SUFFS Storms Broadway — Review


The company of Suffs | Photo: Joan Marcus

Joey Sims
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April 18, 2024 9:30 PM

In 2015, Shaina Taub debuted the new single “When,” a scorching cry of pain written in response to America’s gun violence epidemic. The song is a painful listen, but also stirring, evidence of Taub’s considerable skill at weaving together the political and the personal in her songwriting. “When” is a call for action, yes – but it is also a release, a catharsis for all our anger, fear and frustration at the country’s seemingly endless cycles of mass death.

Late in the second act of Suffs, Taub hits on a similar alchemy of political and personal with “Fire & Tea,” a literal scorcher of a number (fire effects included). Narratively, the song collides the contrasting political approaches of radicalist Alice Paul (Taub) and incrementalist Carrie Chapman Catt (Jenn Colella); emotionally, it comes as both women have reached their limit. 

Inside the White House, Catt confronts President Woodrow Wilson (Grace McLean), a longtime suffrage opponent; outside, Paul and her fellow National Woman’s Party members burn Wilson in effigy. In Taub’s rousing score, Paul and Catt’s voices join together, passions and ideals fusing with a stirring emotional impact. 

The new musical, which opens tonight at the Music Box Theatre following a run at the Public downtown, is at its most invigorating when Taub hits on these collisions of the political and personal. But such moments are few and far between in this sprawling historical work, with book, music and lyrics by Taub, which traces the suffragist movement and the battle for a woman’s right to vote in the United States. The show is overburdened by too many characters and too much historical ground to cover, and Taub’s score often falls back on generic inspirational anthems instead of emotional specificity. 

The company of Suffs | Photo: Joan Marcus

Suffs is so packed full of these rousing chants for change  — “Finish the Fight,” “How Long,” “Show Them Who You Are,” “The Young Are At the Gates” — that it can feel like every other number is an inspirational ode to fighting on, pushing through, doing what can’t be done. Taub can write one hell of a tune, and even the show’s more generic numbers are a pleasure to the ear. The melodies are lively, the lyrics skillful. Certainly Suffs is head and shoulders above most of this Broadway season’s new musicals, too many of which have been dragged down by repetitive and bland scores that fail to drive the narrative forward. 

But Taub operates at her strongest when there’s a clear sense of character behind the grand ideals. Nowhere is that more evident that in the show’s witty opening number, “Let Mother Vote,” a cutting appeal from Chapman Catt for men to let “Your All-American mother” take up her inalienable rights. Catt’s political canny and dogged determination live in the sharp lyrics, along with just a hint of her building impatience. Colella is a standout as Catt, steely and dryly witty. 

By contrast, Alice Paul and her National Woman’s Party circle are painted in much broader strokes. Doris Stevens (Nadia Dandashi) is sweet and earnest; Ruza Wenclawska (Kim Blanck) is dark-humored and very Polish; even Inez Milholland (Hannah Cruz), a proud showboat and well-connected socialite, gets lost in the mad shuffle of characters and plot lines  – and that’s after she rides down center stage on a horse. 

It’s not the fault of the cast, who are strong across the board. As Paul’s closest friend and right-hand woman, Ally Bonino is especially affecting, both warm and fiercely loyal. There just isn’t time – Leigh Silverman’s disjointed production is too busy running from point A to point B, as Taub strains to shoehorn in as much historical detail as possible. In all that business, the internal lives of the Suffs feel thinly sketched. 

Clownish depictions of the Suffs’ opponents, particularly Wilson, also suck the weight out of the story. It’s not that these opposition figures, mostly male, deserve anything better — but their buffoonish-ness can sap the show’s dramatic tension. When Paul is imprisoned and goes on hunger strike, the horror of her treatment is tonally undermined by the broad pantomiming of her wacky prison warden. 

Shaina Taub | Photo: Joan Marcus

By contrast, the show’s strongest performance is its weightiest. As journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells, Tony Award-winner Nikki M. James is so immediately compelling, so richly layered that her work throws the comparative thinness of the central characters into stark relief. Wells is an intermittent presence, first appearing before the seminal 1913 March on Washington to confront Paul on Black protesters being forced to the back. She remains a thorn in Paul’s side, a reminder of the limits to the suffragists’ inclusionary ideals. 

The presence of both Wells and the more concessionary Mary Church Terrell (Anastaćia McCleskey) could have felt perfunctory or unearned if handled incorrectly. Instead, the problem is that James is so good, it throws the whole show off-balance. A single two-minute scene between Wells and Mary, debating the dangers of an anti-war editorial, is so weighty, lived-in and complex, it makes every debate we’ve seen among Paul and her cadre seem strangely flimsy and so very small, a fatal imbalance. 

For all its shortcomings, there is an admirable sincerity of Suffs, reaching Broadway well after the earnestness of Hamilton has come to be viewed as cringeworthy in some corners. Following the overturning of Roe v. Wade in 2022, women’s rights to self-determination are under attack in statehouses across the country. Fighting back will take commitment, sacrifice and constant protest. Suffs is a flawed work that fails to emotionally grab, but succeeds as a fresh reminder of the necessity and power of sustained political action.

Suffs is now in performance at the Music Box Theatre on West 45th Street in New York City. 

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Joey Sims

Joey Sims has written at The Brooklyn Rail, TheaterMania, American Theatre Magazine, Culturebot, Exeunt NYC, New York Theatre Guide, No Proscenium, Broadway’s Best Shows, and Extended Play. He was previously Social Media Editor at Exeunt, and a freelance web producer at TodayTix Group. Joey is an alumnus of the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center’s National Critics Institute, and a script reader for The O’Neill and New Dramatists. He runs a theater substack called Transitions.

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