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Theatre in Review: Suffs (The Public Theater)

Phillipa Soo (foreground) Photo: Joan Marcus

Shaina Taub has one of the most distinctive musical theatre voices we have right now. Her New Orleans-style score for Twelfth Night, seen at the Delacorte Theatre a few summers ago, was a slinky, strutting delight, melding Dixieland brass with freshly imagined lyrics. She also contributed a kicky trio of tunes to the Bill Irwin -- David Shiner entertainment Old Hats. Her best songs are joyously sassy, staring down the dire facts of life with a shrug, an insistent downbeat, and a bluesy wail; she's a true original.

Right now, however, Taub is suppressing her distinctive gifts in service of an ambitious, strenuously inspirational project that falls rather noticeably short of its goals. In Suffs, she goes full-on Lin-Manuel Miranda, providing book, music, and lyrics for a through-composed American-history epic featuring a parade of real-life characters; as a capper, she takes the lead role, heading a strong cast of female and nonbinary performers. The musical is based on a colorful and potentially stirring episode -- the campaign for women's suffrage -- but despite some powerful passages and a few attractive songs, one has the impression of a gifted writer overwhelmed by the task at hand.

At the center of Suffs is Alice Paul, part of a new wave of feminists who, two generations removed from Susan B. Anthony, are fed up with incremental achievements; it is 1913 and they are spoiling for a fight. As the members of National American Woman Suffrage Association, led by the middle-aged accommodationist Carrie Chapman Catt, congratulate themselves, Alice can't believe her ears: "She thinks eleven states [with suffrage] in sixty years is a victory?" she asks wonderingly. "How do I stand shoulder to shoulder with these ineffective fossils?"

Over the next several years, Alice organizes a groundbreaking demonstration; courts, and then boycotts, the two-faced President Woodrow Wilson; and flirts with founding a political party. For her efforts, she alienates her more conservative allies and ends up in jail on trumped-up charges, a political prisoner in all but the name. She drives everyone around her mercilessly, unwittingly pushing a close friend to an early grave. Constantly in movement, asking, in staccato tones, "How will we do it when it's never been done?", she is a nudge and a leader, an inspiration and a storm center of controversy. The role needs a temperament, somebody with enough natural electricity to juice up the action, and it's the one quality Taub lacks. Instead, she creates a character who is equally demanding and drab, one frequently upstaged by her more glittering sisters.

The musical's spine is the conflict between Alice and Carrie, the firebrand versus the insider. But their confrontations don't really crackle, and our attention is too often diverted by a series of subplots that need more room to breathe. Ida B. Wells, the Black journalist, gets trotted out for arguments with Mary Church Terrell, the former accusing the latter of being used as a mascot by her white colleagues. A romance between Alice's associate Doris Stevens and Dudley Malone (a member of Wilson's administration), feels imported from another, more traditional musical; then again, Doris and Dudley are the rare characters to be defined by anything other than their political positions. Others, like Carrie's close associate Mollie Hay, socialite Alva Belmont, Alice's great friend Lucy Burns, and the union organizer and actress Ruza Wenclawska, come and go without making strong impressions.

The score's earnest tone is, occasionally, jarringly interrupted by satirical numbers that wield a hammer when a sharp needle would do. The first-act opener features a chorus of suffragists, sporting moustaches, warning the audience. "Watch out folks, here comes a suffragette/See her ugly little silhouette?/She's planning to scold you for three hours straight/Get out now before it's too late." The humor is halfhearted, but it establishes an attitude of mockery that is largely missing until the second act, which kicks off with a jeremiad titled "American When Feminized." In this one, there's no pretense at wit: "These mangy bitches must be stopped/If you see one, here's what to do/Strap a muzzle on her mouth/Never set her free/Shut her up in prison/And throw away the key."

The other discordant note is Woodrow Wilson, presented as an airheaded glad hander, whose big number, "Ladies," is a tired vaudeville exercise with painfully obvious lyrics: "Men run the country/Ladies run the sink/Men run for office/So ladies needn't think." Worse, making Wilson a figure of fun robs the show of a strong antagonist; he ends up, like so many others, on the sidelines. At least Grace McLean's unearthly vocals and deadpan humor go a long way toward making this presidential portrait moderately amusing. But a comic sequence focusing on his stroke and the ascension of his wife, Edith, to de facto presidential status is sour and unfunny.

Given the opportunity, the talented cast adds some sizzle to these involved and resolutely educational proceedings. Jenn Colella's Carrie, furiously raising a fist to denounce Alice's impudence in "This Girl," is sufficiently riveting that one wonders what Suffs would be like with her as the central character. Nikki M. James' Ida simmers with quiet indignation in "Wait My Turn," noting, bitterly but accurately, that Black women don't have a place in this revolution. The stylishly outfitted Phillipa Soo peps things up considerably as Inez Milholland, lawyer and party girl, leading a march down Pennsylvania Avenue on horseback. Nadia Dandashi and Tsilala Brock add some welcome charm as unlikely lovers Lucy and Dudley.

Still, we're left to wade through a welter of characters and plot lines that never really coalesce into a gripping political drama. It's indicative of Taub's struggle to corral this sprawling story that when the final crucial vote comes, it hinges on Tennessee Senator Harry T. Burn and his influential mother Phoebe, characters we haven't seen before and who have no strong claim on our interest.

Leigh Silverman's direction, aided by Raja Feather Kelly's choreography, keeps things moving to a steady pulse, but certain things could be clarified. As written and staged, the number "The March" doesn't effectively point up the violent opposition that the suffragists faced; considering the achievement involved in mustering thousands of women to make a public statement, the sequence ends on a flat, uninspiring note. A rally featuring the suffragists burning Wilson in effigy doesn't generate too much excitement. The first act finale, "The Young Are at the Gates" is a rather studied exercise in rabble-rousing.

Mimi Lien's set design, which fills the Newman Theater stage with a monumental set of steps plus a trio of broad pillars, is on the gloomy side, but it allows for the rapid flow of scenes. Natasha Katz's lighting provides colorful washes, carves out a train interior using sidelight and chasing LED strips, and captures the melancholy, candlelit look of a nighttime memorial service. Toni-Leslie James' costumes embrace the boxy silhouettes and battleship hats of the period, effectively adding occasional bursts of color in an otherwise limited palette. Sun Hee Kil's sound design is a model of transparency that many of her Broadway colleagues would do well to imitate. Daniel Kluger's sound effects are equally accomplished.

There's nothing more exhilarating that seeing a talented writer swing for the fences, but Suffs must sadly count as a disappointment. Even an epilogue, in which the elderly Alice is confronted by a feisty young member of the National Organization for Women, doesn't fully pay off. (It does provide one of the show's few solid laugh lines, however.) Funnily enough, one of the most affecting numbers is about a missed opportunity: In "I Wasn't There," Alice and her colleagues lament that the amendment was ultimately signed on the QT, without any of the usual publicity; after everything, these fiercely committed women didn't get to be in the room where it happened. It's one of the most telling moments in a show that needs more of them -- along with more anger, more exuberance, and more narrative clarity -- to tell its important tale. --David Barbour

(7 April 2022)

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