A narrator tells us that it is during World War I and Anna’s socialist husband Frank has been claiming to be busy with workman’s business but has really been cheating on her. Already bringing up her two school-aged children Vincent, aged 13 and Rosemary, aged 11, as a single mother, she throws him out and we don’t see him again for four years briefly in Act Two. In the meantime, Anna gets a job at the local factory sewing on a machine and also designing swim suits for “athletic women.” A tank is being built to hold two million gallons of molasses to be used for gun powder, dynamite and liquor but the Tank Owner is rushing things and skips over the test to see if it leaks. Throw in an attempt to unionize, Anna being reunited with her former beau, widower Joe Detoronto whose mother has always hated her, and surprise visits from Aunt Maria, a chic dressmaker who always brings treats, and you have the plot of the show. It all plays like a watered-down version of a 1930’s Warner Brothers movie without the period details that one would expect from a first class production.
Standing in the way of the show’s success is the workshop-like production. Some of Pellegrino’s melodies are pleasant but musical director Michael Wittenberg’s piano playing drowns out many of the weak voices. The lyrics tend to be very thin and extremely repetitious. The uncredited set is actually that of another show with unnecessary portions covered over in brown cloth, giving the look of the show no atmosphere whatever. The uncredited costumes are mainly coordinated in bland brown and white which does not help set period one bit. Stone’s choreography is extremely basic and not very decorative. If you sit on the left side of the theater, you are likely to be blinded periodically by designer Christina Verde’s two spotlights aimed right into the eyes of the viewers.
The ten-member cast is mainly one dimensional with many actors doubling in roles that are either out of their range or age category. As the heroine Anna, Lianne Gennaco has a pleasant if weak voice but is too cheerful for the problems she must undergo. Joe Marx and Anie Delgado as her teenage children are not very convincing as they look a good deal older than their roles, in fact, as old as their mother. Best is Grace Experience as the intrepid and plucky Aunt Maria who not only lights up the stage but has all the best songs. As Joe’s narrow-minded and old-fashioned mother, Cali LaSpina is much too young to bring off this mature role which also lacks nuance. The men’s roles are so underwritten that although they have little voices it does not seem to matter.
While many of the characters tell Anna she should marry Joe, it is never explained how this is possible without a divorce from the missing Frank. The inspiration for this show seems to be the musicals Fiorello! which was hugely successful and A Tree Grows in Brooklyn which wasn’t, but Molasses in January trades in all the clichés of the immigrant experience. There is a fascinating story to be told about Boston’s Molasses Disaster of 1919 but this show never seems to remember that is what it was supposed to be about.
Molasses in January (through July 28, 2018)
Anne L. Bernstein Theater at The Theater Center, 210 W. 50th Street, in Manhattan
For tickets, call 212-921-7862 or visit http://www.ticketmaster.com
Running time: one hour and 45 minutes including one intermission