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The hopeful music and tragic facts of ‘Haymarket’ make for a moving musical

Erik Pearson (center) plays activist Albert Parsons, one of five men sentenced to death after an 1886 bombing in Chicago, in Underscore Theatre Company and The Den Theatre’s new musical "Haymarket."

Erik Pearson (center) plays activist Albert Parsons, one of five men sentenced to death after an 1886 bombing in Chicago, in Underscore Theatre Company and The Den Theatre’s new musical "Haymarket." | MICHAEL BROSILOW

One of the sneakiest strengths of “Haymarket,” a new folk musical from composer David Kornfeld and writer Alex Higgin-Houser, is that it knows to keep current events out of it. While the play contains numerous parallels to the nation’s current political strife, it makes sure the two lines never converge. The parallels stay parallel.

We’re constantly bombarded by modern life as it is; the last thing we need is for it to crash Kool-Aid-man-style into the story at hand and reiterate (but louder) what’s already clear. Robert Falls made this mistake with his recent adaptation of Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People,” where cries of “fake facts” prompted groans instead of applause. Kornfield and Higgin-Houser on the other hand, trust their audiences to figure it out.

“Haymarket”
★★★

When: Through July 22
Where: Underscore Theatre Company at the Heath Mainstage in the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee
Tickets: $30-$35
Info: Underscoretheatre.org
Run time: 2 hours, 15 minutes, one intermission

The show is by no means perfect. Really, it’s a lot like the nascent labor movement that it’s celebrating: a bit messy, but still a great success. “Haymarket” is big, sweeping and brash, a historical mini-epic that just might manage to leave you in tears. Kornfeld and Higgin-Houser let the facts of the case do much of the work for them, and it helps that the tale being told, that of the 1886 Haymarket bombing, is quite a doozy.

For the unfamiliar: In the spring of 1886, a series of peaceful labor strikes for an eight-hour work day ground industrial Chicago to a halt. On May Day, a crowd gathered in Haymarket Square to protest recent police violence. When the police arrived to break up that gathering too, dynamite exploded in their midst, killing seven of them. Police arrested several labor leaders and, despite the men’s almost certain innocence, convicted them for the bombing. Five of the men were ultimately sentenced to death. Four were executed, one committed suicide.

“Haymarket” tells the story of those five men: activist Albert Parsons (played here by Erik Pearson), editor August Spies (T.J. Anderson), Spies’ typesetter Adolph Fischer (Josiah Robinson), militant radical George Engel (Mike Mazzocca), and enthusiastic bombmaker Louis Lingg (Joey Harbert). The show uses the bombing itself as its inflection point, the first act building up to it and the second act tracing out its bloody aftermath.

Events mostly play out through the eyes of Parsons’ wife, Lucy (Bridget Adams-King), a fellow radical activist who would go on to a long and fruitful career of raising hell. Really, the show is as much about her as it is them and is the better for it — Higgin-Houser’s book serves her well.

Bridget Adams-King stands out as Parsons' wife Lucy, a fellow activist.

Bridget Adams-King stands out as Parsons’ wife Lucy, a fellow activist, in “Haymarket.” | MICHAEL BROSILOW

Still, the show’s greatest asset is Kornfeld’s beautiful, loping score that blends modern folk stylings with traditional Americana. True to his characters, the music is often warm and hopeful — it’s protest music, but it isn’t angry. The one true exception is the men’s trial. Fittingly, the whole ridiculous affair turns into something straight out of “Chicago.” It was a circus, after all, so why not present it as one?

These songs are played on guitars, banjos, mandolins and, OK, a single electric bass guitar that doesn’t quite fit. Then again, the cast also serves as the band, and while watching actor Eric Loughlin lug a stand-up bass around would certainly be amusing, the compromise is understandable. Robert Ollis’ music direction is superb.

Here’s where the messiness comes in. While the show’s 12-person cast is not so big for a musical, it’s still quite big for a typical storefront production, and director Nick Thornton often can’t control the crowd. Too many moments, especially the big numbers, are muddled through, and too many times the stagecraft falls short. The actors doubling as musicians is clearly central to the show’s conceit, but the kinks haven’t been worked out. Future productions (and there better be many) will help.

From the cast, Mazzocca’s gruff Engel and Anderson’s nervous Spies are the clear standouts; they have personalities beyond their idealism. They seem like real men caught up in the gears of history, not cogs in the machine itself. (As Lingg, Harbert can’t muster much of anything.) Adams-King, meanwhile, comes alive and owns the second act. As “Haymarket” reaches its conclusion, her performance dovetails with Kornfeld’s music to produce something rare: agitprop that strikes the heart.

Alex Huntsberger is a Chicago freelance writer.