12/12/2019

ART's "Moby-Dick": Call Me a Schlemiel

Manik Choksi & The Cast of "Moby Dick"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Call one whatever, but who knew? Moby-Dick? Harpooned, yes, but hyphenated too? As it turns out, yes and no; it depends on which edition one's referring to, back when Herman Melville first published his iconic 1851 novel of rage, revenge and reverence, with hyphen in one published version, without it in another. Neither was a success, for the balance of his lifetime, but it would eventually be held up as an integral addition to American literature (in fact declared the greatest American novel ever written by none other than Nathaniel Philbrick). In more recent times, the work has been the source for countless film and operatic versions, and now, at American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, it's in the creative hands of the folks who brought you Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812. With that provenance one would expect this, with Music, Lyrics, Book and Orchestrations by Dave Malloy, Developed with and Directed by Rachel Chavkin, to be a revelation.


The Cast of "Moby Dick"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

As it turns out, again, yes and no. If broadly written, acted and directed slapstick is your thing, then half of this show would be right up your alley. If not, then it must be said that the good (or bad) ship Pequod is barely afloat, in fact adrift, revealing neither focus nor purpose. Given the source material in the novel, with its vast cornucopia of symbols, themes and metaphors, subtlety surely would be called for, but is sorely lacking in this production. The complexities are there beneath the surface, from the pure whiteness of the titular animal with its forces (nature, God, fate) beyond man's control  vs. free will, to the inevitability of evil amid moral ambiguity. You'll find the original author's themes of duty, defiance, doubt and death, along with obsession, the limits of knowledge and the pervasive underbelly of race. It also preserves the narrator's quest, his spiritual journey to discover his own sense of self. A few decades ago, this critic enrolled in a Harvard course on Religion and Literature given by Amos Wilder (brother of Thornton), whose emphasis on this very novel was revelatory. This mashup of theatrically bizarre elements reveals only how even the most renowned creative folks can go so horribly off course. After three and a half hours of sophomoric mayhem one almost ends up cheering on the whale. Not that there isn't a lot of talent on display; it's just diluted by overlong segments involving an anachronistic stand-up comic routine that's well done but overdone, a seemingly endless boat ride that involves audience participation straight out of a ride at Disneyland, and an extended showstopper (in a bad sense) of a deviation dealing with Pip that also seems to go on forever (because it does).


The Cast of "Moby Dick"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

On the plus side, there's a good deal of memorable music in varying styles from jazz to gospel to folk/country to Broadway (and even echoes of whales clicking), all performed by an inexhaustibly energetic cast consisting of Ishmael (Manik Choksi), Queequeg (Andrew Cristi), Starbuck (Starr Busby), Blacksmith/Sailor 1 (Ashkon Davaran), Flask (Anna Ishida), Tashtego (Matt Kizer), Daggoo (J. D. Mollison), Ahab (Tom Nelis), Pip (Morgan Siobhan Green), Stubb (Kalyn West), Fedallah (Eric Berryman), Carpenter/Sailor 2 (Kim Blanck) and Father Mapple/Captains of the Albatross, the Bachelor & the Rachel (Dawn L. Troupe). Standouts include Troupe, Nelis and Choksi, but there's not a clinker in the bunch. As for the rest of the creative team, the complex Musical Direction and Supervision was by Or Matias, with lively Choreography by Chanel Da Silva, overwhelmingly enveloping Scenic Design by Mimi Lien (with reflections of Quaker meeting houses, and a life of violent and broken obsession), eclectic but apt Costume Design by Brenda Abbandandolo, extraordinary Lighting Design by Bradley King, equally important Sound Design by Hidenori Nakajo and clever Puppet Direction by Eric F. Avery. One is tempted to repeat one's own recent reference in another review: Squid pro quo; fortunately, one resisted this temptation.


