The year 1863 was a problematic time for the United States. At war with ourselves, the country fought both politically and literally over the future. President Lincoln had just signed the Emancipation Proclamation, and the Union had won at Gettysburg. But in New York City, another narrative was taking shape. The infamously rough Five Points neighborhood in lower Manhattan offered a space to anyone who wanted to be there. Irish immigrants poured in from across the pond. African Americans, whether born free or emancipated, sought work. Locals challenged the influence of both groups and battled among themselves. Hard Times, a new musical by Larry Kirwan now at the Cell, uses a Five Points tavern as a lens to look at the challenging issues our culture faced during that period. The result is a show that’s full of unquestionably delightful music, but doesn’t quite earn the emotional response for which it strives oh-so-very hard.
Following the “Father of American Music,” Stephen Foster (Jed Peterson), who spent the end of his life writing and working in the Five Points area, we’re introduced to a cast of characters who seem to represent every social group of the time. There’s saloon owner Nelly Blythe (Almeria Campbell), an assertive black woman who used to be married to a “Paddy.” There’s Owen Duignan (John Charles McLaughlin), an Irish immigrant performer who sings renditions of Foster’s song in black face—not by choice—to pay the bills. There’s Thomas Jefferson (Stephane Duret), a young, born-free black man who works for Blythe. And there’s Michael Jenkins (Philip Callen), a cocky, overly jingoistic white American male. As Irish immigrants begin to riot in the streets due to their frustration with the draft, these characters protect themselves by holing up in Blythe’s bar. Unsurprisingly, even with the help of nature’s great equalizer (read: liquor), the cultures still clash aggressively.
Despite the richness of this set-up and the opportunity to explore issues of racism and sexism, Hard Times never really provides a steady and clear storyline—it instead chaotically throws a bunch of scenes together without much of a guiding light. Foster is arguably the show’s lead, but even his background and reason for existing here is cloudy. At times, the show hints at his troublesome past, and even goes as far to suggest closeted homoerotic desires, but these moments happen too quickly to have any resonance. The same goes for the budding interracial relationship between Blythe and Jenkins. Even though the two share a sincere song about their romance, we simply don’t know enough about them to believe that their feelings for one another are real.
The show’s music, though—original songs by Foster updated by Black 47 member Kirwan—is gorgeous. Particularly striking is McLaughlin’s somber version of “Gentle Annie,” a genuinely heartfelt song that Foster based on a traditional Irish melody. Also charming is “Hard Times Come Again No More,” a soaring, at times-a cappella rendition from the entire cast, from which the musical got its name. (That, or perhaps the title is a reference to the Dickens novel). But despite this fine music and its respectable ambitions, Hard Times doesn’t provide a compelling enough story to earn its hoped-for emotional pull. It ends up feeling less like a musical, and more like a concert.