Another Highland Fling
The audience for the original opening night of Brigadoon -- March 13, 1947 -- passed by glittering Broadway marquees beckoning everyone to see Oklahoma!, Carousel, Annie Get Your Gun, Call Me Mister, Street Scene, and Finian's Rainbow. Entering its golden age, the American musical theater offered postwar crowds intoxicating experiences that would hook them on a lifetime of theatergoing. Fifty years later, Actors' Playhouse depends, as do many other local theaters, on such musical-comedy warhorses to please its older patrons, while simultaneously hoping that these proven favorites can work their magic on a whole new generation.
Staging its best musical production in recent years, Actors' Playhouse is poised to pull off just such an audience-development double whammy with, fittingly enough, Brigadoon, lyricist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe's fantasy about the joys of an earlier age. In the current era of sung-through dramas distinguished only by falling chandeliers, flying helicopters, and levitating Hollywood mansions, this old book musical seems as anachronistic as the village of Brigadoon itself. But this production has unexpected immediacy and appeal, attributable in part to director David Arisco's minor updating of the script, which sets the "present-day" scenes in the Nineties rather than the mid-Forties.
While on a hunting trip in the Scottish Highlands, American tourists Tommy Albright (Dan Schiff) and Jeff Douglas (Barry Tarallo) stumble onto the not-on-the-map village of Brigadoon -- just as the townsfolk prepare for the wedding of Jean MacLaren (Robbin Maynard) and Charlie Dalrymple (Timothy Johnson). Although understandably perplexed by the hamlet's eighteenth-century trappings, Tommy soon gets distracted by Jean's sister Fiona (Kim Cozort), while Jeff fends off the attentions of husband-hunting Meg Brockie (Irene Adjan). Before the two men can leave town, however, they discover that the town will leave them; as protection against the world's evils, the village materializes for only one day every 100 years, forcing a smitten Tommy to choose between returning to the real world or living out his days ad infinitum with Fiona.
After three unsuccessful attempts (the Broadway disappointments What's Up and The Day Before Spring and the out-of-town flop Life of the Party), Lerner and Loewe hit it big with Brigadoon, creating a musical-comedy signature they would later imprint on Paint Your Wagon, My Fair Lady, and Camelot. Radiating Tin Pan Alley appeal, Lerner's sentimental lyrics and Loewe's beautiful melodies popularized the emerging art form of the fully integrated musical.
To a score that sends audiences humming up the aisles, Cozort and Schiff express their love with the great show tunes "Almost Like Being in Love," "The Heather on the Hill," and "There but for You Go I." A fine actress who has buoyed many local productions, Cozort uses her lilting soprano to beguiling effect here, but she gives a mannered dramatic performance, paying undue attention to sustaining a Scottish accent. Cast in a younger man's role, Dan Schiff uses his extra years to reinforce Tommy's capacity for re-evaluating his life: Should he stay in Brigadoon or split? While Schiff's Ordinary Joe portrayal doesn't follow musical comedy's star-turn tradition, he can't be considered out of place at a time when nonmatinee idols such as Mandy Patinkin and Michael Crawford are cast as romantic leads.
Coming across the footlights in precisely the way Lerner and Loewe intended, Irene Adjan's Meg steals the show. With a knowing wink and sashaying hips fueled by uncontrolled man-crazy enthusiasm, she delightfully recounts her promiscuous past in "The Love of My Life" and ruefully acknowledges her illegitimate birth in "My Mother's Wedding Day." As Brigadoon's other second banana, Barry Tarallo delivers the script's one-liners with just the right note of affability.
Even more than Arisco's updated script, the actors portraying the wedding couple -- Timothy Johnson and Robbin Maynard -- will appeal to younger audience members, notably women. Possessing an exuberantly strong tenor voice, blond locks, and a baby face, Johnson is the teen idol of adolescent girls' fantasies. His soulful rendition of the show's best ballad, "Come to Me, Bend to Me," and his impatient bridegroom's "I'll Go Home with Bonnie Jean" lend the proceedings an undeniable romantic spark. In primarily a dance role, Maynard conveys the everyday lyricism of the Broadway original's choreography.
And there are plenty of dances. Four years before Brigadoon premiered, choreographer Agnes De Mille forever changed how dance was perceived on Broadway by delving into characters' psychological states with her work on Oklahoma! That led to Lerner and Loewe's corralling De Mille to create the dances for Brigadoon, for which she won a Tony Award. At Actors' Playhouse, choreographer Barbara LeGette taps into the essence of De Mille's classic movements, capturing the simple innocence of the bridesmaids' dance and the novelty of the Highlands sword dance, but she misses the emotional power of the funeral procession. Both the dancers and singers benefit from the small but energetic six-person pit orchestra, strengthened by the sensitive pacing of musical director Tom Dillickrath.
In a Technicolor homage to musical theater's heyday, costume designer Mary Lynne Izzo wraps the male dancers in leggings, while leaving the character actors to contend with traditional kilts. David Trimble's attractive set grounds the fairy-tale village in rough-hewn stone, with a handsome bridge artfully separating the modern-day opening scene from the century-and-a-half-old town of Brigadoon.
Director Arisco seamlessly weaves these various production elements together, providing a steady tempo for a play challenged by 50 years' worth of changes in dramatic structure. Old works can hope to touch new audiences only through fresh productions such as this one, which keeps the joys of the well-constructed book musical from vanishing -- like the town of Brigadoon -- into the misty haze of a bygone era.
On March 3, when her theater was dark, Actors' Playhouse executive director Barbara Stein was at New Theatre, where she joined that house's producing artistic director, Rafael de Acha, plus Teatro Avante producing artistic director Mario Ernesto Sanchez and former New Times theater writer Pamela Gordon for an uninhibited examination of the current state of local theater. Barry Steinman, Theatre League of South Florida chairman, served as panel moderator. Nearly two dozen playwrights, directors, actors, managers, educators, and patrons were also on hand.
What began as a discussion about a blueprint for survival into the next century gradually morphed into a gripe session, with energetic contributions from panelists and audience members alike. Among the complaints: a graying audience that is not being replaced by younger theatergoers; reduced government, corporate, and individual contributions; theater administrator burnout; lack of a distinct geographical theater district; minuscule institutional budgets that cannot manage to pay an actor $200 for an extra week's rehearsal; and Actors' Equity Association union rules that consider it a contract violation to require actors to show up for the first day of rehearsal knowing their lines without giving additional compensation.
Offering some hope, Stein cited a cooperative program that Actors' Playhouse ran with A.L. Lewis Elementary School in Florida City. Over the course of a year and a half, and with the aid of $70,000 in grant monies from both public and private sources, Actors' Playhouse distributed 80,000 tickets to students and their families for the theater's children's and main stage programming. Additionally, the theater sent drama coaches and guest artists to work with students, faculty, parents, and school psychologists in an effort to create a new work aimed at the school's hardest-to-reach students.
Gordon stressed the importance of getting kids "addicted" to theater, then went on to underscore the need to nurture new works by allowing them time to develop -- before opening them to public and critical scrutiny. Noting theater's structural differences from cinema and television, Gordon pinned her hopes on writers returning to the medium's strengths of character and language.
As for theater that creates loyal audiences, de Acha cautioned against searching for the newest gay/Jewish/Hispanic work, and instead urged producers to "go for the gut and then try to find an audience." Sanchez, who saw his rent increase 300 percent last year, necessitating the conversion of his venue into a part-time movie theater, gave the best advice regarding perseverance in hard times: "It reminds me of a mule that carried garbage in the town where I grew up in Cuba," he said. "We used to do terrible things to that mule, but she just kept her head down and kept carrying the garbage. Sometimes I feel like that mule."
Book and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner; music by Frederick Loewe; directed by David Arisco; with Dan Schiff, Kim Cozort, Barry Tarallo, Irene Adjan, Timothy Johnson, and Robbin Maynard. Through March 23. For information, call 444-9293 or see "Calendar Listings.
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