Andrew Cristi & The Cast of "Moby Dick"
(photo: Evgenia Eliseeva)

Would that the powers behind this theatrical quest had resisted the obvious lure of including material from 40 of the 135 chapters in the book (by comparison, their Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 was based on 70 pages from War and Peace). There are some captivating choices (clarifying the homoerotic feelings of the narrator toward his “cannibalistic” bedmate, for example; or the songs about etymology, cetology and squeezing sperm; or frequent pulverizing of the fourth wall), and about half of the show would make a very promising piece of theater. As it now stands, it's correctly described by Chavkin as “epic messiness”. What this work cries out for is not a harpoon but scissors; it's such a mash-up of three and a half hours of random set pieces and performance art that it threatens to destroy all the good aspects of blubberhood. Succinctly, the show's playbill cover subtitle says it all: “a musical reckoning”; if you have the patience and stamina to await its best moments, there is a lot of wheat amongst the chaff.

Meanwhile, we are all in the belly of the whale, at least until January 12th.



12/08/2019

New Rep's "Oliver!": Feud, Glorious Feud

Ben Choi-Harris & Andy Papas in "Oliver!"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

As bemoaned by this critic in the past, the stage musical version of Charles Dickens' Oliver Twist is infrequently produced these days, in large part because of the challenge of casting very young lead actors. After all, the well-known story from Dickens' 1850 original novel features two different British social worlds engaged in feuding against one another for the life and soul of the titular orphan and involves a good number of workhouse young boys with those two lead roles that are essential to the tale. When the London stage production debuted in 1960 and two years later on Broadway (winning three Tony Awards including Best Musical), then in a filmed version (winning an Academy Award for Best Picture), the success of all these versions depended heavily on the charisma of the actors portraying the characters of Oliver and the Artful Dodger. New Rep in Watertown has managed to rediscover a gem named Ben Choi-Harris (Oliver); but not with some questionable nontraditional casting of a female, Sydney Johnston (The Artful Dodger), who looked and acted as feminine as they come. But Choi-Harris and his impeccable Director/Choreographer Michael J. Bobbitt provided the foundation for a production that can only be described as perfect holiday fare, surely deserving of the exclamatory title, Oliver!. Bobbitt knows how to stage a crowd, as well as inventing a lot of visual movement. He's a true find for future musicals to come from New Rep.


Cast of "Oliver!"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

Any version of this show (which notoriously has a very slow start) requires versatile singing, dancing and acting performers, such as the role of the conniving yet captivating “receiver” Fagin (Austin Pendleton), who seemed miscast, though he's been a favorite of this critic since 1964's Broadway Fiddler on the Roof  and 1970's off-Broadway Last Sweet Days of Isaac; but it needs even more a heartbreaking Nancy (Daisy Layman), which it has, as she belts out the show's best rousing songs as well as a thrilling torch song or two, as well as the inherently and unredeemably evil Bill Sikes (Rashed Alnuaimi), the hilariously hypocritical workhouse owners, Mr. Bumble (Andy Papas) and Widow Corney (Johanna Carlisle-Zepeda), and the equally hypocritical and aptly-named funeral director's wife Mrs. Sowerberry (Shannon Lee Jones). They are, individually as well as collectively, about as professionally perfect as one could hope for, and that includes the entire ensemble, such as Noah Claypool (Jackson Jirard), Bet (Daniela Delahuerta) and the housekeeper Mrs. Bedwin (Jones again). Rarely has one encountered such a capable Oliver as Choi-Harris (often played by actors outside their range). But wait, there's more.


Ian Freedson Falck. Austin Pendleton, Jane Jakubowski & Mark Johnson in "Oliver!"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

That professional level goes for the creative team as well, especially with regard to the work of Director-Choreographer Michael J. Bobbitt (the company's new Artistic Director). Along with the stupendous Scenic Design by Luciana Stecconi and wondrous Costume Design (except for Nancy's bizarre outfit and Cruella de Ville hairstyle) by Rachel Padula-Shufelt, terrific Lighting Design by Frank Meissner and effective Sound Design by Kevin L. Alexander, there is the marvelous Musical Direction by Sariva Goetz, and, at the core of the work, the triple threat contribution by the musical's creator Lionel Bart, who wrote the Book, Music and Lyrics (a feat perhaps only Frank Loessor or Meredith Wilson could so perfectly match), even though he couldn't write or read a single musical note. Not only was Bart true to Dickensian themes, his work was respected here by Bobbitt with this tight rendition, with great attention to the score and some witty references to the works of Tim Burton, Lemony Snicket and Edward Gorey. In Bobbitt's hands, these kids are wonderful, with a real standout performance by Jane Jakubowski.


