Paul Simon, one of pop’s great songwriters, has lent Broadway a collection of great songs. His music for “The Capeman” ranks among the best Broadway scores of this or any recent season, an exquisite blend of salsa, 1950s American doo-wop and Simon’s own impeccable artistry. Years from now, when some savvy producer is scouting old theater material for a scaled-down concert staging, “The Capeman” should be first on his list — scrap the irredeemable book, make peace with the static nature of the show and dispense with any foolhardy attempt to flesh out one-note characters or raise the barely-a-footnote real-life tale to the stature of social significance.
No, “Capeman” is not the disaster that widespread rumor would have (this show has spurred more bad buzz on Broadway than anything since “Nick and Nora”), but it’s no against-the-odds artistic triumph either (unless merely getting a troubled production into passable shape by opening night can be judged success). Financially, the $11 million show faces some tough challenges, not the least of which will be convincing ticketbuyers to spend more than two hours in the company of a character who stirs little, if any, real interest.
With the notable exceptions of its songs, their performances and the gorgeous sets of Bob Crowley, “Capeman” is neither here nor there, a musical about a true-life teenage murderer that can’t quite explain its own fascination with the punk, much less convince the audience to care. The musical’s unfocused book, co-written by Simon and Derek Walcott, wants to make Salvador (Capeman) Agron a victim of poverty and racism, but is either devoid of convictions or afraid to spell them out. As a result, the show has little more than a satin-lined cape where a central character should be.
After no fewer than four directors — the director of credit, dance innovator Mark Morris, was recently replaced by troubleshooter Jerry Zaks — “Capeman” remains a defiantly troublesome show. Apparently thanks to Zaks’ streamlining (a half-hour has been excised), the plot is easy enough to follow, even as it jumps back and forth in time and geography. But the sketchy, snapshot structure does little for nuance or development, and the abrupt arrivals and departures of incidental, forgettable characters sometimes make the show seem like a bizarre Cliff Notes biography. This is Your Life, Salvador Agron.
Agron (played in youth by Marc Anthony and adulthood by Ruben Blades) became a tabloid sensation in 1959 when, at age 16, he and a fellow member of a Puerto Rican teen gang called the Vampires fatally stabbed two white boys in New York’s Hell’s Kitchen. The story tapped into the city’s growing fears of gang violence and juvenile delinquency, and Agron became as reviled for his attire (a trademark cape) and sneering, unrepentant attitude as for the murders themselves.
Simon has been mulling over this incident for more than eight years, the allure stemming, at least in part, from the inherent musical opportunities of its setting: The Capeman saga allows the songwriter to explore the Latin sounds of Puerto Rico and the street-corner rock ‘n’ roll of 1950s New York. Simon, virtually unparalleled in his success at melding various world music styles into wonderfully catchy pop songs, displays all his skill and craftsmanship in a score by turns haunting (the mothers’ lament “Can I Forgive Him,” the sorrowful “Time Is an Ocean”) to the jaunty (the doo-wop of “Satin Summer Nights,” the pop of “Bernadette”).
The problems, and they are considerable, lie in the storytelling. Simon’s lyrics are, not surprisingly, perfectly crafted narratives blending urban grit with the poetic melancholy of Puerto Rico. In fact, the lyrics are too narrative, telling the Capeman story so explicitly they leave little room or necessity for the actors to act. No wonder that Simon’s CD, “Songs From the Capeman,” so efficiently captures the tale: Listening is all “Capeman” requires.
Sung-through, “Capeman” moves back and forth from 1959 New York City to 1949 Puerto Rico and various other locales, including a succession of prisons, through Agron’s release in 1979. We see the 7-year-old Sal (Evan Jay Newman) beaten by nuns for bedwetting, the 16-year-old Sal (Anthony) reluctantly joining the Vampires for protection against rival gangs and to escape a stern stepfather, and finally we see the adult, imprisoned Salvador (Blades) teaching himself to write poetry and political tracts and slowly (very slowly) admitting his own guilt and seeking some sort of redemption.
