This August marks the 50th anniversary of the 1968 Democratic National Convention in Chicago – one of the watershed events in the history of the American protest movement and election politics. Under the leadership of Mayor Richard Daley, police brutality was rampant, as the municipal force and National Guard clashed with protestors, delegates, and the press, and all the turbulent activity was televised live, with the whole world watching. ‘68, a new work by Jamie Leo (book and lyrics) and Paul Leschen (music) – presented by the Gregory J. Coenen Family Foundation and playing in this year’s 15th annual New York Musical Festival at The Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row – considers the impact that troubled time (preceded earlier in the titular year by race riots, antiwar protests, and the assassinations of Martin Luther King and Robert F. Kennedy) had on a diverse range of characters, on the future of political activism in our country, and on our historical legacy.
The non-linear ensemble piece, with cast members performing multiple roles, uses the framing device of a librarian (Charlene, played by Mary Callanan) and her hired assistant Gary (Jeremy Konopka), on different sides of the socio-political divide, recording interviews with individuals affected by the events firsthand and solicited to recount their personal stories for posterity. Their reflections – to be retained or discarded at the not-always unbiased editorial discretion of the researchers (suggesting the maxim that “history is written by the victors”) – are told through flashback re-enactments and original character-driven songs that capture the wide array of volatile experiences and conflicting attitudes of the period. Referencing everything from the Vietnam War and the draft, the Black Panther Party and the Yippies, to recreational drugs and communes, and the presidential candidates vying for the nomination, the assorted recollections of hippies, revolutionaries, protestors, and community organizers, volunteers and campaigners, street cops, and a hotel maid, create a retrospective time capsule of the controversial issues, many of which still remain unsettled or have now been revived in our current divisive climate.
While the message is both redolent and timely, the present production suffers from uneven vocals and moments of awkward choreography (by Brook Wendle) and direction (Joey Murray) that could benefit from more rehearsal time (not always possible in a short-run festival). A subplot concerning the daughter of one of the conservative police officers seems forced and unnecessary, and the overall tone and conclusion, in light of the inflamed passions on all sides of the debates, a bit too evenhanded and conciliatory to be fully believable.
Where the show succeeds best is in sequences with authentic original music and design elements that capture the sound, look, and feel of the times represented. Those include scenes of the rocking “Festival of Life” (a performance/protest event led by Abbie Hoffman), with the excellent Joe Joseph delivering the Yippie’s guerrilla-theater sensibility and familiar appearance (bare-chested with an open fringed vest and a head of black curls, as costumed by Gwen Miller); Charlene’s memory from 1948, with retro fashions, harmonies (“Price Tag”), and reflections on the ‘Red Scare’ and the labor movement; the poignant soul-baring ballad of the hotel housekeeper Pilar (Nicole Paloma Sarro) in “Name Tag,” set to a Latin beat; the call to power of those feeling “POWER-LESS” by Lonnie (Uton Evan Onyejekwe), in Black Panther uniform and beret; and the haunting folk song “The Lucky Ones,” performed by Joseph in his role as ROTC Ric, who hopes to survive the war. The segments are supported by background projections of headlines, figures, and photos from the era (projection design by Joshua Goldberg), antiquated recording equipment, luggage, and film reel (scenic design by Carl Tallent); and a three-piece band (Jesse Krakow on bass and guitar, Robbie Mangano on guitar, and Clem Waldmann on percussion) that’s fluent in the variety of musical influences (with music direction by Rob Baumgartner, Jr.).
Perhaps the most significant aspect of ’68 is its observations not just on the tumultuous past, but its implicit message on how history is currently repeating itself. It’s a new musical that is both insightful and didactic, leaving us – baby-boomers and today’s youth alike – with a heartfelt cry to “go help shape our fate.”
Running Time: Approximately 95 minutes, without intermission.