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Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?
Songs and Stories from The Great Depression, A New Musical Revue
In the 1930's, an era with no TIVO, Twitter, or texting, the radio was treasured possession and a popular song stayed popular for months, not days. Much of that decade is tucked in someone else's memory now, but over the past few months, the economic disaster of the '30's has re-inserted itself into our daily lives. News broadcasts regularly bring up the Great Depression, with questions about whetherf today's unemployment, stock market and home losses, will compare to those traumatic days.
When producer Max Weintraub and creator/director Bill Daugherty (When the Lights Go On Again) looked for a musical time capsule tracing how Americans coped with a crisis, they turned to the Great Depression's made-to-order anthem, "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" Hollywood and Tin Pan Alley provided scores of songs. The problem was which to choose, and to their credit, they included many less well-known tunes with the familiar ones. The scanty plot is a timeline through that decade: a narration of short radio broadcasts by the Roosevelts, Herbert Hoover, Eddie Cantor, and Will Rogers; with readings, pleading and often desperate letters to Eleanor Roosevelt. These lead into groupings of songs for the six energetic singers.
The show opens with Bill Daugherty evoking Rudy Vallee singing into a megaphone, "I'm In the Market For You" on the eve of Black Tuesday, October 29, 1929. It is a hint of a carefree time when stocks and romance were riding high together. And then the crash.
At first, many thought it was short-term, trouble that's just a bubble soon to burst, as Christina Morell and Alexander Elisa claim in "Let's Have Another Cup of Coffee." Jennifer Newberry gives a nod to kittenish Helen Kane with her winning, "I'm An Unemployed Sweetheart." The songs build with intensity as economic condition worsen abd spread, creating breadlines that are exacerbated in the Dust Bowl. As the dark days of the Depression continue, so the songs get darker, peaking with Alexander Elisa's baritone selling a desperate "Dusty Road."
In the title song, a man who had worked hard all his life must now ask a stranger on the street for compassion and a dime. He calls him "Brother" hoping he will sympathize. In frustration, he restates his case in a moody minor key with a driving rhythm, finally ending with an outpouring of anger — the final "Can you spare a dime?" soaring in fury and failure. It's a powerful song, and Bill Daugherty delivers it robustly, but unfortunately does not e strike that pitch of anger at the end. Deborah Tranelli, with a close grasp of her character, follows with the woman's angle, pleading for her disenfranchised man with a compelling "My Forgotten Man."
Act Two opens with a sardonic suggestion to "Get Happy" Hobos take to the rails and some women to street corners. Tranelli morphs into the hard working women who can't catch a break, giving a Ruth Etting flair to "Sittin' On A Rubbish Can" and later "Ten Cents A Dance." Christina Morell gives her all, hawking, "Cigarettes, Cigars" and ending with the claim that despite everything, "I never lost sight of who I was and where I came from."
The chronological time-table tells the story but results in a top-heavy dark song list that ignores the humor also available in pop songs. At the end, there is a sudden jump back to 1933 when FDR's National Recovery Act gave hope to millions. Admittedly, this leap provides space for a few needed optimistic tunes, like "The Clouds Will Soon Roll By" and "Happy Days Are Here Again.".It is, however, awkward and signals a precipitous end to the show.
Will Brother, Can You Spare a Dime? hit pay dirt for its creators? On the plus side is relevance, solid songs, some notable performances, particularly by the women, and an unpretentious honesty. We're always saying that life is so much more complicated now, but maybe it's not. Maybe it all comes down to caring and surviving.
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