Monday, November 27, 2017

Brigadoon: Love and Loss

Robert Fairchild in Brigadoon at New York's City Center. (Photo: Joan Marcus)

The 1947 musical fantasy Brigadoon was the fourth collaboration between Alan Jay Lerner (book and lyrics) and Frederick Loewe (music), but it was the one that put them on the musical-theatre map. It ran for nearly two years and became a staple of regional and community theatres; there were three revivals on Broadway within a decade and a half of the end of its original run. Now it’s revived only rarely, having somehow acquired the reputation of being syrupy and old-fashioned, like a Rudolf Friml or Sigmund Romberg operetta from the twenties. That’s inaccurate. I think it’s a beauty, and that the score is one of the glories of the golden age of Broadway musicals. The 1954 movie adaptation – directed, with a surprising lack of conviction, by Vincente Minnelli, and starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse – didn’t get at the show’s charm; nor did a 1966 TV version with Robert Goulet and Sally Ann Howes, though it did have the great dancer Edward Villella repeating his performance from the 1963 New York City Center production in the principal dance role, Harry Beaton. But anyone lucky enough to catch one of the performances of the staged concert of Brigadoon, once again at City Center, between November 15 and 19 got a taste of what made – and makes – the musical so special. Christopher Wheeldon, the deservedly lauded director-choreographer of the 2015 An American in Paris, staged the show exquisitely with no set except for a bridge, some simple projections, and a motif of hickory branches that he used in the choreography and, in one dialogue scene, to stand in for the arms of chairs. Though obviously a far more modest presentation than his work for An American in Paris, this Brigadoon was so evocative and imaginative that I’m tempted to say that it was just about as good. The music director was Rob Berman, conducting the Encores! orchestra. Visually, musically and emotionally it was a thrilling evening of musical theatre.

The play begins when two New Yorkers, Tommy Albright (Patrick Wilson) and Jeff Douglas (Aasif Mandvi), lost on a hunting excursion in the Scottish Highlands, come upon a village called Brigadoon they can’t locate on the map, whose inhabitants look and behave as if they’d stepped out of the eighteenth century. In fact, as the two friends learn a few hours later, they have: to protect Brigadoon from corruption, its last minister made a deal with God to put the town to sleep for a hundred years at the end of each day. (He sacrificed his own life as part of the bargain.) The spell requires the cooperation of all of the town’s residents: if anyone leaves, it is irrevocably broken and the town swallowed up forever in the highland mist. But a stranger to Brigadoon can stay if he falls in love with one of the residents – and if his love is strong enough to make him abandon the life he led before he arrived. On this day, only Brigadoon’s second since what the locals refer to obliquely as “the miracle,” is marked by the wedding of Jean MacLaren (Sara Esty) and Charlie Dalrymple (Ross Lekites), and Jean’s sister Fiona (Kelli O’Hara) invites the Americans to stay to help them celebrate. As the event draws nearer, Fiona and Tommy find themselves falling in love. Then, at the height of the proceedings, Harry Beaton (Robert Fairchild), who has loved Jean in vain for years, declares his intention of wrecking the spell by leaving the town.

Kelli O'Hara and Patrick Wilson. (Photo: Joan Marcus)
Though Lerner and Loewe included a handful of upbeat tunes (notably “Down on MacConnachy Square,” a chorus number centered on the morning outdoor market, and Charlie’s “I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean”), it contains more ballads than any other musical I can think of, including Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s for Show Boat. And oh man, they’re gorgeous: “Come to Me, Bend to Me,” again for Charlie, which Lekites sang with intoxicating sweetness, and, for the central couple, “The Heather on the Hill,” “Almost Like Being in Love,” “There But for You Go I” and “From This Day On.” The first two of these, both in act one, were takeaway hits; the last two, performed after intermission, are, in my view, the high points of the score. Loewe is working in the Kern mode here, with soaring, heart-whole melodies. As all aficionados know, if you want to hear a ballad sung with aching purity and acted with unshakeable authenticity, give it to Kelli O’Hara. Perfectly cast as Fiona, whose romantic fervor is balanced with quiet humor, O’Hara gave her finest performance since South Pacific. I’ve always found Patrick Wilson, on both stage and screen, an insipid actor, but that’s not true when he sings, and each time he partnered O’Hara on one of the duets, the audience went into a collective ecstasy in reaction to the unforced splendor of their voices. Solo, Wilson delivered “There But for You Go I,” with its poignant lyric about the fine line between loneliness and romantic fulfillment, with brio.

Mandvi seemed uncomfortable in the part of the hard-drinking cynic Jeff – I suspect it was the music-theatre atmosphere and not the character that didn’t fit him. And Stephanie J. Block didn’t take the comic role of Meg Brockie (who seduces him) very far, though her second-act novelty number, “My Mother’s Wedding Day,” was diverting. I had no quibbles with the rest of the cast, including Jamie Jackson as Harry’s father Archie, Rich Hebert as Fiona and Jean’s father Andrew, Dakin Matthews as the schoolmaster Mr. Lundie (who explains the miracle to the Americans) and the delicate-boned Sara Esty, who succeeded Leanne Cope as Lise in An American in Paris and co-starred in the national tour, as Jean.

And then there was Robert Fairchild. When I saw An American in Paris early in its Broadway run I was knocked out by Fairchild’s dancing in the titular role of Jerry but I had some reservations about his acting. He must have still been warming up; I saw him do it again in London last summer and I thought he was sublime. The same must be said of him here. As Harry, Fairchild has to supply all of the musical’s darker tones, and he summoned up the character’s bitter, brooding persona as skillfully as he rendered Jerry’s soulful spiritedness. The role of Harry was conceived for a crossover classical dancer – James Mitchell played it on Broadway in 1947 for choreographer Agnes de Mille and then, famously, Villella made it his own. (You can watch a truncated but staggering clip of Villella performing the “Sword Dance and Reel” on Youtube.) Wheeldon put Fairchild into more of the numbers than Harry usually performs, a choice that enhanced the melancholy side of the musical. It has always been a fairy-tale fable about the piercing power of love; in Wheeldon’s version it’s about the power of love to wound as well as to heal. You feel the element of loss in this Brigadoon as much as you feel the element of redemption, and after Harry meets his fate the mourning dance performed by Patricia Delgado swirled like incense on top of his tragedy. I can’t imagine a more moving revival of this show.

– 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 StyleNo Surprises, Please: Movies in the Reagan Decade; and High Comedy in American Movies.

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