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Overcoming Through Song in a Summer of Discontent

Directed by the eclectic and inventive Rachel Chavkin (whose credits include “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” now on Broadway), the first performance of “Primer for a Failed Superpower” became an active testament to the art of overcoming in ways its creators presumably hadn’t anticipated. A failed air-conditioning system guaranteed that the heat was all too, well, oppressive.


Members of the ensemble performed songs that covered a historical spectrum of styles, a reminder that singing truth to power is a venerable American tradition.

Richard Termine for The New York Times

So the show registered as an improbable act of summoning and sustaining vitality under energy-sapping conditions. The cast members — a multishaped, multicolored and multigendered mix of professionals and civilians, whose ages appeared to range from the teens to the far side of 70 — were often required to stand (and sing, shout and dance) shoulder to sweaty shoulder. After all, one of the primary messages was that in union there is strength. At the end, Ms. Chavkin took the stage to announce that there was pizza (“not enough for a lot for everyone, but enough for a little for everyone”) and to encourage the audience to return to hear about community service programs.

Throughout the show, the singers emerged from and merged back into the audience, most of whom stood in the open ground floor area, as if at a political rally. The ensemble members were identifiable by their T-shirts (Brenda Abbandandolo did the costumes), which read “Tomorrow will be the [blank space] century.”

The idea would appear to be that it is up to you (sorry, us) to fill in the blank as to what kind of future awaits. Video clips of interviews with left-leaning political activists of varying ages and focus punctuated the show, emphasizing the necessity of political engagement and the idea that anger does not have to be a dirty word or a negative emotion.

The music (supervised by Orion Stephanie Johnstone and directed by Nehemiah Luckett) was highly amplified, strong on percussion and surprisingly harmonious throughout. The songs (newly arranged by artists who included Justin Ellington, Yva Las Vegass, and Stew and Heidi Rodewald) covered a historical spectrum of styles, a reminder that singing truth to power is a venerable American tradition.

But the tunes they are a-changin’. Concerns that would never have figured in a Weavers’ protest concert in the 1950s — such as the rights of trans people and the freedom to choose your own gender — were clearly much on the minds of the ensemble, particularly its younger members.

And in one sequence, reminiscent of a scene from the prototypical rock musical “Hair,” a man on the cusp of middle age read an open letter to his parents. The subject was the song he felt was the anthem of his generation: Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit.”

He admitted that he didn’t entirely understand it, which was part of the reason it spoke to him so directly. “I feel like your generation’s protest music was so clear,” he said. “It knew what it was protesting.”

A group-sing of “Teen Spirit” followed. “Hello?” asked the performers again and again, in an ecstasy of confrontational vigor. “Here we are now. Entertain us!” If the lyrics remained enigmatic, the conviction in the voices could not have been louder or clearer.

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