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A CurtainUp Review
Hard Times
By Tyler Plosia

"So don't be messin' with me 'n me family/Or I'll blow these Five Points to the sky."—Duignan
hard times
Jed Peterson as Stephen Foster
(photo credit : Steven Simring)
When you walk through the front door into The Cell, where Larry Kirwan's Hard Times is playing a return engagement, it seems as if you're walking into the lobby of the theater. There's a dusty old bar where alcohol is served and live music is played. The folk tunes you hear send you back to an older, acoustic past.

This is all by design. You see, the lobby doubles as the performance space. Seats are situated in the far end of what is made to feel like a cramped nineteenth-century barroom and the musicians are playing on the floor (which acts as the stage). Above it all hangs a tattered American flag composed of little more than dirty strips of colored rag hanging loosely together.

When the lights go down, t,he audience members enter into what's called the "bawdy saloon." The first rule of the saloon (owned by Nelly Blythe, a lively and gregarious Almeria Campbell) is as follows: any customer who can't afford the price of a drink must sing to pay off his or her debt. This setup makes for the natural and frequent introduction of songs to the unsung dialogue.

American composer Stephen Foster is one of the main characters of the piece. Obviously his songs features prominently in the production that was created in part to commemorate The Father of American Music's 150th Anniversary. Foster's music is supplemented with additional music by playwright-musician Kirwan.

Hard Times explores his life from a number of angles. There's the distant and neglectful family man. There's the closeted homosexual, secretly enamored with a young Irish singer. There's the lush without a penny in his pocket, melancholic about his own musical creations. But ultimately this is an intense, even-handed portrait with sympathy-inducing lines like "Black? White? What has ignorance to do with race?"

The more precise setting of the piece is the now-extinct Five Points neighborhood of Manhattan (located in present-day Bowery) in the 1860s (which should be familiar to anyone who saw the film Gangs of New York). Thanks to the Civil War, this decade was a period of general American strife, and the ethnic makeup of Five Points provided added complication. Free blacks and recent Irish immigrants competed for lower-class jobs in a city run by "Yankee" WASPs, and during Irish anti-war riots numerous innocent blacks were attacked in the streets. Hard Times deals with all of this history directly and thoroughly, but not so much so that the personal narratives of the multi-ethnic characters are shoved aside.

Stephane Duret (who plays a black employee in the saloon named Thomas Jefferson, presumably unrelated to the more well-known bearer of the name) heads the cast. The first time he bursts on stage from the riots on the street, the urgent fear is palpable in his expression. His dancing is at the forefront of many exciting moments. But his big moment doesn't come until late in the second act with a mournful rendition of "Old Folks at Home."

Larry Kirwan is best known (especially outside the theater world) as the frontman of Irish-American rock group Black 47. And while there is a definite Irish flavor to some of the music here (the song "Five Points" is a barely-rearranged Black 47 tune made to fit the subject matter), Foster's American folk music dominates Hard Times. Some of the tunes are more lasting than others, but almost all of them succeed in underlining the lively, exuberant tone and pace of the piece.

The liberal blending of history and fiction is more an attempt to create a portrait of a time and place than to be representative of any actual historical figures. It is not a pretty time or place, either. The tattered American flag that catches the eye before the show begins is an overt symbol that literally hangs over the heads of the audience. But ultimately we know that while Hard Times might immortalize one of the ugliest moments in the history of New York, it can only get better from here.

At $18, it's affordable even in today's hard on leisure time spending times.

Hard Times by Larry Kirwan
Music by Stephen Foster & Larry Kirwan
Directed by Kira Simring
Cast: Almeria Campbell (Nelly Blythe), John Charles McLaughlin (Owen Duignan), Jed Peterson (Stephen Foster), Stephane Duret (Thomas Jefferson), James D. Sasser (Michael Jenkins), Jennifer Lorae (Jane Foster)
Music Director: Rona Siddiqu
Choreography: Joe Barros
Set Designer: Dara Wishingrad
Costume Desinger: Sarah Gosnell
Lighting Designer: Gertjan Houben
Sound Design: Julian Evans
Stage Manager: Mackenzie Meeks
Running Time: 120 minutes with intermission
338 West 23rd St, New York, NY
From 1/ 09/14; opening 1/13/14; closing 2/14/14
Tickets: $18
Reviewed by Tyler Plosia based on performance January 10th, 2014
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