Stillpointe Theatre, a Baltimore-based company known for its sharp takes on the American musical, has just entered the field of opera and became one of the first out of the gate this year to celebrate Bernstein’s hundredth anniversary year with the composer’s Trouble in Tahiti. Seems like the project served as a reunion of some of the “best” of Baltimore forces, including David Schweizer who rode in to collaborate with the company, following a long history of work at Baltimore Center Stage, and handpicked singers from the prestigious Peabody Conservatory.
Entering the space up a flight of steep stairs, I was unprepared for the transformation of what might have been a dusty cold church hall into a warm and slightly exotic art deco bar, only slightly downscale from say the Algonquin Lounge in New York. With adult beverages served up by Daniel, we settled ourselves in around tables, admiring the Japanese parasols dangling from the ceiling, the spiky dracena projected as shadowy gobos creating Gauguin-like orientalism on the back wall, and the tuxedo-clad and cocktail-dressed ensemble members float in and around the cabaret.
Of course anyone who knows the work knows the irony of Bernstein’s title to his opera. It’s not about Tahiti, and The Trio that serves as a chorus in this short opera of seven scenes sings the intro “jingle” telling us just so. The opera is about the little white house in Scarsdale, Highland Park, or even Beverly Hills and the suburban couple who lives there, trapped in a marriage that has disappointed them both.
Lore is that Bernstein started writing the opera in 1951 while on honeymoon, and one speculates if he woke up feeling trapped in his own heterosexual marriage and the post World War II conventions of what Pete Seeger sang of the homes and lives of “ticky-tacky” sameness. Remembering the early fifties was also the period of McCarthyism, rampant capitalism of the industrial complex, and harsh racial divides, one can feel the scathing anger of the artist beneath the veneer of everything being bottled up and, indeed, “white-washed.”
It’s a world of prescribed gender roles. The husband commutes to work in the big city and spends his time keeping fit in competitive handball games. The wife goes or tries to go to their son’s school events and otherwise lunches with friends or visits her psychiatrist but mostly makes sure she has dinner waiting for her husband when he comes home. Bernstein, who wrote his own libretto, has caught the details just right to tell the story in the compressed seven-scene structure.
I’ll confess I have sometimes passed over this opera, not being a fan of kitchen sink drama in general and getting quickly bored with the “pass the salt” vernacular of some modern opera not to mention watching the predictable American fifties suburban kitchen come to life. The renditions can often feel cloyingly self-satisfied, and I find myself wanting to say, “I get it.”
The direction and the design of this production wisely forewent the usual pitfalls of that trope as if these characters had all got dressed up with somewhere to go. The framing of the fifties was done most effectively by Ryan Haase, Artistic Director of Stillpointe, who jobs in here as Scenic and Prop Designer with Projections collaborator Johnny Rogers. They chose to depict the fifties through projections of indoor and outdoor period collages of New York on the back wall and treating the photographs with something like architectural background manipulation so that photos have a cohesive layered wallpapered look. Against this is juxtaposed the stark cabaret bar set piece and characters who’ve just stepped out of a sophisticated party to which one wants to be invited. It’s a veneer all right, but one soaked with shiny clothes and plenty of gin.
Trouble in Tahiti
closes January 27, 2018
Details and tickets
Opera is always better when the characters become more than prototypes, and the central characters feel real here, not from just anywhere, suburbia, but specifically in a borough of Manhattan. I thoroughly enjoyed The Trio’s optimistic radio-style jingles as Bernstein envisioned them to be bright jazzy commercials with syncopated lyrics liberally sprinkled with a little scat because they seemed also to have a real life as entertainers at a midtown cabaret. “Skid a lit day. Ratty boo.”
Michael Dodge, Kerry Holahan, and Adam Cooley blended beautifully in Bernstein’s tight harmonies of that band-era writing style. Each one of these singers also had ample opportunity to demonstrate lovely solo colors in the intimate space.
Peter Tomaszewski is simply terrific as Sam, the husband. He delivers the brash aggression of the capitalist as well as the stoic boredom of a man who is nonetheless determined to keep up appearances. But he also gives us moments of doubt and tenderness so one can empathize with him. The singer has a terrific bass baritone instrument that can bend and play with the shifting needs of character.
Mezzo soprano Claire Galloway Weber as Dinah, the wife, delivered some beautiful arias. I was deeply moved by the dream she relates to her psychiatrist on the couch, in this production inventively draped as a chanteuse over the top of the piano. “I was standing in the garden” was filled with the inner longing of this woman. I also liked the risks she took in the wild “Trouble in Tahiti” which is built as one of those female monologues (as told to a friend) that were all the period rage. She rips into the song with abandon, moving from comic dismissal of movie musicals as they were written to getting caught up in the plot of one then tearing with fury into the exotic singing-dancing island girls “ahaahhaahha” complete with phony hula dancing. Occasionally however, throughout the evening the singer trips up with less than elegant glottal stops.
In this opera Musical Director Ben Shaver did an excellent job with his seven-man band all from the balcony above us to give us that quintessential Bernstein American sound of hot jagged rhythms, arresting brass, and cool melodies. The sound blend was good, and the orchestra never overpowered the diction of the singers.
During the second half of the evening the cast delivered piano-accompanied cabaret offerings from a handful of known and less known Bernstein songs. Nothing out of the ordinary delivered here, but notably Lenny lent us his song, “Take care of this house” most poignantly as a shared and tearful prayer to our current precariousness from his work The White House. All in all it was a thoroughly enjoyable birthday party for Lenny, and we all gave a toast and sang together to top off the evening.
Skid a lit day… Ratty boo. So bravi tutti.
Trouble in Tahiti. Music, Book and Lyrics by Leonard Bernstein. Directed by David Schweizer. Musical Direction and Conducting by Benjamin Shaver. Scene and Properties Desig by Ryan Haase. Lighting Design by Adrienne GIeszl. Costume Design by Kitt Crescenzo. Projections Designded by Johnny Rogers. With Adam Cooley, Michael Didge, Kerry Holahan, Peter Tomaszewski, and Claire Galoway Weber. Produced by Stillpointe Theatre . Reviewed by Susan Galbraith.