BOTTOM LINE: The kind of musical I expect from the Fringe: Citizen Ruth shows some promise, and features a strong cast, but it’s a bit long, and doesn’t let the audience invest emotionally.
If you must see a 2009 Fringe musical based on or inspired by a film directed by Alexander Payne, then see Citizen Ruth. Not because Citizen Ruth is a terrific work of art, but because Vote! (the Fringe musical that tries to be the movie Election) is really pretty bad. While Citizen Ruth is a bit too long, and lacks a truly sympathetic character necessary for a musical, its positives ultimately balance out its negatives. If this sounds like faint praise, it is - I didn’t love Citizen Ruth, and there were times that I didn’t even like it. But I understand that creating a new musical is difficult; given the potential complexity of this material, Citizen Ruth is a decent first attempt.
Ruth Stoops is a homeless drug addict who is arrested (again); when the judge finds out that she is pregnant (again), he tells her he’ll go easier on her if she has an abortion. A particularly passionate group of Pro-lifers pays her bail, and brings her home, so they can persuade her to keep the baby. Eventually a pro-choice group gets their hands on her, and the battle begins.
From what I can tell, the musical follows the plot of the movie (which I haven’t seen) fairly closely. Both sides come off as fairly selfish, and it is clear that everyone seems to care more about the debate than they care about Ruth. But my main trouble with this musical is that I didn’t care much about Ruth either. This is not the fault of Garrett Long, who does an excellent job as the confused, used and abused Ruth. Long perfectly captures the way Ruth is pulled back and forth throughout the show, without ever once letting us forget that Ruth is, in her own way, an incredibly strong woman. Rather, the problem is in the way that Ruth is written - she doesn’t tell us, or anyone else, much about herself. She has two solos, “God Help Me” and “What About What I Want,” but they are unmelodic, unrhymed, whiny, and annoying (as opposed to the rest of the score, which is not this at all). In a musical, the audience often gets to know a main character through her songs. But these two solos are so obnoxious that I quickly tuned out, so Citizen Ruth became less about a troubled woman (an interesting subject for a musical) and more about an overly familiar debate (not so interesting for a musical).
From the laughter and applause in the almost sold-out theatre, it seems that many people did not mind this. The supporting cast (all of whom play several characters) is great; my favorites included Zack Collona as the way-too-sunny kid Matthew Stoney, Marya Grandy as the crazily intense Nurse Pat, Dennis Stowe as the hilariously annoyed Larry Jarvik, and the always dependable Annie Golden as the (admittedly random) chick rock star Jesse Dove. The costumes also deserve a mention. Unlike many Fringe shows (which tend to have merely suitable costumes that seem to have come from the actors’ closets), Clint Ramos’s costumes really help with character development. While there were some unnecessary projections, and the ever-present headset mics (which never work properly in Fringe shows - when will people learn?), these are minor flaws in an otherwise well-staged production.
And other than a few of Ruth’s songs, much of the score is worth a listen. Citizen Ruth remains light-hearted throughout, especially for a musical about abortion. While I didn’t laugh as hard as those around me, there were some funny moments, and I was never confused. My main problem was that I wanted to be more emotionally involved in the story (because I wasn’t, the second act began to get monotonous, and the ending was extremely sudden and unsatisfying). These critiques aside, if you are interested in politically-engaged new musicals that will also make you laugh, you might want to visit Citizen Ruth.
(Citizen Ruth plays at the Minetta Lane Theatre, 18 Minetta Lane, between 6th Avenue and MacDougal Street. The show is approximately 2 hours long, with one brief intermission. Performances are Sunday 8/23 at 10:30 pm and Monday 8/24 at 7:30 pm. For tickets and show info visit citizenruth.info and for more FringeNYC info visit fringenyc.org.)