Given the subject of the show, which has been conceived and directed by Lear deBessonet and written by Marcus Gardley (book) and Todd Almond (music and lyrics), one would imagine deriving a compelling and flavorful musical would be a snap. The Mississippi Flood of 1927 was, per a program note, “the largest disaster in American history pre–Hurricane Katrina,” and revealed in the town of Greenville the simmering unrest that defined the South right through the Civil Rights era. The blending of race, class, and tragedy has furnished major musicals for decades, and is capable of capturing the best (and worst) of some of the most defining elements of the American experience.
This attempt centers on Will Percy (Seth Numrich) and James Gooden (Amari Cheatom), two young men on opposite ends of the racial and social divide, but who share one common bond: father issues. Will’s emanates from LeRoy (Michael Siberry), a former senator and the wealthiest man in town, who’s determined to maintain position and propriety at any cost; this puts Will, who’s secretly in love with local playboy L’Amour Mason (Stephen Plunkett), in an especially awkward spot. James’s dad, Joe (Dion Graham), is the Percy’s bootblack, and thus used to stooping for a living, something James is rather less inclined to do - he'd rather play the field, juggling between his official steady Nana (Shelley Thomas) and the reverend’s perky daughter Puddin (April Mathis).
As the river rises, so do the stakes. LeRoy forces Will to prove his manhood by turning on the blacks (whom he could obviously live without) and his white semi-lover, actions that have shattering implications once the levee breaks and everyone must fend for themselves — needless to say, the whites escape and the blacks don’t. The final images of each act (there are three, though the show has only one full intermission) hammer home the human costs of this sort of rugged selfishness as the Mississippi gradually swallows furniture, black lives, and white souls.
At least this is the intent. But all great black-meets-white musicals — heck, all great musicals—possess a sharply defined voice and sound that present their whos, whats, and whys at the outset. Within minutes of Show Boat beginning, you’re exposed to the work’s key racial grounding, as well as its overarching theme of the white appropriate of black music; Ragtime unfurls its historical panoply in its nine-minute title song, neatly laying out its two dozen characters and progressive perspective; The Scottsboro Boys (opening on Broadway in the fall) plants its minstrel-show conceit upfront.
On the Levee doesn’t have an equivalent: Its opening “number” (really its pre-show entertainment) is a filmed shadow-puppet ballet (designed by Jeremiah Thies), featuring caricatured blacks playing banjos, dancing, copulating, and embodying the rollicking engine of Southern culture. Yet our first glimpse of real people is of a Levee chain gang struggling to stem the rising tide, singing a song of ten-ton mourning for their life of servitude. “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” into “Ol’ Man River” doesn’t quite go.
Though the songs uneasily stumble through jazz, blues, piano bar, gospel, and spiritual stylings, you never get a firm grasp on how the music affects their lives, which is crucial for any musical in which diegetic numbers play even a small part. Plays can do without this, of course, as they draw their drama from more intimate interactions. But those are missing here as well; and despite the characters’ names suggesting a sweeping archetypal view of these personalities, the performers play everything “straight” rather than with the kind of elevated detachment needed to sell this as social commentary (and was seen in Branden Jacobs-Jenkins’s openly satirical Neighbors at The Public last season).
It’s hardly surprising, then, that deBessonet’s staging is a mish-mash of pictures and ideas that suggest no cohesion of their own. Epics usually don’t fare well when scaled down, but need a committed vision and concept to replace the missing size if the creative team wants to try. Here, that means recognizing and addressing the danger always flowing just offstage. But the threat of watery death is for everyone a vague concept. When it actually appears onstage, it’s clear why: One flood effect has set pieces float away by drifting up into the flies, another sucks offstage an August Wilsonian elder character (Chuck Cooper) by, uh, having him walk backwards into the wings. DeBessonet doesn’t have difficulty maintaining tone and tension — she’s barely able to establish them in the first place.
The actors, then, have no chance. Numrich and Cheatom, by virtue of their stage time, give the closest things to complete, naturalistic performances, but are in no way sympathetic anchoring figures; no one else even seems to be trying, basing much of their work on broad grimaces and line delivers and, in Siberry’s case, figurative moustache twirling. (He’s already costumed by Emily Rebholz to look like Colonel Sanders — why not go all the way and give him real facial hair to play with?) Cooper, who also appears as a reverend, and Harriet D. Foy as the Percy housekeeper, each get a couple of nice vocal showpieces to flaunt their major-musical street cred.
But it’s not the songs you remember. Nor, for that matter, is it the play. What sticks most clearly in your mind during all this is Hurricane Katrina, which proved that Americans are all too willing to let disasters repeat themselves. The stories that emerged from that event and its aftermath were heart-rending in the most important of call-to-action ways, just as the Greenville floods themselves must have been once upon a time (per the program, they “helped elect Huey Long governor and Herbert Hoover president and led to the greatest migration of African Americans north since the end of the Civil War”). But lacking the clarifying components of both plays and musicals, On the Levee can’t make its evocation of history crisp — soggy is as near as it gets.
On the Levee