By Marilyn Lester
Board the speeding train that’s Michael Moore’s bang-up Broadway debut at the Belasco Theatre and you’ll find yourself debarking sometime later quite dazed – in a good way. There’s a lot to take in on this ride, most of it thought-provoking and decidedly positive. By his own admission, Moore is not on stage to lecture. Far from it. The Terms of My Surrender is a true entertainment, beginning with pre-show rock music and a high-energy video intro as the 63-year-old gadfly enters in signature baseball cap. Behind him is a giant American flag with the superimposed image of Donald J. Trump, the reason Moore is on the barricades. But Moore is no babe in the woods. The usual Moore tropes are present, but The Terms of My Surrender takes into account the “non-believers” too, and offers much of the unexpected. Wisely, it’s all done with a great deal of humor as well as personal stories that successfully soften and add relevance to the message.
As a seasoned teller of stories through a 30-year career in documentary film, television, and publishing, Moore has crafted a clever narrative with a certifiably impeccable dramatic arc. Of course Moore is outraged. He can hardly contain it. Yet there’s so much more to feel, and the journey takes us through a gamut of emotions as Moore harangues, reminds, goads, informs, instructs, and shares, swinging through a variety pack of laughs, facts, ruminations, and exhortations, superbly directed by Michael Mayer. The Terms of My Surrender is not beyond good old-school shtick either. A desk appears from behind which Moore pulls out a carry-on suitcase. In a broadside about the TSA he extracts from the case a plethora of banned items, from a power drill and hand grenade to a cattle prod and other absurdist articles. Then there is the game show segment where two audience members demonstrate his theory that the dumbest Canadian is smarter than the smartest American. Ignorance is the enemy he declares.
Moore, it turns out, has been stirring up the waters since age 17, when an anti-discrimination letter he wrote to the Michigan Elks organization went “viral.” The entire affair and it’s far-reaching result, he says, taught him the great lesson that change can come from one individual. This principle is a major theme of the show, brought home in several ways. It’s most dramatically illustrated in the tale of the librarian from suburban New Jersey who single-handedly prevented his book, Stupid White Men, from being pulped, thereby opening the door to its phenomenal run as a best-seller. Another theme Moore weaves in and out of the tapestry of the show and a raison d’etre is the notion that there are more of the “us” and fewer of the “them,” meaning there’s a great deal of power for positive change going untapped. Professor Moore not only delivers a lesson in civics, but Coach Moore wants his audiences to emerge the theater feeling empowered, and ready to go out and do their bit.
At the climactic of The Terms of My Surrender, the train slows down. Seated in an armchair in the darkened theater, Moore recounts the horrific tale of the poisoning of the Flint, Michigan water system (his home town) with chilling intensity. With a warning about the consequences of a potentially renegade EPA, he declares “We are all in Flint now.” The train speeds up again, racing toward a ballyhoo of an ending – a great big carnival of a dance party, with Moore leading the way. We’ve learned that Michale Moore definitely does not dance, yet here he is, arms moving and body swaying. So, kids, if Michael Moore can dance, so too can you go out and make change happen.
The Terms of My Surrender features exceptional production elements, with scenic design by David Rockwell, lighting design by Kevin Adams, sound design by Brian Ronan, projections and video design by Andrew Lazarow and costume design by Jeff Mahshie. Noah Racey served as movement director, with stage managing by Lisa Iacucci.
The Terms of My Surrender, through October 22, 2017
Belasco Theatre, 111 West 44th Street, 212-239-6200
Photos: Joan Marcus