Renowned as the greatest American Shakespearean actor of his day, Edwin Booth (1833-93), the brother of Abraham Lincoln’s killer John Wilkes Booth, could have easily become the collateral damage of his murderous sibling. But only eight months after the presidential assassination, he made his return to the stage in Hamlet, in the face of volatile public opinion and death threats. EDWIN, The Story of Edwin Booth—a world-premiere musical, with book and lyrics by Eric Swanson and music by Marianna Rosett–takes the audience backstage at the old Winter Garden Theater on June 3, 1866, and into the mind of the man haunted by figures and events from his troubled past, but determined to succeed in his career and to redeem his name.
Presented by Great Circle Productions, the show commemorates both the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare and the 150th year since Edwin’s theatrical re-emergence. Swanson also demonstrates the universality of Shakespeare’s themes by drawing parallels between his works and Booth’s life. He does it convincingly, but the imagined memory play–filled with quotations and scenes from the Bard’s canon and passages of exhaustive facts about Booth and his dysfunctional family of actors, alcoholics, and enablers–too often comes across as a prized research project, an exercise in pedantry, or a dry historical biography, rather than a tightly focused dramatic musical. While the concept is compelling, there could be fewer “words, words, words.”
Garbed in lavish period-style costumes by David Zyla, EDWIN’s cast of seven excels in the ensemble vocals, succinctly encapsulating the narrative in the opening and twice-reprised number “The Truth of Edwin Booth.” A standout in the cast is Patricia Noonan as Edwin’s devoted ill-fated wife Mollie (the young actress Mary Devlin), whose clear voice and glowing sincerity believably convey the pre-feminist ideal of “a good woman” in her heartfelt renditions of “A Man” and “Oh My Love.” Deanne Lorette, as Edwin’s London-born mother Mary Ann, also impresses with her emotional solo in defense of her man, “You Don’t Know Him.”
A small live orchestra–with conductor Evan Alparone on piano, Dara Bloom on bass, and Ljova Zhurbin, who orchestrated Rosett’s music, on violin/violas–provides accompaniment, with some light-hearted musical references to the tango and the well-known aria from Bizet’s Carmen, “L’amour est un oiseau rebelle,” that fit the tone of the couples’ love.
Dana Watkins stars in the titular role, giving the 19th-century thespian a casual and current demeanor that oddly lacks Shakespearean or Victorian gravitas—though Edwin was known for his more naturalistic style of acting–as he torments himself with “ghosts, memories, doubts, grief.” Among his strongest vocals are his ruminations on “Father, Wife, and Brother” and “I Will Remember,” along with an entertaining trio with Adam Bashian and Todd Lawson, as Edwin’s brothers June and Johnny, in “Filli, Patri”–recalling the one and only time the three appeared on stage together, in Julius Caesar.
Rounding out the cast are Paul DeBoy as Edwin’s largely unlikable and intemperate father Junius, and Ben Mayne as Rob, serving as the narrator and a real-life character with a surprising connection to Edwin.
Director Christopher Scott makes good use of the full stage and theater space–set by Scenic Designer Chad McArver with a few historicizing furnishings before the backdrop of a blue stage curtain–and effects some beautiful still poses of the cast that evoke 19th-century American portraiture. But there are many confusing and redundant reappearances of the ghosts and visions of living members of the Booth family, with sudden switches from backstage reality to spectral recollections to re-enactments of scenes from Shakespeare, which are visually signaled by jarring staccato shifts in McArver’s lighting. And though pacing is too slow in the delivery of the long-winded biographical information, a lively swordfight between Edwin and John, choreographed by fight director Ron Piretti, adds a burst of needed energy to the second act.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including a 15-minute intermission.
Edwin, The Story of Edwin Booth plays through Sunday, September 18, 2016, performing at Theatre at St. Clement’s – 423 West 46th Street, in NYC. For tickets, call (866) 811-4111, or purchase them online.