After successfully setting to music one side of the frontier experience with “O Pioneers!,” writer/lyricist Darrah Cloud and composer Kim Sherman explore its historical flip side in “Honor Song for Crazy Horse.”
Earnest, ambitious but conceptually flat throughout, the TheaterWorks premiere attempts to do for Native Americans what Stephen Sondheim did for the Japanese in “Pacific Overtures” — encapsulate the moment when the centuries-old culture bowed to the chill wind of irrevocable change. Text, score and Robert Kelley’s staging make a brave stab that never quite jells.
Cloud posits legendary Lakota figure Crazy Horse (James Apaumut Fall) as a reluctant young warrior pushed into action by the U.S. government’s broken treaties and genocidal assaults. But expressionist depictions of famed battles (e.g., Little Big Horn) are somewhat confusingly placed amid a narrative less interested in straight chronology than paying homage to endangered tribal customs and spirituality.
Result is a somber pageant lacking an identifiable center. Sherman’s score employs some elements from Native American idioms, but more often it sports a piano-based contemporary sound.
There are some wistfully appealing numbers, including the female trio “Someone Is Watching” and love interest Black Shawl’s bittersweet “I Would Rather Die With Him.” But elsewhere gambits at juggling complex musical/staging ideas fall short, as when a transvestite tribesman sings the banal lament “Beautiful Men” while mimed carnage rages behind.
Director Kelley has understandable kept staging fuss to a minimum given the sprawl of scenes and locations. Still, more visual energy is needed from the sparse settings and ceremonial-style choreography. Costumes and lighting are pro without adding flavor.