding their dramatic arcs quickly and effectively, and Yudofsky's solos, while occasionally a bit overwrought, are almost always heartfelt and emotional.

But that's all erased late in the second act. Flynn arrives in the office of William Wood, the president of American Woolen Company (Joe Enderson), to confront him about ending the strike, beginning one of the most unbelievable and inconceivable numbers in recent New York history. It's entitled "Negotiation Rag," and both the subject matter and musical influence of the song are exactly what the title would suggest. Weeden and Enderson cut up the stage, making it a riotous show-stopper, but are you supposed to laugh, cheer, be glad that the strike will soon be over, or what?

After its first scene, Belles of the Mill never feels like it needs to be a musical. Too often, the songs just restate in music what has already been said in the much stronger and terser book scenes. Despite an assortment of good ideas, the show's two intermissionless hours seem surprisingly long; though there is real drama to be found, very little of what's on the stage suggests that Ladutke and Marshall-Work were ever in the same room during the show's creation.

But Belles of the Mill isn't a total loss. Bower is particularly charming, and the story itself is an interesting one. But even if the show is never properly musicalized, it truly is the score that provides the strongest reason for attending. After all, are you likely to hear a song like "Negotiation Rag" anywhere else?

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Belles of the Mill
As part of the Midtown International Theatre Festival
Raw Space, 555 West 42nd Street
Through August 4
Running Time: Two hours with no intermission
Schedule and Tickets: Ticket Central (212) 279-4200