Reviews

Suffs ****, Teeth ***

By: David Sheward

April 19, 2024: When it opened Off-Broadway at the Public Theater for a relatively short run in 2022, Suffs, Shaina Taub’s sweeping musical history of the women’s suffrage movement, got lost in the shuffle of the end-of-the-season, theater-award-deadline madness. There were also several cancelled performances due to COVID infections among the cast. As a result, this promising show was shunted aside. Now Taub has considerably revised her book and the score, Leigh Silverman has restaged it, there is a new design team and with two high-profile producers above the title (Hillary Rodham Clinton and Malala Yousafzai), Suffs has opened on Broadway at the Music Box. It’s one of the most captivating, entertaining, and educational musicals of the season. And yes, it’s possible to be entertaining and educational at the same time.

Jenn Colella as Carrie Chapman Catt and “Suffs” Company.

By: David Sheward

April 19, 2024: When it opened Off-Broadway at the Public Theater for a relatively short run in 2022, Suffs, Shaina Taub’s sweeping musical history of the women’s suffrage movement, got lost in the shuffle of the end-of-the-season, theater-award-deadline madness. There were also several cancelled performances due to COVID infections among the cast. As a result, this promising show was shunted aside. Now Taub has considerably revised her book and the score, Leigh Silverman has restaged it, there is a new design team and with two high-profile producers above the title (Hillary Rodham Clinton and Malala Yousafzai), Suffs has opened on Broadway at the Music Box. It’s one of the most captivating, entertaining, and educational musicals of the season. And yes, it’s possible to be entertaining and educational at the same time.

Anastacia McCleskey, Laila Erica Drew and Nikki M. James as Mary Church Terrell, Phyllis Terrell and Ida B. Wells in Suffs.

Off-Broadway, Suffs felt like it was trying to cover too much ground. There were enough characters and stories to stock a multi-part Ken Burns PBS documentary. (Burns has in fact done such a doc series.) Now Taub has tightened her book, rearranged her songs, written new ones, discarded others, and the result is a faster, leaner production. Incidentally, Taub who also plays the protagonist Alice Paul, is only the second woman in Broadway history to star in a show for which she has written the book, music and lyrics. (The first was Micki Grant with Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope in 1972.)

The new opening number is snappier, the new finale is more rousing and emotional. The focus is now tighter on the central conflict between fiery activist Paul (Taub is a tiny dynamo in the role) and the more conservative Carrie Chapman Catt (Jenn Colella returns with a strong performance), who advocates a more diplomatic approach to gaining votes for women. Taub has also added a very funny number for Alice and her crusading associates, sung early in Act One and titled “G.A.B.”—for Great American and a nasty epiteth for females beginning with “b.” This introduces the characters and injects a strong dose of ribald humor into what could have been a dry history lesson. Taub’s entire new score spans genres and styles to effectively convey the passions behind the movement while her new book economically and feelingly tells a sweeping chronology. 

Jenn Colella as Carrie Chapman Catt in Suffs.

Silverman’s staging is fluid and efficient, employing a spare, evocative set by Riccardo Hernandez and scene-suggesting lighting by Lap Chi Chu. Paul Tazewell’s costumes place us in the right period and transform genders. Taub has kept the clever central conceit of having all the roles played by women. This works especially well when the sexist President Woodrow Wilson is presented as a buffoonish song-and-dance man delightfully delivered with a buck and a wing by Grace McLean. Tsilala Brock also gracefully crosses gender lines as Wilson’s Chief of Staff, Dudley Malone who converts to the women’s side and falls in love with spunky Doris Stevens (a quirky and captivating Nadia Dandashi). The two have a charming duet “If We Were Married” in which Taub turns the romantic notions of matrimony inside out and reveals the true degraded status of wives in early 20th century America. In a sweet reprise new to the Broadway edition, Dudley and Doris are paired with Mrs. Catt and her companion Mollie Hay (sturdy Jaygee Macapugay), who sing of a future when their union would be as legal as women voting.

Nikki M. James returns in a blazing flash of fury as Ida B. Wells, demanding not to “wait her turn” as an African-American activist crusading for equal rights. Anastacia McCleskey is her able antagonist as the more moderate Mary Church Terrell. There are also sterling turns by fiery Kim Blanck, funny Ally Bonino, commanding Hannah Cruz, energetic Laila Erica Drew, and versatile Emily Skinner who grabs center stage in two contrasting supporting roles: flashy philanthropist Alva Belmont and folksy Phoebe Burn who persuades her legislator son to cast the deciding ballot to give women their elective rights. This is a superior Suffs and deserves your vote at the box office.

Jenna Rose Husli, Wren Rivera, Alyse Alan Louis, Phoenix Best, and Helen J Shen in Teeth Chelcie Parry in Teeth.

Teeth, Off-Broadway at Playwrights Horizons, is another musical about female empowerment, but it takes a decidedly different tact. Rather than employing historical survey, Teeth bites into the horror genre and tears off a satirical, darkly hilarious tale. Based on the 2007 cult film, this wacky musical Halloween candy confection centers on virginal teen Dawn, part of a youth chastity church group called Promise Keepers. As her forbidden desires grow and so do those of her equally chaste boyfriend football-captain Toby, Dawn discovers she has dental growths in her sexual organs. Castrating chaos and hilarity ensues. 

Will Connolly and Alyse Alan Louis in Teeth.

The sharp book and score are the collaborative work of Anna K. Jacobs (book and music) and Pulitzer Prize winner Michael R. Jackson (book and lyrics). As he did with A Strange Loop and White Girl in Danger, Jackson (along with Jacobs) lampoons puritanical extremism with barbed sarcasm. Sarah Benson’s direction has the right combination of gory and goofy—the spooky lighting by Jane Cox and Stacey Derosier strikes the right terrifying tone. As Dawn, Alyse Alan Louis perfectly conveys the Girl Scout innocent and the raging dominatrix lurking just underneath. Jason Gotay, Will Connolly, and Jared Loftin score comically as the unwitting males who cross her path with dire consequences. Steven Pasquale tries tries too hard to be evil as a sex-phobic Pastor and to be funny as a handsy gynecologist. Other than this cavity, Teeth has bite. 

Tsilala Brock and Grace McLean as Dudley Malone and President Woodrow Wilson in Suffs.

Suffs ****
Music Box Theater
239 W, 45th St., NYC.
Running time: two hours and 20 mins. including intermission. telecharge.com.
April 18—Sept. 7, 2024
Photography: Joan Marcus

 Hannah Cruz as Inez Milholland in Suffs.

Teeth ***
Playwrights Horizons
416 W. 42nd St., NYC.
Running time: one hour and 40 mins. with no intermission. playwrightshorizons.org.
March 19—April 28, 2024
Photography: Chelcie Parry

Jared Loftin plays Ryan, and Alyse Alan Louis plays Dawn in Teeth.