Review of Sidewalkin': "False Grit," by Michael Feingold. Village Voice vol. 25 (May 5, 1980), p. 87.

Sidewalkin'. A musical revue by Jake Holmes, directed by Patricia Birch, presented by the Manhattan Theatre Club, 321 East 73rd Street, 472-0600.

Jake Holmes's musical revue, Sidewalkin', is irresistible fodder for radical sociologists: On the Upper East Side, in a theatre patronized largely by the affluent middle-aged, we find an evening of songs about urban street life (sidewalk life, if you insist) that celebrates, to emphatic applause, everything its audience loathes and would shrink from in reality. I don't know if you would call this a triumph for amity between the classes, or for packaging, though I suspect the latter is the key.

Holmes himself is an ideal intermediary between a cozy upper-bourgeois audience and the nasty streets outside. A pleasant-looking young man who appears onstage in a jacket and tie, he has Midwestern Wasp stamped all over him, and Patricia Birch has pointedly staged his mild, Midwestern-college-campus pop depictions of city grit so that Holmes himself is always framing the action, introducing it or hovering to one side observing, a distancing effect that allows the old folks to take every unpleasant fact the show presents as a troubadour's whimsy. Since Holmes's gentle style has already softened and toned down the realities involved, the result is not very forceful as entertainment, but is it hard to imagine any other form in which their subjects would be even palatable: Giant portable radios and graffiti sprayers, flipped-out cultists and soap-opera addicts, welfare fraud and groupies and the leafletters outside porn palaces.

The two most appalling numbers romanticize a rapist and a black pimp who preys on runaway adolescents, while dropping only the most perfunctory tear for their female victims. If Holmes had the capacity to see all the way through these subjects, he could have created something extraordinary; as it is, his songs either fall into pop cliche or trickle off oddly after a promising start. He has a sharp eye and a bright ear, but not a strong point of view, so the brief evening is full of half-formed ironies that leave one queasy instead of moved or impressed.

Birch's staging is sensible, not letting the material lag and not trying to whomp synthetic excitement out of it. Douglas Schmidt's junk-sculpture set, with its city skyline carved out of cardboard cartons, is a good idea that never quite got finished properly, but Carrie Robbins's costumes--basic jeans and T-shirts with added pieces that convey changes of character--are almost too much. The evening is blessed with a musical cast that is equally at home singing or playing instruments, the best being Larry Riley, with his big voice and droll comic presence. Janie Sell, used for her gift of caricature but wih no chance to show her emotional expressiveness, appears to have been shortchanged, and more's the pity. the best song--because it's the only one in which the writer has atually experienced a strong personal feeling--is a comic number, shared by Holmes and Riley, about a white boy caught in Harlem on the Train at 4 a.m. It suggests a different theme for the show--people with common negative feelings about city life making common cause--which might have been a wiser starting point.