Daisy Layman & The Cast of "Oliver!"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

And oh, that score! From the show's opener, “Food, Glorious Food” to Oliver's poignant plea “Where Is Love?” to Dodger's show-stopping “Consider Yourself”, to Nancy's “As Long As He Needs Me” and Fagin's eleven o'clock number, “Reviewing the Situation”, it's chock full of unforgettable musical pieces. The score's sources range from the traditional British music hall to complex counterpoint sung a cappella, every song character-driven. Even Nancy's fate (with its abusive aspects) is here tempered by her strength and redeeming choices in the end. The only pity is that the second act includes no fewer than five reprises out of its ten numbers. For the most part the musical numbers are a treat, from the title song to “It's a Fine Life”, “I'd Do Anything”, “Be Back Soon”, and “Who Will Buy?”, apart from some that are needed just to advance the story, such as “I Shall Scream”, “Boy for Sale”, “That's Your Funeral”, and “My Name”. Just consider, yourself, Nancy's pub number, "Oom-Pah-Pah" (this critic's favorite) with its typical (and innocently highly suggestive) lyrics.


The Cast of "Oliver!"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

As is equally true in Dickens' seminal source, everything about a successful Oliver! demonstrates precisely how character-driven this work is at every level. It is wisely presented as a dark musical “comedy” meant to entertain. Storytelling in theater simply doesn't get any better than this. Period. Full stop. And do by all means make a full stop at New Rep for this quintessential example of musical theater at its best, and, in the tradition of past exclamation-pointed shows (think Oklahoma!, Hello, Dolly! and the like) it's nearly Broadway caliber. So review your situation and find time for this perfect choice for holiday theater.

See it even if you've got to pick a pocket or two to do so, through December 29th.


12/06/2019

"Smokey Mtn. Christmas Carol": Dolly's Holly Folly

The Cast of "Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol"
(photo: Jesse Faatz)

Now appearing on Boston's Colonial Theatre stage: the latest entertainment reinvention by the superstar who's arguably the savviest creative force in the world of show biz, a world premiere no less, with the mouthful of a title, Dolly Parton's Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol. What the Dickens, you might ask, is there yet another permutation or combination of the oft-told tale of greed and consumption? After a very brief run in concert reading format this past month in St. Paul, Minnesota, this latest retelling of the familiar holiday tale has been transported to Tennessee's Smoky Mountains, as a musical, with Music and Lyrics by eight-time Grammy Award winner Dolly Parton, with Book by David H. Bell, under the command of Director Curt Wollan. As such, it lives up to all the hopes and fears of all the years we've been exposed to the timeless storytelling you might expect, with more than a dollop of local squalor as we encounter a mining town owned by one Ebenezer Scrooge (Peter Colburn) who just so happens to own the company store and most of the cast, during the 1930's Depression. Just how much you feel the need for another version of the well-worn helping of both redemption and grace in country western song will effect how you respond to this hillbilly take.


Peter Colburn & Mary Tanner in "Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol"
(photo: Jesse Faatz)

Will this offering, with more frequent sung allusions to Jesus Christ than at a typical revivalist tent meeting, fly in Boston (or, shudder, New York) as it surely will in Pigeon Forge? That remains its biggest challenge. Dickens himself kept the dogma pretty much understated, while this is about putting the Christ back into Christmas with a vengeance. It's not helped much by a somewhat plodding plot, (and if you need a synopsis, go back to that rock you've been living under), even with topical references to homemade liquor, revenuers, and the Sears & Roebuck catalog. Fortunately Ms. Parton proves yet again that she can provide a knee-slappin' score to enhance the proceedings (though a whole bunch of 'em sound alike), with a couple of lovely ballads (especially “Appalachian Snow Fall”), albeit with a bit too much sugar (the sentimental “Three Candles”). If you're a Parton and/or country western fan, it won't disappoint.


