Decades after his death, Robert Moses’s legacy is still felt throughout New York City, from the Triborough Bridge to Lincoln Center. As the urban planner responsible for much of the city’s 20th-century roadways and infrastructure projects, Moses had a polarizing career, making lasting improvements to the city and the surrounding area even as he was criticized for imposing his plans, no matter the consequences. New Yorkers traveling through Moses’s former domain to the Theatre at St. Clements, however, will find little unique insight into the man behind the infrastructure at Bulldozer: The Ballad of Robert Moses, a bio-musical of the master builder who outlasted mayors and governors to impose his will on New York City and the surrounding area from the 1920s through the 1960s.
Bulldozer, written by Peter Galperin and Daniel Scot Kadin and directed by Karen Carpenter, tells the story in scenes that span 1919 to 1973. The musical focuses particularly on the planner’s battle in the late 1950s with urban studies journalist and activist Jane Jacobs (Molly Pope) and Mayor Nelson Rockefeller (Wayne Wilcox) during Moses’s unsuccessful attempt to build a major road in Greenwich Village.
Save for this focus on the Village saga, however, Bulldozer doesn’t succeed as the incisive portrait of Moses (Constantine Maroulis) it sets out to be. Galperin and Kadin’s book lacks the depth and subtlety to portray Moses’s combative career thoughtfully and with the nuance needed to bridge the gap between his good and evil characteristics. The musical avoids getting bogged down in the intricacies of urban policy by focusing instead on the contentious figure’s humanity, yet its vague portrayal of Moses seesaws between celebrated “master builder” and ruthless power-seeker while largely ignoring the shades of Moses’s personality and life that lie in between. Moses’s personal life is limited to one brief scene on his ill-defined relationship with mistress-turned-colleague Vera (Kacie Sheik) and a few throwaway references to his idiosyncrasies, such as his conversion from Judaism to Episcopalianism, and his lack of a driver’s license (a detail that’s made bizarre by a separate scene in which Moses pilots a plane). “I’ve never met anyone quite like him / So sure of who he is,” Vera sings about Moses at one point—yet the audience is never afforded that same surety of the man.
This vagueness isn’t helped by the musical’s structure: scenes clumsily bounce from year to year with little mention of the events in between. Vera first appears as a cigarette girl whom Moses chats with at a restaurant and later as Moses’s lover, with no suggestion of what happened during the interim, leaving the audience to wonder if Sheik is even supposed to be the same character in both scenes. Though a framework of a balladeer/street musician (Ryan Knowles) telling Moses’s tale helps to link the fragmented vignettes, the character is used too sparingly to fully overcome the structure’s shortcomings. Maroulis does a serviceable job as Moses, though he, too, lacks the nuance to overcome the book’s flaws and give Moses more clarity. However, the performer comes into his own as he takes on the powerhouse songs in Galperin’s enjoyable rock-tinged score and grapples with Moses’s more menacing side.
That helps make the battle between Moses and Jacobs the most compelling part of the piece. While the musical as a whole feels more like a series of snippets than a cohesive narrative, in this segment Bulldozer expands to flesh out the David-and-Goliath tale and bring in the perspectives of Rockefeller, Jacobs and Vera—all of whom end up outshining the man at the show’s heart. Sheik delivers an endearing performance in an underdeveloped role, while Wilcox is an affable Rockefeller, with a lighthearted charisma that makes him more likable than the hard-edged Moses. The true star of the show, however, is Pope as Jacobs, who delivers a fiery, no-nonsense performance that captures Jacobs’s passion—and makes it hard not to feel wistful this wasn’t a Jacobs bio-musical instead.
The actors’ performances help to fill the sparse production, which is defined by a no-frills, industrial set by Ken Larson and rock concert–style lighting by Zach Blane. Between the show’s scenic design and the score’s distinctly contemporary musical theater sound, Bulldozer is completely divorced from Moses’s mid-20th-century world, with the exception of Bobby Fredrick Tilley’s wonderfully nostalgic period costumes.
Although audiences may be entertained by Bulldozer, they probably won’t walk out with any more clarity on Moses’s complicated tenure—but at least they may be inspired to seek out a copy of Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities instead.
Bulldozer: The Ballad of Robert Moses plays at the Theatre at St. Clements (423 W. 46th Street) through Jan. 7. Evening performances are at 7 p.m. Tuesday-Thursday and 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday; matinees are at 2 p.m. Wednesday and Friday-Sunday, and at 3 p.m. on Dec. 17 and Jan. 7. For tickets and information, visit bulldozer.nyc.