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Street Lights
part of
The New York Musical Theatre Festival

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray


Like the civic features it’s named after, Street Lights is brilliant only in flickers. Joe Drymala’s new show at the American Theatre of Actors, which is being presented as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival, attempts to fuse traditional storytelling with hip-hop and R&B, but despite some good work from Drymala and his director, Ryan J. Davis, the results are ultimately more dim than illuminating.

This is too bad not because of musical theatre’s continuing reluctance or inability to successfully integrate and embrace contemporary sounds on a regular basis, though some might argue that. Rather, it’s that Drymala and Davis have already set their personal bar sufficiently high that middling efforts like this one just aren’t good enough anymore.

The duo was responsible for one of the most original and memorable NYMF outings ever, White Noise, which took a deadly serious yet satirical look at race relations as filtered through the perspective of white-supremacist singing sensations. That show, which recently had a tryout in New Orleans and is rumored for Broadway later this season, also blended a variety of popular styles, but with a dedication to the diegetic that left the storytelling burden where it could still most reasonably happen: the book. And it’s with the book that Street Lights’s biggest problems lie.

The 2006-set story, about a group of teenagers at Harlem’s Jackie Robinson High School who are fighting to survive on the streets as they rebel against the impending demolition of their school’s venerable music center, may not be much, but it allows room for drama, music, and a few sly tributes to America’s soon-to-be uppermost-elevated community organizer, President Obama. And contrasting the story of piano-songwriting prodigy Monique (Carla Duren), who needs the center to stay on track until she can escape the projects, with that of the drug dealer Damon (Miguel Jarquin-Moreland), who’s already begun his lucrative (if risky) career, is a smart way to reveal how some people pursue their dreams and others give up before they start.

But the interweaving of the two stories does little to support either. The music center’s early closing prompts Damon to buy Monique a piano (in exchange for a date, of course), which essentially removes her from that section of the conflict, and leaves it almost entirely to the rabble-rousing Raymond (aka X-Ray, played by Chad Carstarphen), who’s all symbol and no soul. Monique’s brother, Rocky (Kevin Curtis), who has dreams of the Ivy League and spectacular enough particulars but not enough money to get there, at first seems a major force, but is ignored almost entirely after he gets dangerously embroiled in Damon’s schemes.

What’s worse is that the scenes and songs can barely make any of this exciting. The dialogue is halting and hollow, forcing plot development to plod and stumble throughout, as if driving down a pothole-pockmarked street. Many scenes contain no songs at all, which is only a problem because the spoken words are invariably more flat and monotonic than sharp and musical. When songs do arrive, they typically lope their ways in and out. Drymala has found clever, world-appropriate ways of cueing them - a recording of “We Shall Overcome” inspires one, scales in singing class another, and the dulcet chimes of subway doors still one more. But it’s only when they emerge from the characters’ tensions and confront the audience on that basis that they have any impact. Monique's “Miracle” and Rocky’s explosively ingratiating “Georgetown,” about the school he’s willing to settle for, are terrific number, but they’re the only two (of 13) in which Drymala gives equal respect to both theatricality and pop-chart eligibility.

The two need not be mutually exclusive. Most of White Noise’s songs were as good for the narrative as for the radio, and Aaron Jafferis and Ian Williams’s rap score for Kingdom (which was also produced at NYMF in 2006), about teenage Latino street gangs, was as dramatically invigorating as its rhythms were blood-pumping. Even Broadway’s gentrified In the Heights manages a satisfying blend. But those shows’ clearer, stronger points of view simplify eliciting incisive feelings. Street Lights, like its characters, is still struggling to understand itself.

Davis and choreographer Todd L. Underwood do everything they can with their staging, but there are too many gaps to fill. The same problem affects the performers, who with the exception of Duren - believably talented enough to be a breakout star in the forming - and Curtis, who’s a human fusion reactor of good feelings, come across as functional at best and uninteresting at worst. Unfortunately, that description is all too apt of the evening as a whole, which is so tightly wrapped in good intentions that it can’t move freely and fluidly. Its title, by the way, refers to the early days of hip-hop, when perspective DJs in need of power would tap into the lamps around them and take it directly from the city. Street Lights needs a strong infusion of exactly that kind of electricity.


Street Lights
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: The New York Musical Theatre Festival