The Justice Theater Project is taking a risk with its current production of Zuccotti Park: The Musical. Their theme for the 2016-17 season is “Economic Justice”, with their mission statement being to provide professional theater with outreach, advocacy and education. Zuccotti Park appears to promote their mission; but unfortunately, through no fault of their own, it falls flat.
First, let me say that the cast itself is made up a range of superb actors and vocalists. I have seen many of these actors bring down the house in various other stage productions with in the Triangle. These actors make the most out of the little dialogue and poorly written songs that they are given.
The show is currently being staged in the fellowship hall of the Umstead Park United Church of Christ in Raleigh. It runs about two hours, with a 15-minute intermission. It could be just as effective by cutting 30 minutes off the show, either by picking up the pace or by shortening some of the repetitive dialogue. The production has a Rent-like feel, from the grittiness of social injustice, to the simple staged set; but you will not leave with the songs stuck in your head. (More on that later).
Zuccotti Park is set in its namesake of Zuccotti Park in New York City. The play, which features a book and lyrics by Catherine Hurd and music by Vatrena King, focuses on the Occupy Wall Street movement and its 2011 protests. Although it is a little dated, the overall theme of economics and human rights is still very much relevant.
Zuccotti Park opened Off-Off Broadway in March of 2015, and closed in August of 2016. Although the play primarily centers around three main characters, through various songs we get to see the social effects and struggles of multiple other characters.
Co-directors Jesse Presler and Aya Wallace do a good job of trying to utilize their entire cast of 25. The ensemble helps bring visual background interest to the stage, especially when the dialogue centers around only two people. The cast emerges from all areas of the “theater” including through the audience, fully using all of the set built by Jeffrey Nugent.
Presenting in a church fellowship hall does not come without its own unique set of challenges, specifically for lighting designer E. Renee Eisenhour. There were a couple of lighting glitches and flickering of lights throughout the show; and due to the space limitations, the actors’ faces were mostly in the dark. A projection screen was used behind the actors to indicate where the scene was taking place. Unfortunately, due to the lighting, the screen was very washed out and hard to see.
The biggest challenge and drawback of this show for me personally was the music written by Vatrena King. The preshow music should have been an indication of the musical dissonance of the show. It felt like King took one musical theory class in college and decided to write an entire musical with everything that she learned in class.
For me personally, the songs in a musical should be either emotionally powerful or highly entertaining. Zuccotti Park was neither. Good composers write music to enhance a show and highlight the talents of their vocalists, not purposefully to try to trip them up or make them look bad. There was no cohesiveness in the music at all.
The styles of music ranged from the expected love song, cheeky vaudeville, swing, ragtime, and gospel to an oddly placed rap song. There were multiple unnecessary key changes within the same song that did not do the more-than-capable vocalists any favors.
With that being said, David Thomas stood out among the cast. His comic timing was perfect, and he beautifully rose above the musical challenges, invoking chill bumps during his solo on “I’m Your Hero,” a song about the struggles of a newly returned veteran and the life that he had versus the one he wants to provide for his little girl. It is, perhaps, King’s only redeemable song.
So, why should you see The Justice Theater Project’s regional premiere of Zuccotti Park: The Musical? Mostly to support your local theater community and support the cast and crew who have given their time, talents, and energy to the show. After all, it’s not their fault that the music is poorly written. The theme of the show is relevant, and David Thomas’ performance of “I’m Your Hero” is worth the trip all by itself.
The Justice Theater Project presents ZUCCOTTI PARK: THE MUSICAL at 8 p.m. Feb. 17 and 18,3 p.m. Feb. 19, 8 p.m. Feb. 24 and 25, 3 p.m. Feb. 26 in the fellowship hall of the Umstead Park United Church of Christ, 8208 Brownleigh Dr., Raleigh, North Carolina 27617.
TICKETS: $22 ($14 students and $17 seniors and active-duty military personnel), except $14 per person for groups of 10 or more.
NOTE 1: At 7:10 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 18th, meet playwright and lyricist Catherine Hurd and composer Vatrena King for a preshow discussion.
NOTE 2: At 1:30 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 19th, meet Justice Theater Project artistic director Dr. Deb Royals, playwright and lyricist Catherine Hurd, and composer Vatrena King for a preshow discussion entitled “The Economy Serves the People — Not the Other Way Around.”
NOTE 3: Starting at 6:30 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 25th, there will be an hour-long FREE-to-watch, $5-to-drum drum circle, facilitated by Drum for Change. Also, learn about the Human Microphone employed during the Occupy Wall Street protests.
NOTE 4: Starting at 1:45 p.m. on Sunday, Feb. 26th, there will be a preshow discussion on “Citizens, Democracy, Advocacy,” with Lindsay Saunders of RESULTS Raleigh.
NOTE 5: Arts Access, Inc. of Raleigh will audio-describe the show’s 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 26th, performance; and there will also be FREE child care for potty-trained and older children. Both require prior reservations.
Zuccotti Park: The Musical (2015 musical): http://www.zuccottiparkmusical.com/ (official website).
Jesse Presler (co-director): https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100014062534897 (Facebook page).
Aya Wallace (co-director): https://www.facebook.com/aya.wallace (Facebook page).
Shannon Plummer-White is no stranger to the stage! She studied Musical Theater & Opera at the American Musical Dramatic Academy in New York City, and has appeared in films such as Iron Man 3 and Safe Haven. She has also performed with the North Carolina Master Chorale and the North Carolina Symphony. When she isn’t on stage or making magic behind the scenes, she can be found in the art studio playing with fire and molten glass. She is an animal advocate with a special love of cats. She has four rescued fur children and a very supportive husband. Click here to read her reviews for Triangle Review and Triangle Arts and Entertainment.