“If you have built castles in the air, your work need not be lost; that is where they should be. Now put the foundations under them.”
–Henry David Thoreau
Written by Daniella Litvak
The stock market crashed, and with it came high unemployment rates and uncertain futures for people all over the world. Despite how depressing (yes, dreadful pun intended) this all was, people refused to give up on themselves. They were going to make their dreams come true. For many New Yorkers at the time, that meant having to construct the world’s tallest building.
While the people building the Chrysler Building and 40 Wall Street are also competing in “the race to the sky,” Empire The Musical (“Empire”) is rooting for the all-star team former New York Governor Al Smith and John Raskob have assembled to raise the one hundred story Al Smith Building. First, there is Frankie Petersen. She is Smith’s right hand man, so she solves all the problems. Mike Shaw is the project’s brilliant, young architect. Rounding out the team is the ensemble of construction workers who are going to build the skyscraper. Included among them are crew leader Ethan O’Dowd and newbies Bill Johnson and Bucky.
The crew has fourteen months to get the job done. But how can they meet the deadline when Frankie and Mike keep butting heads over her pragmatic attitude and his romantic notions? Meanwhile, Ethan’s wife disapproves of his dangerous job, and the newbies are desperate to walk the high beams. Can they come together to build this castle in the sky and change the name to its inevitable conclusion, the Empire State Building?
Well the first act is a bit all over the place because the show is frantically trying to get all the characters to their proper places. Then the second act has the opposite problem because it places most of its energy on one storyline, which ends up marginalizing characters such as Bucky and lets some other equally compelling storytelling possibilities slip away.
The character beats are predictable. It is fairly easy to tell who is going to fall in love, who is keeping a projects threatening secret, and who is going to suffer tragedy. What saves it from being boring is the manner it is presented. There are plenty of good zingers. The singing is strong. The dance numbers are fun and exciting and there are a lot of great smaller touches, such as an impromptu arm wrestling match.
Yet, it is the plot point everyone knows is a foregone conclusion –the Empire State Building will be built –that is the most exciting to watch unfold onstage –especially when stage itself is a stunning architectural achievement in its own right. The main set piece is a projection screen, but it’s not just a screen showing background images. Empire’s screen is divided into sections, which allow its portions to move backwards and forwards to create platforms simulating the ever-growing building. Then the actors add more visual beauty to the stage with their dancing and acrobatics. Now add some really good songs –such as the title song –I really want to hear again, and those construction scenes are just, “Wow!”
All this begs question of just how faithful to history is Empire. My initial reaction was not very. While certain plot developments make sense in the world Empire created, they seem a bit too far-fetched to have actually happened. Historical accuracy probably was not the creators’ intentions, and getting hung on it misses the lovely point of the story, which the Thoreau quote (see top of the article) the show utilizes as a guiding light nicely articulates. I like Empire The Musical on its own merits, and my interest in the Empire State Building has never been more piqued.
Jan. 22 – Feb. 14, 2016
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