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BWW Review: Landmark Musical THE BLACK CROOK Returns To New York

Just as modern New York City evolved from a combination of immigrant societies that eventually mingled into one great metropolis, the major art form created by the city, the American musical play, evolved from a combination of stage entertainments these immigrants brought with them.

BWW Review: Landmark Musical THE BLACK CROOK Returns To New York
Kate Weber, Alaina Ferris and Steven Rattazzi
(Photo: Kelly Stuart)

But while art forms like operetta, ballet, vaudeville and melodrama didn't just combine magically at once to form what we would recognize today as a musical, the quick answer for how it all started has traditionally been the innovation and improvisation that produced the smash hit of 1866, THE BLACK CROOK.

History tells us that when New York Academy of Music burned down, a Parisian ballet troupe hired by producers Henry C. Jarrett and Harry Palmer were suddenly stuck in town with no place to play. The pair approached William Wheatley, manager of the spectacular 3,200 seat venue Niblo's Garden, to see if they could arrange a booking.

Wheatley had another idea. After getting a load of some of the spectacular sets and sexy dance costumes - skin-colored tights that suggested nudity - he came up with the notion of combining dance sequences into Charles M. Barras' Faustian melodrama, THE BLACK CROOK. (The title refers to black magic, not race.) And for the heck of it, why not add some songs. Several dozen of them by various composers and lyricists made their way in and out of the show during its initial 474 performance run and subsequent re-mountings, but the one most associated with THE BLACK CROOK is George Bickwell and Theodore Kennick's flirtatious "You Naughty, Naughty Men."

The five-hour long spectacle was the talk of the town, though some of the talk concerned what the devil the story was supposed to be. Adapter/director Joshua William Gelb tries to clear things up in an admirably done two-hour long docu-revival that combines scenes and songs from the original with a dramatization of the show's backstage story.

If the concept seems a bit similar to George C. Wolfe's recent Broadway production that told the story of the creation of SHUFFLE ALONG, it should be noted that Gelb has been working on this project since 2007.

Played by six actor/musicians in the small basement theatre of the Lower East Side's Abrons Arts Center, the essence of the escapade draws parallels between the Barras' Faustian story and the real-life relationship between the playwright and the producer.

The evening gets off on the wrong hoof, however, with a large chunk of the first act going by before there's any music. Steven Rattazzi plays the badly toupéed Barras as a bit of a sad sack. The show opens with him describing his new play to a disinterested Wheatley (Merlin Whitehawk). Other cast members join him and the audience sees the drama played out in Barras' imagination, with the playwright taking on the central role of the poor artist, Rodolphe.

When Wheatley devises the idea to combine ballet and drama, he rescues THE BLACK CROOK from his wastepaper basket, figuring he could acquire it cheaply, and takes over the acting out of the story, taking on the role of the evil sorcerer Hertzog, who has been granted eternal life from the devil if he can provide him with a fresh soul every New Year's Eve.

BWW Review: Landmark Musical THE BLACK CROOK Returns To New York
Randy Blair, Christopher Tocco, Alaina Ferris,
Steven Rattazzi, Jessie Shelton, Merlin Whitehawk
and Kate Weber (Photo: Kelly Stuart)

Barras is desperate to have his play produced because his wife (Alaina Ferris) needs expensive medical care. The talented company, that also includes Randy Blair, Christopher Tocco, Jessie Shelton and Kate Weber, play out scenes and songs from the original, with Gelb drawing out humor from the period's overly-stylized acting.

Though THE BLACK CROOK becomes a monumental hit, the delusional Barras believes it would be an even greater sensation without all the song and dance and spectacle. But as Gelb's production continues, it becomes increasingly obvious to contemporary viewers that the original non-musical script of THE BLACK CROOK is no underappreciated gem.

Despite the company's fine effort, there's no getting past Barras' sloggy text and the forgettable period songs. The more interesting backstory is only dealt with in a perfunctory manner.

There's certainly historical interest in presenting THE BLACK CROOK and Gelb's effort is to be congratulated, but it would take a deal with the devil and a bit of black magic to make an entertaining evening out of this one without the elements that made it a hit 150 years ago.

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