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Nickel Mines
at The New York Musical Festival

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray - July 31, 2016

Despite the infinite swath of possibilities the theatre offers, there are some hard limits on just how adventurous your show should be. For example: You can pursue any course you want, take any chances you can envision, as long as the material supports and expands what you do. When everything is aligned, the result can be something like the current ultra-hit Hamilton, or, say, Jesus Christ Superstar from an earlier generation, which strengthen our understanding of elusive figures from the past by linking them more directly to today. When they don't, the final product ends up looking and sounding a lot more like Nickel Mines, which is playing through tonight at the Duke on 42nd Street as part of the New York Musical Festival.

Andrew Palermo (book, direction, and choreography), Shannon Stoeke (book), and Dan Dyer (music and lyrics) obviously had intriguing, good intentions for this piece. It delves into the horrific events in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, on October 2, 2006, when a gunman charged into an Amish school and shot and killed five girls before taking his own life—only to be forgiven, almost immediately, by the community he had irreparably harmed. The creators clearly want to explore the power (and boundaries) of faith and forgiveness, and show how everyone on all sides of the tragedy was affected by what happened. (The gunman, Charles Roberts IV, does not appear in any real way, but his mother and wife both factor prominently.)

What they have assembled, however, is a confusing and almost unwatchable jumble of styles that undermines practically every idea they put forth. The book, loaded with monologues spoken directly to the audience, and lean scenes to fill in the gaps, is of the shopworn documentary theatre school, but without the accordant authority of reality. The awkwardly angular ballet-meets-modern dance steps, performed primarily by the murdered girls and their surviving classmates, are pure avant-garde Anne Bogart that yanks us out of the anchored existence the spoken lines try to create. And the songs are awash in folk, rock, and mock-spiritual influences that neither pair with the other elements nor comment on them in any meaningful way.

Worse, none of it connects with the setting, its inhabitants, or their feelings. For example: There's no way to get electric guitars and hard driving drums, or for that matter even an acoustic guitar playing 1960s-tinged "let's come together for peace" music, to scream or even whisper "Amish," especially when amplified to the ear-splitting levels it all is here. (Cut the sound designer, Nevin Steinberg, some slack for working within festival restraints, but he could turn the volume dial down three or four notches.) And though the tenets of the Amish religion are lightly touched on, it's treated as if from a disinterested outsider's perspective: bizarre, unknowable, impenetrable. If not insulting, these qualities does not quite promote understanding, either. That the narrator, a young man named Samuel who's gamely played by Morgan Hollingsworth, is at odds with the Amish mindset for reasons that are only gradually revealed, does not help.

But problems wrangling, clarifying, and shaping the material abound throughout. Important characters are underdeveloped, and more minor ones are investigated at length. Some scenes that are primed for songs don't get them, or don't get the right ones, while others would function just as well or better music-free. On that score, too many scenes are assaults on your senses, with dances, speeches, and songs that don't sync up and are often directly in conflict with each other; simultaneously delivered spoken lines and sung passages become entirely unintelligible and combat with the interweaving dancers for your attention. Perhaps the most important scene gets this treatment, and implodes: The 9-1-1 call reporting the shooting, as experienced from inside the dispatch office, is all shouting (that keeps getting louder), shocking red lights (by Howell Binkley), and life-or-death surges of movement, while nothing is given the crisp focus it needs to have a real impact.

It's just too much, and it happens time and time again. Not everything is so overblown. Through the cacophony, handsome performances do emerge: Timothy J. Alex as a deacon struggling to follow the lead of the Spirit; Jason Reiff and Dashiell Eaves as two fathers devastated in the wakes of the attacks on their daughters; and Marisha Castle, a picture of pain as the shooter's left-behind wife, and Josephine Rose Roberts as his guilt-wracked, grieving mother. Sera Bourgeau's simple costumes set the right mood, and the framework of Palermo's staging (using nothing more than a wheeled chalkboard and a few chairs) is just right. And the final number, the first time that everyone is united in unadorned, straightforward song, is a beautiful tribute to what loss and recovery mean to people on all sides of the question.

It's the one time that the evening's egalitarian nature works for it rather than against it, giving us emotional insight we can get no other way. In other words, it's the one time form and function fuse and the show becomes a genuine musical drama rather than an in-progress experiment. Nickel Mines unquestionably means well and is heartfelt, but needs a consistent, cohesive language to communicate its message. Without it, the myriad voices that clash so violently may as well be dead silence.

Nickel Mines
The New York Musical Festival occupies 7 venues in Midtown Manhattan. The New York Musical Festival Box Office and audience services Is located at 42West NY, 510 West 42nd St between 10th & 11th Avenues
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