This rarely seen classical creation by Scott Joplin glimmers with bits of ragtime, jazzy undertones and strong cultural messages, packaged as a light opera. Its rarity in being performed is likely due to its wide ranging musical scope that hits all kinds of styles, along with the rather abruptly executed theatrical interludes. Beneath the serial monolithic solos, and the somewhat evasive storyline about life in a small black community after the Civil War, however, is a treasure-trove of history just waiting for the right touch to help it spring to life. Thankfully, the Washington Savoyards have taken this on, and with Michael J. Bobbitt as director, provide a poignant glimpse into the creative mind of one of the most influential composers in American music.
Original orchestrator T.J. Anderson ‘s attention to Scott Joplin’s distinctive sounds, stylistic flairs reminiscent of ragtime and Gershwin’s Catfish Row flow all through this piece, a direct nod to Joplin’s enormous influence.
The main character who was found under a tree, (and thus aptly named), is a book-reading scholar who represents the power of the intellect to a community still reeling from emancipation and chattel slavery. Treemonisha is a bookworm with a touching affection for her community. When she isn’t reading, she offers encouragement along the lines of one of the lyrics to “quit your ways and lead a better life,” and to do better “for our race.” After she is abducted for standing up to the old conjurers and magicians who have a stranglehold on the servants and laborers, the community rejoices in her rescue with a down home celebration.
As Treemonisha, JoAnna Ford has the kind of fascinating voice usually only heard on a well kept vintage Victrola, like she traveled through time. Her smoky yet light vibrato is captivating to listen to along with her adorable demander in delivery. She is equally matched by Shana Powell as her friend and confident Lucy, who has a powerful flowery lilt to her arias. The parents are winsomely played by Marilyn Moore and Darryl Winston, both highly accomplished performers.
Other standouts in the powerhouse leading cast are Murvyn T. Cannaday II as Remus, the love interest who courts and later rescues Treemonisha, and LC Harden with his cape a’flying and serpentine movements as a conjurer, reminiscent of Gershwin’s Sporting Life.
The design teams effectively enhance the production. Particularly noteworthy are the costumes, designed by Eleanor Dicks, with each befitting the personalities of the many, and I mean Many characters – Bobbitt moves the 31 member cast about with ease. The set by Elizabeth Jenkins McFadden consists of a makeshift cabin that rises out of sight as needed, the ubiquitous tree, the main character’s namesake, nicely designed with rectangular-shaped patches in an interesting mud-cloth type motif, which also appears on the door of the hut, for a nicely balanced symmetry. Dan Covey does his usual magic with lighting, casting ominous shadows to fit sinister moods and spotlighting the joyous festivities.
On par with the vocalists, the dancers are also high caliber, delivering beautifully executed movements, especially the delightful cakewalk, choreography by Pauline Grossman. The smaller ensemble pieces are the most effective, particularly the animal sequences and some of the historical dance movements which required research for authenticity. At the same time, other dance numbers seemed rudimentary, a bit out of sync with the story, and could have used more imagination. Still, considering the rehearsal days lost from the recent storm, it’s a testament the production went on at all. The orchestra, on the other hand, sounded amateurish at best, and it is unclear how much more rehearsal would have helped them rise to the level of the stage performers.
According to their Web site, the Washington Savoyards “make a unique contribution to Washington’s culture by producing a repertory dedicated to opera and musical theater,” and they are apparently the only resident professional producer of Gilbert and Sullivan’s light operas in the metro area. On this approaching 100th anniversary of the Treemonisha score, which Joplin never saw mounted and whose original orchestrations were subsequently destroyed, the Savoyards have provided a gift beyond measure.
by Scott Joplin . Orchestrated by T. J. Anderson
Directed by Michael J. Bobbitt
Produced by Washington Savoyards
Reviewed by Debbie Minter Jackson
Treemonisha is part of the 3-weekend Intersections festival and closes March 7, 2010.