No one who has ever paged through “London Labour and the London Poor,” Henry Mayhew’s shocking four-volume expose of the miserable social conditions of the lower classes in Victorian England, would ever mistake Di Trevis and Frank McGuinness’ cloying musical adaptation, “London Cries,” for the real deal. Sentimental to a fault, this superficial treatment pretty much ignores its grim source, finding more inspiration in the formulaic characters and maudlin sentiments of vintage music hall songs.
Where, oh where, in this production — expressly mounted by Irondale Ensemble Project to show off its handsome new digs in Fort Greene, Brooklyn — are the magsmen and sharpers, the bone-grubbers and offal-eaters, the prostitutes, procuresses, pimps and panders whose short, brutal lives and colorful criminal exploits are so vividly evoked by Mayhew the social reformer? They’re here, sort of, but in versions so watered-down and sanitized as to be almost unrecognizable.
The show’s don’t-take-this-too-seriously aura is established at the outset by the storytelling framework — the stage of a dilapidated music hall theater, executed with more efficiency than flair by house designer Ken Rothchild. That setting entices the ghosts of an old actor named Freddie Bishop (a respectable perf from Richard Poe) and London audiences of long ago to step forward and tell their stories.
Since Irondale’s new theater happens to be housed in the spacious, but not-quite-refitted sanctuary of a church, the eerie emptiness of the high-ceilinged space actually works to the show’s advantage. But the air of make-believe does nothing for the characters.
In fact, we are well into the second act before some of them assert clear identities. And for all the effort, those identities turn out to be simple stereotypes: the brawling Irish laborer, the Jewish merchant, the unhappy prostitute, the drunken father and the family he mistreats, etc.
Mayhew didn’t write fictional characters, either. But while the muckraking author was primarily intent on awakening the civilized world to the masses of Londoners living in poverty and more or less forced to take up criminal enterprises to stay alive, he made copious use of interviews to illustrate his points. From the humblest beggars to flamboyant scoundrels like the bogus Count Hohenbreitenstein-Boitzenburg, Mayhew’s subjects came to vivid life under his sharp pen.
Although they work well as an ensemble under Trevis’ disciplined helming, company members visibly struggle to discover some individuality in their stock roles. (Colorful rags contributed by costumer Liz Prince give them a hand.)
Damen Scranton brings physical grace to his bland role of a barman, and Michael Gabriel Goodfriend finds expressive warmth to share in Nathaniel, the proverbially downtrodden Jew. As a brash and cynical bawd, Jenny Galloway has a lot more to work with. And work it she does, with a strong voice and a fine strut.
What no one can quite overcome is the basic predicament of trying to maintain a shaky character while belting out music hall songs. Which is not to fault the songs themselves. As executed on an upright piano with the utmost verve by musical director John DiPinto, the dozens of vintage ditties collected here hold terrific appeal.
But, charming as it is to hear gems like “Burlington Bertie” and “Father Come Home” performed in their entirety, the jaunty musical style doesn’t suit the temperament of the textual source material and it’s not at all clear whether adaptor-composer Dominic Muldowney intended them to be taken ironically.
Before Trevis unveils her show at London’s Old Vic Theater (which commissioned it), she really needs to reconcile the music hall spirit of making merry in the face of misery with the plain old misery captured by Mayhew in “London Labour and the London Poor.”