(l to r) Anie Delgado, Grace Experience and Lianne Gennaco in ‘Molasses in January.’
Photo: Ryan Krukowski
By Ryan Leeds
As the new Off-Broadway musical, Molasses in January opens, we’re assured by an affable narrator (Joe Redman) that “we’ve come to the right place.” That place, Boston’s Italian North End, is the setting for an imminent disaster. “There’s excitement about a new tank that they’re building,” he explains. “They’re gonna use that molasses to make gunpowder, dynamite, and liquor for World War I efforts.”
The premise is historically accurate. An actual tank was contrsucted but on January 15, 1919, it collapsed and poured more than two million gallons of molasses on the street. Twenty-one fatalities were reported and over 150 people were injured.
Writer, composer, and lyricist Francine Pellegrino must be passionate about this unbelievable, but real event. While disaster tales can often be rich fodder for the stage (Titanic won five Tony Awards in 1997) but Pellegrino’s dramatization—with all of its earnestness and good intent—is nearly unwatchable.
Pellegrino presents us with little more than a cookie-cutter, stereotypical Italian Immigrant family. Single mother Anna (Lianne Genacco) is forced to raise her two children, Vincent (Joe Marx) and Rosemary (Anie Delgado), after her philandering husband Frank (Nathan Armstrong) leaves her for another woman. It turns out that Frank has also found better employment opportunities. When Vincent confronts him, Frank sings a tune that might classify as one of the absolute worst songs written for musical theater:
Stupid kid. Stupid kid. What do you know about working for nothing? What do you know about going nowhere?
What do you know about being married when you have a new woman waiting for you? So go to your mother.
I’m not gonna waste my time on you.
If Frank were depicted as a tyrannical bully, this might make sense. Yet even the worst fatherly advice would trump the notion that a young son could comprehend marriage and a sidebar romantic dalliance. Also, there is such a lack of character development in any of these roles that one is left with a void of emotional concern.
Due to bureacracy, shoddy workmanship, and incompetence, locals in the neighborhood share an open secret that the tank isn’t well constructed. As Act II opens, the audience is bombarded with this news through even more ridiculous lyrics from the ensemble :
They built the tank. They built the tank. They built the molasses tank.
And from all the things we’ve heard, The tank’s not built too good.
And it leaks. It leaks a lot. The molasses tank leaks a lot.
So we take molasses home in our pails, and eat it as we should.
Certainly, when danger is imminent, the next right step is to fill a pail with molasses and eat it, right? Never before has a dramaturg been so desperately needed.
Musically, the press release states that these songs are performed “in the traditional style of the Great American Song Book, similar to Fiddler on the Roof and Gypsy.” Both of those shows are rich with emotion, empathy, humor, and pathos. Pellegrino barely nicks the surface with any of those qualities here and none of ths songs come close to the perfection of the aforementioned scores.
The set design provides no indication of Boston’s North End. Instead, brown blankets cover the set of the play Perfect Crime, which shares a space with the musical on the third floor of the Anne L. Bernstein Theater. Whitney Stone’s direction is stifled by the limited set option, but even in a larger space, it’s not likely that there would be an improvement given the material.
Were this show a parody, it could have worked. The fact that it is played as a legitimate drama makes for an awkward and painful 90 minutes. The mixed caliber of talent makes the best of this burden with particular standouts from a charismatic Joe Marx and Grace Experience as boozy Aunt Maria.
It’s no exaggeration to state that there have been finer junior high school productions mounted. The fact that this found a home in an Off-Broadway for an open-ended run is baffling. On top of that, producers have the audacity to charge ticket buyers $35-$80. That seems to be the biggest crime happening in this theater.
Much research and anaylsis is available about this lesser known historical tragedy. Those wanting facts and insight on the event would be wise to explore. Theatergoers looking for a musical capturing an authentic immigrant experience should refer to Ragtime, which can be seen June 13-July 1 at Pennsylvania Shakespeare Festival.) To the oddball gluttons for punishment, Molasses in January is your sweet ticket.
Molasses in January
Anne L. Bernstein Theater, Third floor
210 West 50th Street, NYC
Ryan Leeds is a freelance theater journalist who lives in Manhattan. He is the Chief Theater Critic for Manhattan Digest and a frequent contributor to Dramatics Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @Ry_Runner or Facebook.