nytheatre.com review by Saviana Stanescu
August 13, 2008
A new musical set in 1956 when a secretary reveals her boss's secret from World War II is bound to have an old-fashioned charm, and luckily, Ripcords, created by Anne Berlin (book and lyrics) and Andy Cohen (music), manages to trigger the lighthearted good mood of the classic American musicals—although one might say that profiteering is hardly a light issue, especially at a time when other wars unfold in the new world and other political campaigns bring their heat and their visions.
On the one hand, it's pleasant to re-taste the delightful old topics and tunes: the sweet girl having to choose between the charismatic rich bad guy and the passive shy good guy, the wise & direct & worldly cabaret singer best-friend who gives her advice about men,; the corruptible senator who falls for the singer, etc. On the other hand, the main novelty that Ripcords is set up to achieve is an interesting and potentially relevant discussion about corporations taking advantage of the war at the cost of soldiers' lives. In this case, Joe Henning, Jr. takes over his father's company after they made army parachutes using cheap non-resistant material that caused many "accidental" deaths.
Susan Davies lost her brother in such circumstances and overhears the conversation her old flame Joe has with his local manager Fred Willis. The young woman speaks up about the issue to her fiancé Charlie, and then the two of them—after Charlie overcomes his doubts and fears—make the decision to go further together, to Senator Cunningham, who has some exciting plans to develop the town into a tourist resort and needs the businessman's money.
That's actually an interesting story, worth seeing as a musical. However, the characters' journeys are unfocused and rushed. We never get a clear sense of who the Senator's lover/Susan's best friend Dorothy is, as she's singing some German-like cabaret songs that don't clarify anything, except for adding a vague atmospheric quality. Moreover, the ending feels like a "let's-wrap-up" moment; everything is revealed but it feels like a forced happy ending. The story becomes all of a sudden less about profiteering and more about Susan choosing the right guy and being recognized as a courageous woman (who doesn't really accomplish her goal though: punishing the bad guys). Her journey is not fleshed out, as none of the other characters' are, making the whole book feel schematic and imprecise.
However, the music serves the core story (Ripcords Jazz Orchestra is a good band) contributing to the evening to be an enjoyable one. The actors are doing their jobs honorably, with a surplus of expressivity from Abby Marsh as Dorothy and Jason Lawergren as Charlie.
What I really liked was the directorial decision to have an actor on the pedestal, as the unknown soldier's monument. That choice gives an anchor and more substance to the whole dramatic structure. Generally, Gregg Wiggans's direction is crisp and smart, managing to partially cover the weaknesses of an undeveloped script. As we are in the FringeNYC Festival where sometimes people present work in an early stage, I assume that the writer and the composer will develop this show toward a stronger fully-fledged two-act production.