Musical theater has long given short shrift to America’s unsung heroines, which is one reason that Shaina Taub’s “Suffs,” now debuting at the Public Theater, feels like both a celebration and a corrective. Over the course of nearly three hours (and, admittedly, the show could use some judicious cutting), we hear from more than a dozen such heroines who helped get women the vote.
Indeed, if you’ve never known anything about the single-minded Alice Paul (convincingly played by Taub), her older, more genteel “rival” Carrie Chapman Catt (a sublime Jenn Colella), the outspoken African American journalist Ida B. Wells (the brilliant if underused Nikki M. James) or determined factory worker and political activist Ruza Wenclawska (a sensational Hanna Cruz) – and odds are you have not -- their names and their struggles will now be cemented in your memory.
By focusing on these lesser-known figures, “Suffs” differs greatly from its otherwise rather obvious predecessor, “Hamilton,” although the two shows share the same original venue, one star (the wonderful Phillipa Soo, suitably glamorous as Paul’s close friend, labor lawyer Inez Milholland) and a somewhat similar approach to unveiling the behind-the-scenes moments in history.
While the details presented here may be lightly exaggerated, there is no question that Taub has done her homework. For example, Paul’s good friend, the bookish Doris Stevens (Nadia Dandashi) not only changed the mind of attorney Dudley Malone (a winning Tsilala Brock) -- a major supporter of then-president Woodrow Wilson (portrayed in a stunning, vaudevillian-like turn by Grace McLean) – but she also eventually won his heart. Equally true, Phoebe Burn (the always welcome Aisha DeHaas) really did send a last-minute missive to her son, Tennessee State Senator Harry Burn (Jenna Bainbridge), causing to him change his mind and voting for the 20th Amendment to finally pass.
Under Leigh Silverman’s simple direction and Raja Feather Kelly’s minimalist choreography, the show lacks some of the breathtaking seamlessness on display at “Hamilton,” Nonetheless, their approach does allow Taub’s wildly varied score to fully shine, from Wells’ piercing rebuke to segregation, “Find My Way,” to the charming comic duet “If We Were Married” and the rousing Act One finale “The Young Are at the Gates.” Luckily, Taub even allows herself one “big” number, the appropriately titled “Finish the Fight.”
While there are echoes of everyone from Stephen Sondheim to Lin-Manuel Miranda in her score, Taub has a unique and accomplished gift for melody and lyrics that makes you want to hear more of her work. As a book writer, though, Taub can get a little too preachy and sanctimonious (much like Paul). And personally, I felt the show’s epilogue set in 1975 does little more than belabor the message – important as it may be -- about the continued need for female equality.
Still, as one lyric often repeated in “Suffs” asks: “How will we do it when it’s never been done?” It appears Shaina Taub has most of the answers.
By Brian Scott Lipton
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Jenna Bainbridge, Ally Bonino, Tsilala Brock, Jenn Colella, Hannah Cruz, Nadia Dandashi, Aisha de Haas, Stephanie Everett, Amina Faye, Holly Gould, Cassondra James, Nikki M. James, Jaygee Macapugay, Grace McLean, Susan Oliveras, Mia Pak, Monica Tulia Ramirez, J. Riley Jr., Phillipa Soo, Shaina Taub, Angela Travino, Ada Westfall
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