Past Reviews

Broadway Reviews


Theatre Review by Howard Miller - April 18, 2024

Suffs. Book, music and lyrics by Shaina Taub. Directed by Leigh Silverman. Choreography by Mayte Natalio. Set design by Riccardo Hernández. Costume design by Paul Tazewell. Lighting design by Lap Chi Chu. Sound design by Jason Crystal. Hair and wig design by Charles G. LaPointe. Makeup design by Kirk Cambridge-Del Pesche. Orchestrations by Michael Starobin. Vocal arrangements by Shaina Taub and Andrea Grody. Incidental music arrangements by Shaina Taub, Andrea Grody, & Michael Starobin. Music supervision and direction by Andrea Grody. Music coordinator Kristy Norter. Associate director Lori Elizabeth Parquet. Associate choreographer Kristin Yancy.
Cast: Jenna Bainbridge, Kim Blanck, Ally Bonino, Tsilala Brock, Jenn Colella, Dana Costello, Hannah Cruz, Nadia Dandashi, Laila Erica Drew, Nikki M. James, Jaygee Macapugay, Anastacia McCleskey, Grace McLean, Monica Tulia Ramirez, Emily Skinner, Shaina Taub, and Ada Westfall.
Theater: Music Box Theatre, 239 West 45th Street (Between Broadway and 8th Avenue)

Joan Colella and Shaina Taub
Photo by Joan Marcus
There is a certain subgroup of musicals whose aim it is to set the record straight, or at least enlighten us on some aspect of history, even if they do occasionally stray from the actual facts in order to enhance the theatrical experience. The more successful ones, like Assassins or Hamilton, find a way to present an engaging story while offering up interesting characters and an absorbing production. Others manage some of these elements but may become mired in their own earnestness (e.g. Allegiance), or struggle with finding the right balance between substance and style (The Scottsboro Boys). Suffs, the musical opening tonight at Broadway's Music Box Theatre, trends toward that latter category, telling a significant and generally lesser known story from the annals of U.S. history but not fully able to find its footing either as a straightforward tale, a snappy satire, or captivating entertainment.

Suffs, with book, music, and lyrics by Shaina Taub, who also performs in a major role among a stageful of talented women, is about the long battle in this country for women's right to vote, focusing mostly on the period from 1913 to the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution seven years later.

By the time the show begins, the suffrage movement had long been part of the American political scene. Susan B. Anthony, whose name is dropped from time to time, established a national women's rights organization just a few years after the end of the Civil War, and the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA), which is central to Suffs, was by now the leading establishment voice of the movement, as we learn in the opening number, "Let Mother Vote."

Under the leadership of a pragmatic Carrie Chapman Catt (Jenn Colella), NAWSA aims at winning over the hearts and minds of power-holding men thorough calm reassurance that "it won't disrupt your lives, we'll still be loyal wives" if only they would see fit to grant women the right to vote. Catt is deeply enmeshed in the long game, believing they are getting closer to their goal step by tiny step.

On the other hand, there is a group of younger upstarts, led by Alice Paul (Taub), who want to rattle the cage by holding a women's march on Washington and garner the attention and hopefully the support of President Woodrow Wilson (Grace McLean, whose portrayal gives the show a rare and welcome bit of satirical edge). Which approach will win the day is up for grabs for most of the production, and a theme gradually emerges: "progress is possible, not guaranteed." Indeed, the 1920 win rests on a single vote within the Tennessee House of Representatives, addressed in the show in a quietly moving 11 o'clock number. Yet, as we also know, the Equal Rights Amendment, which first saw the light of day just three years later as proposed by Alice Paul, has yet to become part of the Constitution.

Tsilala Brock and Grace McLean
Photo by Joan Marcus
All of this provides enough material for the plot. But Taub, in her capacity as the show's creator, aims at painting an even fuller picture, notably through the participation of prominent Black journalist Ida B. Wells (Nikki M. James, splendidly self-assured), who, while she and other Black women support the cause, shows up to "agitate for laws against lynching; my people cannot vote if they are hanging from trees." This important addition to the scope of the show certainly raises the bar for the suffragists and for the audience.

But there is yet another plot element, a pair of personal relationships that exist solely to score some additional points. One of them is between Doris Stevens (Nadia Dandashi), who kept written records of the ongoing struggle, and Dudley Malone (Tsilala Brock, a charmer), a member of President Wilson's administration who quits in order to support the suffrage movement. This relationship is used to remind us that married women had few rights of their own. The other love match is between two women, Carrie Catt and Mollie Hay (Jaygee Macapugay), who are there to remind us that same sex relationships were not condoned under the law. Together these couples sing a number that counterpoints "When we are married" with "if we were married."

So, yes, a lot going on, with Taub pretty insistent at the fullest coverage possible. Unfortunately, there is too much plotting to sustain the show, which has enough to shoulder to make the point that the battle for equality in all arenas is never a fait accompli. Under Leigh Silverman's direction, Suffs, which was originally produced at the Public Theater, never fully escapes its history lesson tone, despite the rich performances by a solid ensemble cast that also includes a terrific Emily Skinner, doubling as a wealthy supporter and, later, as the woman behind that all-important Tennessee vote; Kim Blanck as the outspoken activist Ruza Wenclawska; and Hannah Cruz as Inez Milholland, who leads the Washington march on horseback. Taub and her collaborators are to be commended for attempting to give an honest portrayal of the actual characters and events leading up to the passage of the Nineteenth Amendment, but even the most serious of musicals could use some poetic license to connect the worlds of history and theatre to fully engage a wide Broadway audience.