The action and intrigue rise toward fever pitch and then pretty much stay there for the duration of the On Site Opera production of Morning Star, currently enjoying a run at the Eldridge Street Synagogue. With a lively, cinematic score by Ricky Ian Gordon and book by the late Bill Hoffman, it follows the emotionally charged trajectory of a first-generation New York Jewish immigrant family impacted by the Triangle Shirtwaist Fire. In an era of fatal conflagrations at locked-in Wal-Marts staffed by immigrants, not to mention deadly infernos at highrise British council estates, it’s particularly timely. It also has surprisingly subtle implications concerning karmic consequences arising when the oppressed become oppressors themselves.
On March 25, 1911 a fire at the Triangle Shirtwaist sweatshop at Washington Square East claimed the lives of 146 workers, mostly young Jewish and Italian immigrant women, many in their teens. It was the deadliest single event on New York soil until 9/11. The public outcry for safety standards in the wake of the tragedy revolutionized building construction and fire prevention in this city and across the country as well.
The fire itself doesn’t factor into more than about five minutes of the two-act piece. There’s abundant historical context, including but not limited to insurgent women’s rights, immigrant rights and worker’s rights movements which mirror our own today. Set on the Lower East Side, there are also numerous references to both defunct and surviving landmarks that will bring a smile to anyone who’s ever lived in or knows the neighborhood.
The plot concerns a laundry list of family drama: the fire is the elephant in the room, a dead child – literally – whose absence casts a pall. Suspense builds as the fatal day approaches, with plenty of artful foreshadowing. Romantic and parent-child angst, along with possible questions of paternity and political allegiances, push the story along. The singers – in particular, Emily Pulley as the mom and Blythe Gaissert as bitter antagonist -are strong, because they have to be. Other than a couple of detours toward early 1900s vaudeville balladry, the music doesn’t have much in the way of dynamic shifts. There’s! No! Business! Like! Show! Business!
Gordon’s score bubbles and bustles with comfortably familiar tropes refined by years in the theatre. Cliffhanger moments get anxious tritones; romance gets effervescent flutes over sweet strings. The rest of the music has an anthemic sensibility and hints of Debussy in places, played with gusto by American Modern Ensemble.
The use of the space is marvelous. The natural reverb in the elegantly restored synagogue enhances the sonics, while the placement of singers everywhere, on the balconies and throughout the audience, is nothing short of psychedelic and underscores Gordon’s clever use of counterpoint. The performance repeats tonight, March 22 at 7:30 PM and on the anniversary of the fire, this Sunday, March 25 at 1 and 6 PM.