A conspiracy of silence is a stentorian impossibility with The Screams of Kitty Genovese. Whatever your ultimate impression of Will Todd and David Simpatico's vibrantly lyrical musical-theatre opera, playing at the Theatre at St. Clement's as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, it won't be one you'll want to keep to yourself.
So allow me to be among the first to shout from the rooftops in support of Todd and Simpatico's score. Alone of those I've been exposed to at NYMF this year, this one would not be inappropriately compared to the greats of the layered, theatrical-collage form. With intricate character work reminiscent of Grand Hotel, unpredictable sexiness à la LaChiusa's The Wild Party, and bluesy undulations similar to those in Street Scene, this show's songs (to the extent any one number may be separated from the others) create a uniquely vivid tapestry of New York tragedy.
In bringing to the stage the horrifying tale of the 1964 Kew Gardens woman who was knifed outside her apartment while her 38 neighbors did nothing to assist her, Todd (music) and Simpatico (libretto) have legitimately musicalized not only horror and death but seven flavors of indifference. While Kitty (Sheri Sanders) and her murderer Winston Moseley (Arthur W. Marks) tussle outside, we're escorted into the private worlds of seven nearby apartments to learn why the inhabitants acted - or didn't act - as they did.
Todd and Simpatico use the neighbors - played by 10 dramatically and musically gifted performers - to expand on the texture of "just another night" in New York through the myriad sounds that constituted its deafening silence. Each of three couples and four singles, ranging from the married and the adulterous to the insomniac and the milquetoast, have their say separately and together, in several scattered musical sequences that explore their complicity with a complexity sadly uncommon in today's climate of quick-hit musicals.
Arranging all this would have been daunting for most creative teams with Broadway-level resources, but director David G. Edwards and musical director Randall Eng (who's also part of an amazing six-piece band) have done so without a single detectable misstep. That includes the casting, with Sanders and Marks the startling centerpieces (Sanders's belting of those titular screams being especially memorable) but with everyone - including New York stalwarts Cheryl Alexander and Kevin Kern - doing invariably rapturous work. You'll find no more ambitious work this successfully realized at NYMF this year.
What's most remarkable about The Screams of Kitty Genovese, however, is that all this unfolds without arousing even a momentary chill, or two consecutive seconds of suspense.
In fashioning some of the largest and fullest roles ever to grace an ensemble musical, Todd and Simpatico have unbalanced their show to the extent that Kitty herself seems only an afterthought. After a brief initial appearance as an unexceptional member of the chorus, she vanishes for 30 minutes (the entire show runs roughly 80) while the neighbors sing wave after wave of their arresting expository material. When she returns for her assault, her name, face, and purpose have been long forgotten.
It's a thematically provocative idea: Kitty becomes for us, as for those living near her, just one more voice in the darkness. But this encourages absolutely no emotional involvement on our part, something the fevered writing and intense staging of Kitty's three-part death scene - as well as the rambling dramatic coda, in which the neighbors consider their roles in Kitty's death - rely on for their effectiveness.
Forcing us to sympathize with the neighbors at the expense of the central figure feels like a second violation of a woman who has unquestionably suffered enough. Forty-two years of history have already proven unkind to those who did nothing while the real Kitty was slain; a show like this one, perpetuating preexisting perceptions without adding anything new to the mix (whether rendering Kitty something other than an anonymous victim, or considering the supportable supposition that her neighbors' windows were closed because the March night was too cold to leave them open), adds nothing of value to the ongoing discussion.
But as a composition, the show is first rate, and if it's any indication of what they're capable of, Todd and Simpatico could have glorious careers ahead of them. Keep your eyes and ears open for them, but if you sample The Screams of Kitty Genovese, be prepared to be exhorted - even required - to turn your back on someone deserving of a much closer look.
The Screams of Kitty Genovese