Galperin and Kadin’s book frames their musical with a retired Moses sitting by the phone in his Long Island beach cottage in 1973 waiting for Governor Rockefeller to recall him back to his masterplan. It then tells his story from 1921 to 1962. It rapidly covers his work on Jones Beach, NYC’s bridges and tunnels, his housing projects, his meetings with philanthropist and statesman Nelson Rockefeller, and his unpopular use of eminent domain to remove residences that stood in the way of his plans. Finally it moves on to his fight with activist and urban planner Jane Jacobs over his plan to tear down the arch in Washington Square Park in order to build the Lower Manhattan Expressway on which it spends the most time.
Moses’ famously crowded and contentious career is glossed over except for his final battle with Jacobs over the Lower Manhattan Expressway. Bulldozer doesn’t even give a good summary of his many different accomplishments. Although the program lists the time scheme, there is nothing in the show to let us know how much time passes between any of the scenes. The dialogue does a lot of name dropping (Al Smith, Jimmy Walker, Fiorello LaGuardia, Franklin D. Roosevelt, Walter O’Malley) without making any of these people real. Hardly any of the songs forward the plot but instead tell us what we already found out in the preceding dialogue scene. The song lyrics have endlessly repeated refrains and choruses which is typical of rock and pop songs but death in a theatrical presentation in which we expect more information and cleverer wording.
Maroulis is fine at portraying Moses’ arrogance, ego and bigotry but low on charm or magnetism. Ironically for someone known mainly as a singer, the songs sit awkwardly in his voice and seem too low for his vocal range. Except for a little grey on his temples late in the show, he does not age at all even though 52 years go by. Wayne Wilcox’s bland Nelson Rockefeller is a bit better but seems as underwritten as Moses. Molly Pope steals the show with her angry and quirky portrayal of activist and urban planner Jane Jacobs, and three of her songs, “We Like What We Like,” “Don’t You Dare” and “You Can’t See” are the most successful in the show.
Kacie Sheik gives a fine performance as cigarette girl Vera Martin who becomes Moses’ secretary and long-time lover. She gives an impassioned rendition of “Lost All Sense of Direction” when she finally has her eyes open to Moses’ defects and failings. As The Street Musician and The Reporter, as well as various walk-ons, Ryan Knowles demonstrates tremendous versatility. His resonant baritone wraps itself around his folk rock number, “Masterplan,” which is heard in six variations over the course of the show. Karen Carpenter’s direction keeps the show moving along without giving the actors much of a hand at making the characters more than one-dimensional.
Ken Larson’s scenic design is an unattractive but utilitarian two-story metal scaffolding and some furniture (a desk, a bed, a table) which is dragged on stage for individual scenes which creates little atmosphere. The lighting by Zach Blane occasionally bathes the stage in various colors for dramatic effect. The set is backed by a silvery wall which picks up the blue, red, green, yellow and purple lighting which is used for various scenes. Bobby Fredrick Tilley’s costumes are little help in distinguishing the decades that the musical covers. The four-piece band (which on some nights includes the composer) works hard on the show’s 24 musical numbers but they seem to be in the wrong show as the life of Robert Moses would not appear to need rock accompaniment.
Bulldozer is an opportunity missed as Robert Caro’s famous 1,344 page biography revealed there is a powerful story in Moses’ life and career. Reducing the drama to four characters also fails to help bring the story to life.
Bulldozer: The Ballad of Robert Moses (through January 7, 2018)
Theatre at St. Clement’s, 423 W. 46th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 866-811-8411 or visit http://www.bulldozer.nyc
Running time: 95 minutes without an intermission