nytheatre.com review by E. Michael Lockley
October 14, 2009
A deceptively cookie-cutter musical plus hip-hop equals NYMF's Street Lights. While certainly a fun show, Street Lights struggles in its content and execution with wanting to be a raw, rare look at the struggles of urban youth when in actuality it is more like a pop-musical in an untraditional setting. Many attempts to make the experience feel genuinely "urban," from the jerky, somewhat unnatural choreography, to the characters' forced usage of urban vernacular—"or whateva"—simply stand out. Despite these setbacks, an interesting story is told of young people trying to rise above the limitations that society has placed on them.
Street Lights exposes us to a group of kids who are passionate about music and upon hearing that their community music center is going to be torn down they work to find a way to organize their community to save it. They encounter typical setbacks: no one believes in them, they can't get people to donate money, etc.; and all the while the students are trying to balance typical high school stuff—relationships, college acceptance, choosing career paths, and for these kids, getting out of the hood. Our protagonist is 17-year-old aspiring singer/songwriter Monique, who lives in the projects with her older brother Rocky and her grandmother. At the start of the show Monique witnesses a shooting not too far from her apartment building and from there we follow Monique as she joins the cause to save the music center and in the meantime finds herself becoming romantically involved with "D," a smooth-talkin' but sincere neighborhood drug dealer.
Although Monique is set up as the protagonist, a major flaw of the show is that X-ray, who initiates and leads the movement to save the community center, comes off as a much more interesting and self-motivated character. X-ray, played with incredible ease and energy by Chad Carstarphen, leads this group of students in a movement to save what matters to their community and he does so citing everything from the origins of hip-hop to the Civil Rights Movement. His goal is clear, his means are troubled, but his persistence is what makes X-ray the loveable character that the audience wants to root for. In comparison, Monique's goals are not certain. She is supporting X-ray and her friends' attempts to keep the music center around, but her more immediate priority seems to be her music career; yet we never see her going to an open mic or handing out a demo CD or actually working toward a specific goal. Monique floats through the play encountering a call to arms ("Help Us Save the Community Center!") and a risky relationship ("I know you're feelin' me") but she never makes any ultimate decisions with regard to either of them. Most protagonists have a point in their journey where it's clear that they must decide to either give up or carry on. There never seems to be this self-reflective moment for Monique.
While for me the storytelling seemed to struggle, I found the set and lighting to be extremely well in tune with the show. The usage of a streetlight and lights in windows is really captivating and creates the isolation yet exposure that the projects often have. The music for the show is a unique fusion of commercial pop, R&B and hip-hop, and traditional musical theatre. It was quite amusing to feel like maybe this music could be on the radio. Some of the songs felt a little too long, but overall they were enjoyable and some were pretty memorable.
Street Lights seems to aspire to being a hip-hop Rent: raw, edgy, nontraditional, an expose into the nitty-gritty of NYC. But instead Street Lights winds up feeling much more like High School Musical interrupted by moments from Boyz n' the Hood. The production struggles with creating an actual sense of danger, so that when characters encounter danger it sometimes seems laughable. So if you want to enjoy a fun, youthful "urban" musical, Street Lights is for you.