David Zyla’s costumes look lavish and period perfect, but the zipper wasn’t invented until 1851 and it was pulled up using a string. In Edwin: The Story of Edwin Booth, Edwin and his father both zip up during costume changes, during different times, onstage, backstage at a theatre. Booth’s father died in 1852. This may sound like a strange thing to start a review off with but, it is indicative of what is wrong with this musical. From the start it is extremely hard to understand the lyrics by Eric Swanson, who also wrote the book. The Sweeney Todd/ Jekyll and Hyde sounding music by Marianna Rosett, is heavy on the balled side and unremarkable. About a half hour into Edwin, my first thought was why a musical? The music doesn’t drive the plot, expand the characters insight or keep the audiences interest. Maybe if I could understand the lyrics, but even those had a lot of missed accents. The music and the book both missed moments of storyline, where songs could have kept our interest. More on this later. By the way, you need a sound designer desperately.
The show starts backstage at the Winter Garden Theater on January 3, 1866, when the theatre was located at 667 Broadway. This is the night the real Edwin Booth (Dana Watkins) made his return to the stage playing the title role in Hamlet, which would eventually become his signature role. His brother John Wilkes Booth, assassinated President Lincoln on April 1865. Edwin, haunted by his past, relives the trauma with us in tow. What we learn, instead of the fight between the two brothers over politics, which is a perfect place for a musical power duet, is that Booth and his father were raging alcoholics and lead their lives without care to anyone else, which is not exactly true. There is a made up triangle romance between John (Todd Lawson) and Edwin over Mollie (Patricia Noonan), instead of the North vs The South. Even Edwin’s save of Abraham Lincoln’s son, Robert (Ben Mayne) from serious injury or even death is altered. The incident occurred on a train platform in Jersey City, New Jersey. The exact date of the incident is uncertain, but it is believed to have taken place in late 1864 or early 1865 not after the assasination. So many convoluted points and in the end, nothing can truly save this musical.
Dana Watkins is handsome, can sing and act, but what he doesn’t have is stage presence. Considering Edwin Booth was known as the greatest American Shakespearean actor of his day, he would have had dominated the stage. Edwin was known for inheriting his father’s unruly temperament and alcoholism. We hear of the alcoholism, a lot, but we never see remnants of that or the temper, so the performance is flat. Faring better is Paul DeBoy as Junius, Edwin’s father. Though a low key performance, we see the subtle downfall of this man and believe he was a great actor of his time. What is sad about this production is that the seven member cast can sing, act and is talented, but with so many hurdles they just stumble and fall. Who succeeds here is Patricia Noonan as Edwin’s wife Mollie. When Ms. Noonan hits the stage there is presence, nuances and layers. Also Adam Bashian’s voice thrills and is understood.
Christoper Scott’s direction is all over the map. Swanson tries to incorporate Shakespeare’s themes with Edwin’s life and it does not work. It is difficult to follow, seems wordy and pretentious. In the end I spent about three hours researching things that befuddled my mind and found that much more interesting.
Edwin Booth deserves a good play or even a musical, but this is not it.
Edwin: The Story of Edwin Booth: Presented by Great Circle Productions, the show commemorates the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare and the 150th year of Edwin Booth’s theatrical re-emergence. Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th St. until September 18th.