Berkeley Playhouse hosts world premiere of ‘Bridges: A New Musical’

Ben Krantz Studio/Courtesy

History is currently the hottest trend in musical theater. With the success of Broadway’s runaway hit “Hamilton,” and the upcoming revival of “Miss Saigon,” there is no shortage of musical inspiration in the index of a history textbook.

But Berkeley Playhouse’s world premiere “Bridges: A New Musical,” strives to map the parallels and intersections of the past and present. Commemorating the 65th anniversary of the Selma to Montgomery civil rights march, “Bridges” connects 1965 Selma at the height of the Civil Rights Movement to 2008 Oakland in the months prior to the passage of Proposition 8 against same-sex marriage.

“It’s a very relevant show,” said composer Douglas J. Cohen. “I don’t think it’s a show where it’s a history lesson or a window to the past. Yes, we do learn about the past, but we also really learn about how the past impacts the present and how it informs the future.”

In “Bridges,” the past informs the future in parallels. The stage at Julia Morgan Theater is dressed by striking replicas of two bridges sitting parallel to one another: to the left is the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, and to the right is the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco. The plot opens with a similar parallel: to the left, Francine Williams (Janelle Lasalle) is struggling to hide her mixed-race relationship in the midst of the Civil Rights Movement, and to the right, Franki Henderson (Nandi Drayton) struggles to suppress her budding homosexuality in the midst of the controversial Prop 8 campaign, under the watchful eye of her father, Reverend Robert Henderson (Nicolas Bearde).

But the rest of the musical does not have such a clear-cut divide. In the ambitious and admirable feat to interweave these storylines through coincidental connections and loose familial ties, the production juggles too many elements at once, which ends up taking away from the gravity of each individual issue.

While Drayton’s earnest portrayal of a contemporary teenage girl in flux draws strong similarities to Sydney Lucas in “Fun Home” with an angsty ounce of Jennifer Damiano in “Next to Normal,” some of the juvenile musical numbers did not mesh with the gospel-heavy overtones of the majority of the numbers. While Drayton’s charming innocence and strong-willed voice carries “This I Will Overcome,” in which Franki introduces her teen troubles, the following number, “What Group Are You In?,” seems oddly out of place. As Franki is courted by different clubs and organizations at her high school, the number takes on an uncharacteristically cartoonish flair, similar to that of “High School Musical” — but with a forced pep in its step.

The modern-day moments only seemed to pale in comparison to the artfully done interpretation of life in 1965 Selma. Lasalle is soulful and demure as Francine, and her suitor, Bobby Cohen (Joshua Marx), is deliberately debonaire. Although their budding romance is marked with decidedly cheesy moments, Marx delivered that cheese with a hefty serving of charm, mocking his “white boy” lack of rhythm during the heart-fluttering “This Is Our Dance.”

While the plot twists and connections between the two narratives left some audience members confused until the production’s very end, there is no denying that the common thread linking the two time periods is Amanda King’s mutable talent. Playing grandmother and mother in both generations, King’s soulful voice carries the musical through its hopeful finale, while her comedic tone shines a light of hope onto some of the less coherent parts of the production. Her shining moment was the time-warping car ride in which Franki is in the passenger’s seat and Francine is in the back. King is in the driver’s seat, switching back and forth between playing Franki’s grandmother and Francine’s mother without even a hint of hesitation.

For all its jumbled musical moments and awkwardly juxtaposed time jumps, “Bridges” is beautifully staged. The most striking visual moment comes at the end of Act One, during the Selma march soundtracked by a haunting performance of “March with the Aid of the Lord.” As the protesters march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, hands locked in a stance of defiance, the lights go dark, as gas-masked police officers appear in the shadows behind the marchers. The music then cuts out and smoke rises from the foot of the stage. Suddenly, the scene is in slow-motion, strobe lights accenting the stage as the protesters are taken down by tear gas and police batons. The scene is set in 1965 Selma, but the images are starkly similar to those of the recent Black Lives Matter protests in Berkeley, an understated past-to-present connection.

“The fight for social justice is not stuck in any one period in time,” said librettist and lyricist Cheryl L. Davis. “Yes, these events happened in the past … but there are still movements today. And you still need to pay attention and you still need to fight for social justice for all people.”

“Bridges: A New Musical” is playing at the Berkeley Playhouse through March 6.

Rosemarie Alejandrino is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].