The New York of Inner City
Poems of Eve Merriam Provide Springboard
by Clive Barnes
The New York Times - December 20, 1971

Masochism is New York's way of life and you will find a great deal of the most heroic masochism in "Inner City", which opened last night at the Ethel Barrymore Theater.  All New Yorkers who adore to be told how fantastically wonderful it is that they can survive the cruel, harsh rigors of New York City can here be told precisely how fantastically wonderful it is.

"Inner City" dwells happily on the misery of New York City dwelling.  The indifference, the drugs, the pain, the numbness, all are here in deep and dreary monocolor.  There are some good things here but not enough.

The musical had its origins from a strange book of poetry published a couple of years ago and written by Eve Merriam.  This was "The Inner City Mother Goose" and it was an acerbic collection of poems cynically regarding urban blight.  This was concerned with the horror of cities, the rat-trap of despair.  I don't know whether Miss Merriam is white or black, but I would guess white.  She writes with such a bitter liberalism.

Miss Merriam took nursery tinkles and transposed them to the knell of doom.  Assisted by some beautifully apt photographs by Lawrence Ratzkin, Miss Merriam presented a sad and wry picture of New York - tattered, depressed and blank-eyed.

Something of this spirit survives in her musical "Inner City", but the effort is less demanding, and the results are less rewarding.  The bitterness has been slightly softened and that particular nursery mayhem and poison seem lost.

The problem partly comes with the music of helen Miller.  This music so unmemorable that you cannot remember it.  It emerges in charcterless bands of atmosphere - not bad in itself but not good either.  The show is described by its producers as "a street cantata", and the quality of the music effortlessly makes the description sound pretentious.

In form and shape "Inner City" has a great deal in common with Melvin Van Peebles "Ain't Supposed To Die A Natural Death."  But while the Van Peebles show is brilliantly innovative, both musically and structurally, "Inner City" never quite makes it, although on occasion it does come notably close.

There are many good things here - from the occasional calypso rhythm to the outstandingly chic lighting by John Dodd and Jane Reisman.  For that matter, I admired much of Robin Wagner's settings that succeeded in bringing the taste of art to the ghetto.  It is probably this distance, this awareness of awayness, this alienation to its subject matter, this pasteurized pain that in the total effect I cannot really like.  This is a street cantata that is more concerned with being a cantata than it is with the streets.  It has a certain smartness but it lacks humanity.

Tom O'Horgan, who conceived the work as well as directing it, has, so far as the direction is concerned, done an excellent job.  Certain excesses in Mr. O'Horgan's sweet exuberance that could be seen in "Jesus Christ Superstar" and even, especially in retrospect, his most noteworthy success, "Lenny", are here played down.  This is a beautifully staged musical that achieves precisely what it means to achieve.  This is a very interesting looking show at every level and possibly, apart from "Tom Paine", the best thing Mr. O'Horgan has achieved in the mass theater.

Mr. O'Horgan's talent as a director is twofold.  First there is the performance he gets from his cast - and of this more later.  But there is also, more elusively, the sense of style he imposes on the production.  "Inner City" is obviously not a musical I greatly cared for, and yet I could see and appreciate the theatrical slickness and artistic homogeneity that Mr. O'Horgan brought to it.  The show has a special and authentic style to it that you don't have to like to recognize.

The performance is also very good indeed.  These portrayals of New York denizens, tortured cliffdwellers, self-help paranoids and other strangers are all effective.  There is not a bad performance in the entire cast of nine, but I did and must pick out Allan Nicholls, Larry Marshall, Carl Hall and especially Linda Hopkins.  These seem particularly aware and bring their own inner warmth to "Inner City".  It needs it.

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