We expressed no little excitement here and here regarding the advent of a show calling itself The Black Crook at the Abrons Arts Center. Marketing materials strongly implied a revival, or revival of sorts, of the seminal production, long regarded as the Ur-show of American musical theatre. And by “implied”, I mean “used the word ‘revive'”.
But that’s not what it is. And now that I read the description more closely, I see that (as one does) I saw what I wanted to see in their p.r. materials: “With new text [and] new songs…a team of only eight actor/ musician/ dancers will perform the full 1866 musical and bring the biggest of all American spectacles into the tiniest of spaces.” This comes much nearer the truth than what I thought I was in for, but still won’t bear fact checking. It does indeed have new text and music, and only eight performers, but they scarcely do any of the rest of what that sentence promises.
I am sorry to report that the production is sort of an ANTI-Black Crook, an avant-garde theatrework that makes a stylistic choice to MOCK The Black Crook, its melodrama and its ballets. Such fragments from the original five and a hour show as they present or re-create drip with oleaginous attitudinizing, lack of conviction, and smarmy superiority. The relationship between this version and the original may be conjectured as roughly equivalent to that between The Beggars Opera and the Threepenny, but in this case with no apparent ideological motivation. It is merely, frankly, fucked with. A dubious honor for a 150th anniversary, but so be it. Such fragments of the original text as we get are wedged between an original “meta” story about the creation of the original show, with the small cast doubling as the author, producers, etc. Little effort is made to differentiate the two realities. In both planes, the actors wear the same clothes, act in the same style, move on the same set. Thus the two worlds bleed together, making what is already an irritating ordeal into a confusing one.
As for the “spectacle”? The first music doesn’t appear until 50 minutes into the show; the first song appears after that. Only a couple of songs are from the original show. And the principal thing we associate with The Black Crook…the ballet chorus? Well, the dancing is done by this cast of eight. Four of them are female. We have gotten very far away from both the spirit and the body of The Black Crook at this stage.
Naturally, I wasn’t expecting the real thing. The original show, as we said, was five and a half hours long and featured a cast of dozens. I expected a truncation, and certainly some scholarly substitution of missing material. The backstory idea I find tedious and commonplace, but if you must do it, I find myself offended by its self-conscious, apologetic approach about the very notion of how 19th century theatre was practiced. This is a self-hating production of The Black Crook if ever there was one, far more about the director’s apparently high self-regard than service to the play, the theatre, or the audience. Unfortunately, I’m not interested in how much smarter Mr. Joshua William Gelb is than the material he took the trouble to excavate. I am interested in the material itself.
There are positive things to say. The cast are extraordinarily talented, however warped and misused their gifts are in the service of this production. In addition to their polished, animated acting, most of them are highly skilled musicians, which is most impressive. One of the songs I heard was exquisitely beautiful. And the costumes, by Normandy Sherwood, are gorgeous. They are the best thing about the production, which is quite a statement to have to make.
I confess I left (at a sprint) during intermission. I would have left about five minutes into the show, once I knew what I’d let myself in for, but there was no way for me to gracefully slip out without causing a ruckus. But I find it inconceivable that the second act would somehow redeem the show, given the choices I suffered through in the first act. If you’re bursting with curiosity about The Black Crook, this is not the show to see. But if you must, you must. Do it here, but don’t let me know about it.