Monday, September 9, 2019

Song and Dance, Part III: Brigadoon

Matt Nethersole (centre) and the cast of Brigadoon at the Shaw Festival. (Photo: David Cooper)

If you love classic American musicals, then you may feel, as I do, a creeping dread when you attend a revival of one and find a credit in the program for “revised book.” I wasn’t aware that Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s lovely 1947 musical fantasy Brigadoon required revising, but the Shaw Festival’s production uses a 2014 rewrite, first seen at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, by a playwright named Brian Hill. Hill has apparently sought to make the show more relevant to today’s audiences by turning the protagonist, the American Tommy Albright (George Krissa), into a World War II veteran and altering the motivation for the spell cast on the town of Brigadoon, which Tommy and his friend Jeff Douglas (Mike Nadajewski) come upon when they get lost in the Scottish Highlands during a hunting vacation. As Lerner wrote it, Brigadoon’s late minister asked God to put the town to sleep every night for a hundred years in order to keep it from falling under worldly influences. In Hill’s version, it’s war – and specifically (though it’s unnamed) the tragic Battle of Culloden – that devastated the Highlands and from which the minister wanted to protect his beloved Brigadoon. The director of the Shaw production, Glynis Leyshon, underscores this idea by beginning the show, clumsily, with Second World War newsreel footage. Who first came up with the harebrained notion that if an old dramatic property can’t be linked to contemporary concerns it’s not worth taking down off the shelf? City Center staged Brigadoon two years ago using the original book and the audience gave it a (well-deserved) standing ovation.

As it happens, the manhandling of the text isn’t the worst thing about this Brigadoon. It’s insufferably kitschy, with sets (by Pam Johnson) and costumes (by Sue LePage) that seem more appropriate to a Disney musical. There are even twinkling stars (courtesy of lighting designer Kevin LaMotte) to remind us that we’re watching a fairy tale. Though Shaw veteran Paul Sportelli is in charge of the musical direction, the singing is inconsistent and Krissa, who has the task of performing most of the ballads, has clammy phrasing and sings each one as if it were a long trek toward a boisterous, overplayed finish. His acting is terrible; he’s like a Disney adolescent. (You don’t believe for a second that he fought in the war.) Since Alexis Gordon plays Fiona, the Scottish lass who wins his heart, as an adult, she appears to be ten or twelve years his senior.

Gordon is one of the few principal performers who doesn’t come across as if she’s trying too hard. Though Matt Nethersole, as the bridegroom, Charlie Dalrymple, has a pleasant baritone, his overexuberance on his two solos, “I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean” and “Come to Me, Bend to Me,” is a little exhausting. Travis Seetoo, as the unhappy Harry Beaton, who lost Fiona’s sister Jean (Madelyn Kriese) to Charlie, makes faces. And though I’d place Kristi Frank, in the comic role of amorous Meg Brockie, in the plus column, she too would benefit from a little wry understatement. In the first act Nadajewski makes the mistake Aasif Mandvi made at City Center of playing Jeff’s lines as if they were stand-up, but he improves after intermission. The more relaxed senior members of the ensemble – Peter Millard, Michael Therriault and Patty Jamieson (as Mistress Lundie, the schoolmistress) – help, but except for Jamieson they don’t have much to do, and you have to keep reminding yourself that, despite the ridiculous colors they have on, they’re not in a cartoon. The cast member who comes across best is Genny Sermonia as Maggie Anderson, who loves Harry in vain (just as he loves Jean) and dances her grief at his demise.

As long as the show sticks to the original Agnes DeMille dances it’s on safe ground, but whenever Linda Garneau adds her own choreography – as she does on “My Mother’s Wedding Day” – we’re back in Disney territory. Isn’t it bad enough that at any given time there are three or four retreads of Disney cartoons on Broadway? I didn’t expect to see their bland, syrupy footprints all over a revival of a first-rate musical at the Shaw.

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.

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