Saturday, June 20, 2009

Planet Connections: Wagon Wheel

The setting is a gypsy camp in late 1940’s Eastern Europe. That means all the inhabitants are survivors: Roma who somehow endured or otherwise eluded the horrors of the Holocaust. Of course, bigotry and discrimination persisted for the Roma and Sinti people, even after the shocking events of World War II were widely acknowledged. Yet, the most immediate challenge for one group of Roma is a question of succession in Wagon Wheel, a stirring new musical playing as part of the Planet Connections Theatre Festivity.

Setting the scene is our sometimes narrator, Bohdan, the clan’s carefree cantor. After a smartly written prelude, he explains the dynamics within his group. Tomas is their tribal leader, the Rom baro. His eldest son Zjohai is his heir apparent and the youngest son Laszo is the easy-going spare. However, Tomas’s untimely death will reveal a secret that will have profound repercussions on the tribe.

While Wagon’s Lear-like story of sibling rivalry is powerful stuff, future productions might consider reducing the resulting body count. It is hard to believe the tribe could allow matters to degenerate so precipitously into violence, given how strongly their will to survive would have recently been tested. To an extent, it also feeds into unfortunate violent criminal stereotypes of the Roma. However, several death scenes lead into some powerfully staged posthumous dance sequences.

In fact, all of the musical numbers are very entertaining, particularly the flag-waving opening, which does a nice job of introducing the cast and establishing the wheel metaphor of the Roma’s nomadic life and their perseverance as a people in the face of adversity. Featuring a trio of piano, drums, and guitar (with occasional violin) Wagon’s score, composed by Erato Kremmyda, certainly has a pronounced gypsy influence, but it does not rigidly conform to Roma musical styles. While one might quibble here and there with Robin Sandusky’s book, her lyrics are quite impressive, effectively distilling the essence of the Roma experience.

The music is also well-served by an able cast and dance corps, particularly Sam Pinkleton who brings both a mischievous charm and a sense of poignancy to Bohdan, Wagon’s troubadour guide. Ani Neimann also brings notable stage charisma and down-to-earth credibility to the role of Lilika, a relatively new member of the tribe who becomes an additional point of contention between the brothers.

Wagon deserves tremendous credit for putting the spotlight on a historical maligned community. It is also very rewarding musically. As part of the Planet Connections Festivity’s charitable program, all proceeds from Wagon will be donated to the St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, an eminently worthy cause. It runs at the Robert Moss Theater through June 27th.