There are many who consider musicals the playpen of American theater, mistaking them as unserious just because people break into song every few minutes and prance about. Well, okay, that doesn't sound very serious. But there are many musical shows with satirical bite (Urinetown), culture-challenging bravado (Hair), and even gender rage (Hedwig and the Angry Inch).
Indeed, there are so many musicals with an active social (meaning, in this case, liberal) consciousness that it's possible to gather enough songs to fill a revue. And that's what Bill Rudman and Eric Coble have done in Let Freedom Ring!, now at Ensemble Theatre. The 40 or so songs raise issues from class warfare to exploited workers, from the futility of war to the banality of suburbia. But as inspired as the concept is, the flow of the tunes is often spotty, and the predominantly young cast doesn't quite generate the chemistry necessary to glide the show over its rough spots.
Actually, some of the best moments are when similarly themed songs from different eras are grouped into a medley that illustrates how pervasive our social ills can be. Early on, "When the Idle Poor Become the Idle Rich" from 1947 is paired with three other pauper vs. plutocrat songs from the '60s and '80s, playing the self-justifying rationales of tycoons off the frustrations of capitalist victims. Another fine combo is when "Song of the Sewing Machine" (1928) merges with "Millwork," written by James Taylor for the musical Working in 1978. Seems that lowly hourly workers, whether they labor in a sweatshop or a factory, are equally pissed off.
For those who appreciate hearing their pet political stances turned into melodies, this is a bracing and informative ride through some of the farther outposts of stage-musical history. But there are a few song sequences that strain logic and could leave some scratching their heads. For instance, Stephen Sondheim's acidic and highly contemporary "Another Hundred People" is followed, with no segue, by the Depression classic "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?" If there's a point being made there, it eludes detection. In other cases, a smattering of tunes just aren't that good musically, no matter how interesting they might be if discussed in a sociology class.
There are some interesting isolated performances by the five-member troupe, but they never seem to coalesce under the direction of Eric Schmiedl. The one older man, Mick Houlahan, is a strong presence, but he approaches every song with the same stentorian singing voice and unblinking stare. The four younger folks are from the Baldwin-Wallace College Music Theater Program (an associate in this production), and they have all the energy -- along with the elemental performance chops and nascent phrasing skills -- that one would expect from college students.
Rudman and Coble definitely have a concept here that could be fully captivating in the right hands. Here's hoping a tightened version reappears down the road, with actors who can match the depth of some of these complex and politically important musical milestones.