'A Sign of the Times' review — the '60s are back, music, movements, and all

Read our review of A Sign of the Times off Broadway, a new musical featuring a score of classic hits from the 1960s, currently playing at New World Stages.

Kyle Turner
Kyle Turner

For a brief moment, A Sign of the Times gestures toward a more interesting version of itself: one that conveys, amid its charmingly hopeful theme of seeking justice and meaning in the big city, that such quests don't always succeed, and there is still value in being committed to one’s beliefs and virtues anyway.

But a typical happily ever after soon washes that flourish of subversion away, in spite of the musical's primary dramatic fuel being that the only certain thing is change itself. Swirling throughout Lindsay Hope Pearlman's book (from a story by Richard J. Robin) are the destabilizing realities of the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the women’s liberation movement, but the show underexplores its topics of social justice, reform, and change.

Fresh off the bus from Centersville, Ohio, in 1965, aspiring photographer Cindy (Chilina Kennedy) lands an apartment with singing hopeful Tanya (standout Crystal Lucas-Perry). She's getting as far away as possible from a dull, marriage-oriented way of life and diving into the chaotic, sexist world of New York professional life. Tanya finds love with Cody (Akron Lanier Watson), a civil rights activist and president of the Buffalo chapter of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and Cindy begins a tentative relationship with Brian (Ryan Silverman), her boss at an advertising firm, while trying to chase her goals as an artistic observer of the times.

A Sign of the Times puts itself somewhat at a disadvantage by placing more focus on the score of popular songs from the era, plowing through one ‘60s pop song to another, than on deepening the characters. Songs like “Rescue Me,” “Gimme Some Lovin’,” and “Downtown” are supposed to move the plot forward and indicate the vastly shifting culture, but the show seems almost bogged down by music at the expense of exploring more compelling threads, like people’s obligations to one another versus political movements to create meaningful change.

This problem is particularly apparent in Tanya; with Lucas-Perry’s impressive performance and towering vocals, the show often feels strongest when it’s about her journey as opposed to the perfectly fine Cindy (whose artistry and interest in photography is never clearly articulated). Tanya is sure of herself, but she realizes her desires for self-preservation and direct involvement in the movement may be at odds with one another.

The show is most thought-provoking when it positions itself not simply as the story of a woman who enters the world at a critical point in history, but of what it takes for a person to be a force for change — or at least try — while the world is changing them.

Nonetheless, A Sign of the Times is a pleasant time, buoyed by good music, clever moments in an underwritten script, neat costumes by Johanna Pan, and the hardworking projections by Brad Peterson. But the musical's unwillingness to get its hands a little dirtier with its politics beyond a palatable “yay women’s rights” vibe (there's a very earnest performance of “You Don’t Own Me”) becomes a bit frustrating by the end — ironically just as its sense of the world becomes more complex.

A Sign of the Times is at New World Stages through June 2. Get A Sign of the Times tickets on New York Theatre Guide.

Photo credit: Chilina Kennedy and Crystal Lucas-Perry in A Sign of the Times. (Photo by Jeremy Daniel)

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