No one is going to say anyone in the brand-new "Five Points" lacks passion.
The hardworking cast and musicians are on fire as the world-premiere musical opens, and they never let up. That's usually a good thing.
Five Points is the working-class neighborhood in Manhattan where several streets meet at odd angles — it's also where the film "Gangs of New York" was set, in the same year. That would be 1863, when Irish-American John Diamond and African-American Willie Lane are about to face big turning points.
Willie (Lamar Jefferson, a dynamo) must decide if he can leave his family, which operates a dance hall, and go on the road with P.T. Barnum as a dancer. Widowed John (Ben Bakken) must come up with $300 or he'll have to go off to fight the Civil War and leave his young son to be raised by others.
The jam-packed story also encompasses the first black troops to fight in the war as well as inequities in who was drafted to fight. Really, it's two stories that only occasionally intersect, via the characters of John Diamond Jr. (peripatetic Alejandro Vega), who is fascinated by the non-Irish way the black Americans move at their dance hall, and John's friend, Rona (Ann Michels), who, along with John Jr., shows how the divided communities could draw strength from each other.
It's a smart milieu for a musical, especially since it makes Kelli Foster Warder's lively choreography so crucial: Stiff Irish dancing and sinewy African-American dancing look nothing alike, but Warder's movement, as demonstrated by community-crossing Vega, reveals how they will merge to become a style that is distinctly American: tap dancing.
There's a lot to like in "Five Points," beginning with Ethan D. Pakchar and Douglas Lyons' poppy songs and Harrison David Rivers' idiomatic book, which, like the songs, owes a little to 1863 but much more to 2018 (Sia: Need a banger for your next record? "Raise Your Glass" is a contender). Director Peter Rothstein gracefully shifts between the strands of the story, assisted by an all-star design team that includes costume designer Trevor Bowen, set designer Joel Sass and sound designer C. Andrew Mayer.
I think the bifurcated structure of the story muddles "Five Points," though. For much of the show, it's unclear what John and Willie want — until their lone duet, "Hero," the 21st of 23 songs, confirms that Willie longs for stardom and John wants to return to the business of living. It's a fiery number in a show with so many "high" moments that there isn't much room for quotidian scenes or for songs that aren't showstopping epiphanies. A comic number would be welcome in "Five Points" or another like the quiet ballad that's insightfully sung by T. Mychael Rambo (as Willie's weary father) and accompanied by a lone guitar.
Simpler moments like that one stick out in "Five Points." I'm also thinking of the tender, silent detail Ann Michels lavishes on a scene where she's doing nothing more than tidy up a room, and the achy harmonies of Ivory Doublette, as Willie's worried sister. Look, there may be no art form that is harder to get exactly right than musical theater, where so many disparate elements need to work as one. "Five Points" may not be quite there yet, but its pieces are coming together and, for a fan of the form, it's a not-to-be-missed kick to see it happening.