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A CurtainUp Review
By Elyse Sommer
Who can feel pessimistic about the state of the American musical theater, when it has spawned and nourished a talent like Audra MacDonald's? When she sings, dissonance becomes melodic. Every note is nothing less than glorious, leaving you stunned at the seeming effortlessness of her delivery. Ms. MacDonald has the range of an opera diva and acts as well as she sings. The fact that she's chosen to make her career in the theater is the opera world's loss and the musical theater enthusiast's gain.
Composer-lyricist John LaChiusa is, like MacDonald, a talent to be nurtured. His distinctive and at times dissonant style is always interesting and often exhilarating. Hello Again, and Chronicle of a Death Foretold remain among my most memorable musical theater experiences. I'd welcome a chance to see The First Ladies' Suite again even though it was only partially successful.
With Graciela Daniele, who shepherded all the above mentioned musicals to the stage, once again at the helm Marie Christine, based on the Greek tragedy Medea, would seem an inspired choice to showcase MacDonald in a leading role. Setting the tale in 1890s New Orleans and Chicago -- focusing on Creole society in the former and shady politics in the latter -- is in keeping with the story's many adaptations and updates since Euripides wrote it in 401 B.C.
Ms. MacDonald is indeed a magnificent and passionate Medea, a convincing voodoo sorceress. She manages to avoid being a cliche of the "smart women, foolish choices" syndrome and makes the most of very fine arias Mr. LaChiusa has written for her. One of these, "Way Back to Paradise" is the title number of her new music CD. The whole score needs an opportunity for more than one listening to be fairly judged which will be possible once the show CD that's being recorded this month is released.
Given the complexities of the music and the inevitablity of its ending, this is hardly a crowd pleaser on the order of the bookless dance play Contact, which will be moving into the Beaumont after Marie Christine completes its run -- and Ms. McDonald hopefully gives that magnificent vocal instrument of hers a rest. (No opera singer would dare to tax her voice with six performances a week. If MacDonald continues to do these demanding works, she needs more than a matinee backup to prevent vocal burnout).
Crowd pleaser or not, I do believe that there's room for all genres. To once again cite Contact, this too is atypical having almost no dialogue and only canned music. But it is light and not alien to New York's multitude of balletmaniacs. The musical-opera crossover, on the other hand has been getting a bad rap for two reasons: 1. Audiences are frustrated at not being offered enough new book musicals in a lighter vein 2. These often dour new works are still experimental and thus tend to have troublesome flaws -- as this latest dark and doomed production does.
My reservations about Marie Christine stem less from its concept or its score, but from the development of the book. If Mr. LaChiusa had stuck to the score and worked with a collaborator on the book and lyrics, many of the flaws could have been smoothed over.
A more tightly focused book and lyrics would allow us to more fully appreciate the composer's rambling through an array of musical styles. While dramatic events do often take place off stage in Greek tragedies, we need more than flashbacks within flashbacks to bridge the five years between Marie Christine's elopement and her being faced with abandonment and the loss of her children. There's also the somewhat muddled portrait of the fickle lover, Dante Keyes. The role is neither written or performed as powerfully as the female lead. Brent Black, who substituted for Anthony Civello at the performance I attended, didn't seem quite irresistible enough to make a persuasive case for Marie Christine's abandonment of her comfortable life and the violent acts performed in the interest of helping and keeping him which precede the final infanticide. His voice also failed to overwhelm. (According to reports from several of our CurtainUp readers who did see Civello, my comments about Black also apply to him. Joan Eshkenazy, our dance specialist and an opera aficianado saw the show with Sherry Boone in the leading role and found her performance to be far better than second best.)
Vivian Reed who plays the mother from whom Marie Christine learns her magic tricks has the standout supporting role -- like daughter, like mother! Darius de Haas is also fine as the hapless brother who gets stabbed at the end of act one -- though his return as a rather benign specter in act two is somewhat perplexing.
Gates (Shawn Elliott), the Chicago politician who offers Dante career advancement along with his daughter, is more than a few steps down the social ladder from Euripides' Creon. Like other aspects of the book this isn't as smoothly integrated with the first act as it should be. Yet "Better & Best" by Gates' henchmen, Leary and McMahon (Michael McCormick and Mark Lotito), is one of the second act's best numbers, and the scene when they and Gates intimidate Marie Christine is a dramatic high point. Another socially demoted character, the king of Athens, is now played by a Chicago madam who promises to help Marie Christine get back her children -- as played by Mary Testa this character switch is such a welcome addition that the urge to quibble fades and one simply wishes Testa had more than a cameo part.
Ms. Daniele's direction, like everything else about the show is impressive but not flawless. The movement choreography is appropriate to the music and libretto, and strikingly intense during the number when Marie Christine tries to separate her lover and the young woman he intends to marry. The prologue in which members of the cast move gradually to the amphitheater like benches at the side of the stage gets things off to a gripping start. Much of the direction is, however, rather heavy handed -- to wit, the women who serve as a Greek chorus but often seem more like the three weird sisters from Macbeth. Putting David Pleasant and his pulsating drum behind a scrim on a raised balcony at the rear of the stage is a fine idea and we could in fact do with more of this. On the other hand, having the stage hang over the orchestra does little to enhance the sound.
Christopher Berreca's abstract setting is quite striking. Jules Fischer & Peggy Eisenhauer's persistently dark lighting somewhat too persistently underscores the story's darkness. Toni-Leslie James' costumes are adequately funereal. There are some impressive brighter outfits for Marie Christine's mother and the kindly prostitute though. Marie Christine's one colorful dress looks good mainly because of its wearer.
Like Gershwin's Porgy and Bess and Bernstein's Candide this musical may, and probably should, eventually have another life in an opera house. In the meantime, Lincoln Center deserves our thanks for giving it this life, for as modern operas don't easily and quickly move into the repertories of major opera companies, a musical like this is not something regional houses specializing in popular musicals will be likely to do in the near future. Flawed as it may be, it is a memorable experience.
Way Back to Paradise -- Audra McDonald's anthology takes its title from one of the most memorable arias from Marie Christine; also features songs by other new world music composers as Adam Guettel and Ricky Ian Gordon. Dissonant or not, this CD sold 30,000 copies within a month of its release
Ragtime - with Audra MacDonald as Sarah.
Our review of Contact