Review by Bart Greenberg . . .
For four years (1935-1939) the WPA Theatre Project was the largest government sponsored program in history. It created projects as diverse as puppet shows and Shakespeare, shows that toured to the smallest villages and Broadway blockbusters. Literally thousands of performers were employed, from names forgotten to Orson Welles. A great deal of the work was indeed political in nature, eventually causing its downfall thanks to certain far right Republicans offended by their liberal bias of the material.
Theater for the New City is following that tradition with its new touring production of Critical Care or Rehearsals for a Nurse with books, lyrics and direction by Crystal Field and score composed and arranged by Joseph Vernon Banks. The 45 minute program, a mix of music, comedy, puppetry, vaudeville and political satire, is touring all five boroughs for free outdoor performances (visit www.theaterforthenewcity.net for a full schedule). Cast, with a fully diverse collection of performers, really captures the wide variety of the city. As a celebration of this cornucopia of gender, age and ethnicity, it is fully successful.
Where it fails is as storytelling. The title and the early scenes suggest this is a tale of a brave young woman fighting her way out of city-funded housing to become a nurse. Unfortunately, this thread largely disappears about a third of the way through the show, and when she receives her degree toward the end, the audience has largely forgotten who she is. Instead, the stage has been filled with commentary on Donald Trump and the Covid Virus, equating the two and launching onto the stage actors dressed as the Virus and its variant, and a long sequence lacking musical numbers.
In the chaotic environment of the show, it was difficult for most of the cast to stand out. A few who established an individual identity were Michael-David Gordon as the narrator of the afternoon and Cheryl Gadsden as a veteran nurse. The rest certainly provided energy and emotions, but worked well as an ensemble. One reason the individuals don’t stand out is they are constantly redressing in the costumes provided by Susan Hemley, Diana Adelman, Desiree Conston and Mariana Soares that are outrageously fun but often disguise the actor within. Mary Blanchard and Walter Gurbo are responsible for shifting sets that provide often witty and imaginative backgrounds for the action.
As director, Field is often reduced to a effective traffic cop trying to guide all of the performers off, on and around the very crowded stage, with actors constantly spilling into the audience. Banks score is a delight, bouncing between various cultural influences for a bright, invigorating experience. Cleverly, in the opening number, there’s some melodies exhibiting a Kurt Weill influence, which brings us back to the WPA Theater Project. So does the triumphant chant with a reach out to the audience for participation, “The people united can never be defeated!”
Critical Care . . . will tour the City streets, parks and playgrounds in all five boroughs from July 31 to September 12. Running time is 1:15. Schedule: http://www.jsnyc.com/season/STTH2021.htm
Photos: Jonathan Slaff