Gentrification: The Musical

Has anyone ever written an aria about condo conversions?

If you happen to adhere to the notion that physical geometry and psychic space are more or less interchangeable, and that places become infused with the aura of the people and events that pass through them—let's say, in other words, that you're a poetical sort—then West Bank Story will carry an inherent appeal. This new Bedlam Theatre musical takes Minneapolis's West Bank as its muse, and its intent is to provide a meditation on history, change, and the particular tingle we feel when a place returns our love for it.

The initial number, a send-up of West Side Story, complete with jokey choreography, replaces the Jets and the Sharks with punkers, yuppies, Twins fans, and college students. It also raises the specter of an evening with the Capitol Steps, and the audience breathes a collective sigh of relief when that conceit is over. What follows instead is a zigzag through time that focuses on the West Bank's history of activism, assimilation, and iconoclasm.

Matters transpire on a deceptively simple set designed by Julian McFaul, which begins with a pastoral mural of bygone times. This backdrop soon yields to simple modular screens that depict generic buildings and move with each scene change. And there are plenty of scene changes. The Babel of a community meeting gives way to an anti-co-op punk rant, followed by tuneful paeans to illicit drug use and the anthropomorphic qualities of wheat bread.

Are those city kids singing "La Vie Boheme"?
Sean Smuda
Are those city kids singing "La Vie Boheme"?

Soon enough we're dealing with that old fallback theme of musical theater—rapacious land development versus the preservation of historic neighborhoods. John Bueche's book and lyrics (accompanied by Marya Hart's music) pull off the neat trick of pointing out that there are idealists and Utopians on each side of the divide. A five-piece band, driven by Avedis Manoogian on piano, chugs along nicely on these lively tunes; suffice it to say the songs at no time recall that other urban boho musical, Rent.

After the intermission, the action shifts to the 19th century and the West Bank's wave of European immigration. (Remember the charming national blood feuds of the middle of the last century—those were the days!) Two sets of fellow travelers wander through the decades: husband and wife Dwayne (Darien Johnson) and Debbie (Margot Bassett); and youthful immigrant friends-turned-elderly neighborhood mainstays Sophie (Kira Lace and Laurie Witzkowsk) and Anna (Kia Erdmann and Janet Williams). Through their eyes, the West Bank becomes a metaphor for the universal procession from hope to realism.

As with everything the anarchic Bedlam crew puts onstage, West Bank Story is overstuffed with characters, theories, skits, costumes, and historical theories. In this topsy-turvy spirit, Jon Mac Cole provides a sort of drinking tour through time (a sot for all seasons), and he earns an inordinate share of laughs. As the work nears the finish, the barriers between various ages in West Bank history start to break down. By this time, one feels the gears slipping. There is the unmistakable sense that director Maren Ward is trying to coax her cast into pulling off more than their technical skills will allow.

Similarly in keeping with the company's DIY spirit, non-actors fill a number of roles, and probably less than half the cast members possess voices that would pass muster in a conventional musical. What creates friction is the fact that in many ways this is a conventional musical, and a quite good one at that. It has a sunny nature beneath its self-mocking heart, even a sense of transcendent uplift. The show wouldn't be damaged by a greater attention to craft. But that's not Bedlam's way, and never has been. Ultimately, West Bank Story treats time—and chaos—as a friend rather than an enemy, which is a familiar sentiment for anyone who has ever done anything as quixotic as try to love a city.

 
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