nytheatre.com review by Allison Taylor
September 21, 2007
On paper, The Piper seems like an unlikely musical. Set in Boston in 1892, The Piper primarily centers around the inhabitants of a boarding house: Jordan, the spirited ex-prostitute who runs the inn; her daughter Wilder, a polio-stricken girl with a supernatural gift for playing the Irish penny whistle; and Grimm, a newly arrived, secretive German man who is researching the origins of fairy tales. Meanwhile, a "strangler" preys upon the prostitutes of Boston and a new mayor threatens to drive the non-Irish inhabitants out of town.
This is a musical? Well, you can probably turn almost any story into a musical, provided the score is good—and the music in The Piper is, indeed, very good. The melodic and hummable score by Marcus Hummon (who also wrote the book and lyrics) utilizes the mandolin, bodhran, and penny whistle to create a traditional Irish sound. In addition to the talented five-piece band, which sits onstage throughout the show, the voices amongst the cast are so gorgeous that the often simple-minded lyrics do not distract terribly. When Christiane Noll as Jordan and Jillian Louis as Wilder declare that each is the other's "rose without thorns," the tired metaphor is forgivable because it's such a pleasure to listen to the actresses' beautifully blended harmony.
If only the rest of the musical were as intriguing as its score and basic concept. Like the nursery rhymes and children's stories that Grimm claims to be researching, The Piper is meant to be a simple fairy tale that builds upon the Pied Piper legend. But unlike the vengeful Pied Piper or the foolish townspeople that he harms, the characters in The Piper lack any kind of complexity. Director Michael Bush makes certain that each person neatly fits into the "good" or "evil" column. Patrick Ryan Sullivan as the racist mayor swaggers sleazily throughout; as Grimm, T. J. Mannix stands rigidly and close-lipped, always projecting an aura of mystery; Jillian Louis as the crippled girl delivers every line with wide-eyed innocence and eagerness. Although technically fine, the performances are pretty one-note. In a fairy tale, it might be all right to have standard "good" and "evil" characters who do not ever change; but on a stage, it sucks out all the drama of a drama.
Adding to the book's problems is the Strangler himself, who appears intermittently and never seems to be on the mind of anyone in the town. Although the seedy underbelly of Boston is ably depicted with the ubiquitous prostitutes and drunken bullies, those well-established circumstances rarely affect the choices of the characters. At one point, a laundress randomly decides to become a prostitute, even though she makes a good salary washing clothes and knows full well that a serial killer is strangling whores. This, like much of the musical, doesn't make much sense.
Although fairy tales do require a heightened sense of theatricality, Bush directs with an overly heavy hand, applying sensational light cues and timing the events at a needlessly drawn-out pace. Due to the falsely over-dramatic tone throughout, The Piper does not take you on the journey, as a good fairy tale should—instead, it tells you about it. Were there a little less melodrama and a little more work on the story, The Piper might have been as unique as its pleasant score.