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“Suffs” reviewed

It’s been nearly nine years since Hamilton took Broadway by storm, and now comes a worthy successor. Much like Lin-Manuel Miranda’s tour de force, Suffs, short for suffragists, showcases the creative prowess of Shaina Taub, who assumes the roles of writer, composer, lyricist, and lead performer. But the comparison goes well beyond historical subject matter.   Both productions seamlessly blend narrative and music while portraying determined individuals grappling with seemingly insurmountable challenges. While Hamilton chronicles Alexander Hamilton’s pivotal role in shaping the nation, Suffs sheds profound light on Alice Paul’s crusade for women’s suffrage.

“Suffs” is short for suffragists. As one of the characters explains, “suffragettes is what the papers call us to make us seem like kewpie dolls instead of legitimate reformers.” The time is 1913. Eager young firebrand Alice Paul (Taub) approaches the venerated Carrie Chapman Catt (Jenn Colella) of the National American Woman Suffrage Association, suggesting that perhaps society luncheons and polite lobbying are ineffective methods for getting the women of America the right to vote. Paul assembles a ragtag team to fight the battle: fellow Swarthmore graduate Lucy Burns (Ally Bonino), glamorous socialite Inez Milholland (Hannah Cruz), immigrant socialist Ruza Wenclawska (Kim Blanck), and eager scribe Doris Stevens (Nadia Dandashi). The last is enlisted as recording secretary of the group; Stevens’ 1920 book “Jailed for Freedom” served as source material for Taub. (All of the major characters are historical figures.)

They are joined by such real-life personages as Chicago journalist Ida B. Wells (Nikki M. James), Gilded Age millionaire Alva Belmont (Emily Skinner), and political operative Dudley Malone (Tsilala Brock), who resigns his position with President Woodrow Wilson (Grace McLean) in protest. (Taub has written Malone and Wilson, along with other minor male characters, to be performed by an all-women cast.) Together, this band of suffs wages the battle that leads to passage of the Nineteenth Amendment in 1919, allowing women the right to vote. White women, at least. As is the case with so many of our American freedoms, equality does not always mean equality—a topic addressed with candor by Taub and delivered with power by James in “Wait My Turn.”

Director Leigh Silverman (Violet) has retained most of the players from the Public, with the production marked by a distinctive supporting cast: James, a Tony-winner for Book of Mormon, giving a nuanced and powerful performance; McLean, of Natasha, Pierre and The Great Comet of 1812, repeating her devastatingly wicked portrayal of the 28th president; and Colella, of Come from Away, who uncomfortably comes to realize that the objectionable Alice Paul resembles her younger self. Similarly impressive in less flashy roles are Cruz (of The Connector, who has moved from her downtown chore as the fiery immigrant into the role originated by Philippa Soo), Bonino, and the delectable team of Dandashi and Brock—whose characters sing about “If We Were Married” and in 1921 did indeed get married.