The Cast of "Smoky Mountain Christmas Carol"
(photo: Jesse Faatz)

The talented and energetic cast of a baker's dozen includes Bob Cratchit/Jacob Marley (Billy Butler), Eben/Fred (local actor Jonathan Acorn, an Emerson grad), Fanny/Sadie (Brittney Santoro), Fustbunch/Ghost of Christmas Present (Brian Hull), Mrs. Fustbunch/Mrs. Cratchit (Julia Getz), Ghost of Christmas Past/Mrs. Dilber (Mary Tanner), Mudge/Wyatt (Ray O'Hare), Dick (Josh Bryan), and of course Tiny Tim (alternating Malachi Smith and Sachie Capitani, another example of today's non-traditional casting). The six supporting musicians are led by Tim Hayden (also on keyboard), with Mark Barnett on banjo, mandalin, and dobro, Luke Easterling on bass, Lindsey Miller on guitar, Caitlin Nicole-Thomas on fiddle, and Teddy Thomas on percussion, all to the unusual and lively Choreography by John Dietrich. The fine Scenic Design (a funky general store) by Scott Davis, Costume Design by Linda Roethke, Lighting Design by Lee Fiskness, and Sound Design by James McCartney were quality work.


When all is said and done, this “revival” will thrive as a staple of Christian holiday fare produced in community theaters. It is what it is, an unabashedly low-tech effort with heart and soul, and obviously a labor of love for the inexhaustible Parton. As Scrooge puts it near the end of the show, “I can see where this is all going”. And so will you.
 
If this be your cup of moonshine, it's potable now until December 29th.
 


11/25/2019

Lyric's "Murder": Twelve Suspects Walk into a Car

Remo Airaldi & Will McGarrahan in "Murder on the Orient Express"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Well, make that eight suspects walk into a pullman car. The self-appointed jury of twelve first seen in the iconic novel by Agatha Christie and seen subsequently on several movie and TV screens over the years has been reduced to eight (thus canceling out Christie's clever allusion to a jury of one's peers); hence the current stage adaptation by Ken Ludwig (“at the request of the Christie estate”) of Murder on the Orient Express , now being produced by Lyric Stage Company, has already lowered expectations somewhat. This is not necessarily a bad thing, since anyone who has seen any of the more successful iterations of this concept might not want to revisit an exact reenactment of the popular story with a full dozen backstories. Yet it's actually hard to envision a potential audience member out there who hasn't already experienced the absurdly coincidental tales of the interrelated passengers who all happen to find themselves on the same track at the same time, or the clever twist at the end, which was, and continues to be, literally unforgettable . That said, this offering, Directed by Spiro Veloudos, makes up for its possible element of real mystery with a chance to see some local actors theatrically strut their shtick.


The Cast of "Murder on the Orient Express"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

And strut they do, as the famed Orient Express train is trapped by an avalanche in a snowstorm shortly after midnight. As the script puts it, “And so it begins”. In no time at all, an American tycoon is suddenly found murdered in a compartment which is locked from inside. Among the other passengers and crew are eight potential suspects, all of whom have ironclad alibis (and motives). By chance or by choice (Agatha Christie's, that is), it just so happens that one of the passengers aboard the train is none other than the justly famed Belgian private detective Hercule Poirot (Remo Airaldi). It is his role to interrogate and investigate the Conductor Michel (Scot Colford, who also plays the Head Waiter), Princess Dragomiroff (Sarah deLima), Helen Hubbard (Kerry A. Dowling), Greta Ohlsson (Marge Dunn), Monsieur Bouc (Will McGarrahan), Colonel Arbuthnot (Davron S. Monroe, who also plays Rachett), Hector MacQueen (Michael John Ciszewski), Countess Andrenyi (Celeste Oliva), and Mary Debenham (Rosa Procaccino). One semi-spoiler: the Butler didn't do it (seeing as there isn't one). But the heavily expository nature of most of the entire first act doesn't help; it was disorienting. Some jokes fit, some do not, and some arrive overdone (three times we're told Poirot is Belgian, not French). Fortunately, the overly familiar plot becomes less involving than the appreciation of the acting chops on display as well as the creative contributions.


