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Theater review: The Black Crook returns to the stage 150 years after making history

Adam Feldman
Written by
Adam Feldman

To the extent that 1866’s The Black Crook is remembered at all, it is not for artistic merit. Charles M. Barras’s melodramatic folktale, set in a rural Germany, is a fusty, Faust-y mishmash about a poor artist, a demonic sorcerer, a villainous count, a virtuous maiden and a cave-dwelling fairy queen named Stalacta. But when gussied up into a five-hour spectacle—complete with music, extravagant stage effects and dozens of French ballet dancers in flesh-colored tights—the show became a scandalous sensation. It had a record-breaking run at the massive Niblo’s Garden, and is sometimes called the first American musical. Yet despite its influence and success, it is never performed anymore. Sic transit gloria theatri.

There is a scrappy perversity to Joshua William Gelb’s 150th-anniversary quasirevival, which uses parts of Barras’s script without the elements that made the show a hit. Performed by eight actor-musicians in a basement theater, with puffs of smoke and a thunder sheet, The Black Crook is stripped to humiliation. (Imagine a 2166 revival of Cirque du Soleil’s Paramour, minus the circus material.) In a metatheatrical strategy that has also been employed this year in Shuffle Along and Indecent, Gelb places scenes from the play—performed in a ripe 19th-century style, with plenty of prancing and fluttering—in a biographical frame about Barras (a stammering, haplessly toupéed Steven Rattazzi) and his Mephistophelean producers. This promising conceit, however, lacks sharpness in execution; the intertwined narratives get smudgy. The vigorous cast is admirably multitalented, and Alaina Ferris performs a lovely song on a harp, but the lack of compelling real-life characters grows dull. Although theater buffs will surely enjoy getting a glimpse of The Black Crook onstage, its command on our interest remains primarily historical.

Abrons Arts Center (Off-Off Broadway). By Charles M. Barras. Adapted and directed by Joshua William Gelb. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs 10mins. One intermission. Through Oct 7. Click here for full venue and ticket information.

Follow Adam Feldman on Twitter: @FeldmanAdam

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