Caroline Sherman and Bob Hull, creators of book, words and music for the new musical “Empire,” have taken a relatively dry subject — the construction of New York’s Empire State Building — and turned it into a fast, flavorful, exciting tale of architects, politicians and workers who dream big despite the 1929 Depression, willingly risking their lives and reputations. The book needs tightening, and a few lyrics rely on stock phrases, but most of the material is joyously fresh. Best of all, Sergio Trujillo’s choreography shows towering imagination as he moves his cast across multilevel beams and scaffolding.
Trujillo and director Clayton Phillips immediately flood the stage with 20 likable characters singing “Everybody Up,” a buoyant title that expresses the lively mood. This euphoria is shattered by the stock market crash, and we meet impoverished workers lined up for construction jobs: Bucky (Will Heermance), who hopes to walk the high beams with the Mohawk Indians; Ethan (Rod Keller), who ignores warnings of danger from nervous girlfriend Emily (Shannon Warne) so he can remain part of the Empire State project; and Sam (Laura Hornberger), a young man who may not be what he seems. Also passionately involved are driven architect Michael (Chris Hall), contractor Gladys (Sandy Mulvihill), ex-New York Gov. Al Smith (Richard Fox) and financier John J. Raskob (Mark Slama).
Although the key conflict ostensibly is a clash between Michael and Hilda (Maura K. Knowles), a journalist who disapproves of the building and writes negative articles that threaten its completion, their bickering is short on 1930s Hecht/MacArthur-style wit, and the early antagonism that precedes love is too tame. Hall has a strong, dynamic singing voice, and his most unforgettable moment is a solo, “Man of Destiny.”
The story takes a while to work up steam — and conversations between numbers could be trimmed — but once elements of danger are suggested, “Empire” develops and sustains tension. An unexpected death triggers powerful dramatic undercurrents in the second act, and this tragedy is forcefully used to define and resolve all major relationships. There’s a semi-villain, Menzo, played with brute authority and grace by Matt Merchant; thesp has the strength to go further in this character and provide additional menace (as Jud does in “Oklahoma!”), and the authors wrap up his story a little too neatly.
Framed by Chris Hulen’s New York skyline and Kirk Bookman’s atmospheric lighting, the rhythmic tunes have unflagging energy. “Lunch Time Rag,” with workers ogling girls, is production’s highlight, an exhilarating display of dancers doing cartwheels, swinging from scaffolding and showing off with pushups. First-act closer, “Empire,” packs the punch of the best “Les Miz” ensemble pieces. Mulvihill’s Gladys and photographer Frank (Reece Holland) dance and sing “You’re Driving Me Crazy,” a hilarious ode to compulsive physical chemistry.
In a more delicate, equally appealing vein, Keller and Warne share a beautiful duet, “Castle in the Air,” and Cortes Alexander brings genuine passion to “Beautiful and Blessed,” an agonized song in which he mourns the loss of his wife.
Director Phillips has caught the machine-gun rapidity of stylized ’30s speech, and Fox’s Al Smith playfully represents ambitious politicians.
“Empire” is a raw diamond, but when it sparkles, it matches the allure of its subject.