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REVIEW: Rough Five Points Has Its Moments (Theater Latté Da)

Alejandro Vega as John Diamond Junior with the cast of Theater Latté Da’s world premiere of the musical Five Points. Photo by Dan Norman.

The musical Five Points had its world premiere at Theater Latté Da last week. It is the latest milestone in Theater Latté Da’s NEXT 20/20 initiative to develop new musicals for the American theatre. Harrison David Rivers wrote the book, Douglas Lyons wrote the lyrics, and Lyons and Ethan D. Pakchar co-wrote the music. Director Peter Rothstein directs this ambitious musical boasting several notable songs and excellent acting – but the show as a whole is not equal to the sum of its parts.

Five Points focuses on a poor, working-class neighborhood in New York City during the American Civil War. Its population is made up of African Americans as well as recent immigrants from Ireland and other countries. The show’s themes include poverty, racial tensions, immigration bias, and resistance to the Civil War draft.

Lamar Jefferson as Willie Lane. Photo by Dan Norman.

The show centers on two historical dancers. The first dancer is African American William Lane (Lamar Jefferson), who became known as “Master Juba” on the dancing circuit. The other dancer is Irish American John Diamond (Ben Bakken), who was known as “King of Diamonds.” Both men worked for P.T. Barnum (Dieter Bierbrauer), but not at the same time. The musical tells each man’s largely fictional story.

These two stories do not combine in a satisfying way. Lane needs to please his father (T. Mychael Rambo) but ultimately defies him to become a dancing star. Diamond, on the other hand, spends two years mourning his late wife. He is only moved to take action when he is drafted and desperately seeks a way to get out of it – including initiating the infamous 1863 draft riot in New York so he can remain with his young son.

Thomasina Petrus (Pauline King), Ivory Doublette (Stella Lane), Lamar Jefferson (Willie Lane), and T. Mychael Rambo (Pete Lane). Photo by Dan Norman.

Bakken convincingly plays the sorrowful Diamond. Kendall Anne Thompson plays several roles but manages to make Diamond’s grief more understandable when she appears as his late wife Bridget. Ann Michels shines in the role of Rona, the local beer hall waitress who takes on the mother role for Diamond’s young’s son. Alejandro Vega (the young star of shows as various as Minnesota Opera’s The Shining and the Children’s Theatre Company’s The Abominables) is adorable as Diamond’s son.

Although the cast is clearly quite talented, the wonderful talents of both the Ivory Doublette as Lane’s sister and Thomasina Petrus as the mother of Lane’s friend Cornelius King (John Jamison) are underutilized in this male-dominated musical. Jefferson plays an exuberant Lane who gets swept up with the idea of being a star. Rambo plays a family patriarch who is looking to prevent his son from being ill-used, showcasing the actor’s lion voice. Jamison is engaging as King who seeks to join the “colored” army regiment in Boston so he can defend his rights in the war. Bierbrauer plays the charming but chameleon Barnum, who shows his ruthless side when he is not courting a talent.

John Jamison (Cornelius King), Lamar Jefferson (Willie Lane), T. Mychael Rambo (Pete Lane), Thomasina Petrus (Pauline King), and Ivory Doublette (Stella Lane). Photo by Dan Norman.

There is some awesome dancing in the show by both the African American and Irish communities, but unfortunately also more talk about dancing than actual dancing. The musical tries to create a dancing climax in the “dance off” competition between Lane and Diamond near the end, but it is too little and too late in the show. Sadly, there is no “White Knight” dance moment where the two leads succeed in momentarily merging their dance forms into one – one of several points that make the musical seem still in draft form.

There are several outstanding songs in the show, including “Whistle in the Wind,” “More Than,” “For Me” and “Hero.” The “Five Points” song and reprisal stands out as one of the few action songs where the cast dances as an ensemble. The show’s multiple ballads by the two lead characters do not meaningfully move the story along, leaving the audience longing for a dance number.

Joel Sass’s scene design creates a very functional set that easily shifts between the shanty homes, the dance hall, the Irish pub, the federal building, and Barnum’s luxury home. Trevor Bowen’s costume design captures the era with the worn-out working clothes of the Irish and the Lane household to the upscale world of Barnum and friends.

Five Points has great potential, but still has the feel of a work in progress. Despite the show’s flaws, the energetic cast provides an entertaining look at two little-known historical figures who loved to dance.

Five Points plays through May 13 at the Ritz Theater in Northeast Minneapolis.

Bev Wolfe