by Jami R. Smith
view review on NYTimes.com
Question: What’s better than a lively musical with a love story?
Answer: A lively musical with two love stories.
The example that makes the point is “Young Abe Lincoln,” the highly commendable Theaterworks/USA production at the Promenade Theater, which deserves to be a magnet for children.
The standard love story is the one between Abe Lincoln and the ill-fated Ann Rutledge during his early days as a storekeeper and novice politician in Illinois in the 1830’s.
But the deeper, more substantive love story is that of a young man impassioned by the tenets of the United States: exhilarated by the concepts of liberty and equality and exalted by the realization that such ideas, expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and books of law can be applied to the lives of ordinary people.
With its sprightly music by Jeffrey Lodin, its fast-moving book and purposeful lyrics by John Allen and the efforts of a cast of five who do the work of legions, “Young Abe Lincoln” sketches the early life of the future 16th President in the course of one entertaining hour. The show takes Lincoln from his days as an Indiana farm boy through his family’s extended journey to Illinois and beyond, to the time when he worked for a grocer, lost his first campaign, studied law and won his first case.
Though Stefan Lingenfelter is front and center as the boyish but stalwart Abe, he has in some ways the easiest job on stage. Tony Freeman, Eugene Key, Ron Roznowski and Laura Stanczyk turn up in an enormous variety of roles, as everyone from Abe’s Ma and Pa, Ann and a schoolteacher who becomes Abe’s first client, to politicians, grocers, slaves, a gang, a marshal, three different sets of campaign audiences and even a team of horses hauling the Lincolns and their belongings from Indiana to Illinois across the Wabash River. This is one musical with real hoofers.
Such versatility calls for practically nonstop costume changes, and even if the secret owes much to Velcro — as members of the cast explained in a brief but pleasant question-and-answer session at the end of the show — it also owes a lot to the ability of the performers to impart individual character to each of their many roles.
Best of all, the musical, while effectively instructive, never condescends to its audience. In a season that embraces Independence Day and Bastille Day, “Young Abe Lincoln” offers good theater and good education.