‘East Carson Street’ musical makes a moving story out of Joe Grushecky’s songs

EAST carson street review


From left, Matt Wolpe, Constantine Maroulis and Teal Wicks co-star in “East Carson Street” at The Bell Theater in Holmdel.

I have seen many concerts by Joe Grushecky, with and without his band The Houserockers, over the past few decades. And I’ve never once had the thought, “Gee, these songs would work really well in a stage musical.”

But Jonathan Rosenberg did. And “East Carson Street” — featuring Grushecky’s songs, Rosenberg’s book and direction by Daniel Kutner — proves that this was a stroke of genius. Grushecky’s gritty songwriting, combined with a truly affecting story that Rosenberg has created to link them all, and passionate singing by 12 actors — nearly everyone gets at least one moment to shine — makes for a moving and memorable theatrical experience in the musical’s current premiere at the sparkling new Bell Theater at Bell Works in Holmdel

That said, the musical does not seem fully fleshed out, in some ways. At the show I saw (May 5), some actors held their scripts in their hands and referred to them occasionally, because — as Bell Theater executive artistic director Andrew DePrisco explained in a short welcoming talk — changes were still being made, daily. At times, the production felt more like a concert than a musical, as the actors often delivered their songs while standing at a microphone stand on a small, circular stage in the middle of the minimally decorated set.

Still, the characters were real enough for us to feel a connection with them, and for there to be a big emotional payoff by the time we get to the end of the story. Grushecky’s songs “East Carson Street” and “Fingerprints” anchor the first act with their deep sense of atmosphere and yearning, and his “This Is Someday” emerges as the second act’s heart-tugging showstopper. There always has been a lot of variety in his songwriting, and everything from the wistful, mysterious “When the Crows Go Crazy” to the rowdy “Blood, Sweat and Beers” and the rousing, inspirational “I Will Not Let My Spirit Fall” find a useful place here.


Clockwise from top left: Reagan Richards, Tommy McDonnell III, Matt Wolpe, Izzy Figueroa and Constantine Maroulis in “East Carson Street.”

The story is set in Pittsburgh, and features many references to Pittsburgh, Pittsburgh sports teams, and the hard times of the city’s working class. The action takes place from 1980 to the present. “This town’s been dying since the day I was born/Shops all boarded up and houses lying in ruin,” sings the central character, Jimmy (played by Constantine Maroulis), in the opening scene.

At this point in the story, Jimmy, an amiable everyman, has just been laid off, and his father George (Alex Paez) is ailing. Single, he spends his time hanging out at a bar with his somewhat oafish buddies Tank (Matt Wolpe) and Rick (Izzy Figueroa). But then he starts dating Julie (Bre Cade) and falls head over heels in love with her. She’s not so sure, though, that’s she’s ready to settle down. She becomes pregnant with Jimmy’s child, but soon leaves town, with no way for Jimmy to find her.

He’s distraught, but eventually gets over her with the help of Tank’s sister Angie (Teal Wicks). She is as strong-willed as Julie, but without the wanderlust; everything works out, and they marry. Both are working steadily, and they start a family together, with Julie and her child with Jimmy nowhere in sight. There is a strike at the supermarket where Jimmy works; he considers becoming a scab, but decides against it. (Rosenberg’s book covers a long period of time, so sometimes it does feel like we’re rushing through milestones of Jimmy’s life rather than really lingering on anything.)

The second acts jumps to Jimmy and Angie as middle-aged, secure adults, with grown children; Grushecky’s humorous “I Still Look Good for 60” comes in handy to mark the passing of time. While the first act was mainly about Jimmy getting his life together, the second act centers on the repercussions of the stubborn drug addiction that his son Dave (also played by Paez), an Iraq War veteran, suffers through. (Paez is fiercely good in this role, just as he was as George in Act One.) Jimmy and Angie’s marriage goes through a period of crisis; resolution comes in a surprising but satisfying way.


Joe Grushecky, center, with “East Carson Street” co-stars Constantine Maroulis and Teal Wicks.

Despite the Pittsburgh setting, it does make a certain sort of sense for the musical to debut in New Jersey. Grushecky is strongly connected to the Garden State music scene, through his participation in the annual Light of Day festival, his collaborations with Bruce Springsteen (who co-wrote two of the songs in the musical, “Code of Silence” and “Cheap Motel”), and more. Reagan Richards of the Jersey-based duo Williams Honor is a cast member, playing the bartender Sherry, and her Williams Honor partner Gordon Brown plays guitar in the show’s six-piece band. And Joe Bellia of The Weeklings plays drums. Adding to the concert feel of the production, the musicians are directly behind the actors and clearly visible throughout the show.

Grushecky released his first album in 1979 — approximately the same time that the action of “East Carson Street” starts. And he’s still a hard-working rock ‘n’ roller, with a new studio album, Can’t Outrun a Memory, due out on July 12, and a show with The Houserockers at The Wonder Bar in Asbury Park on July 20. He will also release a two-CD, career-spanning anthology, Houserocker: A Joe Grushecky Anthology, on May 24, with the original versions of some, but far from all, of the “East Carson Street” songs included.

Grushecky has been perennially underappreciated, throughout his career. Maybe it is time for that to change, so the man who wrote the hopeful “This Is Someday” can finally have a someday of his own.

The Bell Theater will present “East Carson Street” through May 12. Visit belltheater.org.


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