Yes, Underscore Theatre’s reworked 2016 “new folk musical” about the
titular violent 1886 Chicago labor protest and its hopelessly corrupt
aftermath features singing and dancing anarchists (who play musical
instruments to boot). But both Nick Thornton’s no-frills choreography and
Robert Ollis’s straight-ahead musical direction are fittingly—if
unengagingly—workmanlike. The production’s general lack of razzle-dazzle
may suit the subject matter, but it makes for a rather featureless two-plus
hours.

Part of the problem stems from the insular material. David Kornfeld’s
folk-Americana score, while at times haunting, suffers from a narrow
repetitiveness (it seems every other number is The Big Anthem). More
important, Alex Higgin-Houser’s book and lyrics reduce the horrendous
working conditions of the day to punchy vocal refrains (“Eight hours for
work! Eight hours for rest!”) rather than lived realities. And the main
characters remain underdeveloped, pronouncing their convictions in song
without revealing much about themselves. About all we know of lead
organizer Albert Parsons, for instance, is that he was inspired by the
Paris Commune and doesn’t advocate violence.

The creators have made one great improvement on their original version,
fashioning a satisfying dramatic arc for protagonist Lucy Parsons, whose
struggle to find her voice as a union leader nicely intertwines the
personal and the political. Still, she’s more emblem than person. Thornton,
who also directs, too often leaves her (and the rest of his cast) to raise
a fist and stare defiantly into the middle distance rather than interact in
compellingly human ways.   v