Stage Door Review
Wednesday, July 17, 2019
music by Frederick Loewe, book & lyrics by Alan J. Lerner, directed by Glynis Leyshon
Shaw Festival, Festival Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake
May 25-October 13, 2019
Tommy: “All the music of life seems to be
Like a bell that is ringing for me!”
With Brigadoon the Shaw Festival is currently presenting a mostly old-fashioned production of an old-fashioned musical. That is not a bad thing. The 1947 musical is firmly in the Shaw Festival’s original mandate and provides a rare professional staging of the first big hit for Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe, who would later go on to write My Fair Lady (1956) and Camelot (1960). There is nothing to fault in the singing, acting or dancing in this magical work except that the use of digital animation is unnecessary and out of place.
The musical concerns two friends, Tommy Albright (George Krissa) and Jeff Douglas (Mike Nadajewski), who are on a hunting excursion in Scotland, a final bachelor trip before Tommy returns to New York to marry his wealthy fiancée. The two men get lost in the woods but hear singing emanating from a place not indicated on their map. They follow the music and find themselves in the busy town square of Brigadoon.
Although it is 1946, Tommy and Jeff are surprised to find that everyone is dressed in the traditional Scottish garb of the 18th century. The town is bustling as everyone prepares for the wedding of Charlie Dalrymple (Matt Nethersole) to Jean MacLaren (Madelyn Kriese). Tommy quickly falls for Jean’s sister Fiona (Alexis Gordon) and the town flirt Meg Brockie (Kristi Frank) falls for Jeff.
Not everyone is happy, though. Harry Beaton (Travis Seetoo) has always loved Jean and is distraught at the thought of her marrying Charlie, and Maggie Anderson (Genny Sermonia) has always loved Harry and is anguished at his inattention.
When Tommy notices that the latest dates in the MacLaren family bible seem off by 200 years, Fiona decides that Tommy and Jeff should know the truth about Brigadoon. She takes them to the schoolmistress Mrs. Lundie (Patty Jamieson), Mr. Lundie in the original, who tells the Americans of the miracle that a Brigadoon priest prayed for. To save Brigadoon from from the strife of the outside world, at that time the defeat of the Scottish Highlanders by the English at the Battle of Culloden and the subsequent forceful occupation of Scottish lands, the preacher’s prayer was answered that Brigadoon and all its inhabitants would disappear and reappear for only one day every 100 years. Any Brigadoon native who leaves the town will break the spell and the town will disappear forever.
As it happens Harry is so intent on stopping Charlie’s wedding to Jean, that he intends to do exactly this by rushing outside the town’s borders. Meanwhile, Tommy is caught in a dilemma. He cannot take Fiona out of Brigadoon, but to live with her he must give up all the outside world. Should he leave Fiona or leave the world?
Director Glynis Leyshon uses Brian Hill’s 2014 revision of Lerner’s book. Hill makes explicit that Tommy and Jeff have fought in World War II and he changes the reason for the disappearance of the town from the fanciful desire to save it from witches to the desire to save it from the English aggression that followed the Battle of Culloden which led to the banning of Scottish dress and traditions in Scotland from 1746 to 1782. Having the town escape forced assimilation gives the modern fairy tale greater contemporary relevance, but still leave Tommy’s central dilemma intact. While we can understand why someone might want to escape the realities of a post-World War II world for an eternal idyllic love, it’s hard not to see escaping the real world as a distressing embalming of oneself in fantasy. Besides that, as Lerner’s book demonstrates, Brigadoon may have disappeared to escape outward strife, but that doesn’t mean that inward strife like that between Harry and Charlie can’t develop.
Leyshon presents the musical in a completely straightforward way and avoids looking too closely at the negative side of escapism. Pam Johnson’s sturdy, forced perspective sets look like they could serve for a production 50 years ago while Sue LePage’s costumes give the impression that Scottish Highland dress is still evolving towards the conventions of the 19th century where it would remain fixed.
