If there's one lesson to be learned from 21 Stories: A Broadway Tale, it's even the most upbeat and anthemic musical numbers can also have a crippling, ironic dark side. In the New York of G.W. Stevens's creation - which is currently on display at the Midtown International Theatre Festival - nothing is ever as simple or as truthful as even the most earnest songs can make it seem.
Take, for example, the deservedly classic John Kander and Fred Ebb tune that serves as New York City's own unofficial theme song, and is heard as the production's pre-show music. On the surface, its lyrics about optimism and boundless opportunity in the Big Apple are designed to uplift and upbraid. But dig beneath the surface and ask something else: "If I can't make it there, can I make it anywhere else?"
Stevens is utterly obsessed with this idea, and 21 Stories reflects his burning desire to present a New York as far removed from the candy-coated metropolis variously depicted in On the Town, Wonderful Town, or Thoroughly Modern Millie. His New York is one in which spirits are broken, dreams are crushed, and your life is slowly sucked away during the years you live there. Oh, and there's a parallel message about the Broadway musical being the only reliable source of joy in this den of iniquity and hopelessness.
How does Stevens reconcile these issues? He doesn't; he simply lets them play together until they play themselves out. That happens astonishingly quickly, given that the story centers on two young people, Billy Youngblood (Stevens) and Margaret Evans (Marilyn Rising), who arrive in NYC in the early 1980s with stars in their eyes and only the best of intentions in their hearts. Billy's dream is to become a dancer; Margaret wants to find her absentee father and pursue her dream of being a concert pianist.
But they both quickly learn that success - or even subsistence - isn't that easy to come by. They take dead-end jobs to pay the rent on their adjoining 21st-floor apartments on the Lower East Side, become involved with drugs, and sink slowly into self-loathing as they learn they'll never achieve the goals that brought them to the city. They come into their own, in a way, and discover who they really are, though the price - paid, in this case, to a dangerous and irresponsible lover or a drug dealer when the money runs out - is very high.
What's more shocking than the turgid drudgeries of much of the show's story is that the vibrant Broadway musical scene against which the tragic melodramatics play out is vividly and energetically realized. Nine ensemble performers round out the company to fill the stage with tapping, swirling bodies that give real depth to scenes set at Billy's auditions or even just on the streets. The movement and dance they help embellish (choreographed by Frit and Frat Fuller), while hardly innovative, manage to give the show a spark it couldn't otherwise generate with a truckload flint of steel.
The problem of tone partly stems from the director, Michael Berry, who provides too much lethargic, defeatist staging to ever get the show off the ground. And the problem partly stems from the actors: Stevens' dancing, if not spectacular, is certainly accomplished and characterful, but he and Rising aren't really believable as youthful hopefuls brimming with idealism and nothing else. They look and behave far too seasoned to sell this story.
But even younger, more dynamic performers would have trouble finding much life in this gloom-ridden evening; when you find yourself anxiously awaiting the next big, toe-tapping dance number and couldn't care less whether the lead characters live or die, there's a problem. But boy, a dozen dancers start cutting up the tiny WorkShop Theater stage with a routine set to Bernadette Peters's rendition of Jerry Herman's "Look What Happened to Mabel," it's hard not to put aside your complaints and just enjoy the ride.
Surprisingly, when that same number resurfaces as the show's finale, it does something nothing else in the show does: it sends chills down your spine. Part tribute to the enduring power of the Broadway showstopper and part ghostly fantasy, it's a solemn, unsettling depiction of what happens when the joyous and depressive collide. It's the clearest, most meaningful statement of what 21 Stories is supposed to be about, and it leaves you, if somewhat against your will, smiling. If only the rest of the show weren't so determined to make you take off that happy face.
21 Stories: A Broadway tale