|Duke Lafoon (right), with Ella Briggs, in A Wonderful Life at the Goodspeed Opera House. (Photo: Diane Sobolewski)|
Considering the unusual kinds of musicals Sheldon Harnick collaborated on with the late Jerry Bock – Fiorello!, Tenderloin, She Loves Me, The Rothschilds and of course Fiddler on the Roof, all complex period shows with evocative settings – his determination to turn It’s a Wonderful Life into a musical is a little puzzling. Frank Capra’s 1946 movie is so well known that most Americans can probably recite whole sections of the screenplay off by heart, which makes you wonder why anyone would bother adapting it in the first place. And for those of us who aren’t seduced by its all-too-familiar charms, the project just seems untenable. The picture, with its Albert Hackett-Frances Goodrich script (the last of several versions that were floated to RKO, including efforts by Clifford Odets and Marc Connelly), may be the most beloved of all Christmas movies – though, famously, it wasn’t a hit on its original release and didn’t attain its legendary status until the Vietnam era – but it’s also certainly the weirdest. The story may have an angel named Clarence striving to earn his wings and Capra’s usual Christian-flavored populist hokum (the whole town of Bedford Falls turns out at the eleventh hour to save their friend George Bailey from bankruptcy and prison), but there’s a bitterness at its core that’s so jarringly at odds with its depiction of the self-sacrificing hero as to be pathological. Capra crafts sequences of horror and despair that linger in the mind longer after you’ve digested the treacly happy ending, like the one where the alcoholic druggist George works for in his boyhood mixes a lethal medicine by accident for one of his patients (George prevents him from sending it out) or the climactic episode in which Clarence shows George, who’s about to commit suicide, what a cold, heartless town Bedford Falls would have been had he never been born. And in his best scenes Jimmy Stewart gets so deep into George’s anger and disappointment and misery at the way life has cheated him that the upbeat finale simply isn’t convincing.
Yet Harnick has spent more than three decades working on A Wonderful Life. (The composer, Joe Raposo, died in 1989, three years after the earliest version of it was produced at the University of Michigan.) It had its first professional production in 1991 at Arena Stage in D.C., and the current mounting at Goodspeed Opera House has undergone further tinkering. And it doesn’t work at all. It’s homey and bland; the more frightening aspects of the narrative go by fast, as if Harnick didn’t want to explore them, and the structure he’s lifted from the screenplay staunchly resists the dramatic arc of a two-act musical play. At the top, Clarence (Frank Vlastnik) is prepped by St. Matthew (George McDaniel) on the case of George Bailey (Duke Lafoon), who’s on the verge of throwing himself under a train, and the debriefing requires a full flashback of Bailey’s life, a series of heroic gestures on behalf of family members that throw his own desires and ambitions onto the sidelines. But as we all know, the incident that pushes him over the edge, the manipulation of the town’s richest man, Henry Potter (Ed Dixon), of happenstance to impose scandal and financial ruin on George’s building and loan company, doesn’t occur until three-quarters through the plot. So act one of A Wonderful Life ends on a high note – George’s combination of altruism and compassion and one-on-one connection to his neighbors rescues the company from going under during the Depression – that feels like a finale. We’ve been told at the outset that George is suicidal, but by intermission the musical hasn’t come close to dealing with the reason. A Wonderful Life isn’t the first screen-to-stage adaptation to fall apart because the structure of the movie doesn’t translate effectively: last season The Band Wagon at Encores! scrambled fruitlessly to figure out how to provide some conflict in act two.
The title song is pleasant enough, and the score includes a pretty fair Charleston called “In a State” in the middle of act one (led by Josh Franklin as George’s self-adoring friend Sam Wainright, whose financial successes keep pointing up George’s struggles to keep his head above water). “In a State” also provides choreographer Parker Esse with his only opportunity for a full-fledged dance number, and it’s easily the highlight of the evening. (There’s also an angel number at the top of the second act called “Wings,” but it’s an embarrassment, though Esse, who staged the dances for Goodspeed’s The Most Happy Fella and recreated the Jerome Robbins choreography for the theatre’s Fiddler on the Roof, shouldn’t be blamed for it.) Otherwise the songs are undistinguished. And even given the cut-rate material, the production is surprisingly paltry for Goodspeed. Brian Prather’s set is strikingly unappealing. Michael Perlman’s staging is uninspired, and his work with the actors is terrible: the entire cast comes across as fake-cheery. I cringed every time Vlastnik as Clarence or Michael Medeiros as Uncle Billy came onstage, but as George Bailey, Duke Lafoon is particularly bad. He seems to be going for an approximation of Jimmy Stewart’s tossed-off down-home style, but he has awful timing, so his line readings always sound like afterthoughts. He’s also too old to pull off the scenes where he’s supposed to be college-age; you don’t buy him and Bethe B. Austin as son and mother. Overall the show feels dispiritingly like community theatre; I think that must be a first for Goodspeed.
The Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Otello, which was included in this season’s Met Live in HD series, is thrilling, and not just because of the musical performances and Yannick Nézet-Séguin’s conducting. Bartlett Sher, who directs one opera a year at the Met alongside his steady stream of musical and straight Broadway shows, uses the immense Met stage to create a dense, layered visual complement to what may be Verdi’s greatest opera, in which the combination of Arrigo Boito’s brilliantly pared-down libretto and the overwhelming magnificence of the music offers an emotional experience that truly equals that of Shakespeare’s tragedy. Is there another stage director working in America today with Sher’s command of big theatrical spaces? (I can think of two or three English directors of his caliber.) At the beginning of Otello, a darting white mist plays against the traveler; the outlines of the singers beyond are like figures in a late Turner canvas, where impressionism and abstraction are engaged in a tug of war. Then the traveler flies up and we see, with sudden clarity, Desdemona (Sonya Yoncheva), Cassio (Dimitri Pittas) and Emilia (Jennifer Johnson Cano), with one mindset, and Iago (Željko Lučić) and Roderigo (Chad Shelton), with quite another, watch Otello’s ship battling the elements. The principals dot the edges of the chorus, several rows of humanity positioned against the storm-ridden sky. (Donald Holder designed the highly dramatic lighting and Luke Halls the projections.) When the burden of the music shifts from the chorus to the principals, the chorus freezes to underline the idea that we’re now in the heads of the characters, three of whom have conflicting feelings about Otello’s approach: his bride Desdemona, his failed rival for her affections Roderigo, and Iago, who pretends to be his bosom friend but hates him unreservedly. The simplicity of the staging here hooks into the power of the emotions of the characters in a way that feels almost primal.
It isn’t until Otello (Aleksandrs Antonenko) lands safely on Cyprus that the pieces of Es Devlin’s set glide on. It consists of five or six translucent constructions that shift and link up in different ways in the course of the opera. At first the reconfigurations seem to signal changes in location, usually within Othello’s palace, but as Iago’s plot to destroy Othello takes shape it becomes clearer, and especially in the second half (acts three and four, which follow intermission), that the scene shifts are really psychological. In the HD transcription, Sher, interviewed during the break by the NT Live host, bass-baritone Eric Owens, explains that he and Devlin, inspired by a comment Boito made in a letter to Verdi about the glass prison that entraps Otello, decided to actually build him one. The set seems more and more like an emanation of the protagonist’s psychic state as Iago’s poison takes effect, but it’s such a resonant visual that it operates on other levels of meaning as well. When Iago lingers behind the glass, dressed in black, he seems more than ever to be Otello’s evil demon, taking up residence in his corrupted brain, but when Desdemona, in a beautiful scarlet gown (the costumes are by Catherine Zuber), stands upstage of it in act three, after Otello has begun to abuse her publicly, the layers of roseate glass mute her image and we can see that, under Iago’s influence, he has ceased seeing her for who she really is – that the reality of her has been diminished by his jealous imagination.
Opera performers are singers first and actors second, which isn’t to say that they can’t be splendid actors. Here all three of the stars act almost as beautifully as they sing; in the case of Sonya Yoncheva, I’d say there’s no discrepancy between the two. Her rendering of the “Willow Song” and “Ave Maria,” which follows it, is heartbreaking; the only Desdemona I’ve ever seen in a production of Shakespeare’s play who has ever touched me as much in this scene is Maggie Smith in the Olivier movie. Lučić has a frightening authority as Iago; his sort of evil has a monolithic quality, like that of a fascist dictator. Antonenko gets at the way suspicion and jealousy don’t just curdle Otello’s blood but fracture him. In the twenty-first century, no one who plays this role, either in Shakespeare or in Verdi, can get away with blackface, and Antonenko hasn’t even made up to look swarthy. But you don’t think about it at all except when he refers to “this Moorish face” – and then you think about it for about as long as it takes him to sing the lyric. In opera a lack of realism never gets in the way, not only because the art form is so stylized by nature but also because of the realities of opera casting, which has of necessity to ignore what in straight drama would be the physical demands of a role (size, age). If Yoncheva were an actress rather than an opera singer, she would be too old and not svelte enough to play Desdemona, and we’d lose a stunning performance. It matters just as little that Antonenko isn’t a black man. Color-blind casting has never resulted in such an unmitigated triumph.
– Steve Vineberg is Distinguished Professor of the Arts and Humanities at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, Massachusetts, where he teaches theatre and film. He also writes for The Threepenny Review and is the author of three books: Method Actors: Three Generations of an American Acting Style; No Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.