nytheatre.com review by Loren Noveck
August 17, 2009
There's a lot of high-powered talent and effort behind Citizen Ruth, a musical adaptation of the 1996 film that launched director Alexander Payne—the cast, design, and production team are packed with Broadway veterans including a Tony-nominated lighting designer and choreographer; the director currently runs the Washington D.C. regional theatre Woolly Mammoth; the piece has been workshopped around the country. The concept, to anyone who's a fan of the movie or of pitch-black comedy in general—that is, me—sounded promising: Take a sharply satirical story about one of this country's most divisive political issues, abortion; juice it up with song and dance; add the energy of live theatre; and away you go.
And yet the finished product feels flabby and bland, not ever rising to the challenge of giving the stage adaptation meaning as an independent piece of art. It has moments of wit, to be sure, but all its best material comes straight from the movie—in a way that can't help but invite one-to-one comparison of scenes, images, performances. And I kept feeling like the entire team was self-consciously, perhaps even cynically, trying to create something that would be simultaneously edgy, underground, indie (as the movie was in its day) and a piece of polished work ready for a commercial run—"Fringe," for lack of a better word, and Broadway. And in trying to cover both bases, it really succeeds at neither.
The play is faithful to the movie's plot and character line-up with a few small exceptions (like a cursory update from 1996 to 2009 by putting an Obama t-shirt on one character and adding a song about gay marriage—though not taking into account actual political changes around the abortion issue itself in the last 13 years): Ruth Stoops, a homeless drug addict, turns out to be pregnant when she's arrested for the sixteenth time for glue-sniffing. She's already given up four children, and the judge wants to make an abortion a condition of lenience in her criminal case. But when Ruth comes under the radar of a group of fundamentalist "Baby Savers," she winds up on the battleground of the abortion wars, with her pregnancy being battled over by senators, anti-abortion activists, and feminist activists, when all Ruth herself wants is to be left alone—maybe with a little money to get her life back on track.
There are some very strong singers, but although a few of the songs are entertaining (I was tickled by an early number where the chorus sings the warning label on a can of patio sealant as Ruth prepares to huff the fumes), the music as a whole, too, fails to establish a coherent identity in either musical idiom or storytelling method; it's superficially catchy but not memorable. And far too many of the songs don't feel organically placed in the show at all: The show's penultimate number, for example, is an anthem sung by a minor character, a Lilith Fair-type rock star who's been introduced only moments earlier as a kind of deus ex machina.
Maybe, as a fan of the movie, I'm an unfair critic of the musical—but I went in rooting for it; I really wanted the play to remake the film into a free-standing, compelling piece of musical theatre. I came out feeling like it was done for purely commercial purposes, not artistic ones at all.