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Piper's Song

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The title character of Piper's Song, John Ryerson's new musical sub-titled "An Urban Tale," describes the show in the title song as "a modern allegory." From the material presented over the course of this somewhat bloated and stultifying morality tale, it's clear Ryerson has succeeded in fashioning the allegory he intended, though he's come up short creating a provocative, entertaining musical.

The idea that Piper (Brocton Pierce) even exists at all, is one of the first assumptions that shouldn't be made. The show's narrator, he's also something of a ringleader of a group of down-and-out men and women living on the streets of New York. He also is the de facto mentor of the show's central figure, Steven Young (Shawn J. Davis), an upwardly-mobile businessman constantly amazed at his "luck" who winds up on the skids after rejecting his classist girlfriend and the job her father offers him.

Steven, the sole bastion of heart in a den of money-grubbing inequity, wants only to use the vast coffers of the firm - Powers Incorporated - to fund a center downtown for the hopeless and helpless he feels for. When he casts himself out among them, he finds them to be insane and violent. Not particularly uplifting, granted, though they all have the requisite hearts of gold, and help Steven find his soul mate in the working girl Anna (Martha Velasquez) who also donates her food and time to the people of the streets.

If it sounds like decent material for a one-act musical, it probably is. Yet, spread out across three acts over two and a half hours, the show gets very thin very fast. The book scenes are lengthy and often lacking in depth and wit, while the score treads the same familiar ground time and again. Jamie Fox, providing musical direction and playing guitar in the show's fine five-piece band, is to be commended for her work at taming the undulating rhythms of the music, suggesting New York City's continuous background noise and promises waiting to be fulfilled, but her work can't make many songs exciting, enticing, or illuminating.

Only one song - "Dance With a Stranger," sung during a parade - is fully successfully, setting your toes tapping and sticking in your head while capturing the free-spirited nature of the world in which Steven will soon find himself. Another, "Beware These Men," is sold with such gusto by the matronly Marilyn O'Connell that its redundancy and lazy spotting are more easily forgiven. The other songs are overly-lengthy and often watery when not flat-out unnecessary; Steven and Anna, for example, are never successfully established musically, with three of their four duets in the show's second half functionally interchangeable.

Susan Streater's direction is better, often hiding the constant lags in the script and score, and she makes fine use of Hayoung Yoon's painted backdrops and Annmarie Duggan's often subtle lighting. Her choreography, though, often borders on repetitive and unnecessary; her work in the opening number, "Run on Automatic," never truly finds the pulse or visual rhythm of New York City or the people in it. (The song itself, general almost to the point of inaccuracy, doesn't help.)

It's perhaps a bit ironic, if not unsurprising, that the show's most intriguing performances are given by characters in the business world Steven is longing to escape from. Rebecca Simon, Erik Frandsen, and Micki Sharpe as Steven's girlfriend and her parents all create fairly intelligent portraits with what they have to work with, though their roles are barely to be taken seriously. Velasquez has an earthy appeal that works for Anna, and she comes across as surprisingly real, though she has no real chemistry with Davis.

As for Davis, he works devilishly hard in his role, though he tends to overshoot his bounds and make his points too broadly even within the show's world of allegorical drama. In the end, it's easy to appreciate his work, but difficult to be captivated by it. Much the same could be said of Ryerson's efforts, which are admirable but trying; Piper's Song may just be too much of a good thing, even if it's not yet clear what that good thing is.

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Rockhill Productions
Piper's Song
Through August 25
Gene Frankel Theater, 24 Bond Street one block north of Bleecker, off of Lafayette
Schedule and Tickets: 212.868.4444