Created and directed by Arnold L. Cohen
Musical theater is notoriously one of the most collaborative of all popular art forms. Finding the right creative chemistry is challenge, and many efforts fail simply because there are too many cooks in one kitchen. Now and then, though, a show comes along that serves as a reminder of the dangers of having too few chefs. Arnold L. Cohen, though clearly talented, has set himself a daunting task by taking on the duties of composer, lyricist, librettist and director of a new musical. With no collaborators push against him and no source material to help him shape the show’s narrative, Cohen’s imagination is both unfettered and unfocused. As a result, MIDNIGHT STREET’s bright spots and strong lead actress are overshadowed by its lack of structure and selectivity.
The first act of the show is essentially a songbook, with the numbers loosely tied together by a series of soliloquies in which Danielle (Emily Afton) reflects on the life a New York City streetwalker. Both in her songs and her interstitial monologues, she celebrates the independence the job grants her, but also bemoans the loneliness that comes with it. She wraps men around her finger, but prefers to be with other women when she’s off the clock. She rhapsodizes thusly for quite some time before the play’s inciting incident occurs. Two Biblically-named pimps, King Saul (Lenny Wolpe) and Antipas (Rafael Jordan) express their discomfort with Danielle’s enterprise. They run the rackets in this part of town and threaten to harm her if she doesn’t get with their program. They have clearly underestimated Danielle, whose smarts and bravado put her on the winning side of the turf war (though not before Antipas sings and ode to his own badassery and Saul, rather inexplicably, synopsizes the entire history of Jewish persecution in a snappy monologue).
That’s about all the plot we get. There are moments when specifics are deftly used to make Danielle’s monologues more vivid: We learn that she began turning tricks in order to find an escape route from her abusive marriage, and we see her brighten when she talks about the ballet classes that afford her a brief respite from stresses of the streets. For the most part, though the show, like its protagonist, seems to walk in circles. It’s hard to believe that only two men, both easily subdued, constitute the only real threat Danielle has ever had to reckon with. And she makes little mention of vice cops, venereal disease, competition from other hookers, or johns who get violent or try to walk away without paying. With those less-than-poetic details missing, she often comes across as an idea of a sex worker rather than a true survivor of the city’s back alleys.
As a melodist, however, Cohen, a Juilliard graduate, exhibits considerable gifts. The show’s tunes range from Tin Pan Alley brightness to moody modernism, and give Afton’s warm soprano voice plenty of blue and dulcet notes to sing. His lyrics, however, could stand to incorporate more of the vernacular of the streets. There are lessons to be learned from Hart, Hammerstein, Porter and other pioneering rhymesmiths, who energized their verses by keeping their verbal antennae tuned to the language of common speech.
As the saying goes, making a great musical requires its creators to “sweat till the sweat doesn’t show.” When a lyric feels spontaneous, when a libretto integrates seamlessly with group of songs to move a story forward, it’s a safe bet it took hours of arduous revision to get it to look so easy. In its current stage of development, MIDNIGHT STREET is still a few drafts, and several pints of perspiration, away from Broadway.
MIDNIGHT STREET opens June 5, 2019 at at Theatre Row Theaters, 410 West 42nd Street, New York, New York. Tickets: https://www.telecharge.com/Off-Broadway/Midnight-Street/Overview?&aidTic=ven000193900