Friday, April 13, 2018

Five Points is Utterly Fantastic

What Unites Us? 


Photo by Dan Norman

I'm a huge Dan Rather fan (if you're not following his news updates on his Facebook page you are seriously missing out - check it out at once!), and one of the common themes in his posts is finding ways to cross the yawning divide in American life these days.

Photo by Dan Norman

It's a noble goal, and I get great joy of seeing even the small ways Rather finds to bring a commonality to our lived experiences. Simple things like baseball games, finding hope in our youthful generations, and celebrating beauty in nature and science find a way to uplift in even the darkest moments.

Photo by Dan Norman

This theme of finding common ground or experiences between seemingly impossible differences is at the heart of the delicious world premiere musical Five Points at Theatre Latte Da, which I was privileged to see last night. Five Points takes two seemingly separate stories and diffuses them together in the way only the crucible of the American melting pot can. It's 1863 in New York City and the Civil War is in full swing. Willie Lane is a talented dancer who is shunted to the corner of society due to his black skin. John Diamond is a grieving Irish immigrant who can't stop mourning his wife Brigid enough to truly care for his young son Junior. They could all have suffered in silos, but then fate strikes: P.T. Barnum asks Willie to join his show, and John is drafted to fight for the Union. Both are required to make difficult choices of leaving their family and making money over their pride; the narrative is much more complex than this but I don't want to give too much away. Ultimately both men are forced by Barnum to compete in a dance off for a financial prize that will save either man from a desperate fate; the genius of the show is that you want them both to win and know they cannot. Hard choices are made, and the end of Five Points leaves us with a broken heart but a hopeful wish for the future.

Photo by Dan Norman

The constellation of the Five Points cast is studded with low-key local legends, and one of the best parts of the script is that each character gets at least one solo and time to truly shine (a wise choice with this talented crew). Dieter Bierbrauer, Thomasina Petrus, Shinah Brashears, Evan Tyler Wilson, Ivory Doublette and Lamar Jefferson all shine in their lead roles - more so than I have time to detail here. But let me be honest about the breakout star in my eyes: holy shit, Ben Bakken. As John Diamond, Bakken absolutely explodes off the stage with a kinetic emotive power that instantly sears the soul. Reading his bio I'm sure I've seen him before but I can't place it and it doesn't matter. Bakken is unbelievably good in this role, and his touching performance will have you at the edge of your seat the whole time. Another standout is Ann Michels, who I've seen in several shows but is perfect - literally perfect - here in Five Points. This role suits every one of her many talents, and the chorus she leads to close the show had most of us tearing up. John Jamison was an understated star as Willie's friend Cornelius; I enjoy him so much every time I see him, so can we please get him a nice showy starring role soon? And T. Mychael Rambo whips out a soul stopping solo as Willie's father Pete that was similarly searing, the best I've ever heard his gorgeous bass voice sound.

Photo by Dan Norman

The production value nails the seedy nineteenth century tenement vibe. Joel Sass's scenic design works perfectly with Mary Shabatura's lighting to instantly set the mood of the play, be it dark and violent or sunny and winsome. The period perfect costumes from Trevor Bowen allow the characters to really shine through the fine acting, and the seamless stage management from Tiffany Orr makes each act seem to instantly flash by. The visionary creative team is what really nailed the production though - music director Denise Prosek, choreographer Kelli Foster Warder, lyric and music composer Douglas Lyons, music and orchestrations from Ethan Pakchar, the book by Harrison David Rivers and ultimately the directorial vision of Peter Rothstein makes executing this highly collaborative effort seem seamlessy easy, a true feat and high bar for future productions to clear (especially for new work - this reads like a timeworn Broadway musical, not a first-time show). The true excellence of Five Points is one more testament to why we need to keep creating more original, inclusive work. There are so many stories that haven't yet been told - why not bring them to light instead of rehashing the same tired problematic shows over and over again?

Photo by Dan Norman

One of my favorite elements of Five Points is how beautifully it weaves fraught narratives together without either equating them or overdramatizing. The curse of Whiteness, especially in the insidious form of American Racism it takes, is that it doesn't simply stop at a hierarchy of color. There is no doubt that historically Irish people were treated abominably in the United States, particularly in the fraught time period around the Civil War. It's just as true that no Irish immigrant ever faced the kind of systemic horror that African Americans in chattel slavery did, and often the blame for all of the fault lines between European immigrants was placed squarely (and unfairly) on the shoulders of former slaves who were simply trying to survive. (For some movies that terrifically address some of these issues, make sure to see Gangs of New York and Glory - both somewhat forgotten but really spectacular). Both of these narratives can be simultaneously true, and Five Points holds that cognitive dissonance with nuance and finesse, allowing us to experience the heartache on each side without excusing the pain they inflicted on each other in their grief.

Photo by Dan Norman

The cultural contrast here, particularly between the Irish step dancing and African American tap dance, is also totally fascinating. I actually think we could have used a little bit more dancing - these are extremely talented hoofers and I had the sense they were actually holding back a bit - and the blackout scene in Act II depicting the dance off is easily one of the finest moments of a very fine show. The musical styles also weave together so well, with jazz and folk songs beautifully meshing to a totally new art form. It's like Once meets Shuffle Along, and it's an inspired combination.

Photo by Dan Norman

All of this to say: Five Points is lush, passionate, powerful and so worth seeing. It's a terrifically talented cast telling a new story with beautiful music - what's not to love? The entire audience was gasping along with the action on stage, and I imagine you will too if you get a chance to go. Five Points runs through May 6 at the Ritz Theater; for more information or to buy tickets, click on this link.  And even if you don't go to the show, click through to the website to listen to some of these beautiful songs - it's so worth it.

Photo by Dan Norman