Revolution on the Roof: A 60's Anti-War Musical
nytheatre.com review by Kelly Aliano
August 15, 2008
The impulse to create a work of theatre about the Vietnam War at this particular moment in history seems unquestionably right. As was the case in that time, we find our country engaged in a war, one that few truly understand and one with astronomical divisive power. By showcasing the spirit of that previous era, a group of artists could inspire people, reminding them of the power of the individual in the face of incomprehensible political unrest.
Such was my hope for Revolution on the Roof: A '60s Anti-War Musical, with book by Aaron Latham, music by Daniel Shay and Will Manning, and directed by Sergio Alvarado. Revolution on the Roof is about an anti-war protest held on the roof of a building at Stanford University, led by folk singer and political activist Joan Baez. This is very interesting material to present. However, the play never lives up to its auspicious subject matter.
It is a musical mélange of original songs by Shay and Manning and some of the great folk songs of the era. But the new songs pale in comparison to their 1960s counterparts. And despite the brilliance of Bob Dylan's "Blowin' in the Wind," a song written in poetry and fueled by the energy of the time in which it was written, the decent performance of it may have the right heart behind it, but is not well-integrated into the play's plot. The rendition also lacks the spirit of its original time period, a time when the lyrics would have carried weight beyond their own musical significance.
Perhaps this lack of spirit is the play's main flaw. The actors are never energized enough by the issues they are presenting. In turn, we never feel the excitement of being present at a protest. The theatre [Michael Schimmel at Pace University] is large and contributes to the audience's distanced feeling; perhaps in a smaller space, the piece would fare better.
The direction lacks focus and the story has no clear throughline to drive the plot forward. Zelda, the play's female protagonist, is more driven by her desire to have an orgasm (to "go to Moscow," as she calls it) than by her ambition to stop the war she claims to detest. Many songs are accompanied by dance numbers, but the choreography is a muddled mix of traditional musical theatre steps. This feels inconsistent with the play's overall counter-cultural motif.
The play begins with the ensemble calling, "Will you join us?" However, the piece lacks the specific immediacy to make this request believable or to captivate the audience into going along for the ride. I did not have any vicarious experience of the play's events to make me feel complicit in the protest, nor did I feel intentionally alienated enough to be forced to think. Theatre is an art form where it is possible, literally, to stage a revolution—to do something active, to affect people, to call for change. Revolution on the Roof has the chance to do so but is not coherent or polished enough. This is unfortunate, as the motivation behind creating the piece is laudable; this is a subject that deserves to be staged. The play's final scene, a fine, if not rousing, rendition of "We Shall Overcome," could have been a poignant reminder of theatre's incredible community-building potential. Disappointingly, the piece is not inspiring enough for this to happen.