Off-Broadway Review: “Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical” at the New York Musical Festival at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row

Off-Broadway Review: “Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical” at the New York Musical Festival at the Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row (Closed Saturday August 5, 2017)
Book by Richard Allen
Music and Lyrics by Richard Allen and Taran Gray
Directed by Whitney White
Reviewed by Joseph Verlezza
Theatre Reviews Limited

Freedom Riders were civil rights activists who rode interstate buses into the segregated southern United States in 1961 and subsequent years to challenge the non-enforcement of the United States Supreme Court decisions which ruled that segregated public buses were unconstitutional. The Southern states had ignored the rulings and the federal government did nothing to enforce them. The first Freedom Ride left Washington D.C., on May 4, 1961 and was scheduled to arrive in New Orleans on May 17. Theses pioneers in the non-violent civils rights movement suffered brutal attacks and several incarcerations, but their cry for equality was heard throughout the country and echoed through the halls of the Kennedy administration.

Richard Allen and Taran Gray tackle the complicated feat of retelling this monumental slice of American History for the stage, in the medium of musical theater. The stellar cast that was assembled to assist them on this journey is remarkable and faces the challenge with honest and authentic passion along with unsurpassed vocal ability. Anthony Chatmon II (John Lewis) gives a solid, intelligent and calculated performance. Brynn Williams (Diane Nash) fills the stage with enormous passion, tremendous vocals and an understanding of the significance of the message. Ciaran McCarthy (John Seigenthaler) packs his character with compassion as he navigates politics and protests with an impressive vocal range and powerful baritone. The power and strength of their voices, whether alone or with the entire company is the driving force of the production.

The main purpose of the book by Mr. Allen right now appears to exist merely as a bridge for the moving musical numbers which overshadow the facts. There is a need to flesh out the characters and the events of this monumental movement. Collaborating with Mr. Gray the music tends to be derivative with very little diversity and the lyrics are continually repetitious. For the most part, they integrate into the storyline but at times deflect from the principal objective. Direction by Whitney White is steady but too lighthearted, lacking the distress and jeopardy of the situations. “Freedom Riders: The Civil Rights Musical” has a story that should to be told and it accomplishes that, but with some insightful comprehension, it will rise to a new level, with stronger emotional power.