Five Points is a brand-new show, but its premise could come straight out of the classic musical-theater playbook. Two men from different backgrounds are sharing the mean streets of New York City. One dreams of the future, and one is haunted by the past. Little do they realize their lives will ultimately converge... in a dance-off.
Theater Latté Da’s much-anticipated world premiere features a script by the talented and busy local playwright Harrison David Rivers, with music by Ethan D. Pakchar and Douglas Lyons, the latter of whom wrote the lyrics. Set in Five Points circa 1863—also the milieu for Martin Scorsese’s Gangs of New York—the musical was inspired by actual dance competitions between an African American man named William Lane (aka “Master Juba”) and an Irishman named John Diamond.
In director Peter Rothstein’s Ritz Theater production, Ben Bakken plays the brooding Diamond, who used to work for P.T. Barnum (Dieter Bierbrauer) as a touring dancer. He’s now a single father whose wife died after, he believes, he neglected her during his years on the road.
Meanwhile, Lane (Lamar Jefferson) draws crowds to a dance hall run by his father, Pete (T. Mychael Rambo). Willie is tempted when Barnum offers a contract, but Pete forbids his son from signing, arguing that the seemingly lucrative offer will prove a Faustian bargain. Ultimately, the impresario realizes he can play one dancer against the other.
The show’s creators are disciplined in refusing to tick the boxes you’d normally expect a musical like this to check off. There’s no choreographed street fighting, no historical pageantry, and, in fact, surprisingly little dancing at all. These men’s feet are fraught, and when they dance, the show tends to tip into slow motion, dramatizing the idea of their movement more than the actual fact of it.
The signature note of Five Points is one of frustrated longing: for freedom, for love, for peace. Two full acts is a long time to hold a note, and as a result the show feels oddly flat: It doesn’t aim for emotional peaks and valleys, but focuses on gradually unpacking its complex story.
If Five Points doesn’t quite add up to more than the sum of its parts, from song to song there’s plenty to absorb and to enjoy. Pakchar and Lyons ably span the distance from pained laments to rousing Americana-flavored choruses, and the cast is solid, with stars Jefferson and Bakken supported by ace veterans including Ann Michels and the invaluable Rambo.
Poignantly, the only performer who gets to really cut loose with carefree exuberance is Alejandro Vega as Diamond’s young son, who borrows moves from both his father and from his idol Lane. John Jr. gives the show a few uplifting moments, but we know they won’t last for long.
345 13th Ave. NE, Minneapolis
612-339-3003; through May 6