A new show opened last week at the Theatre at St. Clement’s called Bulldozer: The Ballad of Robert Moses. It is a small show with five actors and a four piece on-stage band. It has a contemporary feel to it that fits perfectly in Off-Broadway theater. This show brings a unique approach to what could be a humdrum subject: history. Instead, it has an interesting story line about the legendary Robert Moses, all new songs, and a cast who work the layers and levels of the show with passion and intensity that delivers a satisfying performance theater goers will appreciate.
Bulldozer: The Ballad of Robert Moses takes a look at a very historic and important figure in New York City history, Robert Moses. Karen Carpenter directs the show about the man whom some call the “master planner” of New York. Starting around the 1930’s, his approach to city planning and development was paramount in creating much of the structure we see in New York today. When people sit in their cars not moving because of gridlock, his name is one that comes to mind. Likewise, when people use Jones Beach or the park system, his name also comes up in more favorable terms.
Peter Galperin and Daniel Scot Kadin co-wrote the book for the show. They attempt to cover a lot of ground in 90 – 100 minutes. Dialog and music both contribute to that attempt. The show opens with a view of Robert Moses as an old, defeated man having a blanket put across his legs as he scowls and begins to recall his life. As he reflects back, the audience meets an idealistic young man who dreams of making things as good as they could be in New York City. He meets a woman working in a nightclub and shows his kindness to her as he speaks of seeing the higher ups in their seats in the club. His ambition is hinted at here. That woman, Vera, later becomes his mistress and a composite of women in his life.
Time moves on and Moses has become more ensconced in his position. He forms a relationship with another power broker of the day, Nelson Rockefeller. At first, he and Rockefeller seem to be in tune. However, as Moses’ work becomes his obsession, he no longer is interested in outside activities. His prejudices and biases become more known and are skillfully presented to the audience as he lets the Brooklyn Dodgers leave with a mention of “that Robinson.”
Holding true to the real story, Robert Moses takes control to the point where no project can be done without it going through him. For him, a project is only something to be accomplished without concern for the people he “relocates” thus decimating neighborhoods such as what happened when the Cross Bronx Expressway was built.
The final showdown occurs with his plans to build a highway through lower Manhattan and bulldoze through Greenwich Village. At this point, Jane Jacobs, who is being secretly backed by Nelson Rockefeller, leads a crusade that successfully ends the plans. It also signals the end of Robert Moses’ career.
Writer/composer Peter Galperin brings a fresh energy to the music by using a variety of styles, but most prominently, rock. There are six Street Musician songs designed to do the job of a storyteller. Although they are well done, their folk song approach just doesn’t meld in well enough with the rock in the show. But the songs advance the plot well. They also allow more of the mood of the characters to shine through. Several highlights include “You and I” which is a very clever duet between Moses and Rockefeller as they fly over the newly constructed Palisades Park. Their optimism is evident and it signals the beginning of a strong alliance between the two. But then, a tense exchange between Moses and Rockefeller happens later which is not pleasant when they exchange barbs in “You’ll Do It My Way.” Jane Jacobs and Robert Moses square off in “Don’t You Dare “ with strong voices arguing it out and the activist, Jacobs, asserting that she can hold her own. The song “Straight Towards the Sun” opens and closes the show and is absolutely beautiful. Moses sums up his life’s work as he sings, “I couldn’t see a thing, because the light was in my eyes, I was heading straight towards the sun.” It ends the show on a very poignant note.
A strong cast includes Constantine Maroulis as Robert Moses. His fine acting lets the audience see Robert Moses transform from an old, embittered man in the beginning to a young idealist one and then age him back to that starting point. His portrayal shows the distance Moses put between himself and others. One of the highlights of Mr. Maroulis’ performance is his strong singing voice which soars as he romances Vera Martin and then it explodes in anger against Nelson Rockefeller.
Molly Pope as Jane Jacobs does not let her audience forget that she became a power to be reckoned with. She develops the character in such a manner that when we learn of her victory over the powerful Robert Moses, the feeling is one of gratitude towards Jane. Her powerful singing voice more than holds the place of woman in what was then, more of a man’s world.
Wayne Wilcox plays Nelson Rockefeller. His character is serious and thoughtfully developed and acted out. But when his ambition to run for higher office surfaces, there is no question that he will succeed. Kacie Sheik plays Vera Martin, the composite character. She is charming to watch. Vera develops the the tenacity to break away from Moses’ control and become her own person. Randy Knowles does several roles including the Street Musician and reporters who heckle Moses. His singing is enjoyable to listen to and his heckling is first rate.
This is a very enjoyable show to see. It is especially recommended for people who have an interest in the history of New York City or city planning.
Bulldozer: The Ballad of Robert Moses plays now through January 7, 2018 at the Theater at St. Clements, 423 W. 46th Street, NYC.
The show runs approximately 90 minutes with no intermission.
Tickets are available at the theater’s box or online at the show’s official website at bulldozerthemusical.com.