The Cast of "Murder on the Orient Express"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

On that creative side, the Scenic Design is by Brynna Bloomfield (serviceable and clever but not nearly as posh as the real Orient Express, which the script extols as a “legend”), with Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley (becoming threads from the period, which is 1934), effective film noir-ish Lighting Design by Scott Clyve, Sound Design and Original Music by Dewey Dellay (with some snippets from Anything Goes, and Flight of the Bumblebee as well as Chattanooga Choo-Choo) and fluid (in fact, constant) Projection Design by Seaghan McKay. They're the true suspects in this melding of art deco and film noir. The Direction by Veloudos is solid, especially in the second act, and the acting turns are universally tantalizing, with standouts from Airaldi, Dowling and McGarrahan in the meatier roles. It's also the screen debut (no, that's not a typo) in a brief role by young actress Josie Chapuran as Daisy Armstrong.


The Cast of "Murder on the Orient Express"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Whodunnit? Or who didn't? Did he/she deserve it, and does it really matter? Find out who, what, where and most of all why. In the beginning, the script proclaims that “If you break the rules, you pay the price”; in the end, it was “all about justice”, and “doing the right thing”.

It's now deducible at Lyric Stage Company through December 22nd. And oh, what a cast of characters to suspect!



11/21/2019

"Quixote Nuevo": Hombre de la Plancha, Early Stages

Emilio Delgado in "Quixote Nuevo"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The new play with music, Quixote Nuevo, being performed as part of the Huntington Theatre Company's current season, may seem familiar, at least with respect to its main characters and general themes. After all, this tale of a somewhat loony (dare one say quixotic?) cavalier in 17th century Spain has morphed over the centuries from an iconic novel by Miguel Cervantes, to several films, an opera, a symphony, and perhaps its most successful adaptation as a piece of musical theater in Man of la Mancha. 


Emilio Delgado & Cast of "Quixote Nuevo"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Updated to the present and relocated to La Plancha (literally “grilled on a metal plate”), a fictional town on the Texas/Mexico border, this version centers around a former literature professor and Cervantes scholar with early stages of dementia, Jose Quijano (Emilio Delgadi, who has portrayed Luis the lovable repairman on “Sesame Street” for four decades), who sets out not against windmills but the border patrol in search of Dulcinea (Gisela Chipe), a migrant worker on his father's ranch who has returned to Mexico. As in all previous iterations of the basic story, he is accompanied by his second banana, ice cream vendor Sancho Panza/Manny Diaz (Juan Manuel Amador) who helps him evade ICE. Our intrepid duo also has to evade Death Himself (Hugo E. Carbajal), as portrayed as one of group of guitar players or Calacas. Meanwhile the hero's sister plans to put him in an assisted living facility. Full disclosure: this critic has worked as a nurse for three different companies that provide such environments, and is quite familiar with the quandary of whether and when to remind a resident of their names or join her or him in a self-created world of one's own imagination. Can one blame this Quixote for persevering in his quest? And here's the rub: should one view Alzheimer's as funny?


