Some musicals beg you to like them. They brandish their sincerity as a weapon--you're hit over the head, grabbed by the throat and throttled. If you try to resist, well, you're the kind of dour-hearted drudge who ought to stick to Eugene O'Neill revivals.
But even those who have really been looking forward to the sequel to Annie will have a hard time with Stones, a new musical staged by Phoenix Little Theatre. Even gobs of sincerity laid on like frosting can't make up for one-dimensional characters, a thin plot and inane songs.
Stones started out in 1989 at the St. Louis Black Repertory Company with a book by John Reeger, and music and lyrics by Julie Shannon; the show was extensively revised for the current PLT production. The story takes place in Chicago a year after the race riots of 1919, which were set off when a young black boy was stoned to death for swimming at a "whites only" beach. References to the tragedy are made throughout Stones, but the musical's plot has less to do with race relations than family conflict.
A boy much like the one killed lives in a basement apartment with his mother; the father he has never known one day reappears. Whether this is good or bad is hashed out in song and dialogue over three hours, and by the end, the characters' motivations have become so muddled it's hard to conclude anything.
Stones is billed as a gospel and blues musical, but more truth in advertising might point out that with the exception of a couple of numbers, the music leaves out blues' flatted fifths and is as white as Wonder bread. Composer and lyricist Shannon has a background in children's musicals, and that's the overall style of the score. "Joy!" and "A Good Day" are pure Sesame Street, and the most sophistication the love songs achieve are strings of earnest clichs repeated from self-help books. Stones wasn't the kind of show in which the musical numbers can save the day.
Stones seems to be trying to make you feel good, but I left the theatre with a bad taste in my mouth. The play suggested that it was a good and noble thing for the father to return to his family, but I never could figure out why. He'd abandoned his son for nine years and as a street hustler still has no way of contributing to his family's welfare. During the course of the play, he corrupts a retarded young man who lives in the building by involving him in a betting scheme; as a result of the bet going bad, his own son is beaten up by the bar owner and his cronies who'd been fleeced.
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Inexplicably, the play ends with the father taking off for Canada (where the grass is greener and the air is cleaner," we're told) and the mother promising to "make it work" if he ever chooses to come back. She should have given him the bum's rush long before. I kept waiting for his comeuppance. It never came.
The actors had little to work with in Stones, but the character parts came off best, especially Renee Morgan Brooks as Hannah, the landlady of the building, and James Olu Henderson as Jingles, the bar owner. Maybe a cute, talented child actor could have helped, but Brandon Elliot Smith looked too old and awkward in the part. He had his lines and lyrics memorized and made sure he was in the right place at the right time, but an actor he's not.
In contrast to an earlier offering this season by PLT, The Good Times Are Killing Me, the child's part was the most poorly written. In Good Times, the children's parts were thoughtful and realistic; in Stones, the boy was a symbol, an excuse for the adults to recite their platitudes.
Whether Stones has a life beyond Phoenix and this production remains to be seen, but at this point it requires major work to be a piece of theatre that uses its setting and characters to make a coherent statement. Sincerity can't replace substance.