Hard Times: An American Musical

The Cell Theater
New York, NY
I was hit harder emotionally by an intimate new musical, Hard Times: An American Musical, at the Cell Theater on 23rd Street, NYC than by many big musicals I've seen of late.  Most everything fell into place just right: actors—such as Jed Peterson, Almeria Campbell, Stephane Duret, John Charles McLaughlin—performing with honesty, conviction, and real flair; dances—choreographed by Joe Barros—that not only entertained, they illustrated the points made by the script; a killer six-piece orchestra under the direction of Rona Siddiqui playing intriguing arrangements by Andrew Smithson; evocative costumes by Saraj Gosnell; a simple but imaginative set design by Dara Wishingrad.... It's a rare and wondrous thing when all of the elements come together just so, and you have theatrical magic.  But this little show, written by Larry Kirwan and directed by Kira Simring, offers just that.  And even when I thought the show was over—and I was ready to leave the theater thoroughly satisfied—the director, choreographer, and performers surprised by giving us something more, something extra, to excite us even more, in the curtain calls.  An excellent night of entertainment.

Hard Times, set in the Five Points district of New York in 1863, opens a window on a world most of us will not have known about: a community in which Irish-Americans and African-Americans were living together.  We get a look at the roots of American song and dance--the blending of African and European ideas about music and dancing.  The fascinating band includes both an impressive fiddler (Jake James) and African drummer (Ayesu Lartey).  Barros' terrific choreography draws upon both Irish-American and African-American styles of dance; I was thrilled by the way he presented them both.  Jed Peterson is perfectly cast as a down-on-his-luck Stephen Foster (and the score abounds with riches from the Foster songbook, imaginatively reinterpreted and adapted). Almeria Campbell shines as a proud, free black woman, running a saloon and trying to make her way in a rapidly changing world. And what appealing voices these singing actors have.

Playwright Kirwan (who has also contributed to the score) offers speculation as to Foster's thoughts and feelings.  He may not always be on firm historical ground; the reality he constructs for Foster and company may at times be more in the realm of possibility than likelihood.  But I suspended disbelief, accepted that this was one possible scenario, and quickly got caught up—entranced even—by night's end in the drama and the entertainment.

There were some minor flaws. (For example, I wish they'd make it clearer, via shifts in lighting and/or music, when a flashback was beginning and ending; and sometimes characters spoke in a way that simply seemed too modern for 1863.)  But this little show is the real thing; packs a mighty big wallop.  It was enough to restore my faith in the potential of theater.  Hard Times runs at the Cell through February 16. It is very good work, and I am confident it will have life beyond this run.  It deserves to be seen by a much larger public.  And my hunch is, it will.

(Pictured: Almeria Campbell and Stephani\e Duret. Photo by Steven Simring)

Chip Deffaa
Cabaret Scenes
February 2, 2014