A new production of The Black Crook (at the Abrons Arts Center) marks the 150th anniversary of the premiere of a work that has been dubbed (erroneously, some say) America’s first musical. The show is largely unknown now, but throughout the late 19th century, it was immensely popular and influential. Originally produced by theatrical manager William Wheatley, Crook was a spectacle with an expansive cast, impressive special effects and (perhaps most essential to its success) daringly costumed chorus girls.
The show’s “book” was written by an actor and unsuccessful playwright named Charles M. Barras. According to this new version of the show—adapted and directed by Joshua William Gelb—Wheatley used Barras’s untried melodrama as a “clothesline” on which to hang the innumerable shiny objects that would lure the public to the box office.
Barras’s original plot owes much to the Faust legend and to the plays that legend spawned. Set in Germany, it concerns an impoverished artist named Rodolphe, who comes under the influence of a sorcerer (Hertzog, aka the Black Crook) who has made a bargain with the arch-fiend Zamiel. Hertzog hopes to deliver Rodolphe’s soul to Zamiel as part of the infernal pact.
In addition to bringing to life the entirety of Barras’s script, along with songs and other musical interludes, Gelb has worked the story of the original production of Crook into the mix. Actor Steven Rattazzi portrays Rodolphe and Barras, while Merlin Whitehawk takes on the roles of Hertzog and Wheatley. In essence, Gelb has created a backstage musical. Each of its parallel stories has a deal-with-the-devil theme, with Wheatley emerging as a diabolical figure who snags Barras’s soul, just as Hertzog tries to do with Rodolphe’s.
Perhaps fittingly, this brimstone-scented show is staged in the Abrons’ small Underground Theater. To mount a work known for being bigger-than-life in such a small space was a gamble. But I was not surprised—having seen Gelb’s work before—that he has pulled the whole thing off. His use of imaginative staging, accomplished lighting and sound effects, silhouettes, stage smoke, convincing period costumes, and—most important—a game and talented cast of actors (who also sing and play musical instruments skillfully) makes Crook well worth seeing.
The scenes from Barras’s play itself are acted as they would have been in 1866: with loud quavering voices and stilted, oversized gestures. Blessedly, the behind-the-scenes story is performed more naturalistically. The ensemble cast is almost evenly good. The earnest-seeming Rattazzi and the sinister-appearing Whitehawk stand out mostly because they are so often at center stage. Alaina Ferris is appealing as singer, musician and actor (in multiple roles). She is also the show’s musical director. (Many of the songs from the original production were lost, but Gelb and Ferris have chosen appropriate substitute compositions from the era.)
Warning: Musical or not, this Crook is not exactly a celebration of the entertainment industry. In effect, Gelb shows us the birth of the Great American Showbiz Machine, which he apparently considers to be a cursed and debased enterprise, one that took root in the soil of a continent ravaged by slavery and Civil War.
That’s a bitter pill for Broadway Babies to swallow. In light of Gelb’s scorn for false gold, you may feel a bit sheepish about enjoying The Black Crook’s more glittery moments.