To take in the history of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is to learn about its haunting tragedy, with some parallels to September 11th of 2001. Both were in New York City. Both led to unspeakable deaths by fire inhalation and those who jumped to their death. And both took place in important symbols of the United States. The Twin Towers were known as symbols of the freedom of our country, while the factory represented the hope of young immigrants, namely women, who accounted for 123 of the 143 people that perished in the fire.
Those parallels are what drive the young brainiac scientist Brian, who is all about work, work and more work. He meets a charming Ben, with whom he is immediately smitten. Ben is an enthusiastic zealot when it comes to learning about the history of the Asch building, a place where the spirit of those lost lives seems to permeate the walls. This day is the 100th anniversary of the actual incident, and the big crowd connected through family and their own sense of history are present. The building is now a part of the New York University campus, and folks take in this history by being there at the exact moment the fire started.
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley’s production of the new musical “Triangle,” is a wonderful piece, a complex and at times, convoluted journey that brings the audience full circle, beginning with the actual event that kicks off the story. The star of the production is simply Curtis Moore’s music and Thomas Mizer’s lyrics, which are rich and full of texture.
Since Brian (an angelic voiced Ross Lekites) has personal connection issues because of his own journey through 9/11, he is not always in a hurry to give Ben (an effective Zachary Prince in dual roles, doubling as the Italian factory boss Vincenzo) the time of day. But he is certainly compelled by Ben, and not just because of his attraction to him. There is something special about Ben, something that connects him to this building and the young lives that were lost inside. Or so he believes, which fuels his drive for more knowledge.
There is also an opportunity to learn about two of the young Jewish girls Sarah (soft spoken and beautifully sung Megan McGinnis, doubling as Jenny) and her older, protective sister Chaya (well-versed Sharon Rietkirk, who doubles as hard-nosed boss Cynthia).
For myself, the strongest musical theatre parallels came to me in the moment were the production of “If/Then” and the music of “Next to Normal.” Even though “If/Then” was not as compelling as “Triangle,” and “Next to Normal” tackles an entirely different subject matter, the respective storytelling of one and the chamber music and instrumentation of the other are similar.
Where the parallels are clearest is in the storytelling. In “Triangle,” director Meredith McDonough brings forth a beautiful, clean staging on Daniel Zimmerman’s set that is minimal by spectacle standards, but allows for lovely movement and sparkling tableaus. Her staging has to do quite a bit, namely flow through space with precision that will keep the audience in the story.
It’s not the easiest story to follow considering shows in this style are rarely a piece of cake. The material is not inaccessible, but requires the audience to work a bit. And on the night I attended, the audience was seemingly very invested.
And why wouldn’t they be? The star of this show is the music. It is not always Mizer, Moore and Joshua Scher’s book. While the story is handled with aplomb, with a very witty usage of perspectives to distinguish when Sarah and Chaya use their native tongue for example, the story at times goes away from the truthful momentum it builds. The gag where Vincenzo speaks loudly to get their father to understand him falls flat quickly.
Despite these moments of inefficiency in the storytelling, what is undeniable is the beautiful chamber style music and the wonderful six-piece band led by James Sampliner that combines a lovely combination of reeds, a violin and a cello to name a few. The band and a tight ensemble of the six performers brought forth such lovely, haunting melodies that one audience member I overheard describe it as “spellbinding.” Numbers such as “Take My Hand,” “Save Me Now,” and even witty ditty’s like “Papa’s Gonna Kill You” are remarkable.
The brilliance of “Triangle” is that it brings about a true story, long considered to be one of the greatest tragedies in American history. The music and the story truly have all the makings of a thrilling new musical, one that promises to be part of the American musical theatre canon for a very long time.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley presents “Triangle”
Music by Curtis Moore
Lyrics by Thomas Mizer
Book by Moore, Mizer and Joshua Scher
The Word: Beautiful music, beautifully sung, an exciting new piece that seems to have staying power.
Stars: 4 out of 5
Through Aug. 2nd
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley – The Lucie Stern Theatre
1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto, CA
Tickets range from $19 – $74
For tickets, call (650) 463-1960 or visit www.theatreworks.org