Reviewed by Nicholas Linnehan
Have you ever wanted to be able to join in with others who were feeling something grand but you just couldn’t bring yourself to get wrapped up in the excitement? Then you know how I felt watching Till, as part of the New York Musical Festival. The production has all the elements required to be a great production: great singing and solid acting, but something did not add up here, and I was unable to emotionally connect with the piece.
Till, brought to us by Leo Schwartz and DC Cathro, tells us the infamous horrific story of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old boy killed in Mississippi during the Jim Crow period. Emmett is depicted as a charismatic young man who was killed by a white man because he whistled at his wife. This tragedy spread like wildfire and made history. It even caused the Emmett Till Civil Rights Bill to be signed into law by President Obama.
There are a few things that hurt the play’s appeal. The representations of the white racists were played by black actors wearing masks and the first time we encounter them in the play, they are caricatures. Tyla Collier laughs like a hyena, which at first is comical but goes on way too long and becomes distracting. This initial buffoonish portrayal makes it hard to see her as a murderous wife later in the piece.
Also, every time the momentum of the play began to pick up speed, a song interrupted the flow of the piece. I wish the actors sang with the same emotional intensity as they did when they were engaged in dialogue. I would start to connect with the story but the music, although gorgeously sung, took me out of the moment and killed any dramatic affectations that were intended.
The 90-minute musical spends too long getting to the main event, so when the climax happens, the audience has already checked out because we’ve long known what was coming. There is a big production number, meant to be an evangelical event at Emmett’s funeral. I understand this is a cultural phenomenon with deep roots in the black community, but it is so joyously sung and danced that it detracts from the severity of what Jim Crow and bigotry justified as acceptable behavior in the south. Again, the musicality undercut the profundity of the piece, which hurt its overall impact. The energy of the last number seemed at odds with the sadness of the situation. This disparity confused me about how I was supposed to feel.
Despite the music’s negative impact, it is sung by stellar vocalists. Judith Franklin brings down the house with her powerhouse ability. Taylor Blackman is wonderful as Emmett Till. He is infectious and steals your heart, making his untimely death more tragic. Dwelvan David is enigmatic as the preacher. His voice hits a sweet spot in your soul. These singers’ voices cut through you and are a delight to listen to.
The audience gave them a standing ovation and if I was complimenting their singing alone, I would have joined in. Sadly, as a cohesive piece of theater, this musical just did not work for me.
Till closed on July 29, 2019 at 480 W 42nd St. http://www.nymf.org