Music by Si Kahn, book by Amy Merrill
Musical theater, noted singer/songwriter and activist Si Kahn in a recent radio interview, has often tackled serious issues in our lives. The personal and the comedic have often been used to confront real problems. Think race in “South Pacific,” oppression and identity in “La Cage Aux Foils.” These are plays that confront big issues and do it with a smile and some style.
“Silver Spoons” by the North Carolina-based Kahn (music) and Cambridge playwright Amy Merrill now through June 19th in its world premiere with the Nora Theater Company at Cambridge’s Central Square Theater tackles serious political issues with humor and music, albeit on a smaller scale (piano, a guitar, reeds and a violin arranged and orchestrated by Larry Hochman whose other recent credits include the Tony-nominated “Book of Mormon” and “The Scottsboro Boys”). The show weaves the personal and the political together in a delightful manner. Set in New York in the late 1960s (and the city and politics cover the floor and walls of the set as cleverly presented by Eric Levenson), we meet Danny Horowitz (Edward T. Joy) a young and zealous Jewish organizer for the United Farm Workers (UFW) grape boycott, although he’s never left Brooklyn or his Communist Party-member mother Marilyn’s (Rena Baskin) apartment. He’s fallen for uber-WASPy Polly Bullock (Kara Manson), editor of the radical Walden Free Press, in a big way. Little does he know she lives a double life, working as well at the family brokerage firm that actually owns the grocery chain being pressured by the UFW to the disgust of her charming, loving but viciously anti-union broker/fat-cat grandfather Freddy (Peter Edmund Haydu). Not surprisingly push eventually does come to shove in these relationships as generations, ideologies, and attitudes clash. Cross-class interpersonal relations may not seem especially ‘dangerous,’ but they often pose real problems for those so-linked, especially when class and activism mix and the political becomes very, very personal.
Long-time friends, this is the first time Kahn and Merrill have worked together on a show, and the results are often charming. The songs range from love songs reminiscent—quite intentionally—of a simpler style of musical theater in the 1940s and 50s to anthems of solidarity and class power. There are several that truly stand out. “Washington Square,” Marilyn’s effort to explain her commitment to Polly through her family’s personal history and the Triangle Shirtwaist fire of 1911 is performed with poignancy by Baskin, who otherwise exudes brashness and affection joined to a wonderful style that makes every song she touches an adventure. Similarly, Polly’s “Freedom Being Born,” is a remarkable testimonial explaining her engagement in the struggles of her time. Here again, Manson’s lovely and moving presentation make the song come alive. Freddy’s memories of Polly’s birth in “On the Upper East Side” go part of the way towards taking him from caricature to character and Haydu does a lovely job with this piece, although he does embody the stereotype of class arrogance and it occasionally makes him less than human because of it. In sum, however, all the principals are fine. All are vocally gifted and talented performers and a pleasure to watch and listen to. I only wish Danny’s character had a comparably complex solo although Joy’s voice shines in his songs.
Amy Merrill’s script has moments of real humor and irony, appropriate for the times and the characters, and indeed, New York City is itself a character in the show. There are some very lovely plot twists, especially in the verbal dances performed by Marilyn and Freddy, but there were also times I felt jerked by the flow of the play as when it immediately moved from the power of Polly’s “Freedom Being Born” to the personal cruelties expressed in the song that rushed to follow it. Finally, I think the ending was just a bit flat and anticlimactic.
As unions and organized workers find themselves denounced as the cause of the economic problems created by the Freddy Bullocks of the world, it is a welcome change to experience a play that speaks to the rights of workers to organize, the obligation of folks to support those struggles, and does it in a playful and joyful way while bringing some damn fine songs to the stage.
“Silver Spoons” runs at the Central Square Theater through June 19th.
Marc Stern produces and hosts “Radio With a View” on wmbr, 88.1 fm, wmbr.org, in Cambridge.