Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?
nytheatre.com review by Ivanna Cullinan
October 18, 2009
In our current economic climate, a revue of music from the Great Depression Era becomes a timely event and carries even more than the expected resonance. With a solid cast and fine staging, Brother Can You Spare a Dime captures the music of this era beautifully, and while it does not always survive the stories of hardship incorporated within it, this revue has several extremely fine moments.
The piece begins with an adorable song from the height of the good times, "I'm in the Market for You." Well-performed with megaphone, skillfully and full of affection for the style by Bill Daugherty, this number sets a fine, high, light tone at the top. As the market crumbles and people are increasingly affected by the worsening economic times, the songs remain resolutely upbeat—emphasizing either what there is to be grateful for, or refusing to be beaten by playfully riffing on the need for job in "I'm an Unemployed Sweetheart," which is performed with great charm by Jennafer Newberry.
At this point the show seems to be about how music helped folks get through, but the material does darken and the tone becomes much heavier. There seem to be three main sections to the revue: The Crash, The Dustbowl, and Hobos. All three are represented well through newspaper reports, personal accounts, and quotations from the humorists of the time. Once the show moves past the Crash and onto the Dustbowl, however, these accounts begin to pile up. They are clear and evocative of the times, but are all delivered with such solemn and important weight that they become increasingly depressive. It becomes hard to give the suffering the credence it deserves because when everyone is suffering in the same way at the same level, the specific humanity is lost. In the general blur of "this was hard," I missed what it was about one person's experience that I might be affected by; the accounts just wore me down and even the strong musical performances had a difficult time bouncing back from that. It is as if the initial conflict between day-to-day reality and music has been forgotten, and a need to convey the tough times almost overwhelms the show.
Yet there is a lot of talent here as well as some very startling, effective moments. One of the most noteworthy comes during the section about riding the rails. There is an account by a young man (ably performed by Morgan West) that includes the fact that sexual abuse and exploitation were one of the hazards. When he then sings "Love for Sale," absolutely stripped of sentimentality, it becomes chilling and achieves the emotional impact that I suspect this revue intends by its inclusion of personal accounts. It is harsh and evocative and demands attention.
In addition to the talent of the singers and musicians, all of the songs are extremely well staged (by the very able Lori Leshner) and this intimate space is fully exploited for its potential. There is a lot of worth within Brother Can You Spare a Dime and some effective musical moments that demonstrate the triumph of the songwriting of that time.