The New York immigrant experience of last century has been explored in a number of musicals including “Ragtime” and “Rags.” The garment industry focus of the latter is centered on a single, horrific incident in “Triangle,” the new musical at TheatreWorks in Palo Alto.
The title refers to the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire of 1911 where 146 people, mostly women and child laborers, died due to insufficient safety precautions. It also refers to a triangle of characters, past and present who intersect through history and a mystery.
In the present, Brian (Ross Lekites) is a brilliant but conflicted doctoral candidate with a secret tragedy that keeps him emotionally unavailable. His office is in the building, on the floor and in the very room of a legendary aspect of the Triangle fire. Because of this, on the disaster’s centenary observation, he meets Ben (Zachary Prince), a history buff with a curious family connection to the event.
The two men are drawn to each other and Brian’s colleague (Sharon Rietkerk) encourages him to pursue the relationship. Afraid, Brian chooses instead to connect to Ben by using science to solve his family mystery. Complicating matters is the ghost of a woman named Sarah (Megan McGinnis) who is visible only to Brian.
The production moves between time periods with a fluid grace thanks to superb scenic design by Daniel Zimmerman and thoughtful and evocative lighting of Paul Toben. Director Meredith McDonough also choreographs seamless blocking for her actors, all of whom except Lekites play characters in both eras.
The score, with music by Curtis Moore and lyrics by Thomas Mizer, is solid and thoughtful, nicely advancing the story or deepening understanding of the characters. The densely plotted libretto (Moore and Mizer plus Joshua Scher) serves the mystery well, but suffers from a couple of extra threads that could be pulled without diminishing the whole.
There are no weak links in the cast. Though Lekites is allowed to wallow a bit in a power ballad, his soaring voice and well-played motivations keep Brian sympathetic.
Prince is the standout, turning – sometimes on just a word – from the sweetly fey Brian to Vincenzo, Sarah’s stalwart and sensitive boss-turned-betrothed.
McGinnis, with Rietkerk doubling as her pregnant sister Chaya, have beautiful shared and solo scenes and songs invoking family, tradition and the challenges of a new world. Laura D’Andre is an unflinchingly pragmatic sister to Vincenzo and Rolf Saxon is the holder of traditions in both times.
A little long, “Triangle” is nonetheless a fulfilling and well-crafted musical theater experience with a deep and heart-stirring humanity.
Presented by TheatreWorks
Where: Lucie Stern Theatre, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto
When: Tuesdays-Saturdays; closes Aug. 2
Tickets: $19 to $74
Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.TheatreWorks.org