Theater review: Shaina Taub’s “Suffs”

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Phillipa Soo in drunks, at the public.
Photo: Joan Marcus

If you want an excuse to get stuffed during the workday, play a little game. Take a shot if someone is talking about it boozes mentioned Hamilton. It’s inevitable: they’re related projects, opening in the same room at the Public Theater and even featuring (in a cosmetically similar role) the same actress, Phillipa Soo. boozes is a sober and sobering piece of work, but talking about it – if we play it right – can be exhilarating.

Each show comes from a single multi-engine mind: Lin-Manuel Miranda and now Shaina Taub are the rare musical theater artists who bring books, music, and Text. Both composer-playwrights built their musicals around themselves. Miranda played Hamilton for a long time, and Taub now plays her heroine, voting rights activist Alice Paul. Both creators also have a firm focus on work. Leiden, yes, our founders did. Fight – definitely. But both musicals elevate diligence, an underappreciated trait, to something alongside holiness.

boozes takes place on a series of gray steps in front of huge pillars. (Mimi Lien designed the set.) We’re outside a government building — rather, outside of the government itself. The female and non-binary cast dances and sings on these steps, waiting to be let into the halls of power, sometimes part of an unnamed ensemble, sometimes congealing into figures from the suffrage pantheon, like Mary Church Terrell (Cassondra James) or Ruza Wenclawska (Hannah Cruz). This is the culmination of a 60-year struggle that we know will end with the ratification of the 19th Amendment, but somehow we never feel the triumphant flash. Director Leigh Silverman and her lighting designer Natasha Katz leave the two hour and forty-five minute musical largely in the dark, spotlights following the cast as the vast patriarchal institution looms somberly behind them. Even when those doors finally open, the story doesn’t get noticeably brighter, although you can sense the musical struggling to claim a little joy.

boozes is at war with itself because it is about a movement that was itself divided. In her script, Taub’s epigraph of Susan B. Anthony reads: “There has never been a young woman who would not have believed that if she had been in charge of the work from the beginning, it would have been carried out a long time ago. I felt the same way when I was young.” Anthony has been dead for seven years boozes begins, but this pattern of youngsters rising impatiently to replace their elders is the broad arc of the musical. Paul resents the slower tactics of Carrie Chapman Catt (Jenn Colella), chairwoman of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, and just as the musical ends, we learn that Paul has lived long enough to see the cycle unfold repeated.

Songs about “standing shoulder to shoulder” with other women are repeated in more sour tones as the women disagree on how to proceed. Is Paul right in 1913 to push directly for federal change instead of continuing the NAWSA’s campaign from state to state? Is she right in 1916 to insist that her beloved friend and fellow activist Inez Milholland (Soo, with a sweeter but lower voice than hers Hamilton) continue their speeches even when their health is failing? In 1917, when Paul goes on hunger strike in prison, is being force-fed, and faces permanent confinement, her rights and wrongs seem less important than her passionate adherence to a patently just cause.

I would not say boozes is a warts and all portrait, but recognizes certain costs. A terrible price was moral: Paul invited Ida B. Wells (Nikki M. James, always amazing) and other black suffragists to a march on Washington, then bowed to pressure from Southern financiers and asked them to stay in the background to march. (Wells refused.) That choice haunts the musical, which might explain why the whole production has a nightmarish undertone. Even happy songs can come across as dejected, and victories are already acknowledged as partial and corrupt, even when hard won. Part of that melancholic quality is telling the truth and refusing to romanticize. The rest, however, comes thanks to a certain amount of repetition in Taub’s musical choices, which can mix and match over the course of the 38 shows Songs and Silverman’s staging, which varies the production itself too little.

Taub depicts the world outside of the women’s organization as a violent cartoon, imagery that works brilliantly on page, less so on stage. The show begins with a vaudevillian choir, the huge cast dressed all in male attire, complete with moustaches. “This crazy Medusa is as shrill as can be / She can’t get a man, so she’s a suffragette!” They cry. The act takes tremendous energy; it doesn’t get it. The mockery of those hat-wearing yahoos is key to lightening the mood, and Grace McLean’s clownish version of Woodrow Wilson (and, in one stunningly virtuoso moment, Wilson’s wife, too) gives us a glimpse of how mind-blowing comedy is at the core of Taub’s method. She came up with a hard-hitting equation: what women do is serious, and what men do is absurd. For the apotheosis of drunks, We would have to feel gravity as well buffoons, and the production currently contains too little of the latter. At the risk of sounding like Carrie Chapman Catt, incremental change might be the answer. fewer songs? Any more jokes? A touch more light? The musical is already penetrating and heartfelt and Good. Just a few more amendments and like one particular constitution I might mention, it could be really great.

boozes is at the Public Theater until May 15th. (Today’s opening performance was canceled after several members of the company contracted COVID.)

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