THE BASICS: This gutsy little one-act opera by Leonard Bernstein is this year’s Lunchtime Theatre offering at the Shaw. It plays in repertory at the Court House Theatre through October 7th. The show runs about 45 minutes; there is no intermission.
THUMBNAIL SKETCH: It’s 1952, and Americans have fled to the suburbs to live the Great American Dream. Dinah and Sam are a typical suburban couple. He is climbing up the corporate ladder while she stays home, dresses prettily and tends the nest. They seem to have everything, including a fine young son, but there is trouble in paradise. Society has compartmentalized them, leaving dull routines, annoyance and recrimination where there used to be real affection. Can these two somehow recapture the joy of their early years? Bernstein leaves us guessing, all the while employing a Greek style chorus to make fun of the New American Lifestyle and its most ardent practitioners (like Sam).
THE PLAY, THE PLAYERS AND THE PRODUCTION: TROUBLE IN TAHITI (the name taken from an imaginary musical film that the despondent Dinah attends) is the ambitious work of a composer on the rise. For the cognoscenti, there are references both to past work (The musical phrase “New York, New York!” from ON THE TOWN here becomes “Suburbia!”) and to Bernstein masterpieces still to come. Because of a self-imposed brevity, we don’t get to know Dinah and Sam as well as we would like, but the writing is good enough that we do feel some of their pain. And there is plenty of sharp satire, doled out by the spunky chorus. The Shaw production eschews opera people for musical comedy types, and this works well for a piece whose roots are in theatrical song-and-dance. Elodie Gillett and Mark Uhre make a lovely Dinah and Sam. If his performance seems a little higher voltage than hers, I believe it is simply because his part is a bit meatier. The chorus of nine (including director Jay Turvey) is polished. Scat singing, laying down some nifty steps, and fleshing out a number of small, non-speaking roles, it’s clear that they are having fun. The peppy musical ensemble headed by Paul Sportelli has no trouble with the tricky Bernstein rhythms and changing meters, and (by and large) manages not to drown out the libretto. The fine 50’s costumes and clever, symbolic little set pieces are by Michael Gianfrancesco.
I’m not sure that the opening fantasy-dance really works, and I was saddened by the lack of even one take-home song. Even so, TAHITI a wonderful and important Shaw rediscovery, a piece that area musical theater lovers will not want to miss. Rounding up, I’m going to give it the full…
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!
COURT HOUSE THEATRE | June 1 – October 7
Music and libretto by LEONARD BERNSTEIN
Directed by JAY TURVEY
Designed by MICHAEL GIANFRANCESCO
Lighting designed by ANDREW SMITH