On the Levee
A bold new work tests the waters of music theater
Mon Jun 28 2010
HELL OR HIGH WATER Laborers endeavor to stanch the flow.
Time Out Ratings<strong>Rating: </strong>4/5
Ol’ Man River rolls over everyone in On the Levee, a roiling and wide-ranging new work of music theater that examines a cataclysmic 1927 flood in Greenville, Mississippi. Black sharecroppers bear the brunt of the water’s wake, first in the loss of lives and property and then in forced conscription to repair the town’s barriers against further inundation. But the crisis also reaches up to engulf the local white aristocracy, whose highness and dryness eventually yields to moral baseness and drink.
Conceived and directed by Lear deBessonet, and presented at a bargain price by Lincoln Center’s adventurous LCT3 wing, the semifictional On the Levee is ambitious in its scope but careful in its approach. Like the striking silhouettes that Kara Walker has contributed to the set, it manages to be both delicate and blunt, drawing oblique energy from classic past shows—most notably Show Boat and Caroline, or Change—while forcing a space for itself. In language soaked in color and wit (sometimes to excess), playwright Marcus Gardley weaves multiple plot threads into a tapestry of prejudice and pride. More even than it is about race, this is at essence a look at the toll of humiliation.
The history in question is powerful stuff, and On the Levee is blessed with a gifted cast of 12. But DeBessonet doesn’t build the show to a conventional climax. Even as the action shuttles toward its blood-chilling final scene—a grotesque speech by a white man at a funeral that may seem over-the-top but is actually quoted verbatim from John M. Barry’s fascinating book about the flood, Rising Tide—it subtly pulls away from the audience. The structure changes: In the first two acts, Todd Almond’s exemplary score is framed as existing blues songs and spirituals that the characters know; in the third, the characters seem to express themselves spontaneously in song. And the shock of the terrible speech can’t quite be absorbed within the world that the show has prepared—it juts out. If such strategies of strangeness leave you dry-eyed, however, they also leave you clear-headed: sorting through the show’s ideas and wondering at all the rules that On the Levee breaks.
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