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A CurtainUp Review

By Macey Levin

My love. My war. My bicycle
Paul Jackel & Michael Mendiola (Photo by Paul Hudson)
As the audience enters the intimate Storm Theatre it is greeted with a medley of Irish folk songs and 70's rock music intermixed with descriptions of killings on the streets of Belfast. Lettered on the walls in graffiti style are various slogans, i.e. Welcome to Free Belfast; Rule Britannia; No popery here; and God Save our Pope.

Despite the torment of the Irish troubles that lies beneath the plot, Spokesong is a sweet play. Written by Stewart Parker, with music by Jimmy Kennedy and lyrics by Parker, the show, which had a run off-Broadway in the late '70's, is an olio of comedy and drama, with a sprinkling of vaudeville entertainments.

Belfast 1973. Frank Stock owns a bicycle repair shop inherited from his grandparents. Though violence seethes around him, he is concerned with a project to raze his neighborhood to allow new highway construction. Frank lives in the sheltered world his store provides him. Through a series of flashbacks, we see that his grandparents, Francis and Kitty, lived a similar life, though he served in World War I and she was a suffragette.

Bicycles have been the focus of their lives. Expert on the history and construction of bicycles, Frank and Francis defend their use as economical, safe and versatile. Little by little the civil war creeps into Frank's shop until he must confront its probable destruction by bomb or bulldozer. His romance with Daisy, an elementary school teacher, and the return of his scheming adopted brother Julian facilitates the entrance of the war into his life and exacerbates his dilemmas.

A character known as "The Trick Cyclist," portrayed by Paul Jackel, sings the majority of the songs in the slight score that comment upon the action and character relationships; he also plays several different characters. It is a tried and true device that is used well and lends an energetic theatrical tone to the show.

Parker, who died in 1988, fluently handles the violence and the charm of the romance in the development of his story and its characters. There is no proselytizing and the love story avoids being maudlin. However, there are two conclusions to the play as if he could not decide to end it on a somber note or to wrap it up in a neat sweet denouement. Other than this, Spokesong is a well-balanced work.

The ensemble cast is a bit uneven. Jackel's singing and dancing bring us back to the old British music halls and his instant transformations into his various characters are tight and effective. Michael Mendiola as Frank exudes great charm. There is an endearing winsomeness that flashes through his eyes and smile that belies Frank's strength and idealism. His cynical revelation presaging the ending is unexpected yet logical.

Robin Haynes and Jill Anderson as the Grandparent Stocks age gracefully and realistically. The sweetness of their relationship is a contrast to the intensity of that between Frank and Daisy, portrayed by Colleen Crawford. Ms. Crawford and Ethan Flower as Julian work too hard, giving their characters an artificiality that does not complement the rest of the cast.

Director Peter Dobbins, who is also the producing artistic director of the Storm Theatre, keeps the play moving well. His staging, including the constant riding of bicycles through the story and the set, is efficient and confident, though the second act is smoother than the first. The tone of the simple and open set designed by Paul Hudson is enhanced by the subtle and effective lighting by Charles Cameron.

This seldom-revived play is both provocative and gentle. It is worth a look.

Written by Stewart Parker
Music by Jimmy Kennedy
Lyrics by Stewart Parker
Directed by Peter Dobbins
Assistant Director: Stephen Logan Day
Musical Direction and Arrangements: Skip Kennon
Choreography: Dawne Swearingen
Cast: Jill Anderson, Colleen Crawford, Ethan Flower, Robin Haynes, Paul Jackel, Michael Mendiola
Scenic Design: Paul Hudson
Costume Design: E. Shura Pollatsek
Lighting Design: Charles Cameron
Sound Design: Tucker Howard
Running Time: 2 hours, (one intermission)
The Storm Theatre, 145 W. 46th St. (between Broadway and 6th Ave.) SmartTix 212-868-4444
2/6/04-2/28/04; opening: 2/12/04
Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm; Sat at 2 pm & Sun at 3 pm (No perf. 2/23)--$19 or TDF voucher
Reviewed by Macey Levin based on February 9 preview

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