On August 18, 1920, the 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution giving women the right to vote, was finally ratified. In the freewheeling decade that followed, society treated the emerging Modern Woman with a mixture of elation and anxiety. Many Americans, quick to embrace innovation, applauded the independent thinking, career achievements, and sassy fashion statements of the new generation. But some worried that darker spirits might drift in on the winds of change. Newspapers abounded with stories of bad girls, as if to warn citizens of what can happen when social strictures are loosened.
The scandals of the time have continued to fascinate modern storytellers, who examine historic events from a contemporary perspective. In 1975, female felons Belvah Gaertner and “Jazz Killer” Beulah Annan became the inspiration for the Broadway hit Chicago. Now Celia Cooney, who perpetrated a string of armed robberies in Brooklyn, has her own musical, too. And thanks to its rich score, snappy book, and clever choreography, The Bobbed-Haired Bandit does her story justice.
Cleverly, the show opens with the intersection of pop culture and personal angst — “Just a Story,” a fantasy number in which Celia (Katelyn Carson) devours crime novels in her tenement bedroom. Already fantasizing about a life of crime, Celia gets all the prompting she needs when she and her husband Ed (Chase Burnett) realize their workaday jobs won’t provide enough money to raise a family. With a baby on the way, they’re going to need some extra cash. Ed obtains a gun from a friend of a friend, and he and Celia hold up a local bakery. Appropriately, the scene is staged to resemble the silent cinema of the time. More heists follow, and reporters have a field day recording the exploits of the “Bobbed-Haired Bandit.” Police Commissioner Enright (Tracie Franklin) fumes at his staff’s inability to apprehend this unlikely perp, and sends two of his finest to put a stop to this madness. Although they chafe at this seemingly silly assignment, detectives Frank and Casey (Ariana Shore and Jennifer Wren) are determined to get their woman. As the hunt intensifies, Ed and Celia’s increasingly desperate actions lead them to places they never thought possible.
Book and lyric writer Anna Marquardt and composer Britt Bonney capture the exuberance of the time with a menu of tuneful, cleverly worded songs that incorporate tango, foxtrot and jazz motifs. Moving from boisterous to somber, the score gradually darkens as Celia and Ed confront the futility of their actions. Carson adroitly navigates the turns in the story and embodies Celia’s gradual loss of innocence. She is complimented by Burnett’s vocal clarity and sincere stage presence. Director / choreographer Deborah Wolfson nimbly orchestrates the talents of a versatile ensemble. Her professionalism is bolstered by David Withrow’s period costumes, Cory Rodriguez’s newspaper-laden set, and Rodrigo Vega’s powerhouse musical direction.
If Bandit has a flaw, it is that the only male voice on stage belongs to Burnett. The concept of an all-female supporting cast (all of whom exhibit stunning vocal and comic talent) is in keeping with the show’s theme of redefining femininity. But Bonney’s intriguing score is underserved by a limited palette. The addition of few deeper voices might add variety and open up the melodies to a wider range of harmonic possibilities.
The Bobbed-Haired Bandit
Book & Lyrics by Anna Marquardt
Music by Britt Bonney
Directed & Choreographed by Deborah Wolfson
At Bleecker Street Theater
45 Bleecker Street
New York, NY 10012
New York International Fringe Festival