By Michael Buzzelli
A cynical reporter, Stephen (Joseph McGranaghan), sets out to expose a nationally known celebrity working in Pittsburgh, Father James R. Cox (Michael Fuller), only to realize the good in humanity in Ray Werner’s “Shantytown – the Ballad of Fr. James Cox – the Musical.”
If the plot sounds familiar, you may have seen “A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood,” wherein a cynical reporter sets out to expose a nationally known celebrity working in Pittsburgh only to realize the good in humanity. The biggest difference in the plot is that Father Cox was on the radio, Mr. Rogers was on TV, and “Shantytown” is a musical.
Despite the recognizable plot, Father James Cox was a fascinating historical character. The graduate of Holy Ghost College (now Duquesne University), he was the youngest priest to lead Old St. Patrick’s Church in the Strip District. During the Depression, Cox organized a food-relief program and helped the homeless and unemployed find shelter (i.e. creating Shantytown in the Strip).
In January 1932, Cox led a march of 20,000 unemployed Pennsylvanians, dubbed “Cox’s Army,” on Washington, D.C to confront Herbert Hoover (J. Alex Noble in a variety of roles). The march sparked the Jobless Party, and Cox ran for president. When his efforts failed, he backed Roosevelt who took the White House later that year.
Making “Shantytown – the Ballad of Fr. James Cox” is an ambitious move. There are two really fun songs in the show, “Johnny, I hardly knew ye,” a traditional Irish ballad and famous anti-war song (versions of the song go back to 1867, but it became popular again in the 1970s to protest the Viet Nam war), and “The Haircut Song,” a humorous and original ditty about men kibitzing in the barber shop (delightfully sung by Sam Lothard and the cast). Lothard’s beautifully shiny head gets the biggest laugh in the show when he runs his hand over his bald pate and sings about the army barber cutting off all of his hair.
The cast does a great job with the material. In the chorus, the voices meld together mellifluously. Despite the gloom of the Depression, the actors look like they’re all having a ball on the stage and their exuberance is contagious.
There’s a stand out performance by Dominique Briggs, who plays Catherine, Cox’s secretary and all-around right-hand-woman. Briggs electrifies the stage in every scene. She has a strong stage presence.
Another outstanding member of the cast is Michele Bankole who sings her heart out. Pittsburgh stages need more Briggs and Bankole in the future.
There is, however, a weird and mostly unnecessary bit of shadow puppetry, literally and figuratively, hammering away at any subtleties in the show. The play’s subject matter is so engaging, it doesn’t need shadowy reenactments of the lyrics to make a point.
Werner, best known in advertising for his song, “You’ve Got a Friend in Pennsylvania,” has picked a worthy historical figure to create a show about, Cox was credited with dishing out 300 million meals.
In the recent past of Pittsburgh productions, there have been a plethora of plays based on true-life characters Point Park’s “Men in Boats” about Powell’s expedition down the Colorado River, and the National Tour of “Six: The Musical,” about the six wives of Henry VIII. Now, “Shantytown” joins their ranks. In all cases, it might lead audiences to learn more about the historical shows these characters are based on. The life and times of Father James R. Cox is a worthy subject to take you down an Internet rabbit hole.
“Shantytown – The Ballad of Fr. James Cox – the Musical” gives us Hope (so much so there’s an entire song dedicated to it), and hope is always a good thing.
“Shantytown – The Ballad of Fr. James Cox” runs until March 26th, 2023 at the Madison Arts Center, 3401 Milwaukee Street, Pittsburgh, PA For more information, click here.