The Women of Brewster Place
Book, music and lyrics by Tim Acito
Based on the novel by Gloria Naylor
Directed by Molly Smith
Produced by Arena Stage
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
The postcard artwork for the long awaited women of Brewster Place tells it all – women of various appearances, different bearings and expressions, all with life-stories to tell, looking out the windows of a squalid tenement. There was such hope in the prospect of getting to the heart and soul of these women, the characters so beautifully described in Gloria Naylor’s searing novel, through the magic of song and movement. Perhaps I idealized what could have been – no, what should have been – for too long, and that’s what led to the disappointment of seeing what’s currently playing at Arena Stage.
Developing a musical is a tough business, and hats off to any and all who take that on. But a musical is only as strong as the music, and the songs must have a certain heft and eventually some relevance to the characters, the message, the story. This is just basic stuff, The voices are indeed purified glory, with vocals that pierce the rafters, but without material, they’re not able to penetrate to the soul
Tim Acito who wrote the book, lyrics and music obviously adores the characters in Naylor’s novel, and he apparently did a yeoman’s task trying to faithfully interpret what he read, but there was little translation of the gut -wrenching moments in these women’s lives. No matter how hard he tried-he apparently wrote a multitude of songs, replacing number after number in an effort to get it right-there is still a mix-match between the soul-filled stories and the loopy, lollipop music and lyrics in which the characters relate them. And yes, that, means there must be a sense of the characters in the thing, too.
Mattie, played with resolute fortitude by Tina Fabrique, is the rock solid underpinning for the show. Without her holding down some semblance of depth, the production would just float on top of the surface of well-intended parody. It is her love and adoration for her son Basil, represented by the ever-present herbal plant in her scenes, that keeps her going, even though his skipping bail lost her house, which is how she ended up on the dead-end Brewster Place. Mattie’s tale, which is a major dramatic element depicting such loss and degradation in the novel, is totally glossed over in the production, and is mentioned as a passing “by the way” recollection. Frabrique, still, somehow, manages to rise above the skimpy material that she has to work with and through sheer grit and determination, creates a character with depth and meaning. She’s a force to reckon with.
Unfortunately, the other characters, no matter how hard they try, are stuck in a lack-luster script as much as their characters are stranded on the infamous street. Eleasha Gamble, like the other remarkable singers, is utterly wasted strutting around in her various ensemble costumes, including some exquisite though strange Martian-looking get-up for the Midsummer Nights Dream sequence. Everyone is reduced to straight-line caricature of the women from the novel-even Tee, played by Suzzanne Douglas is rendered straight out of lesbian central casting.
Where the first act at least maintained an element of decorum and semblance of style, closing with Mattie’s touching Leave the Light On, and her heart wrenching This Ain’t A Prayer, showing the collective community healing of the women, Act II spiraled into freefall from which there was no return. Harriett Foy’s opening number as Lorraine, the elementary school teacher showing her bubbly bright demeanor melt into disheveled goo by the end of class period, is a highlight and is funny, and that’s because Acito is in his element, simple, bubbly and fun. Foy’s long precipitous slide from that cutesy scene to her somber demise splattered upside the infamous wall may as well have come from a different play – again, mix-match.
The focus for Act 2 shifts to the couple, “The Two,” and yes, the women are ostracized for being different, but their relationship and their confrontations with the community are reduced to the level of old WB situation comedy. The ladies having a showdown at a community meeting, taking off earrings and throwing food was an all time low and grazed a line between embarrassing and insulting. That the producers allowed such demeaning characterizations to remain in the script from Atlanta to Washington, D.C. coming from the most prestigious, social conscious companies in the nation, well, I’m at a loss trying to understand why it happened, how it happened, all I know is, it’s in there.
And finally, without setting up why the wall is such a deleterious, stifling construction, there’s little to cheer about when the women appear in flowing white, (costumes by Paul Tazewell), with mallets determined to tear it down. No amount of pyrotechnic set gyrations, (designer Anne Patterson) can rescue the act from being mere theatrical contrivance.
I’m sorry, but the story means too much to some of us to just sit and cringe in silence.
At least, we have the women’s stunning voices and the hauntingly beautiful artwork on the postcard.
(Running Time: 2:20)
Where: Arena Stage, Kreeger , 1101 Sixth Street, S.W, Washington, D.C.
When: Thru December 9, 2007.
Performance Schedule: Tuesday and Wednesday at 7:30; Thursday, Friday and Saturday 8pm, Saturday and Sunday matinees at 2; Sunday at 7:30.
Tickets: $57- $76
Info: call 202- 488-3300 or consult: http://www.arenastage.org/
DCTS’ Joel Markowitz has written a 3 part series on the development of Brewster Place