The New York Musical Theatre Festival
There are dozens of numbers in the first act, introducing us to those who live in, or are concerned with, Napatree, Rhode Island, just before it was wiped off the map by a freak hurricane in September 1938. Songs for parents (happy together and not) and their children, from growing to grown. Songs for young lovers. Songs for the local bus driver, the misunderstood immigrants in the community, and the eight ghosts of Napatree from the 17th century onward that have seen the vicious cycle of life and death countless times. Then there are the obligatory songs for the Washington meteorologist who predicts the disaster coming and his boss who ignores it. Even the local singing trio, the Delgado Sisters, must have their diegetic say. The hurricane proper hits just before intermission, leaving Act II to another, sadder litany of nonstop vocalizing.
Sung-through treatments of big ideas are nothing new, of course - British showmakers carved an industry out of it in the late 1980s and early 1990s. But titles like Les Misérables and Miss Saigon moved at the speed of conversation, interspersing stage-spanning numbers with intimate scenes that mimicked dialogue even if they were entirely sung. Holland elevates everything to a hypercaffeinated musical level that dispels any emotional layering or suspense. Jean Valjean, for example, was never as adamant about his worldview as the young meteorologist is here, whether singing his skyscraping scientific ballad alone or battling with his boss about whether lives are more important than propriety.
But the torrential tidal waves of tunefulness might be endurable if not for the lyrics, which are not remotely up to the music’s quality. Though often poorly accented (“meteoroloGEEEE”) and occasionally ill-rhymed, they’re simply not as poetic as Holland thinks they are. Lines like “We’ll survive because we’re young and safe as houses,” “I hate to be abrupt / But the ante has been upped,” and “I don’t know the jargon for striking a bargain” land far more comically than they’re intended to. What fragments of book can be found are noticeably better, though they don’t avoid the most serious trouble of pseudo-epics such as this one: finding room for all the characters. The octet of ghosts, the Delgado Sisters (despite their bouncy Cole Polter-ish song selections), and a four-person children’s chorus are perhaps overkill; they help convey the size of the tragedy, but don’t do enough else to warrant all the stage and score time they receive. And that only prevents the more central, human stories from having access to the time they need to fully develop.
Given the 30-person cast, the largest yet seen in any NYMF show, director Michael Bush has masterfully orchestrated traffic-management patterns, and coaxed some good performances from the few actors lucky enough to have actual characters. Steven Booth, as the young meteorologist, and T.J. Mannix, as his boss, come off very well, despite the contrived nature of their conflicts with each other; and Broadway veteran Rita Gardner wrings some heart-warming juice from Helen, the rich woman who’s willing to pay any price to keep those who are close to her happy. Other actors, such as Karen Elliott as Helen’s maid, Brittany Lee Hamilton as Margaret’s daughter, and Joseph Mahowald as the Portuguese farmer for whom tragedy strikes too often, are particularly excellent, but the huge company is well cast from top to bottom.
That includes Natalie Charle Ellis, Catherine Charlebois, and Mishaela Faucher, who are legitimately lovely as the Delgado Sisters, their close-harmony crooning and clingy costumes (by Karen Ann Ledger, who did above-and-beyond work for everyone) instantly and adroitly setting the period. But do they need four solo spots? In an ensemble show such as this, does anyone? And is the best possible first-act finale to have representatives of each individual plot parade onstage sequentially and sing separately of their woes for 40 days and 40 nights? Given how heavenly Holland’s music can be, it’s understandable that he and Bush would wanting to put as much of it out there as possible. But the creators inability to realize when they’re drowning you in too much of it is why Hurricane ultimately leaves you high and dry.