Marcus Hummon's latest musical, The Piper, finds the Nashville composer exploring thematic material close to his heart, including U.S. history and fallen women — the latter inevitably influenced by his affiliation with Magdalene House, founded in 1997 by his wife, the Rev. Becca Stevens. The mid-19th century Boston setting evokes the ambience of Sweeney Todd's grimy city streets, and the fact that a Ripper-like strangler is afoot further recalls that melodramatic tale. Meanwhile, Hummon and co-author Michael Aman call stern attention to the impoverished plight of the immigrant Irish.
The story concerns a former prostitute, Jordan (Kim Bretton), who runs a boardinghouse inhabited by the poor and marginalized. Jordan has a daughter named Wilder (Hannah Silverman), who appears to be a musical prodigy, but otherwise seems to be underfoot the way pubescent girls can be, especially when Mom has a potential suitor in new boarder Mr. Gramm (Mike Baum).
Meanwhile, a lusty judge, who is also a candidate for mayor, wields his power as archetypal scalawag politicians do, promising hope for the downtrodden while exercising his bigotry and fulfilling his own needs. In this case, Judge Malcolm (Jeff Miller) proves even more nefarious, and it is Jordan's gumption and Wilder's magic flute that emerge as heroic foils.
The score is typical Hummon — mostly churchy piano textures with some folkish guitar, embellished with pop elements (or blues when the composer decides to "rock out"). Fact is, anyone familiar with his Surrender Road — presented by Nashville Opera in 2005 — might think they are hearing outtakes. Those hoping for something progressive won't find it here.
In the opening number, "New Jerusalem," townsfolk revel on the city square. Frankly, given all the squalor we're confronting, the song's Christian pop feel seems a mite optimistic. In any case, it sounds unintentionally cacophonous, and the dancing looked sloppy.
Shortly thereafter, there's a hanging scene ("Property of Fools"), and the condemned men are none other than composer/author Hummon, director Bill Feehely and musical director Tim Fudge, in a unique cameo that presumably isn't meant as foreshadowing.
Many of the songs delineate character or express emotion, which plays to Hummon's strength — writing pretty music. "Rose Without Thorns" and "Songbird" are two pleasantries sung by mother and daughter, and "Slender Threads That Bind Us Here" (co-authored with Kathy Mattea) is a strong and lovely cast number.
"It's 5 O'Clock Somewhere," all about the inevitable joys of drinking, seems anachronistic, since evidence suggests that 5 o'clock wasn't established as the drinking hour until around the turn of the 20th century. Still, it's an entertaining tune that adds humor. The hookers' anthem "The Workin' Girl Knows," meanwhile, is a failure, though at least it's not offensive.
As she has already proven to Nashville audiences, leading lady Bretton is an engaging actress. She's not a great singer, but her strong dramatic presence more than makes up for it.
High-schooler Silverman rises to a challenging task. Though she's only 15, her plaintive singing is moving, and she performs her role well.
Baum, a veteran of many musicals at Boiler Room Theatre and elsewhere, further distinguishes himself with a courageous performance as Bretton's love interest. Together they sing the affecting "See My Soul," and Baum singlehandedly recharges Act 1's faltering energy with "The Pied Piper of Hamlin."
As the evil Malcolm, Miller projects a macabre menace that helps sustain the story, which sometimes gets lost in the rush of musical pieces that don't directly revolve around plot. His big solo, "Only a Man," is delivered with an effectively twisted sensibility.
Local jazz crooner Annie Sellick gets a rather plum role as Juliette, a mulatto who suffers the double whammy of discrimination. (She's a courtesan with black blood.) Sellick isn't a half-bad half-breed; she conjures some interesting stage moves and rouses our sympathy.
Despite its missteps, including a rather confusing climax, The Piper is still worth a trip to Belmont's Black Box Theater. There are some standout performances, and the sheer force of Hummon's ideas often propels his opus into thought-provoking territory.
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