Hugo E. Carbajal in "Quixote Nuevo"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

The first act (beginning with this new Quixote's challenge: “I know who you are, I know what you want”) is laced with sophomoric humor akin to the sort of dialogue one might encounter in a typical Hasty Pudding Club review, with silly allusions to Iron Man, Hoover vacuums, Game of Thrones, and scatalogically puerile bits of business. The second act gets a bit more serious, spotlighting Orlando Arriaga as Padre Perez (and other roles, a bit confusing). It is during several scenes with more sober content that the story at last comes alive. Written by Octavio Solis, one of the storytellers of the Oscar-winning Disney film “Coco”, it's meant as a funny take on this perennial fantasy, and to some extent it succeeds. It ends with our knight errant exclaiming as he dies: “How it trembles like the wall of Jericho (see, there's this wall along the border and all). . Fall, you horror! Fall and make room for Quixote!” to which Sancho declares: “I'm here, say the word”. But it's all for naught, a quest doomed to failure from the onset. Along the way, there are numerous opportunities for the talented cast of nine to excel, and they do, especially with respect to Delgadi's forlorn hero, whose performance is charming. The expert creative team includes Scenic Design by Takeshi Kata, Costume Design by Rachel Anne Healy, Lighting by Brian J. Lilienthal, Sound Design by David R. Molina and Musical Composition by Molina and Eduardo Robledo.



Emilio Delgado & Cast in "Quixote Nuevo"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson) 

First seen at California Shakespeare, this completely revised work is now a Co-Production of Hartford Stage, Houston's Alley Theatre and our own Huntington Theatre Company. Directed by KJ Sanchez, who had urged Solis (who grew up in El Paso on the border and was a consultant on the terrific Oscar-winning “Coco” animated film) to attempt this task. Solis wisely chose to expose cultural identity and memory, even on a personal level, and how much this can change as it both “sweetens our soul and torments it at the same time”. He asks if we can mend the past and go backwards in the same manner that we go forward, and can see the past in an entirely different light, with that knowledge changing us. Though it's a difficult process, putting ourselves under a microscope of sorts, he maintains that it's well worth the healing that may ensue. The same could be said for an audience member's enjoyment, if this sort of unsubtlety is her or his bag.

Share this impossible dream at Huntington Avenue Theater till December 8th.



11/17/2019

BSO's Greig (& Mahler): Leif Peepers

Pianist Leif Ove Andsnes with the BSO
(photo: BSO)


For the first half of the unabashedly popular program presented this past week by the Boston Symphony, the orchestra, reunited with Conductor Andris Nelsons and the Norwegian pianist Leif Ove Andsnes, played the popular work of Edvard Grieg, arguably his most renowned longer piece, the Piano concerto in A Minor, Opus 16 (utilizing the Schumann Piano concerto as a template). Though he composed it in 1869, at the age of twenty-four, he continued to tweak the piece for the rest of his career. One Norwegian analyst has pointed out that the opening piano, built of a sequence consisting of a descending second followed by a descending third, is a very characteristic Norwegian musical gesture, typifying as it does the pervasiveness of folk imagery and sound. This first movement is loaded with accessible themes, some obviously derived from one another, others strongly contrasting. It creates richness that has played a significant role in maintaining the concerto’s appeal. The animato section of the first movement includes tunes similar to those used by fiddlers in the folk genre; the lyric song of the second movement is harmonized in the style of some of Grieg’s later folksong influences; and the finale contains dance rhythms reminiscent of the halling and springdans so typical of Norwegian lore. It brought back fond memories of a visit in Bergen Norway by this critic to the composer's simple but charming home in his fatherland, now a museum dedicated to its famed inhabitant. Sometimes referred to as musical comfort food, it was praised by none other than Tchaikovsky for its perfect simplicity. As performed at Symphony Hall by Andris and Andsnes, it showed how deserving a concerto can be, as judged by the audience's repeated standing ovations.


