Jack the Ripper, The Whitechapel Musical

Music by Stephen Bergman
Book and Lyrics by Christopher-Michael DiGrazia
Directed by Curt Miller
Presented by CentaStage
At the BCA Theatre, Boston ---- closed --

Reviewed by G.L. Horton

"Jack The Ripper: The Whitechapel Musical" (a world premiere at the Boston Center for the Arts, presented by CentaStage & Everyday a Holiday) was very good-- much better than it had any right to be, produced as it was under the low-budget minimal-rehearsal-in-the-theatre-space conditions that prevail at the BCA and are the best that Boston currently offers originators of new work. The show had integrity, an of-a-piece single-visioned determination to tell a familiar story in a way unique to the genuine talents of the team that put it together. Judy Stacier's set, Cheryl McCarron 's costumes and Karen Perlow's lighting were of professional caliber. An invisible on-stage band provided the singers secure yet subtle support, and shone in the places where the instruments carried on alone.

The performers -- generally a decade or so younger than the historical characters they portray-- gave the work their all. The members of the ensemble brought separate histories and psychologies to their characterizations, yet under Curt Miller's shaping hand they all subordinated their talents to the service of the piece as a whole. Frequently in a less than perfectly realized musical the "better" parts stick out, inviting the thought that in another context this song or that dancer would shine -- and sometimes performers who know there is no chance the show will have a run take the opportunity to "show off". There was none of this nonsense in "Jack the Ripper": serial murder is serious, prostitution's no joke, and art is everybody's business.

It was exhilarating to be in the premier's audience, especially during the big concerted numbers, when the ability of lyricist Christopher-Michael DiGrazia and composer Steven Bergman to express several lines of action simultaneously and of the singers to lend them both individuality and musical precision was most impressive. That was the part of the show that made my hair stand on end. As for the six or seven brutal murders, with their attendant mutilations -- I averted my eyes, as I would from a slasher movie. I wasn't convinced that I must endure the grisly details to experience the significance of Jack's act.

The idiom the creative team chose for their material worked very well. It has enough of Tin Pan Alley to be comfortably in the American Show tradition, but with a bawdy dash of Victorian music hall and a nervous splash of Sondheim blended into the synthesized international style that seems to be the natural language of people born in a time when recorded music is the norm and the unamplified the exception. It is an idiom the performers as well as the creators have mastered, and within it they fit a surprisingly wide range of emotion: fear, greed, cynicism, pity, courage, curiosity, cheer, charity, hysteria, obsession, repression.... The problem is to get it all to add up: to resolve all this into meaning.

Otherwise, our interest in "Jack the Ripper" is the purient one condemned by the show itself in The Gentlemen of the Press (Dan Dowling, Courtney Furno, Michael Paul Ricca, Britton White) , sensation-mongering journalists eager to sell papers by playing to the fears and bigotry of the Victorian populace, they function as a gossipy distraction from whatever social evils may raise monsters like the Ripper out of the embryonic predator that nestles in every human soul. It's not as if this sort of crime is a distant memory -- there are still such predatory monsters, and they still fascinate. There are more serial killers on television and in movies than in fact--- each such monster and the details of his "case" has been adapted and revived as entertainment: some of them, like Jack, over and over again.

Many of these murder scenarios take the form of the detective story, and that is one thread of DiGrazia's book for "Jack". There is the sympathetic Police Inspector, Frederick Abberline (Stephen Brumble)--- but the Inspector isn't central to either the book or the music, and, since historically he didn't close the case, Abberline's point of view can't offer us closure. Another policeman, Walter Beck, (Buddy Souza) is the lover of a prostitute who is Jack's target, and he enters the story in a way might allow him to be its center -- but in the book as it stands Beck's role is a real problem. Beck does discover "who dunnit", and after the last murder this policeman no longer has a motive to keep quiet about what he knows --- yet the crimes must remain unsolved. Detection doesn't seem to be the thread that can pull it all together.

DiGrazia's book is concerned to sketch in enough of the Whitechapel background so that the East London slum and the sordid sort of prostitution its poverty harbors is vivid and real. There is a subplot about the era's rampant anti-Semitism that scapegoats a Jewish butcher (David Salovitz ) as a likely Ripper. The killer's prostitute victims are given backgrounds and full personalities. Each has a swan song before Jack does her in: Polly Nichols (Deborah Wrighton) Annie Chapman (Molly Beck) Elizabeth Stride (Linda Goetz) and Catharine Eddowes (Celeste McClain ) take their moment in the light and make their murders matter. Once they are gone, the Whitechapel world is smaller and poorer. The mixed chorus is not, however: the female singers "return" in other, less rounded and convincing, characterizations. It's hard to see how it could be otherwise -- unless the musical were to share the structure of Poulenc's "Dialogues of the Carmelites" and dwindle to silence. But it is a flaw, emptying the drama of emotion and consequence just when it should be picking up steam.

The dramatic heat in act two must be supplied by Jack himself (Christopher J. Aruda) and the prostitute who is revealed to be his sister and the object of his twisted love, Mary Jane Kelly. (Jennifer Lynn Nagy). Aruda's Jack is only a sketch -- he has very little stage time, but within it he gives us a Jack who is a kind of Byronic hero: incestuous as well as "mad, bad, and dangerous to know". His principle solo, "The Finger of God", is chilling in its intensity.

Nagy, too, does a lovely job with her scenes and songs, but is the victim of the show's strange construction. "Jack" is a modern serious musical with sung dialogue, intense duets, ensembles of operatic complexity -- yet act two's climactic scenes are spoken: tiny one act plays dense with exposition and explanation where the central characters tell each other what they want and try to convey some notion of why they want it so that the other person will understand. But it is far too late. Their motives and feelings should have been set out earlier on and transformed into music by Bergman. Then the characters' final actions and the narrative's significance could be brought together by the emotional alchemy of musical expression.

As it stands, "Jack the Ripper" leaves plot threads dangling, and even what is clearly stated is full of logical holes. But the show is still in development. The author's re-imagining of Mary Kelly in particular, her purgatorial vision of her life of prostitution and her ambivalent relation to her fellow whores-- friends and allies whom she condemns to death by her silence-- cries out to be brought brought forward and made central. The facts of the case are as they are, of course. But let them be background. Jack's crimes can't be solved, but his and Mary's story can be resolved.