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A CurtainUp Review
The Capeman

The official opening of The Capeman adds the third original big musical to the Broadway season -- that's original as opposed to revivals and British imports. It is also the third to give audiences a lavish production without the glitzy pyrotechnics of the smoke and chandelier spectacles. Unlike The Lion King and Ragtime, (see links at end of this review), which evolved from a pre-existing movie and novel respectively, The Capeman's book grew out of the 1959 headline killing of two white teenagers by another teen-ager, a troubled Puerto Rican named Salvador Agron sporting a flashy black and red cape. The musical images, rather than a book or movie, came first and are the threads used to weave docu-drama into popera.

Contrary to all the schadenfreude rumors that accompanied The Capeman's unusually long preview run, this new contender in the Broadway sweepstakes has enough jewels sewn into its cape to make it less a disaster than a concept that's more an illustrated concert than a fully realized musical.

While the show's prime mover, composer-lyricist-author Paul Simon, is said to despise any references to opera, The Capeman despite its blend of salsa, doo-wop, gospel and rock rhythms is very much a modern opera — with a rather amorphous almost sung through libretto. Simon's talent for creating memorable rhythms is in evidence throughout the two hours and twenty minutes and the orchestration by Oscar Hernandez are a far cry from the many gratingly over miked sounds typical of many Broadway musicals. Sitting as I did in the fifth row orchestra brought none of the usual assault on the ears from the pit and stage.

While some songs are more memorable than others the hybrid of styles works beautifully And what singing! Three magnificent singers. Ruben Blades and Marc Anthony as as the older and teen aged Salvador Agron and Ednita Nazario as Salvador's mother Esmeralda make the music soar . While Blades and Anthony are more dynamic singers than actors, Nazario proves herself to be a fine actress and not just a pop star. To give the music and the performers the dramatic setting needed to make it gain altitude as a visually exciting musical drama, there are Bob Crowley's striking and highly original sets —-unfortunately not matched by his costumes — and Wendall K. Harrington's projections which lend solid support to the documentary flavor.

The touch of the Nobel poet (co-lyricist Derek Walcott), while not easily pinpointed, seems most evident in such songs as "Time Is An Ocean" or lines like "when the summer night was torn by the dagger of the moon" in "Sal's Last Song." If those are his images, I leave it to audiences to decide if they conform to his definition of poetry in his 1992 Nobel Prize acceptance speech:
"Poetry, which is perfection's sweat but which must seem as fresh as the raindrops in a statue's brow, combines the natural and the marmoreal; it conjugates both tenses simultaneously . . . "

Its praiseworthy elements notwithstanding, The Capeman does not blend music and dramatic arc as smoothly as the sources of its rhythms. The "arias" instead of organically propelling the narrative flow tend to bring it to a full stop. This is also true of the choreography, which is more notable for its paucity than any snap it adds to the show.

Though I've tried to ignore much of the tongue clicking that accompanied the show's long gestation period in full view of the gossipy theatrical community, I can't say I arrived at the last preview before the official 1/29 opening without some awareness of the well-publicized last minute "doctoring" done to turn Simon's musical into a cohesive theater piece. Whatever was done by Tony award winning director Jerry Zaks, (not acknowledged as director or show doctor in the program), the first act I saw is narratively clear and clocking in at exactly one hour, well-paced.

The opening numbers set in New York City introduce all the characters and reel you in, as does the flashback to Puerto Rico ten years earlier in 1949. There are also several standout scenes. One of the most impressive images is that of the tenement street with its skewered view of the barely visible patch of sky. The do-wop-y "Satin Summer Nights" which introduces the New York City section is terrific. The confrontation between Esmeralda and Mrs. Young (Cass Morgan) and Mrs. Kresinski (Luba Mason), the mothers of the slain boys, is moving and powerful.

But the first act's polish wears thin in the longer second half, which also has two major missteps.

Sara Ramirez is an attractive performer with a fine voice, but her epistolary romance with the imprisoned Salvador seems sandwiched in for the sake of a few songs and several staged devices that seem unworthy of the rest of the production. The toy Greyhound bus carrying Salvador to his desert love, for example, seems largely a spoof of the little sailing ship in Titanic: The Musical. The rippling cloth to evoke the desert is not quite as objectional but simply lacks the originality of the rest of the staging.

The real romance in this drama is the metaphoric embrace of the redemptive spirit but the the religious images are overwrought and consequently unconvincing. I could have done with less of Saint Lazarus and a more forceful exit for Salvador after his reunion with Esmeralda.

For all its shortcomings, the second act, like the first, is not without its share of potent images and songs. The stark Fishkill Prison is a prime example of the first. Salvador and Esmeralda's concluding songs bring things to a musically if not plot-solid conclusion.

