BOTTOM LINE: Depression is a heck of a thing, but sometimes all you need to lift your spirits is a bit of perspective and some good old-fashioned, roll up your sleeves, can-do. The optimistic musical Sky Boys: The Building of the Empire State Building has both in spades.
Set in the 1930s, against the backdrop of the Great Depression, Sky Boys tells the story of Mickey, a streetwise kid with enough pluck to sneak himself up the steel girders of a skyscraper in search of the best job in town, but not enough to look down. There he takes up with a crew of Mohawks who are working the high steel, and apprentices himself to the legendary photographer, Lewis Hine. Sky Boys, adapted for stage by Barbara Zinn Krieger, is a beautiful fable about conquering fear, building dreams, and repairing family, a man's pride, and a country's vision. And it is educational to boot!
Sky Boys is not breaking new ground here, but it does not need to. When it comes to children's theatre, simple is best; as an adult, it is a pleasure to take a break from subtext and intrigue. It is also refreshing to watch the retelling of a great moment of American history without narration by David McCullough (though secretly, I would have loved it). And as always, the eternal American trope of retelling our shared history is, "Oh we did it before and we can do it again."
This needs to be trotted out every so often, especially when juxtaposed against another eternal American trope of our shared present -- "Congress is screwing up." As I sat down in the audience, I found myself in my own depression, heavy with the news of runaway state senators and of the House passing heavy budget cuts, all while the parties hurl invectives at one another. The only skyscraping these days is the ever-ascending fever pitch of rancor between the dems and pubs.
Sky Boys opens with Mickey hawking newspapers by calling out headlines: "SENATORS DEMAND ACTION TO STOP UNEMPLOYMENT!" I do not think Ms. Krieger had any political motives in writing this script, but it is hard not to draw comparisons upon hearing those words. And Sky Boys is every bit as positive and innocent as our representatives are ego-maniacal noise-machines with an agenda. Ah to be young again, when I could watch a play like Sky Boys with hope in my heart. But it was a beautiful thing to sit in an audience with children, watching them respond to this inspiring play, so that by the end I was ready to reinvest in the ethos that built the world's tallest building during one of its darkest hours. For as Mickey's closing line reminds us, "If we can build the Empire State Building, we can do anything!"
Sky Boys' whimsy is reflected in everything. Against a hazy city skyline, Gino Ng's erector set of scaffolding glistens under Douglas Cox's soft lighting, interacting perfectly together. To a kid it must look like a jungle gym. And as befits a jungle gym, the actors play, clambering over it, combining it and recombining it before your very eyes to construct the Empire State Building.
The ensemble, obvious joy in their faces, does a respectable job. I saw the second matinee of the day and their energy took a song or so to warm up, but once they hit their stride, they sustained it for the rest of the show. There are no breakout show-stopping numbers, but the music is notable in a few places. "Depression Blues," a duet sung between Mickey and his father, strikes a nice balance of emotional resonance without slipping into schmaltz. And "Riveting Steel the Mohawk Way" is one of the show's high points. It brings all the thematic and cultural elements together in a driving beat which is reminiscent of both a Mohawk drum and a riveter's gun, one which remained stuck in my head as I left the theater.
A special mention should go out to the two Joes. Big Joe, the patriarch, protector, and conscience of the Mohawk crew, is played with stoic pride and tenderness by Michael Mann. Given the opportunity, I think children would mob the gentle giant with hugs if they saw him after the show. Jessica Angleskhan's little Joe brings a lot of energy to the show as a young girl, disguising herself as a boy, who tries to affect a man in a tough grownup world. Her character is sure to strike a chord with young kids trying to make their own journey into adulthood.
Sky Boys is simple theatre done well, perfect for any adult looking to slip into the golden dream of America, free from the nattering nabobs of negativism. I would like to propose a relaxing day. Wake up on Sunday morning and forget to turn on the news. Dress comfortably and head down to Soho with a loved one to see Sky Boys. After the show take a stroll, making sure to soak up the sun, maybe stopping in a park. Head uptown to the Empire State Building. As the sun sets, pay without care the outrageous fee to stand on top of the building. Ascend the elevator and look out over New York. Pretend you live in a country where senators do more than just demand action to stop unemployment; they actually take it. Breathe.
(Sky Boys: The Building of the Empire State Building plays at Abrons Arts Center, 466 Grand Street, through March 6, 2011. Performances are Tuesdays through Thursdays at 10:30am [Thursday, February 24 is at 12pm], Fridays at 7pm and Saturdays and Sundays at 12pm and 3pm. The show will also tour to Queens, The Bronx, and Staten Island later in March. Tickets are $10 and are available at showtix4u.com [for shows at the Abrons Arts Center] or by calling 212.573.8791 ext. 238 for all other performances. For more info visit MakingBooksSing.org.)