The musical’s episodic structure allows for quick takes on the various characters who cross Agron’s path, from other gang members and prison inmates to the grief-stricken mothers of his two victims. His loving mother, Esmeralda (Ednita Nazario), is the chief constant in Sal’s life and, handed many of the score’s best songs, becomes the de facto focus of the story.
Indeed, rather than coming off as a mosaic of Sal’s life experiences, “Capeman” instead seems disjointed, scattershot. The youthful Sal’s love interest, Bernadette (Sophia Salguero), inspires one of the score’s most delightful songs, yet the character disappears as quickly as she arrives. In one of the musical’s more preposterous notions, a ghostly St. Lazarus (Nestor Sanchez), dressed in rags and complete with halo and white beard, makes periodic appearances to scold the wayward Sal. A redneck prison guard (Stephen Lee Anderson), envious of Sal’s prison-funded schooling and notoriety, taunts Sal with death threats (and the audience with hillbilly music).
The musical’s oddest excursion (based on history, but that’s no excuse) comes late in the show when Salvador escapes from his school-release program and heads for the Arizona desert, where waiting for him is his pen pal (apparently prison groupies existed pre-Jerry Springer), an Indian hippie chick named Wahzinak (Sara Ramirez). The fact that Sal never actually meets Wahzinak — he turns himself in after a mystical desert experience — doesn’t preclude “Capeman” from giving this bell-bottomed cliche no less than three musical numbers.
The desert trip isn’t entirely a washout, thanks to Crowley’s stunning red-sky sets and some pivotal songs (though fans of Simon’s “Songs From the Capeman” will lament the excision of the CD’s beautiful “Trailways Bus” number).
But the Arizona sequence typifies the erratic and ultimately ruinous choices made by Simon, Walcott and whichever director concerning whether to stay faithful to or veer from history. Whether Wahzinak actually existed is beside the point: As a stage character, she’s a failure. Sal’s about-face in the desert is a letdown dramatically, and his death of natural causes at age 43 virtually defines anticlimactic. Few would condemn Simon for taking some dramatic license.
And “Capeman” is nearly as disappointing when it chooses to ignore history. The real Agron must have had a tougher time growing up; nothing onstage seems all that horrific. What could have prompted the fathomless anger that fueled his comment, upon capture, that his mother “could watch” him burn? The stage version includes that remark, yet presents mother Esmeralda as only slightly less saint-like than Lazarus. Surely there’s a story here (and in the deadened shark eyes of the real Agron, shown onstage via old news footage) that “Capeman” doesn’t plumb.
Although their singing is beyond fault, neither Anthony nor Blades has the stage experience (or presence) to fatten the thinly written title character. And why would director Morris, arguably a dance genius, give his actors so little to do? The joyous love song “Bernadette” all but screams for the youthful Sal to bounce around the large stage, yet he stands all but immobile. Blades’ impromptu rumba at curtain call displayed more physical spirit than anything Morris (or replacement choreographer Joey McKneely) came up with.
Nazario, also possessed of a beautiful voice, can do little to make Esmeralda more than a long-suffering mother. The acting prowess (though not the expert vocal chops) of the rest of the ensemble is hit or miss.
One of the areas where “Capeman” certainly does not miss is its sets. Just as Simon melds musical styles, designer Crowley mixes the abstract and the realistic into an elegant, fanciful whole (strikingly lit by Natasha Katz). At once spare and lush, the painterly sets depict Puerto Rico as a vibrant slash of green floating in the deep blue of sea and sky, the Arizona desert at sunset as otherworldly as Mars. In a scene that drew gasps and spontaneous applause from the audience, the stage’s backdrop slowly lights up to become a view of the sky and city buildings as seen from the perspective of the street, the young Sal singing from his perch on a fire escape.
Such splashes of style, visually and musically, arrive with enough frequency to make “The Capeman” either a noble failure or a mortally wounded success. Unfortunately for all concerned, the show relies on a title character who is neither.