NY Review: 'Shelter'

at the PTC Performance Space as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival

Reviewed by Clifford Lee Johnson III

July 31, 2012


Photo by Logan Bradford
Twenty minutes into "Shelter" the cast breaks into a hymnlike song called "Noah's Prayer," and the musical finally takes off and soars. Then it sinks back into the well-meaning but clunky piece we hoped we'd escaped. This pattern prevails throughout the show, making it seem like a trip in a car during which the driver frantically alternates between the gas and the brake until you get woozy. It's frustrating because when "Shelter" is occasionally aloft we get a glimpse of the stirring, socially aware musical that its creators intended.

The action takes place in a women's homeless shelter, where a new counselor named Jeanine has just been hired. The broken and embittered women Jeanine encounters don't take her seriously, until she reveals that she too once lived in a shelter. Then they begin to open up and respond to her assertions that they can better their lives. However, when an abusive husband beats one of the women to death, Jeanine quits, feeling that she didn't do enough to help the woman. Her neighbor and quasi-boyfriend Josh tries to talk her into returning, but she rebuffs him. It's only when another woman from the shelter tells Jeanine that she has gotten a job as a result of Jeanine's faith in her that Jeanine returns. Shortly afterward, Josh dies while saving a girl from being crushed by the collapse of an abandoned shelter. Jeanine spearheads the drive to rebuild the shelter and have it named after Josh.

Brittany Bullen's book is meant to draw attention to the plight of women and families who wind up in homeless shelters, and that's admirable. But doing so obliges her to depict all the various types of people and situations one might find in a shelter rather than restricting her story to actions growing out of conflicts between characters. It also forces her to rely on external events, like Josh's death, to drive the narrative.

The cast is quite good, though three actors deserve to be singled out. Latoya Rhodes energizes and holds the show together as Jeanine; Lena Candia steals all the scenes her vibrant Maya roars through; and Adam Dietlein's Josh adds a strong but sensitive male presence to a predominantly female ensemble. Director Brighton Sloan is unable to smooth out the story's inherent jerkiness, but her work with the actors is assured.

The score features straightforward lyrics by Bullen and simple music by her and Newell Bullen. Many of the songs in "Shelter" are lovely, but their impact is blunted because most are given abrupt endings. Without musical buttons, the spell created by the actors is broken, and audiences wonder how to respond. Musicals should glide, of course, not limp.

Presented by Shelter, LLC, as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival at the PTC Performance Space, 555 W. 42nd St., NYC. July 27–29. (212) 352-3101, (866) 811-4111, or www.nymf.org. Casting by Brighton Sloan.
 

 
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