Soprano Genia Kuhmeier with the BSO
(photo: BSO)


Mahler's Fourth Symphony in G , the subject of the second half of the program, is the last of his trio of Wunderhorn symphonies, with text from the German folk poems Das Knaben Wunderhorn. Completed in 1901, it was first heard in Munich, then several other German cities, but poorly received in virtually all of them. Many felt it was too “sunlit”, transparent, and brief, thus un-Mahler-like. He dismissed critics' “banal misunderstandings”. (All ye critics take note). The composer himself felt his adagio was his best slow movement. The final movement is an expansion of an 1892 song Das himmlische leben (“Heavenly Life”) here featuring Austrian soloist soprano Genia Kuhmeier in her BSO debut. It's a work that features quirks such as no trombones or tubas, both beginning and ending with sleigh bells, demonstrating how transporting music can be. It was first performed in this country by the New York Symphony Society in 1904, while its first appearance on the schedule of the BSO was not until 1942. Suffice it to say that while it argues that no music on earth can rival that of heaven, and may lack the universal acceptance of his Second (“Resurrection”), this pointedly ends with the proclamation (amidst some strange images of heaven) “so that all may awake for joy”. And so it was, reflecting the ideal weather outside the confines of Symphony Hall.




11/14/2019

BLO's "Fellow Travelers": Climax Change

Jesse Blumberg & Jesse Darden in "Fellow Travelers"
(photo: Liza Voll)

It's always a pleasure to discover and share a sensational new opera such as Fellow Travelers. It's one of those rare anomalies these days, a contemporary work that manages to be challenging in some of its modern music while at the same time surprisingly filled with lovely tonal composition. As one opera buff noted many years ago in reference to Wagnerian operas, just focus on the orchestral parts and the singing will come through, as in the end it always must. That's certainly true of this opera, with Score by Composer Gregory Spears and Libretto by Greg Pierce. First performed in 2016 by The Cincinnati Opera, based on the 2007 novel by Thomas Mallon, now being given its New England premiere by the ever-adventurous Boston Lyric Opera (which exceeds even its recent triumphant Handmaid's Tale), it's yet another thoroughly engaging production by a company that also travels, from concert halls to skating rinks. Quality is often defined in part by the process of taking risks (and succeeding at them), and this portrayal manages to do so while reflecting the frightening parallels between the “Lavender Scare” of the Era of McCarthyism and the false promises of the Error of Trump. While there is no explicit connection between then and now in the opera, it serves as yet another reminder (as quite recently noted by this critic) that history may not repeat itself, but it rhymes.


Jesse Darden & Jesse Blumberg in "Fellow Travelers"
(photo: Liza Voll)

Since this is an unfamiliar opera, it necessitates a more comprehensive synopsis than most. It begins in September 1953 in a park at Dupont Circle in Washington D.C., where aspiring reporter, naive Timothy Laughlin (Jesse Darden), eating his lunch (with milk), is approached by the suave State Department employee Hawkins Fuller (Jesse Blumberg). “Hawk” flirts with Tim, later arranging for Tim to be hired as a speechwriter for Senator Charles Potter (James Maddalena), a friend of Senator Joe McCarthy (David McFerrin) who claims that the U.S. Government is full of “Communists, Soviet spies and homosexuals”. (Oh, my!). Tim drops off a thank-you gift for Hawk at his office, where he meets reporter Tommy McIntyre (Vincent Torregano), as well as Hawk's assistant and best friend Mary (Chelsea Basler), and his secretary Miss Lightfoot (Michelle Trainor). Tim is at home cooking soup when Hawk drops by, ultimately staying the night. The next day Tim enters St. Peter's Church, torn between his profound Catholic faith and his passion for Hawk. Miss Lightfoot overhears an intimate exchange between Tim and Hawk; Hawk is subsequently ordered to Interrogation Room M304 where an Interrogator (McFerrin again) tests his sexual orientation. Tim and Hawk discuss the interrogation, and Hawk's sexual encounters while alone in New York. The act ends rather abruptly (“what's in a name?”), leaving the audience unsure that it has indeed ended. But it's a very minor glitch among a scorefull of gems.
 

