Live Review: The Capeman

The Marquis Theater, New York, January 28, 1998

For months, industry insiders have painted Paul Simon's new musical, "The Capeman," as a production under siege. But few blamed rhymin' Simon, who collaborated with Nobel laureate Derek Walcott on the musical's book and lyrics. Early preview audiences tended to agree, generally citing "The Capeman"'s buoyant score as its primary strength in the difficult story of Salvador Agron, a functionally illiterate Puerto Rican immigrant who killed two Irish youths in 1959 and rehabilitated himself during his 20 years in prison. But as enjoyable as the music might be, "The Capeman" struggles to overcome the pitfalls of a story whose subtle complexities demand a more thoughtful and complete examination.

After a colorful opening which centers around Agron's mother, Esmeralda (played by a delightful Ednita Nazario), and the Agron family's decision to leave Puerto Rico, "The Capeman" settles into the pleasant, if familiar, territory of "West Side Story." In one of the musical's truly moving numbers, the teen-aged Agron, portrayed by salsa singer Marc Anthony, reclines on a fire escape and sings about the "Satin Summer Nights" of life in the barrio.

This prelude leads to Agron inevitably throwing in with the neighborhood gang, the Vampires, and it's here that director/choreographer Mark Morris and Simon belie the rising tension through scenes that cast the teens as genial misfits and harmless pranksters. Unfortunately, such a light-hearted set up undercuts the horrific nature of the double homicide Agron commits, and the jovial doo-wop song which accompanied the actual stabbing seemed woefully out of place.

As the play shifts to the older, incarcerated Agron (a sullen Ruben Blades), "The Capeman" becomes entangled in a choppy and disjointed storyline as the stretch marks from condensing its original two-and-a-half-hour running time begin to show. The play digresses through a series of diverse and emotionally hollow narrative threads, the most quizzical of which features Agron's unrequited epistolary romance with a Native American activist. An even more egregiously shallow subplot emerges when the musical segues into a stereotypical "man vs. the system" conflict that pits Agron against a racist prison guard who wants to keep the convicted murderer from obtaining a college degree.

Eventually, any empathy "The Capeman" strives for falls into entropy. On the run from the law in the Arizona desert, Agron experiences an epiphany that leaves him hallucinating before a singing St. Lazarus that can only be described as New Age self-help meets "Easy Rider." By the time Agron is finally paroled, the audience feels just as estranged as he does.

Almost too literate at times, "The Capeman" seldom indulges in the sort of staging (through no fault of Bob Crowley's wonderfully expressive sets or Natasha Katz' appropriately motivational lighting) that mixes theater's immediacy with its capacity to thrill with sights heretofore unseen. A story that remains worth telling, "The Capeman" unfortunately blankets Agron