‘Suffs’ review: A moving musical march that’s not quite there yet

‘Suffs’ review: A moving musical march that’s not quite there yet
Theater review


2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission. At the Music Box Theatre, 239 W. 45th Street.

The suffragist characters of the musical “Suffs,” which opened Thursday night at the Music Box Theatre, rarely take a breath to celebrate their victories. 

As soon as they achieve something monumental, such as securing a rare meeting with President Woodrow Wilson or finally getting the right to vote, another lofty goal appears on the horizon. Or there’s a dispiriting setback. They’re never done.

They’ve gotta keep marching.

Much the same could be said about the show, itself, written by and starring Shaina Taub. Even after a 2021 run at the Public Theater, which garnered less-than-enthusiastic reviews, and a later workshop to reshape it, “Suffs” still feels frustratingly unfinished. 

To be sure, it’s much better now on Broadway than it was downtown. The clunky set of white steps from the previous version has been thankfully scrapped and replaced by more user-friendly wooden panels and weighty Capitol Hill pillars.

More From Johnny Oleksinski

The lousy opening has been replaced by an OK one called “Let Mother Vote.” And narratively, Taub’s musical is cleaner and not so Wiki-fied anymore. The characters are better defined and more human — funnier.

Still, while never less than likable, “Suffs” comes short of being riveting.

The seven-year plight of Alice Paul (Taub), a fervent pioneer for women’s rights, and her scrappy upstarts Lucy Burns (Ally Bonino), co-founder of the National Women’s Party, socialite Inez Milholland (Hannah Cruz, magnetic), Polish union organizer Ruza Wenclawska (Kim Blanck) and legal rights advocate Doris Stevens (Nadia Dandashi) is easy to root for.

They fought — and succeeded — to get women the vote during the 1910s.

Composer and book writer Shaina Taub plays Alice Paul. Joan Marcus

What they don’t get today is a particularly exciting show about it.

Lest we forget, “Hamilton,” which “Suffs” appears to be the offspring of, featured dance battles, shootouts and extra-marital affairs amid its thorny policy debates.

“The Normal Heart,” a similar tale of real-life underdogs shouting righteously for recognition against all odds, had the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic to stir emotion.

Until a prison stay and risky hunger strike enlivens the second half, though, a lot of “Suffs” is made up of historical meetings and conferences. Informative and sometimes touching meetings and conferences, yes, but hardly ever compelling ones. The show slumps during a few dull, repetitive stretches. 

Some of the best numbers in “Suffs” are rousing ensemble tunes. Joan Marcus

Even so, there is plenty to appreciate in Taub’s personal score. 

One recurring song called “Find A Way,” about the impossible task ahead of the women, is an ear worm that really could be ripped from “Hamilton.”

What the composer, whose performance as Paul is open-hearted but one-note, is particularly adept at though are rousing “One Day More”-type numbers such as “How Long?”, the passion of which is born from an untimely death, and the fiery and rebellious  “The Young Are At The Gates.” 

Director Leigh Silverman stages these sequences with revolutionary spirit, as the set disappears and powerfully gives way to wide open space. 

Ida B. Wells (Nikki M. James, center) has her own view of how the fight for women’s suffrage should go. Joan Marcus

We also meet other activists in the fray. Black women, led by Ida B. Wells (Nikki M. James) feel that race is vital to the issue, while the older Carrie Chapman Catt (Jen Colella) pleads for incremental, cautious progress rather than lump-sum success. James sings a stirring ballad called “My Turn,” while Colella, authoritative in her lovable way, belts out “This Girl” later on with similar resonance. 

Their characters exemplify the most intriguing — and tricky — aspect of the story, which are all the fractured subgroups within a single movement ostensibly trying to accomplish the same thing. Sound familiar?

Not as welcome are the lighter tunes. Grace McLean, always hilarious, amusingly portrays President Wilson as a misogynist dolt. But her merry-go-round “Ladies,” in which the prez patronizes the women, annoyingly reminded me of the old music-hall ditty “Daisy Bell.”  

And a comic duet between Doris and beau Dudley Malone, “If We Were Married,” is both too cute and schticky — practically a parody of what we usually find in musical theater. 

The show ends, not with Paul declared a national hero, but with her sitting at a desk decades later, being criticized by a young feminist for not moving fast enough to get the Equal Rights Amendment passed. Then the cast encourages the audience to “Keep Marching.” 

That finale exemplifies how tricky women’s suffrage is to turn into a musical.

On one hand, the song sounds inspiring like any good Broadway send-off is supposed to. On the other, it leaves us walking out on a sad note: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

And mixed feelings are exactly what “Suffs” left me with.