Sunday, April 24, 2022

Review of "Star of Freedom"


Star of Freedom, the musical receiving its world premiere at the Ivoryton Playhouse, is neither a sophisticated, nor complex living diorama of a slice of American and Irish history.  The show covers a lot of territory, from the Irish Potato Famine of the mid-1800’s through the end of the American Civil War.  This is the main problem with the production.  Librettist Lawrence Thelen tries to squeeze in so much material within a very short timeframe (the musical is less than two hours, which includes an Intermission) that scenarios and characters are presented in broad strokes, with little depth.


The Star of the title refers to the North Star and figures prominently throughout the show.  Two distinct stories - one of an Irish lad, Sean, who survives the Famine and immigrates to America and the other, a young female slave, Chloe, who after years of slavery becomes a free woman - eventual meld into one unified plot line.  The two, after a tentative encounter, seek to start life anew in the Western frontier.


The story between Chloe and Sean is interesting and full of possibilities. The show’s creative team could focus less about plantation life - the ground that’s covered is nothing new or insightful - and Sean’s life in Ireland.  This would allow time to more richly develop the two central characters, their struggles and hardships as well as their happier moments.


The score by Ben Hope is jaunty, hopeful and somber.  It is heavily influenced by the folk tradition and American roots music styles.  The six-person cast doubles as the on-stage band and their instrumentation - guitar, mandolin, bass, banjo and accordion - gives the production an authentic flavor.


The cast is led by Danny Adams as Sean and Ayla Stackhouse as Chloe.  Mr. Adams gives his portrayal a perseverance and strength that buttresses his character’s setbacks.  He radiates a continual optimism that would be more genuine if tempered with the realities he faces.  Ms. Stackhouse imbues Chloe with a hardness, yet resolve to overcome all obstacles.  The actress manages to tease out her role to something beyond its perfunctory limits.


The other cast members, Brian Russell, Luke Darnell, Ben Hope and Richard E. Waits are agreeable in their multiple featured parts.  Mr. Waits also brings dignity and circumspection to the role of Chole’s Uncle Lewis.


Director Jacqui Hubbard diligently keeps the action moving from one scene to the next.  With few props and changeless staging, she sufficiently creates the illusion of a full range of settings, which include a ship’s journey to the New World, a mountainous cabin, and plantation dwellings. Ms. Hubbard seamlessly moves the performers from their roles within the work to musicians performing the songs on stage.


Scenic Designer Marcus Abbott’s minimal set of slated wood platforms and boxes, along with the occasional projection, provides a multi-functional backdrop for the various scenarios of the show.


Star of Freedom, playing at the Ivoryton Playhouse through May 1, 2022.

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