Review | Five Points: the production thrills, but the play needs work

Theater Latté Da, though May 6

Ensemble in FIVE POINTS. Photo by Dan Norman.

In the mid-nineteenth century, the now nonexistent Five Points in New York City was one of the nation’s most diverse neighborhoods, though it was far from a melting pot. As oppressed people groups found themselves relegated to its squalid accommodations, immigrants and black Americans begrudgingly lived side by side.

Douglas Lyons (music and lyrics), Ethan D. Packchar (music), and Harrison David Rivers (book) world premier musical Five Points (now through May 6 at Theater Latté Da) tells a story of family ties and personal ambitions against the backdrop of this cultural powder keg during a particularly explosive time – the Civil War.

The story revolves around two historical figures known for their dancing prowess. One, Irishman John “King of Diamonds” Diamond (Ben Bakken) has given up a successful career performing in P.T. Barnum’s touring show to care for his son Junior (Alejandro Vega) following the death of his beloved wife. The other, Willie Lane (Lamar Jefferson) has made a name for himself in his community and has been approached by Barnum to be the first black featured performer in his show, much to the chagrin of his fiercely protective and skeptical father Pete (T. Mychael Rambo).

Five Points begins with lively musical numbers that contrast Irish and black experiences at this historical moment and maintains a brisk pace throughout. The structure is impressive, ultimately leading to a head-to-head confrontation between these spheres. Also impressive is the overall design, from the detailed sets that allow for compositions to be built in levels (by Joel Sass) to the spirited and varied choreography (by Kelli Foster Warder). Indeed, with the powerful vocals of the cast and its strong musical motifs, there is much to like about this new work.

Yet, the show can’t quite match its lofty ambitions. It struggles to build on its premise and repeats themes instead of deepening them. The sudden, too tidy conclusion feels unearned because of the musical’s feverish pace and lack of depth. Additionally, there are a couple of digressive side plots that don’t necessarily serve the central story, and although there is some musical variance in the songs, too many of the pieces are belt-heavy ballads and showstoppers.

To his credit, Peter Rothstein has undeniably succeeded in directing a handful of memorable musical numbers. “For Me” efficiently builds Willie Lane into the most rounded character of the show, “More Than” comments smartly on race with jarring, first-rate lyricism, and “Hero” serves as a rousing crescendo to the film’s climactic moments. Denise Prosek’s musical direction is also solid.

The actors all do strong work as well, with fantastic vocalists in every part providing high-energy performances. Lamar Jefferson and Ben Bakken each turn in satisfying lead performances that serve as foils to one another—Jefferson captures Willie’s eager naiveté that Bakken nicely balances with defeated desperation. In supporting parts, Ann Michels projects determined compassion as tavern-owner Rona, T. Mychael Rambo gives Willie’s jaded father depths of paternal care, John Jamison lends impassioned hope to Willie’s best friend Cornelius, and Dieter Bierbrauer dazzles as a darkly charismatic P.T. Barnum.

As with many new works, Five Points needs a bit of fine-tuning—it has solid bones but doesn’t quite find a narrative rhythm. For those who love theater, however, the excitement of experiencing new material, and especially new material with terrific moments delivered with such professionalism, will far outshine these flaws.

David and Chelsea Berglund review movies on their site Movie Matrimony.

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