Writer: Crystal Field
Director: Crystal Field
Composer: Joseph Vernon Banks
Reviewer: Carrie Lee O’Dell
Theater for the New City started their Annual Summer Street Theatre Tour in the early 1970s; every summer for nearly 50 years they have been bringing free musical theatre to locations throughout the five boroughs. Last summer the pandemic drove them online, but this year they are once again touring NYC’s parks; this time with Critical Care, or Rehearsals for a Nurse, an operetta about the experiences of a nursing student during the COVID-19 pandemic. Theatre for the New City co-founder and artistic director Crystal Field writes and directs. The show’s music is composed and arranged by Joseph Vernon Banks.
Critical Care focuses on the experiences of Flora, a young women living in a New York City Housing Authority (NYCHA) building on the Lower East Side. She decides to pursue a nursing degree from Hunter College and works as an aide in a senior care facility to make ends meet as she finishes her education. When the pandemic hits, she is on the front lines as her patients start dying in record numbers. Events like the 2020 election, widespread protests against police violence, and the Capitol attack on January 6 tax a city and a nation already traumatized by illness. Flora holds tight to her nursing dreams while the people of New York struggle to survive.
Though press for the show describes Critical Care as Flora’s story, her stage presence is often overshadowed by the events of 2020 and the voices of various nursing home residents, fellow NYCHA dwellers, other health care workers, and even the novel coronavirus itself. As a result, it feels like this show isn’t quite sure what it wants to be. Sometimes it is the story of a nursing student entering the profession during the worst health crisis the United States has seen in over a century; at other points it feels much more like a musical revue about the events of 2020 and their lasting impact. Some parts of the show that veer away from Flora are fun or thoughtful, like the opening song about living in NYCHA facilities or a tandem juggling act about different vaccines. Other segments bog the show down, in particular an extended scene between a hospital clown and a performer dressed as the coronavirus.
Actors had strong voices and gave energetic, enthusiastic performances. The play’s songs are catchy and fun– there are certainly worse things than listening to live music outside on one of the summer’s more temperate days. Technical elements are created to facilitate touring—there’s an entrepreneurial Judy Garland/Mickey Rooney “let’s put on a show!” feel to the production. Walter Gurbo’s set with its colorful flats does a fine job of establishing the play’s tone, while the costume design by Susan Hemley, Diana Adelman, Desiree Conston, and Maria Sores makes good use of simple pieces to indicate character change.
Audiences who are looking for polish will be disappointed, but this show is not really for them. It would be unfair to review this show as if it were a professional production. This is a program that allows amateur performers to be part of a tour that makes free live theatre accessible to audiences across the five boroughs. The audience response to the August 15 show in Harlem’s Jackie Robinson Park made it clear that this story spoke to them. Despite an uneven script, Critical Care does what it sets out to do. It serves New Yorkers who want to see themselves on a stage and that work is more vital than ever.
Runs until 12 September 2021 | Photo Credit: Jonathan Slaff