The ranks of triple-threat musical theater writers—individuals responsible for book, music, and lyrics—are small. Michael John LaChiusa springs to mind, and Lionel Bart (Oliver!), Frank Loesser (The Most Happy Fella), and Sandy Wilson (The Boy Friend), but just try to think of others. Add to this exclusive club Francine Pellegrino, whose Molasses in January is premiering at the Theater Center. It’s an original book, based only on history—that of Boston’s molasses disaster of 1919, when a tank burst and sent syrup cascading through the streets, killing 21. Pellegrino is not overly experienced in any of these three skills, and she proves to be way better at one of them than the other two.
That’s the music. Molasses in January has a tuneful, old-fashioned score, one that might have come out of the 1960s, when Kander and Ebb, Strouse and Adams, and Jerry Herman were turning out their melodic bounty. Pellegrino writes basic chord progressions and tops them with friendly melodies. It’s evident from the start, with “Life Is Rough,” a chorus for the denizens of the Italian and Sicilian North End neighborhood of 1915.
It’s also immediately evident that something is wrong elsewhere. The melody is cheery and straightforward, but the lyric, declaimed by the local drunks and prostitutes, is about how life sucks—”Life is hard, life is rough/ When you always need a buck.” That’s about as close as Pellegrino gets to rhyming. When perfect rhyme does arrive, it's basic, and requires convoluted construction: “The world that I ponder that frightens me/ Will wake me from slumber for love’s guarantee.” Then she repeats, and repeats. It’s at odds with the craftsmanship of the masters cited above, and even as you’re savoring her quite enjoyable melodies, you’re regretting that they’re wedded to such clunky words.
Then there’s her book, an attempt at a traditional historical musical that feels amateurish. Not that there isn’t a workable plot, centering on Anna (Lianne Gennaco), who’s pretty and has a small, pleasant mezzo, which, to offer further praise, is unmiked, and that goes for everyone else. You have to lean in a bit to hear them, but that’s not a big problem, especially since whatever words they’re singing will surely be repeated several times.
When we meet Anna she’s throwing her adulterous, ill-tempered husband, Frank (Nathan Armstrong), out of the apartment, leaving her to fend for herself and her two kids, sweet Vincent (Joe Marx) and mopey Rosemary (Anie Delgado). Vincent, the script says, is 13, and Rosemary is 11; Marx and Delgado, while attractive performers with nice voices, are at least twice that. So it’s borderline creepy to see Vincent jump excitedly up and down over the prospect of a lollipop, proffered by Anna’s jolly sister Maria (Grace Experience), who functions much as Aunt Cissy, the kindly aunt, does in the musical of A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, which is a far better-put-together show but has a similar setting, period, and feel.
We’re dealing, you see, with the discontented urban working class. Jobs aren’t scarce, though, as that molasses tank is being built, and there’s also a thriving local clothes factory, which quickly hires Anna. Newly unattached, she’s pursued by her old beau Joe (Zachary Harris Martin), a widower who lives with his disagreeable mother (Cali LaSpina) and is raising a bratty son (possibly Emily Samuelson; unfortunately, there’s no cast listing). That’s everybody, except for a smiley narrator (Joe Redman) who says things like “Four years have gone by” and also agitates for a union, and Tony (Daniel Artuso), who courts the teenage Rosemary after those four years have gone by. Pellegrino, by the way, displays a shaky grasp of period vernacular: “Twenty-three skidoo” alongside “You bet your ass,” and mentions of Rudolph Valentino long before he was on the scene.
There’s pungent atmosphere, though, with the Northern Italian-vs.-Sicilian neighborhood squabbles and the plight of working women around World War I and the rise of labor. And there’s compelling historical detail: it comes as a surprise that a lot of Italian immigrants sought work in Louisiana, where some of them were lynched.
If Molasses in January were better directed (by Whitney Stone, for whom nuance is a foreign concept) and better lit (by Christina Verde, who likes to shine lights right in the audience’s faces), and if Pellegrino brought in a real librettist and restarted the lyrics from scratch, there might be a show here. Nonetheless, it’s heartening to see a new traditional musical that isn’t ripped off from a Disney or teen-flick megahit, even one as rickety as this.
Postscript: 7:30 curtains usually rise at 7:37 or so, but this one went up at 7:27, forcing several latecomers-who-weren’t-really-late to dash to their seats during the opening number. House manager! Get a grip!
Molasses in January is in an open-ended run at the Anne L. Bernstein Theater at The Theater Center, 210 W. 50th St. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 p.m. and Saturdays at 5 p.m. For tickets, call the box office at (212) 921-7862 or visit ticketmaster.com.