Will The Capeman become one of those enduring landmark musicals destined to break records? I doubt it. Though audiences have proved themselves receptive to gritty musical books about less than heroic characters, the whole does not add up to the potential of its parts. The concert and recording reputations of its creator and the three main performers are likely keep the house filled for some time but not likely a record-breaking run. The F word in the midst of a lyric or in a title will hardly shock the kids likely to come on a school bus, yet some concession to the sensibility of their more straight-laced elders might have insured greater church and public school group sales.

Book: Derek Walcott
Music: Paul Simon Lyrics: Paul Simon; co-lyricist: Derek Walcott .
Director/choreographer: Mark Morris Starring: Ruben Blades, Marc Anthony, Ednita Nazario and a cast of more than 40 singers and dancers
Sets and Costumes: Bob Crowley
Lighting: Natasha Katz
Sound: Peter J. Fitzgerald Projections: Wendall K. Harrington Co-orchestrator/music arranger/vocal arranger/consultant:Stanley Silverman Musical director/conductor/co-orchestrator: Oscar Hernandez
Marquis Theatre, 1535 Broadway
Performances begin 12/01/98; opens 1/28/98
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer 1/29/98

The Real Story of the Capeman and the Poperatic Adaptation
In Fact: Late on the night of August 30, 1959 a teen age gang from the upper west Side called the Vampires went searching for the Norsemen, an Irish gang from Hell's Kitchen. They came upon a group of teenagers who weren't affiliated with any gang, but happened to to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. One of the Vampires, 16-year-old Salvador Agron stabbed to death two of these bystanders and fled. He was described by the other kids in the park as a tall Puerto Rican kid, wearing a black cape with a red lining. His associate, Tony Hernandez (played by Renoly Santiago in the musical), who allegedly wielded an umbrella during the fight, became known as "The Umbrella Man."

On Stage: Agron's affiliation with the gang is portrayed as an act of desperation by a lonely youth mistreated by his self-righteous, priggish stepfather--with the infamous Cape donned as something of a symbolic embrace by the only family (the gang) available to a desperately lonely, unable to cope and misunderstood teenager.

In Fact: Agron was arrested and showed no remorse saying "I don't care if I burn. My mother could watch me." To many New Yorkers he became a symbol of evil -- of a society falling apart. At 16 he became the youngest person ever sentenced to death in New York State.

On Stage: This much publicized statement is used to cast the real Agron as a photo-projected character -- so dramatically repellent that the stage Agron's characterization pales by comparison.

In Fact: Governor Rockefeller commuted Agron's sentence after prominent citizens, including Eleanor Roosevelt, pleaded for clemency on his behalf, citing the emotional as well as economic poverty of his existence.

On Stage: This public cry for sympathy is translated into a flashback of Agron's harrowing background first in Mayaguez, Puerto Rico where he and his sister Aurea lived in the local poorhouse where his mother worked for eight dollars a week. The play shows him beaten by three nuns for wetting his bed and the first appearance of Saint Lazarus who predicts that he will come to a bad end. With his mother coming to his defense, the stage is set for the portrait of an abused (more done to, than doing bad) teenager whose staunchest defender is his long-suffering mother.

In Fact: When his mother remarried, the family moved to New York City, where Sal had difficulty in school undoubtedly exacerbated by the fact that his Puerto Rican schooling was the equivalent of just one year . He spent time in an institution for disturbed boys and later to Wiltwyck reformatory. He is said to have spoken of hearing voices and seeing demons in his room. Sal fell in with the Vampires on the upper West Side of Manhattan after being run out of Brooklyn by an Italian gang and moving to Manhattan where his sister lived.

On Stage: The illiteracy is mentioned late in the musical and the institutional experiences are excised. Instead Agron's entire troubled NYC years are telescoped into a single street scene pinpointing his main troubles to be caused by his stepfather but not showing that stepfather to be all that traumatizing a personality.

In Fact: Salvador Agron served 20 years in prison where he was described as a model prisoner. He learned to write poetry, became something of a political activist and never again committed a violent act. He was what the prison system would describe rehabilitated but in his own words "rehumanized" but nonetheless identified in the public imagination as The Capeman.

On Stage: The rehabilitation is elevated to a redemption and the sin-suffer-repent theme underscored by the introduction of a racist prison guard as one more injustice for this miguided and undereducated young man to overcome. A star-crossed romance with a far-away Indian woman further underscores the sense of pandering to the needs of the victims' relatives to have this man live out his life as bereft of the pleasures of life as their slain children.

In Fact: He died in the Bronx on April 22, 1986 of Natural causes. He was 43 years old

On Stage: Agron arrives back in the same barrio neighborhood he left -- a worn-out case for whom it's too late to rejoice in such signs of Puerto Rican progress as the Puerto Rican Day parade. He and his mother, the only character who seem to age, are reunited for a fadeout rather than a grand finale.

In Summary: I can see where the story intrigued Mr. Simon and have no quarrel with his departure from some of the facts--in fact, had he and Derek Walcott used fact as springboard to create a story more suited to the model of a musical with real heart and conviction, The Capeman might well be the truly exciting experience he says the current theater is not.>

©Copyright, 1998 Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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