By Stanford Friedman
West of the Times Square tumbleweeds, in the high heat of Hell’s Kitchen, The New York Musical Festival has rounded up a group of prisoners who provide a most pleasant escape. The Goree All Girl String Band, by Michael Bradley and Artie Sievers, features a 13 member cast that sings and plays strings as they recount their tale of redemption in a Texas women’s penitentiary, circa 1938. If Act One is emotionally pent up, Act Two breaks out beyond all expectation. These couple hours of country crooning are inspired by actual events; imagine A Prairie Home Companion staffed by felons, or Orange Is the New Black with yodeling and a washboard.
Mozelle (Ruby Wolf) is only seventeen when she arrives at The Goree State Farm, where she is quickly befriended by the prison matron, Clyde (Tamra Hayden), and a kind hearted gang of seven, including her well-connected cellmate, Reable (Lauren Patten). Meanwhile, the one dose of harsh reality, Cocaine Nora (Miche Braden), brings a bit of nasty to the proceedings, but is more bark than bite. In what there is of a plot, the gals stumble upon a means of release in the guise of a weekly radio show that features prisoner performers. If they can form a band and be a ratings hit, surely the governor will free them all.
Nine women on stage equates to sweet harmonies aplenty in the handful of ensemble pieces, as they ably accompany themselves, on guitar, violin, bass, what have you. Ms. Wolf’s voice has just enough grit while Ms. Patten’s inflective mezzo-soprano brings to mind a young, less belty Patti LuPone. And yes, the show briefly channels Chicago in a number where each inmate boasts of her crime. But instead of a Cell Block Tango confession that “He had it coming,” the rodeo refrain here is “Did it cuz I had to…Did it for a new tomorrow, ‘stead a destined for a life of sorrow.”
NYMF, of course, is a festival for musicals in development, and there is some work to be done. Mozelle needs a first act number of her own, and the authors need to find a way to bring consequence to the few dark moments that shadow the women. But the first half of the second act arrives fully formed with four consecutive killer numbers. First, Ms. Braden’s Nora returns and lets loose with the soulful, dream busting, “How They Leave You” (“The past comes back slowly, they see who you are, that’s why they leave.”). Next, Reable’s two suitors, Terrance and Paul (Titus Tompkins, Robert Ariza), sing the clever “On Bended Knee,” neither knowing of the other’s existence. Then Nattalyee Randall, as Hattie, an inmate ironically not allowed to be on radio because of the color of her skin, unleashes the show stopping “I Don’t Mind” (“Say there’s no place for me out there, oh I mind.”). This is quickly followed, for good measure, by a full ensemble jamboree, “Daddy Wore Boots,” before a reasonably happy ending lands in their laps.
Goree exits the festival, with time served, on Saturday. But it’s a production that deserves a longer run. Can a show with a cast this large find the backing to bring it Off-Broadway? One good sign: the show was recently named as the recipient of this year’s Kevin Spacey Foundation Artists of Choice. Hopefully, the producers will find their way to a lengthier sentence. It would be a crime not to.
The Goree All Girl String Band – By Michael Bradley and Artie Sievers; Directed by Ashley Brooke Monroe.
WITH: Lauren Patten (Reable Childs), Lauren J. Thomas (Georgia), Tamra Hayden (Clyde Heath), Lizzie Hagstedt (Bonnie), Robert Ariza (Paul), Titus Tompkins (Terrence), Ruby Wolf (Mozelle), Kendra Jo Brook (Burma), Nattalyee Randall (Hattie Ellis), Nick Plakias (Heath), Luke Darnell (Nelson Olmsted), Chanel Karimkhani (Ruby Mae) and Miche Braden (Nora).
Brandon Powers (Choreographer), Max Gordon (Musical Director and Orchestration), Tina McCartney (Costumes), Isabella Byrd (Lighting), Brett J. Banakis (Scenery, Props), Armelle Harper (Stage Manager). The New York Musical Festival at The Acorn Theatre at Theatre Row, 410 W 42nd St., 212 352 3101, http://www.nymf.org/festival/2017-events/goree-band. Friday, July 28, and Saturday, July 29, at 9:00 pm. Running time: 2 hours.