Dorothea Lange redefined the boundaries of American womanhood. She left a lucrative career snapping society portraits to pioneer photojournalism; brought dignity to migrant families in the Depression through her work, leaving iconic images and spurring aid to the dispossessed; fought for the rights of interred Japanese-Americans in World War II; and was the first woman to have her own show at MOMA. She has to have been more interesting than the rather selfish, distant woman portrayed in "Things as They Are."
John Dietrich and Jonathan Comisar's work gets a lot of brownie points for being a new, big-themed, big-cast American musical with a small but real orchestra and—thank you, gentlemen—perfect rhyme in every song. If only it were better organized, more incisive, and more melodic. Dietrich's book and lyrics flash forward and back in time as an aged Lange, equipped with an otherwise absent Bryn Mawr accent, lectures on her art while recalling key moments in her life. They're snapshots at best and so unlinked that the continuity suffers. We get a glimpse of Lange's practical, forbidding mother and imaginative, supportive grandma but not enough of a look to see how they influenced her. Her first husband, Western artist Maynard Dixon, is a sexy, loving soul mate in one scene and a self-centered jerk in the next. Her next, social scientist Paul Taylor, is a gentle cipher saddled with a mealy-mouthed ballad. The various government men she encounters in her work for the War Relocation Authority and other agencies are personality-free bureaucrats. And she appears to have been a terrible mother, constantly abandoning her two sons in pursuit of whatever new project comes her way, which makes her hard to like.
Comisar's music suitably employs open, Coplandesque harmonies to convey the open spaces Lange chronicled, but they're bizarrely shaped, tending to just end rather than build to stirring climaxes. It's one of those scores where you don't know when to clap. Some of his strongest work is for the disenfranchised masses Lange photographed: a worried chorus for a San Francisco breadline, an Act 1 finale in which migrant workers proudly recall their original professions, and a finale in which they thank Lange for bringing them to the public consciousness. Other song choices are just odd: a paean to curator John Szarkowski that keeps repeating his name without telling us who he is or why we should care about him and a sequence of Lange choosing photos for her MOMA retrospective while singing "yes yes no maybe yes no," a refrain taken up by Szarkowski and the chorus. What's the point? Director Donna Drake's stately staging, with awkward sliding panels and too many actors frozen in one spot, doesn't help, nor does the evening's utter humorlessness and Dietrich's prosaic way with a lyric: "To me it's understood/That this woman might do good."
I'd love to report that the clarion-voiced Garrett Long brings Lange to vivid life, but it's a predictable characterization, impetuous and enthusiastic in youth, crusty and authoritative in old age. The other actors are mostly stuck playing types, though strong impressions are made by Will Erat, as a nasty military man; Matthew C. Thompson, as a Depression drifter; and Laura Ware, as a society shrew. As for Lange's photos, they're on display throughout in overhead projections: sharp, evocative, and beautiful. It's the woman who took them who remains distressingly out of focus.
Presented by the A Team Event Management as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival at the Theatre at St. Clement's, 423 W. 46th St., NYC. Sept. 28–Oct. 6. Remaining performances: Fri., Oct. 1, 1 and 5 p.m.; Sat., Oct. 2, 5 and 9 p.m.; Wed., Oct. 6, 9 p.m. (212) 352-3101, (866) 811-4111, www.theatermania.com, or www.nymf.org. Casting by Michael Cassara.