Presented by The Third Annual Midtown International Theatre Festival at Raw Space, 529 W. 42 St., NYC, July 8-July-Aug. 3.
America has a velvet chamber in its heart for its mill girls. In mid-19th century Lowell, Mass., they earned visibility with their bold labor strike, and then became famous for forming literary groups instead of partying after their long shifts. In 1912, the raw courage of the embattled Lawrence, Mass. strikers radicalized the young Margaret Sanger, the birth control pioneer, and mobilized John Reed, who visited Russia and subsequently wrote "Ten Days That Shook the World" about the Soviet revolution. Unfortunately, "Belles of the Mill," a musical about the Lawrence strike, rarely lives up to the potential of its subject matter.
"Belles" follows Bridget Gallagher (Elissa Ann Yudofsky), a 17-year-old immigrant, from personal outrage when wages are cut to a growing awareness and activism. Historical figures rub shoulders with fictional characters, such as Hiram Stern (Bill Quinlan), a shopkeeper who remembers the pogroms, and the pregnant Lucia Cognosci (Phoebe Geer), who loses her baby in a demonstration. Gallagher is too flat a character to generate any sparks, which is a particular handicap when the plot meanders into sexual harassment, abortion, the suffrage movement, and the licensing of midwives.
The most exciting musical numbers are for the women. The opening number—as the mill workers resolve to strike—segues between passionate solos, lively choral harmonics, and beautiful rounds. But Jill Marshall-Work's mostly pedestrian music and lyrics are usually further undercut by the plot sentimentality of Rachel Rubin Ladutke's book.
Director Arlene Schulman adds to the blandness by treating the encounters more like social gatherings than strategy meetings involving life-and-death issues. In the potentially powerful contract negotiation scene between William Wood (Joe Enderson), president of the American Woolen Company, and I.W.W. organizer Elizabeth Gurley Flynn (Amanda Weeden), Weeden was grinning. She should have been flashing steel.