The one jarring note is Leyshon’s use of the projections of Corwin Ferguson. We know that Tommy and Jeff are hunting so we don’t need to see an animated arthritic stag hobble across the forest backdrop. We know from the dialogue that Tommy and Jeff fought in World war II so we don’t need projections of Nazis marching and the atomic bomb to remind us. Worst of all, when Mistress Lundie tells the two Americans about the history of Brigadoon, we don’t need projections of historic etchings to illustrate the story. In each case Leyshon should trust that the actors’ words will conjure up events rather than using projections that distract us from them.
That flaw aside, Leyshon helms a very solid production. As has often been noted, Loewe, who was born in Berlin and emigrated to the US at age 23, wrote music more akin to operetta than American musicals. Brigadoon, in particular, benefits from being sung by classically trained voices.
Of the large cast the performer with the most operetta-like voice is Alexis Gordon and she serves as the genial, warm heart of the entire show. She portrays Fiona as graceful, innocent and insightful all at once. Her pure soprano is lovely and full of expressivity. One can trace the gradual increase of her love for Tommy in how she delivers each song – from the playful “Waitin’ for My Dearie” to the inviting “The Heather on the Hill” to the virtual admission of “Almost Like Being in Love”.
George Krissa has a shining tenor and well conveys Tommy’s transition from confusion to enchantment. He matches Gordon in depicting the increasing seriousness of Tommy’s feelings for Fiona, although Krissa makes clear that Tommy is the one who falls more completely in love first while Fiona waits to see how sincere this stranger from the outside world really is. His finest moment may be his final song “There But for You Go I”, which, despite the formality of its language, Krissa turns into a moving expression of Tommy’s love.
Mike Nadajewski, who many will remember is also a fine singer, fits the speaking role of Jeff, Tommy’s practical, wise-cracking buddy, perfectly. Nadajewski is master of an ironic tone of voice that can turn practically any line into an amusing dig. Yet, underneath Jeff’s air of nonchalance, Nadajewski also makes us feel the concern growing in Jeff as it becomes ever clearer that Tommy’s love may lead him into an inextricable situation.
Kristi Frank is a delight as Meg, the “bad girl” of the town, whose bawdy songs – “The Love of My Life” and “My Mother’s Wedding Day” – were thought so scandalous that they were cut from the 1954 film of the musical. The songs have such clever lyrics that sprightliness of delivery is not enough to put them across. They also need clarity of diction which is just what Frank provides.
Madelyn Kriese and Matt Nethersole are well matched as the bride and groom Jean and Charlie. They sing and dance beautifully together in their duet “Come to Me, Bend to Me” and Nethersole has a chance to show off his singing and dancing prowess in the big number “I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean” in Linda Garneau’s exciting choreography.
Travis Seetoo and Genny Sermonia are also well matched as Harry and Maggie, the two people made most unhappy by the upcoming wedding. Seetoo gradually escalates his outbursts until we see that in his desperation he is willing to destroy the entire town. Sermonia is given a difficult dramatic solo dance number of mourning in which Garneau seems to have reproduced exactly the style of the original choreographer Agnes DeMille.
Among other pleasures are Patty Jamieson’s absorbing narration of the Brigadoon’s unusual history and David Ball’s thrilling execution of a traditional Scottish sword dance.
The Narnia tale The Horse and His Boy may have been intended as the Shaw Festival’s family show, but, in fact, there is more magic, mystery and liveliness in Brigadoon. The musical with is classic song “Almost Like Being in Love”, may have been intended as escapist entertainment for an audience that was still recovering from the catastrophe of World War II. Yet, the way Leyshon has staged the musical leaves us with the question of whether escape from the world is something to be desired. For those who wish to look at the musical more closely, Leyshon’s approach suggests that the Lerner and Loewe’s fairy-tale-like entertainment hides more complexity under its brilliant songs and dances than is at first apparent.
Note: This review is a Stage Door exclusive.
Photos: (from top) Matt Nethersole as Charlie with the ensemble, © 2019 David Cooper; the cast of Brigadoon, © 2019 David Cooper; Alexis Gordon as Fiona and George Krissa as Tommy, © 2019 Emily Cooper.
For tickets, visit www.shawfest.com.