Off-Broadway Review: “Dust Can’t Kill Me” Strikes a Redemptive Chord at the New York Musical Festival at the June Havoc Theatre

Off-Broadway Review: “Dust Can’t Kill Me” at the New York Musical Festival at the June Havoc Theatre (Closed Sunday August 7, 2016)
Book by Abigail Carney
Music and Lyrics by Elliah Heifetz
Directed by Srda Vasiljevic
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

“By the sweat of your face You will eat bread, Till you return to the ground, Because from it you were taken; For you are dust, And to dust you shall return.” Genesis 3:19

On its first return to New York City since it was featured in FringeNYC 2014, “Dust Can’t Kill Me” is a powerful and delightfully complicated trope for humankind’s eternal search for the meaning of beginnings, endings, and all that comes in between. The musical focuses on the “in between” and raises rich and enduring questions about human finitude and fallibility, forgiveness, and redemption and humanity’s enduring hope for the future.

Five friends are experiencing the “burden” of being human in life’s dust bowl in 1936 Rolla, Kansas. The drought there, the resulting dust bowl, and the difficulty to farm successfully places them in jeopardy of not surviving. Complicating matters is Angelina’s (played with a steely yet frangible strength by Elizabeth A. Davis) delicate pregnancy resulting from a tryst with an abusive married man, the murder of said abusive man at the hand of Angelina’s sister Lily (played with brutal cunning by Kathryn Gallagher), the placing of the blame for the murder on Lily’s black lover Everett (played with a steady redemptive chord by Richard Crandle), and the community furor over Birch (played with a sensitive spirit of commitment by Michael Castillejos) being caught kissing Abraham (played with a deep and abiding truthfulness by Adrian Blake Enscoe) in an empty church.

This “Everyman” band of brothers and sisters is “rescued” from the depths of their despair by the mysterious appearance of the Preacher (played with a seductive persuasiveness by Paul Hinkes) who claims to have the ability to “save” them from their “sins” by leading them from their post-the-Fall home East of Eden back to the more idyllic time of their innocence and lack of knowledge of good and evil. Think of a video loop rehearsing salvation history over and over and over again – a spiritual Sisyphus perhaps, or a “rough beast, its hour come round at last, slouching towards Bethlehem to be born” (W. B. Yeats, “The Second Coming”). The allegory is persuasive and richly mesmeric.

The cast is uniformly talented with remarkable vocal and acting skills as well as being accomplished instrumentalists and dancers. Their voices exhibit strength and range and each is capable of interpreting the lyrics with sensitivity and rich understanding. The musical numbers are rich in figurative language and imagery and laden with a treasure trove of tropes. Elliah Heifetz’s music and lyrics are engaging and enchanting and draw the audience deeply into the lives of the pilgrims seeking redemption and release. This redemption and release appears to be still just beyond the reach in the present as it was in 1936 or even earlier when humankind yearned for unconditional and non-judgmental love.

There are still some difficulties with the book, especially in the second act. Although the characters are all societal “outcasts,” their statuses as community pariahs have different provenances. Without judging their actions (the musical is rich with moral ambiguity), both Lily and Angelina have “sinned” by acts of commission. Everett is cast out because of racism and not as a result anything he “did.” And Birch and Abraham, likewise, are “punished” not by anything they “did” but because of their inherent immutable sexual status. They are victims of homophobia. And, of course, part of the community’s concern with Angelina is blatantly sexist. But to place all of these “conditions” under one umbrella of “sin” is confusing and detracts somewhat from the strength of the piece.

Srda Vasiljevic’s direction is inspired by his work on the “Spring Awakening” but here is richly connected to the core of “Dust Can’t Kill Me” and he stages the musical with an inspired vision. Jennifer Jancuska’s choreography, though reminiscent of the choreography in other shows – on and Off-Broadway – that feature actors who double as orchestra, is fresh and insightful. Reid Thompson’s set design is limited only by the stage at the June Havoc Theatre and he works wonders within those confines. His design is flexible and easily morphs into the musical’s various settings. Oliver Wason’s lighting, Max Gordon’s apocalyptic sound design, and Stephanie Levin’s costumes complement the musical’s dramatic structure.

“Dust Can’t Kill Me” is still a work in progress and – having seen it’s “incarnation” in 2014, this reviewer looks forward to seeing its grace-laden apotheosis in the very near future. Finally, a question and a suggestion. What would it be like for Abraham and Birch to lead the allegorical crossing over to the new land given Abraham is “the father of many?” And “Don’t Not Go Gentle” ought not to be a curtain call “one more song” number. It’s message – the stark and plaintive words of Dylan Thomas” – is integral to the cathartic dénouement of the musical. Mother Nature’s firing squad might appear to “shoot us down;” however, although “we got no cross, we hang around.”