Kudos to Ernest McCarty for creating (words and music) and directing a brand new musical, "The Chelsea Arms," and to Kuntu Theatre for producing its premiere.
More accurately, "Chelsea Arms" is a play with music, and that distinction gets at both its particular interest and what currently feels unfinished -- not unusual with the premiere of something so ambitious.
The Chelsea is one of those Manhattan residential hotels generally associated with the mid-20th century and often with women, most familiar perhaps from older New Yorker stories or the lives of artists. This one is primarily occupied by African-American theater people whose jobs occasionally take them on the road.
We meet five hotel residents: three older actors, another just starting out and (a rarity!) a critic, plus a crisp but sympathetic hotel manager and a few other hotel employees. It's not clear how the residents can afford an accommodation with so many services, but it's more fable than reality. Tensions among the residents gradually yield to the fate of the hotel itself, which is being closed by its owners.
Although there's comedy along the way, the ultimate mood is melancholy. We expect some sort of last-minute reprieve, but (spoiler alert!) Mr. McCarty is made of sterner stuff: He stays true to the likely fate of an old-fashioned property in the New York real estate market, just as he faces up to the gradual decline of the older residents. The sweet-sad ending is one of the play's attractions.
But its major distinction is its use of musical numbers, which sometimes illustrate or advance the story, as in most stage musicals, but sometimes comment in a nonrealistic way, slipping sideways into a surreal, parallel mode. And sometimes the relationship between song and story is hard to specify; some songs may serve simply as entertainment, illustrative of the dying world of touring variety acts.
This uncertainty might be lessened by better staging than is likely on the small Homewood Library stage. For example, better lighting would make it clearer what's realistic and what's expressionist. But the songs also are unevenly distributed, falling mainly in Act 2, and the transitions (clunky blackouts) could be better handled.
Creator/director McCarty is present throughout, playing piano accompaniment not only for the songs but sometimes for dialogue, creating a nostalgic atmosphere.
A chief pleasure of "Chelsea Arms" is a pair of veteran actors, Etta Cox, the well-known cabaret singer, and Charles Timbers, who together play the older residents, one still successful in the business, one not. Mr. Timbers has the play's richest role and handles it with appealing restraint.
Cheryl Walker plays an older performer who undergoes the greatest change. Kim El is the hotel manager, Michael Moats the sardonic, solitary critic, and Delana Flowers the ebullient young performer who brings zest into the lives of both the veterans and the play.
There were uncertain lines opening night, as actors were still settling into their parts. Mr. McCarty certainly has more to do to give his play a future life. But at just under two hours, "Chelsea Arms" already has an appealing heart, metaphorically suggested by the embracing arms of its title.
Senior theater critic Christopher Rawson: 412-263-1944.