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A CurtainUp Review

Piper's Song
By Brad Bradley

South Side Cafe

Stephen Brian Jones and Martha Velasquez
Shawn J. DavisStephen Brian Jones and Martha Velasquez
(Photo: Peter Konerko)
The welcome musical Piper’s Song concerns an earnest, humble and sensitive young man called Steven Young who has found love and happiness, yet promptly loses both when his values collide with those of his fiancée and boss/father-in-law-to-be. Our tale, a self-described "modern-day allegory," turns Horatio Alger on its ear, substituting a populist story in which our hero refocuses his attention on his appreciation for the downtrodden (read homeless). His story brings to mind a possible amalgam with Puccini’s lately ubiquitous La Boheme and Patrick Dennis’ half-century-old comic valentine Auntie Mame. (That theatrical evergreen of a hero[ine] out of sync with her society’s mainstream spawned adaptations to play; a musical, and a film of each.)

Piper’s Song brings audience expectations to a high level at the start, with one of the zestiest musical beginnings since The Lion King exploded on 42nd Street. The first ten minutes are entirely musical, and are splendidly evocative. The wittily robotic "Run on Automatic" puts a new-age How to Succeed. . . \ spin on the "jobs we hate" and its follow-up, the title tune, perfectly sets up the world of the homeless, which becomes the central "other side of the coin" in our story

Although most of the show’s book scenes sag into predictable and overwritten melodrama (a typical line is "You have no idea how lucky you are"), this show has considerable appeal. It really looks like a potential winner, if only the libretto can be reconceived, substantially released to an expansion of the often wonderful score, and finally infused with the sense of humor that the glorious opening promises.

John Ryerson’s score not only is exciting in general, but also, as performed by a stunning band of five, is a cornucopia of musical texture. Ryerson’s own uncredited orchestrations and musical arrangements and Jamie Fox’s musical direction infect the show with a rich tapestry of energy and emotion that includes pop, Caribbean, and blues influences, as well as musical theater. Unfortunately, song endings too often fail to end with a "button" to allow the audience to participate with applause, and the ending is formulaic and unfinished in addition to being depressing. But such limits are repairable. May Mr. Ryerson and his team find the time and the support to give his show another shot. Even now, much of his music winningly suggests a musical that might have resulted in a hypothetical 21st century collaboration by Brubeck, Bernstein, and Ellington, all of whom found the musical theater intriguing in varying degrees.

Director Susan Streater has assembled a stellar cast that works well together, even in the overlong book scenes, effectively conveying the communal and sometime anarchical life of the streets, recalling hippie-era shows such as Hair, Promenade, and Runaways as well as the current Urinetown -- all good musical company for reaching a wide and varied audience. Ms. Streater’s selected choreographic efforts also work well, although additional such spots would benefit the show.

As our hero, Steven Young, Shawn J. Davis is convincing in a complicated and enormous acting role, yet sometimes seems vocally ill-matched for his songs. Perhaps additional performances will overcome this problem. The supporting cast is large and talented, with Stephen Hope (Didi), Marilyn O’Connell (Mary) as mentally challenged homeless folk, standouts who shine not only in their brief solos, but also in every moment they are seen. The production’s most impressive performer is MarthaVelasquez as Anna, essentially the leading lady. She matches Steven’s humility and sensitivity with an upbeat personality in her too-limited on-stage time, offers a warmly intoxicating alto, and even rises above her banal dialogue. Brocton Pierce as the narrator, called "the Piper," has a strong musical presence, but his unexciting material fails to warrant titling the play after this generally amorphous character.

Scenery is minimal but effective in a minimal venue, and the costumes are apt and efficient. Overall the production values are effective in a show that shines best in its music and its performances. If the script can be brought into focus, and perhaps a new title offered, what now is Piper’s Song may become a song for the masses.

Piper’s Song – Presented by Rockhill Produtions
Conceived by Kyle Jarrow and Alex Timbers
Book, music and lyrics by John Ryerson
Musical direction by Jamie Fox
Directed and Choreographed by Susan Streater
Cast: Brocton Pierce, Shawn J. Davis, Rebecca Simon, Masi Asare, David Brainard, ‘vid Buttaro, Micki Sharpe, Bonnie Nesbitt, Kevin Kean Murphy, Nathan Stith, Erik Frandsen, Stephen Hope, Stephen Brian Jones, Marilyn O’Connell, Martha Velasquez, Stephanie Kiahtipes, and Tonianne Robinson.
Costume Design: Jennie McCormick
Set Design: Hayoung Yoon
Lighting Design: Annmarie Duggan
. The band: Jamie Fox, Bruce Huron, John Ryerson, Bob Gingery, and John Hadfield.
Running time: approximately 2 hours, forty-five minutes including intermission.
Gene Frankel Theater, 24 Bond Street (one block north of Bleecker (east of Lafayette).
Fridays, Saturdays and Mondays at 8, Sundays at 7 p.m.
Viewed by Brad Bradley at the Monday, August 4 performance.

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