More clothespins, please, and fewer dreams.
The creators of “Clothespins and Dreams,” California Music Theatre’s first new musical, have a fascinating subject--the women who scrub other people’s clothes in a Harlem laundry yard in 1911, at the moment when their meager income is threatened by the new motor-powered washing machine.
The situation is rife with potential dramatic conflict, and the fact that most of these women are black adds further historical and musical dimensions. But, like laundry that’s hung out to dry without the pressure of sturdy clothespins, the show is blown away by repeated updrafts of can-do dreams, positive thinking and college tries.
The first few scenes at Pasadena Civic Auditorium work well. One of the women on a six-woman crew has just dropped dead, and her fellow crew members are praying for a big, strong replacement who can do the job well enough for them to meet their quotas. “Make her a mountain,” they sing, in a fervent, gospel-flavored number.
Playwright-lyricist Ron Miller (working from a non-musical play by Tom Harris) and composer Ken Hirsch establish a note of urgency, and they also give these women a buoyant strength and sardonic attitude that cuts through the gloom and self-pity.
We quickly sample some of the roof-raising voices in this cast, especially that of Eloise Laws as Suds, the charismatic leader of the crew. And the event that caps this opening number--the arrival of pale, slight Maggie (Marilyn Rising) as the new recruit, greeting everyone in a mousy voice that compounds the others’ apprehension--is the funniest moment in the show.
The originality, if not the accomplishment, begins to dip after that. The women describe their job to Maggie in a number (“Scrubbin’ ”) that sounds oddly upbeat and jaunty, as much to keep up the rhythm of the show as because that’s the spirit in which they would sing it. Still, they sing it well (the other women are played by Ren Woods, Valerie Washington, Sheila Grenham, Jewel Tompkins and Desiree Dargan). Director Gary Davis and musical staging supervisor Nicole Barth keep the eye occupied.
Of the squabbling father and son who own the laundry yard, the retired Mr. Morganstern (Barney Martin) is immediately tabbed as the good guy, while his 36-year-old heir (Jordan Bennett) is a grasping schemer who dropped “Stern” from “Morgan” not so much to hide his origins as to save money on the Morgan Laundry sign. What chance do these women have with such a boss? And what chance for character development is there when people are painted in such stark tones from the beginning?
Compared with these characters, those in that other labor-against-management musical, “Pajama Game” (revived by this same company just last season), look fairly complex.
Soon we witness the most inspirational moment in the show. Willis (Tony Floyd), who loads the tubs for the women and has lived with Suds for 15 years, needs a push to get his life on track. So Suds provides it in “Whenever You Find Yourself,” a stirring, you-can-do-it ballad that Laws sends soaring.
Unfortunately, this is the first of three such go-for-it numbers, and they get steadily worse. The last one--which Mr. Morganstern sings to Suds just before she faces one of these newfangled washing machines in the climactic scrubbing competition--includes what must be the moral of the story, for it’s repeated as the parting sentiment of the finale:
“It’s not what you achieve, but how much you believe / You win when you lose, if you try.”
It’s a measure of the banality that afflicts too much of this show.
The trouble is apparent before intermission, when Mr. Morganstern and Willis sing a little ditty based on the hardly novel observation that everyone has to go to the bathroom, regardless of status or class. On opening night Saturday, Martin forgot some of his lyrics--an appropriate response, all things considered.
After intermission, too much time is spent confirming the obvious--that Suds is a saint. The women are so devoted to her, they pool their precious pennies to send her on a cruise--the most improbable twist in the script. During her face-off with the machine, her spirit separates from her body (Ward Carlisle’s red and blue lights work overtime here) and roams the stage, not so much reviewing her own life as coming up with words of wisdom that might guide the others. The goo becomes impossibly thick.
Laws and most of the cast hold up their end throughout, though it’s frustrating that Floyd’s lustrous voice is reined in for so long before he finally gets to sing, almost too late in the day. Jeff Rizzo’s musical direction is solid, as are the detailed scenic and costume designs by Terry Gates and Al Lehman.
At Pasadena Civic Auditorium, 300 E. Green St., Pasadena, this Tuesday and Wednesday at 8 p.m., then Thursdays through Saturdays at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2 p.m., through Aug. 26. $15-$32.50; (213) 410-1062.