“Up From The Stacks” is musical theater, but like no other performance that you may have seen.
The show, which originally appeared in 2011 in New York and had its West Coast premiere February 23 at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, tells the story of college student Lincoln Cabinée, who has a part-time job as a page at the main building of the New York Public Library. As we watch Lincoln retrieve books from the stacks below, we encounter a cast of characters populating the catalogue and reading rooms above. Given that the play is set in 1975, decades before 42nd Street was made family friendly, it all takes place against a backdrop of seedy shops and porn palaces.
The offbeat stream-of-consciousness libretto, written by cartoonist Ben Katchor and sung by his collaborator, composer Mark Mulcahy, itself renders “Up From The Stacks” unusual. But what makes the libretto stunning is the perfectly timed projection of Katchor’s colorful panels onto a huge screen hanging above and to the right of Mulcahy and his three-member band. Although there is motion in some of the scenes, it’s not quite what you would call animation.
The story, however, is animated by the idea that the library’s reading room serves as an intersection of humanity. Using the device of book call slips, Katchor invites the audience into the lives and heads of a number of not-so-sympathetic characters. There is the homeless African-American man recently released from Bellevue Hospital who uses the reading room as a place to sleep. There is a personal hygiene-averse older man who spends his days trying to prove that pony cart rides of Central Park-of-old created bullies. We also meet a man dedicated to discovering the reason for the “marked drop in human curiosity” that led a particular day in 1936 to be the slowest in the library’s history. Yet another patron, a disagreeable plastic shopping bag-toting art historian, spends his time researching the history of Italian ices.
The plot feels discombobulated at times, as it darts from one character to the next, from one absurdist back story or digression to another. But that is the point. “Up From The Stacks” evokes an atmosphere and time — the dirty, dangerous New York of the 1970s — more than it tries to present a coherent plot. Mulcahy, who has now collaborated with Katchor on four operas, composed music that is purposefully ’70s-ish in sound. One can hear echoes of Bob Dylan, Paul Simon and Billy Joel, among others top acts of the era, as Mulcahy rocks out onstage beneath the huge cartoons.
Lincoln’s studies in public health administration provide a reason to discuss the rising cost of healthcare. His crush on one Syliva Carnavora (whom he knows only as a name on a call slip) and his request of a librarian to divulge her phone number is an excuse for Katchor to write an entire song (more like a diatribe) on privacy laws. Lincoln’s hours being cut in half is a reflection of the city’s financial crisis at the time. Along the way we are treated to random facts, such as that New York was the last major city in the industrial world to establish a public library.
Interspersed with the scenes inside the library are ones that take place in next door Bryant Park, as well as inside one of the many porn establishments on 42nd Street. The first half of the show is stronger than the second, but it is in the latter that we really understand how “the intellectual life of the city and the happiness of a young man hang in the balance,” as the program notes put it.
It would be a mistake, however, to think that Katchor brings things to a resolution. We, along with Lincoln, are left hanging in the balance.