Monday, July 14, 2014

Revised Book Works Well, but 'Brigadoon' Still Rises on Its Score -- Chicago Theater Review

Theater Review

Goodman Theatre, Chicago
Thru August 17

"I saw the rain dirty valley,
you saw Brigadoon 
I saw the crescent,
you saw the whole of the moon"
-- The Waterboys, "The Whole Of The Moon" (1985)

I can't see the musical Brigadoon without thinking of the lyrics above, which come from one of my favorite songs, by a band originally hailing from Scotland.  

But it also seems apt to cite them here because I saw Brigadoon Sunday, on the night of a big, bright, full moon.

And it's also true that the Goodman Theatre only stages classic musicals only once in a blue moon.

Though Candide, Ain't Misbehavin' and Purlie count in this regard, the venerable theater that mostly stages straight plays has developed--just since the year 2000--several stellar new musicals including The Visit, Bounce, The Light in the Piazza, The Million Dollar Quartet, Floyd & Clea Under the Western Sky, Turn of the Century and The Jungle Book.

Hence it was a rare treat to hear the 13-piece orchestra play Brigadoon's lush score written by Frederick Loewe, with lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner--almost always referenced as Lerner & Loewe--which first ran on Broadway in 1947.

How the show came to Dearborn Street is somewhat noteworthy and well-chronicled in this piece by Chicago Tribune theater critic Chris Jones (who, incidentally, was somewhat lukewarm in his review of the production itself, finding more flaws with it than I did).

Essentially, Liza Lerner, the daughter of Alan, felt that the musical's book (i.e. script)--which her father wrote along with the lyrics--needed some revising to better connect with 21st century audiences.

As Jones notes, part of Liza's motivation was likely commercial, as new professional stagings of Brigadoon--which hasn't been produced nearly as often as Lerner & Loewe's My Fair Lady and Camelot--would also rejuvenate financial returns for the creators' estates.

As the back story goes, Liza Lerner reached out to Rachel Rockwell, a director who has received numerous rave reviews for Chicago-area musicals she has helmed.

Lerner was able to entice the Goodman--which had been looking for the right project to enlist Rockwell--to support her vision by booking Brigadoon as the final show of their 2013-2014 subscription season. 

With the songs and their lyrics remaining untouched, and Rockwell handling the choreography as well as directing, a writer named Brian Hill came aboard to rehabilitate the book. 

In the Goodman production, which if widely embraced--the run has already been extended--could have a considerable shelf life, whether on Broadway or as the new "standard Brigadoon" that theaters license, set designer Kevin Depinet adds some nifty touches to differentiate this depiction of the Scottish Highlands. 

I have no problem with any of the above, either in theory or as the changes served the show I saw on Sunday night. 

Though I had recently watched the 1954 movie version of Brigadoon starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, and noted some onstage dialogue that wasn't in the movie--and presumably differs from the original stage incarnation, which I last saw in 2011--if I hadn't ingested Jones' article and other press in advance, I can't say I would have identified Rockwell's piece as revisionist. 

Not only are the songs all the same, but so is the basic premise, which involves a pair of American men on a trip to Scotland before one of them--Tommy Albright, well-sung at Goodman by Kevin Earley--is to be married, somewhat begrudgingly.

Tommy and Jeff (Rod Thomas, who I've seen in multiple fine roles recently) stumble upon an not-on-the-map village called Brigadoon. As it's explained, still, Brigadoon rises out of the mist once every 100 years, which to its villagers represents just a single day. 

As far as I could tell, Hill's new verbiage serves to reference brutal war and strife as precipitating Brigadoon's fairy-tale disappearing act, which--per Goodman artistic director Robert Falls' program notes--dovetails well with a rough period of Scottish history.

That Brigadoon, the musical, is set as always, in 1946, allows Hill to parallel what had happened in Scotland with World War II experiences and barbarism. 

Along with abetting the production's efforts to better portray the true character--rather than caricature--of 18th century Scotland, I felt the updated text added some nice resonance, especially as the Scottish are soon to vote on gaining independence from the United Kingdom. 

But at its core, Brigadoon is still a fanciful--yet poignant--love story between Tommy and Fiona, a villager well embodied by the lovely Jennie Sophia, and a celebration of a close-knit community that contrasts with New York of the 1940s and big city life today. 

The Brigadoon score remains terrific--if a notch below My Fair Lady--with great songs like "Down in MacConnachy Square," "Waitin' for My Dearie," "I'll Go Home with Bonnie Jean," "Heather on the Hill," "Almost Like Being in Love" and "There But For You Go I" being terrifically delivered at the Goodman. 

The cast was strong throughout, and it was fun to watch so many longtime Chicago musical theater performers I've often seen get the chance to demonstrate their gifts on the Goodman stage. 

These included Sophia, Thomas, Larry Adams, Joseph Anthony Foronda, George Keating, Michael Aaron Lindner, Maggie Portman, Emily Rohm, Craig Spidle, Richard Strimer and Roger Mueller, the latter whom I hadn't previously seen but who, in addition to being a longtime Chicago actor, is the father of Jessie Mueller, now a Broadway star and Tony winner for Beautiful: The Carole King Musical.

I think almost anyone who sees this rendition of Brigadoon will sufficiently enjoy it, and perhaps even love it. The standing ovation on Sunday night not only justly saluted the actors and musicians, but the work of Rockwell, Depinet--whose scenery slyly added modernity while retaining classicism--and costume designer Mara Blumenfeld, whose concoctions are a joy (and not as dominated by kilts as one may imagine). 

Yet while this review should be seen as a rave and a recommendation--albeit not an insistent one to those who aren't naturally drawn to musical theater--for whatever reason, I wasn't as buoyant throughout or after this visit to Brigadoon as I was at a splendid Light Opera Works production employing the original material. 

I also can't claim to have liked the Goodman's foray into classic musicals nearly as much as Chicago Shakespeare Theatre's Gypsy, Lyric Opera's The Sound of Music or Drury Lane Oakbrook's Les Misérables earlier this year. 

Other than some awkward pacing, I cannot denote any flaws in Rockwell's direction here, but perhaps due to the source material itself, her takes on Les Miz, The Sound of Music, Sweeney Todd and Ragtime (all at Drury Lane Oakbrook) just excited me more. 

And while I can appreciate how Brigadoon fits into the history of musical theater, by--in the wake of Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma and Carousel, and preceding South Pacific by two years--better bridging strong narratives and great, storytelling songs, Lerner & Loewe's first highly successful musical doesn't seem to match the thematic verve of their rivals' (or even their own) best works. 

Nonetheless, whether you discovered Brigadoon long ago or will newly arrive upon it, Goodman's production provides nothing less than a warm welcome with plenty of hearty song and dance. 

And if you decide that this is a staging that can be mist, the good news is that you shouldn't have to wait 100 years for this nicely updated gem to rise again. 

No comments: