The imposition of paper-thin pop-opera scores onto the classics of mid-nineteenth-century literature seems to have become a fixture on the musical theater scene ever since the mid-1980s, when Les Miserables started the trend by proving to be such an enormous success with audiences worldwide. And like that epic musical, Michael David Smith's and J.R. Mounts's rendering of Nathaniel Hawthorne's The Scarlet Letter triumphed because of the sheer emotional weight of its subject matter, because of its smart storytelling in musical-theatre terms, and because of the Broadway-caliber performances of its three leads.
While the score, sung through from beginning to end, is not a particularly memorable one, it nevertheless serves Hawthorne well by building in intensity and power as the story progresses, particularly when it focuses on the three central characters: the adulterous Hester Prynne (Elizabeth DeLaBarre), her treacherous, cuckolded husband, Roger Chillingworth (Colin Leander), and her true love, the conscience-stricken Arthur Dimmesdale (Kristoffer Lowe). And as mentioned before, it was the performances of these roles that made the production such a riveting, emotionally shattering experience. DeLaBarre, Leander, and Lowe were all stunning, stripping away to the core of their characters' anguish with both individual and collaborative ease, their gorgeous voices carrying the difficult passages of the high-flying music with a strength that appeared limitless and effortless.
Robert Hollinger's direction dissected the repressive 17th-century New England society in which the story is set with a tightly controlled, visually striking simplicity. In fact, the entire production benefited greatly from the gripping stage pictures Hollinger created from just a platform topped with a large crucifix, a few pieces of furniture, appropriately plain but striking costumes (Tom Claypool and Claudia Robinson), and complex lighting that set the ever-shifting moods of the story with a painterly precision that was breathtakingly beautiful (kudos to Cindy Shumsey). In addition, musical director Paul Johnson provided an impassioned reading of the score, both in his playing of it and his direction of the vocally gifted ensemble; their immaculate diction was particularly impressive.
While the feel of an "illustrated classics" is perhaps an inescapable legacy of the pop-opera form, this Scarlet Letter succeeded in part because of the concise accessibility of the approach. More compact than the still-running Les Miz, and infinitely more full-bodied than last year's rather anemic Jane Eyre, the production had all the makings of a potential blockbuster. Even though the score didn't match the weight of all its other, heftier assets, it had some lovely moments, and the overall effect was a genuinely moving crowd-pleaser.
(Also featuring Cristin Boyle, Skip Dietrich, Brett Lowell, Brianna Mae Meese, Patrick Mulryan, Suzanne O'Gara, Chloe Glickman, Maria-Christina Oliveras, Jim Speake, Julia Snider, Jared Verra, Amber Womack, and Craig Woythaler.)
Book: 1 Music: 1 Lyrics: 1
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Copyright 2002 Doug DeVita