Gertrude Stein might seem like an unlikely candidate for the jukebox musical treatment. But with Gertrude Stein SAINTS!, now running at Abrons, director Michelle Sutherland and her talented ensemble have accomplished this counterintuitive feat, setting a salad of Stein texts to a whole jukebox’s worth of American popular music, from country to crunk.
At first it’s beguiling to hear how well Stein’s idiosyncratic rhythms meld with Beach Boys–style harmonies, gospel hollering, and bumping hip-hop. (And the accompanying moves: the performers twerk, step-dance, and parody ballet with panache.) It’s an avant-garde/pop jamboree Stein probably would have adored.
But SAINTS! is kind of a one-idea show. After a few numbers, there isn’t much left to think about except the company’s virtuosic ability to dress Stein’s words in clever musical costumes. Gentrified by seductive melodies, her looping lines just slip by, pretexts for the (excellent) singing.
Despite hinting at larger concerns — dollar bills rain down at one point; cardboard emblems of Americana fly in — SAINTS! is mostly content to celebrate the extraordinary creativity of American music without seriously contemplating the often difficult histories that nourished it.
During its best moments, though, music and text refresh each other, the cast radiates youthful exuberance, and you can almost hear the clamoring sound of America being made.