Review: ‘Bulldozer,’ a Robert Moses Musical With a Rickety Foundation

Posted December 17, 2017 5:31 p.m. EST

NEW YORK — Biographer Robert A. Caro needed more than 1,200 pages to unspool the story of Robert Moses’ life and career in his Pulitzer Prize-winning 1974 masterwork, “The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the Fall of New York.” In 1981, when Moses died, Paul Goldberger spent upward of 5,000 words writing his obituary in The New York Times.

A visionary who reshaped New York in ways that helped and harmed it, Moses was a man with a gargantuan legacy. As Goldberger noted, “Before him, there was no Triborough Bridge, Jones Beach State Park, Verrazano-Narrows Bridge, West Side Highway or Long Island parkway system.”

“He built all of these and more,” the obituary said.

So it is probably ill advised that Peter Galperin and Daniel Scot Kadin take a mere 90 minutes to tell his tale in “Bulldozer: The Ballad of Robert Moses,” their confused new rock musical at the Theater at St. Clement’s. In choosing what to leave in and what to throw out, they have made a pared-to-the-bone show with an undistinguished score by Galperin, no pulsing human vitality and no dramatic tension.

Its inertness is not the fault of the five-person cast, led by Broadway veteran Constantine Maroulis as Moses, whom we first meet as a broken-down old man in a dressing gown, a blanket tossed across his lap. Maroulis has a lovely way with the show’s more wistful numbers and a nice chemistry with Kacie Sheik as Vera Martin, a seemingly composite character who is Moses’ loyal assistant and longtime lover, though we are led for a whole scene to believe that she is his wife.

A large problem is that Galperin and Kadin, who collaborated on the book, haven’t given the actors — including Molly Pope as Jane Jacobs, Moses’ downtown nemesis, and Wayne Wilcox as Nelson Rockefeller, the governor who stood up to Moses — fully drawn characters or relationships to play. Directed by Karen Carpenter, the show gets bogged down in conveying information, occasionally with the help of a quasi-narrator (Ryan Knowles) who is, somewhat bafflingly in this rock context, a folk musician.

Well, sort of rock context. With period costumes (by Bobby Frederick Tilley) and a scaffolding set (by Ken Larson), the rockingest thing about this show is its lighting (by Zach Blane), with colored beams slicing through an atmospheric haze. The score itself is Broadway-style pop-rock; in Moses’ opening song, he argues that he’s “not as bad as they say.”

However great a force Moses was in shaping New York in the 20th century, the draw of a musical about him is not so much what he did but who he was — a complex, enduringly controversial character whose vaulting ambition had huge stakes for New York City and its neighborhoods.

The story of his life is the story of a dreamer turned fallen angel, of triumph rubbing shoulders with tragedy. Put that onstage and you’d have yourself a show.


Production Notes:

‘Bulldozer: The Ballad of Robert Moses’

Through Jan. 7 at the Theater at St. Clement’s, Manhattan; 866-811-4111, bulldozer.nyc. Running time: 1 hour, 30 minutes.