Jesse Darden in "Fellow Travelers"
(photo: Liza Voll)

In Act II, Potter warns McCarthy he must give up helping Roy Cohn's friend David Schine to get special treatment in the Army, and give up Cohn himself. Mary is also in the warning mode as she describes (to Tim) Hawk's fickle nature, and tells Tim she is pregnant after a one-night stand. Hawk, rejoicing he's been cleared of homosexual allegations, wants to celebrate, which shocks Tim, leading to his enlisting in the Army. Mary quits her job with Hawk over the atmosphere of panic and persecution. Two years later, Tim writes to Hawk and Mary from where he's stationed in France. Hawk has married a woman named Lucy (Brianna J. Robinson) but implies he'd like to rekindle his affair with Tim. They rent a house in D.C. for their afternoon trysts, but Hawk warns Tim he cannot be for him all that Tim wants, resolving to end the affair. Hawk admits to Mary that he has secretly acted against Tim to end their relationship. In the last scene, at the same park at Dupont Circle where it all began, it is May 1957; the lovers face their futures.


Michelle Trainor & The Cast of "Fellow Travelers"
(photo: Liza Voll)

The critical roles are those of the inexperienced Darden (his Catholic guilt in “Last night how many?”), the seductive Blumberg (“Our very own home, Skippy”) along with long-suffering Basler (“I worry, that's all”). All three are exemplary. McFerrin provides a creepily menacing McCarthy with his historically accurate harangues about “sexual subversives”. Several supporting roles, such as Potter's Assistant, a Bookseller, a Priest and a Technician, are sung by Simon Dyer. There are also two impressive operatic quartets in the second act. The production was Conducted by Boston University alumna Emily Senturia (the first time a woman has conducted this company's orchestra in two decades), leading a 17-piece orchestra. As she has described the score, it includes post-minimalist passages as well as baroque music (and heavy use of trombones) as well as patter in the style of Gilbert and Sullivan, making for unusually accessible music for a contemporary work; in fact, it's been stated that the predominant musical strategy used by Spears and Pierce is one of indirection. The rest of the creative team, some duplicating work they originated for the Minneapolis run, included Stage Director Peter Rothstein, Set Designer Sara Brown, Costume Designer Trevor Bowen, and Lighting Designer Mary Shabatura.


Chelsea Basler & Jesse Blumberg in "Fellow Travelers"
(photo: Liza Voll)

Author Mallon (who observed “the scene” as a student at Brown and Harvard) calls his book a “political thriller”, with “outsized emotions...everything in the book is so claustrophobic, behind closed doors with drawn shades”. More to the point, he notes that “virtually every gay man has, at one point in his life, dated a guy who is mesmerizing but not good for them, ultimately”. It's been described as “Mad Men” meets “House of Cards”. Timothy doesn't see why he can't be a conservative and Catholic and still love whom he wants to love, and thinks their relationship is a gift from God, a view obviously at odds with the justly infamous Executive Order #10450 (banning homosexuals from government service). This represents a group described as almost entirely friendless, politically, making the opera's final betrayal (no spoilers here) all the more stunning. And stunning it is, to see such obviously mismatched a couple inescapably headed for an all but inevitable climax, so to speak.


Jesse Darden & Jesse Blumberg in "Fellow Travelers"
(photo: Lisa Voll)

Given the political climate at the time, it should not surprise that the opera's climax is a change from what one might expect today. And what more could one ask for in a contemporary opera? One needn't echo the famed line from the play Tea and Sympathy: “when you talk about this, and you will, be kind”, as, even apart from its political importance, the work stands as an engrossing story exceedingly well written and performed. BLO has outdone itself yet again with this opera for our time and for times yet to come. What an extraordinary feat.

At the close of the opera, the surtitles (appropriately written by Librettist Pierce himself) add historical heft: five thousand queers lost their jobs, only to receive an official retroactive apology decades later by former Secretary of State John Kerry on the last day President Obama was in office; that apology was quickly and quietly excised on January 20, 2017. Does this date ring any bells?

Hopefully, you made haste, fellow opera buffs, and traveled by November 17th to the Emerson Paramount Theater; but best you didn't tell them Joe (McCarthy, that is) sent you.