Make no mistake: That’s not a bad thing. But you never get the sense from this thoroughly polished, thoroughly educational outing that it’s exactly what writer Cheryl E. Kemeny had in mind. In crafting the character of Mother Jones, really Mary Harris Jones, chief rabble-rouser and socialism proponent of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, she has one and only one point to make. Specifically, Jones’s: that child labor is bad, that the factory owners are making too much money, and so on. Every minute, every song, every character (if they can really be called that) in this musical is designed with only that, and little else, in mind.
So it’s an even greater accomplishment that Wintersteller finds genuine humanity in a woman written to be a symbol. Yes, there’s a lot of anger on display, as you’d expect from someone determined to bring down the capitalist system in its current form, the male power structure, and probably President Theodore Roosevelt. But Wintersteller’s natural maternal softness, taken in concert with her luxurious soprano and relative youth (the real Mother Jones was 66 in 1903, when the story unfolds; Wintersteller looks an especially spry 40, old-age wig notwithstanding), highlights the loss and even the optimism that’s thrust her to this point. The message, it becomes clear early on, is not merely that her cause isn’t important, but that great work will propel unlikely — even unworthy — people to do great things.
Mother Jones’s defining number, then, isn’t, as you may expect, “Raise a Little Hell,” technically her “I want” song, in which she strives to unite miners’ wives and children to her side, but rather “Memphis, 1867,” in which she describes the accident that robbed her of her husband and children and bestowed a new purpose on her life. Though Mother Jones is visibly struggling to hold back the agony the memory still inflicts on her, a flash of uncomfortable reality bursts within Wintersteller’s eyes, suggesting — if only for a second — that this woman might not make the same trade again if she could. Some things, she appears to know but is too frightened to admit she believes, are just too important.
Seeing those vividly divergent personalities at work in the same moment anchors Mother Jones as someone you want, even need, to know, and is the crowning achievement in a work that tries much, much harder than it needs to in order to achieve the same effect. What makes this particularly interesting is that Mother Jones is the star part, rather than the lead. The real center of the action is Jenny Markem, a millworker who wants to improve conditions, and admires Mother Jones largely from afar, only to eventually meet her and become her official protégé. Lizzie Klemperer plays her with significant strength and a gorgeous singing voice of her own, but the character is so conventional — experiencing the expected tragedy, and the even more expected romance with a union organizer (Kevin Reed, fine) — that there’s not really anywhere for even an inventive performer to take her.
That’s true of the rest of the show as well, which Kemeny has plotted with obvious care, and which has been directed (by Michelle Tattenbaum), choreographed (by Clare Cook), and designed (sets by Scott Tedmon-Jones, costumes by Stephanie Levin, lights by Isabella F. Byrd) with visible affection. But as you might expect from a watered-down, safer spin on Ragtime or Rags, one that plays with the stilted mien of a work intended for elementary school assemblies, no risks are taken and no nuances are left to chance. You’re meant to take away from the evening one thing, and only one thing, and you will take it because there’s nothing else to consider. Kemeny has worked wonders within those rigid confines, true, and left no seams to be filled — but also no cracks through which the light of theatrical innovation may shine.
So it hardly matters that the rest of the cast is fresh-faced and adept, singing and acting beautifully (Frenie Acoba makes a strong impression as a young mill girl, as does Marissa Miller as an older girl of conflicted loyalties), that the score ranges from above-average serviceable to downright catchy, or that, for all intents and purposes, there is no ending. Without spoiling (Wikipedia can do that for you, if you choose), the Children’s Crusade ended anticlimactically, so how or why would something this faithful depart from the formula?
Which is why you appreciate Wintersteller all the more during her moments onstage. She’s a reminder of what Mother Jones really represented: a dream given form, someone willing to work herself, perhaps literally, to death in service of all those who couldn’t or wouldn’t speak up themselves. And whenever she’s singing or speaking, you’re ready to drop everything and follow her anywhere. It’s undoubtedly not quite the way Kemeny intended to communicate the theme of her show, but it’s far more incisive — and exhilarating — than the rest of the show we got.
The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2014