2003 Point Park College graduate Marcus Stevens (Book/Lyrics) has collaborated with NYU undergrad Brian Lowdermilk (Music/Lyrics) on an expansive musical treatment of the story of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, the young Jewish couple who were part of the American communist movement of the 1930s and became examples for the government's frenetic fight against "the reds" when they were executed in the early '50s for the crime of being spies for the Russians. With variety in musical styles and staging techniques, the offbeat choice to have Lenny Bruce as narrator and coverage of such an important historical episode with a large cast, Stevens and Lowdermilk show they are not afraid of an ambitious creative debut.
Red grew from Stevens' fascination with the Cold War and his love for musical theatre; he began writing the book when he was a Point Park freshman, leaving places for songs to be filled in when he found a composer. The contributions of Lowdermilk, plus four years of revisions and readings (and an award for an excerpted reading at the New Opera & Musical Theatre Initiative in Boston) have brought Red to its world premiere staging for the Playhouse Conservatory Company. Partially a telling of what happened to the Rosenbergs - their meeting, marriage, political thinking, and, of course, their demise - Red also uses that story to pull in universal and relevant themes of fear, both of global dangers and of personal harm, and the consequences of dealing with truths that exacerbate those fears. It is made clear that this is not a strictly by-the-facts reinactment of the Rosenberg's story.
The real Lenny Bruce had no direct connection to the Rosenbergs, finding his success as an on-the-edge, profane and outrageous comedian a near decade after the Rosenbergs' executions. As a representative of a challenge to censorship, similarities can be seen (and Bruce also died young, but from a heroin overdose), but the idea of his narrating this story doesn't totally work for me. However, BFA senior Joshua Potter does an fine job with the role, as he shows Bruce's anger and blue language right off the bat, with the self introduction directly to the audience, "My name is Lenny Bruce and I'm fucking dead." Potter stood out in last season's terrific production of A New Brain, and shows his versatility here. He uses a lot of physical movements, almost ticks at times, a swagger, and a direct approach to the audience as he creates a very vivid character. The Bruce character also "jumps into" the story as the Rosenberg's lawyer, Manny Bloch. It's not clear why this device is used, but it gives us an opportunity to see Potter work more and display his considerable acting and singing talents.
Jolene Huffman, a senior in Musical Theatre, plays a character called the Red Spy Queen. Fashioned partially after frequent espionage trial testifier Elizabeth Bentley, the character has been described by dramaturg Iris Valanti as "symbolic of the general hysteria of the times, of any 'average citizen,' and of the mob mentality that resulted." This device (as well as the use of a very versatile, Greek-like chorus) works well to remind the audience of the reaction of society to the story we are seeing on stage. Huffman plays the taunting, sexy Queen well, with a solid singing voice.
Julius (Ryan Lanning) and Ethel (Erin Krom) Rosenberg are not shown to be total innocents, but their victimization by Ethel's brother David Greenglass (Jonathan Blandino) is highlighted as he lies to sell out his own sister to save himself from a harsh sentence when he is caught selling plans to the Russians. Julius and Ethel are depicted as a young liberal couple in love, as their meeting is presented in almost 42nd Street-like fashion, but it is made clear that Julius did have some tangential involvement with the Russians, though nothing as serious as other spies of the time who were not executed. Ms. Krom has a very lovely singing voice, and Lanning shows the serious nature of his character well. Blandino does a great job with an unsympathetic character and is supported well by Deanna Martin as Greenglass' wife, and Dixie Forbes as a very dominating mother.
Several other people related to the Rosenberg case make appearances, including spies Klaus Fuchs (Michael Greer) and Harry Gold (Christopher Proud), prosecuting team members Roy Cohn (Chris Gatterdam) and Irving Saypol (Jordan Spencer), and Judge Irving R. Kaufman (Tim Winski), as well as Irwin Edelman (Paul Phillips), a wealthy businessman who tried to finance a last minute reprieve for the couple. All members of the company also play miscellaneous citizens and, in one very effective scene, protestors of the execution of the Rosenbergs.
Stevens, Lowdermilk, Scott Wise (Director/Choreography) and Lynda Martha-Burkel (Choreography) use quite a few techniques in staging the musical numbers. Some are reminiscent of other shows (in particular, Jason Robert Brown/Alfred Uhry's Parade comes to mind more than once during this production), and several use comedy as an ironic device. This doesn't always work, but really comes together in an excellent way in the vaudevillian treatment of the trial scene. Also, the big anthem number, "This Land is Mine," is stunningly effective as the song ends the act, but the performers take their time leaving their places, holding the eyes of the audience with determined stares and walking off one by one, each slamming a door upon exiting.
The unit set by Stephanie Mayer is well constructed and easily takes on a different look when th series of side doors are opened, and lighting by Andrew David Ostrowski is excellent.
There are several recurring phrases and themes ("nothing will be the same," "something's in the air," "the truth can give you strength, but it cannot set you free") that tie the many scenes together, and the fact that, although the show is not sung through, songs are interspersed with dialog and not ended with "buttons," allows a seamless flow. The use of overtalking is often not always successful, as none of those talking can be understood. Marcus Stevens and Brian Lowdermilk do a wonderful job with the dialog, that of the '40s characters and of Lenny Bruce. As a first work, this is a really incredible accomplishment - we should all look forward to future work of both of these young musical theater creators.
Red continues through December 7 at Pittsburgh Playhouse of Point Park College. For schedule and ticket information, call 412-621-4445.