November 13, 2016
Special to The Alexandria Times
A brief moment of panic set in as my jaw hit the floor. I’d just read Artistic Director, Molly Smith’s notes in the playbill and saw she was inspired by Thornton Wilder’s use of “mime in the entire show”. Really?
“Somehow it feels right with the mythic nature of the story – and to remind us this isn’t reality TV,” she wrote, adding that collaborator David Leong is the show’s mime and fight expert. Would the cast mime this indelibly lush score? Would there be no orchestration? I looked up hopefully and saw the orchestra perched on the catwalk and the conductor hidden in a cubby off to one side of the stage. Okay, there was going to be music, but singing was still up in the air. And maybe… literally.
Act One opens with the women miming the art of weaving on their looms. As you’ll recall the story is set in a small town along the Maine coast, where the men are fishermen and the women work at Bascom’s Cotton Mill. Silence. And then an astonishing collection of lavishly costumed circus characters appears – a dancing bear, the strong man, a contortionist and other fabulous creatures parade around the revolving stage. A coup for Designer Ilona Somogyi who presents us with a wide range of costumes from the elaborate fantasy circus characters, to the soft-colored linen dresses worn by the women – fisherman gear and natty togs worn by the men.
At this point we are still in mime mode. I am crestfallen. Until…the talking begins and Billy Bigelow, lowlife carnival barker (Nicholas Rodriguez), Mrs. Mullin (E. Faye Butler) amusement park impresario, and Julie Jordan (Betsy Morgan) adorable ingénue come to life – conversationally. Thank heavens! The music swells to Julie and Carrie’s duet “When I Marry Mr. Snow”, and it’s game on!
The story focuses on Julie and her enduring adoration of Billy who treats her worse than a junkyard dog. Billy, a low-life gambler, is fired from the park and down on his luck, with no prospects other than his upcoming marriage to Miss, I-am-in-serious-denial, Julie. With the help of his pal, Jigger (played skillfully and creepily by Kyle Schliefer) they concoct a scam to rob old Mr. Bascom (Thomas Adrian Simpson). While they’re up to no good, the townsfolk merrily carry on with their annual clambake and treasure hunt in “A Real Nice Clambake”.
Expect a phenomenal cast singing their heads off to the tunes we adore. Morgan lending her dulcet tones to songs like “If I Loved You”. Rodriguez blowing the roof off with his tremendous baritone in “Soliloquy” and “The Highest Judge of All”.
The production, directed by Molly Smith and choreographed by the multi-award winning Parker Esse, is a far cry from what we’ve come to expect from stale summer stock versions. This one comes at you freshly minted, with a white-washed stage set, and utterly captivating. The composer geniuses, Rodgers and Hammerstein II, would melt at the exquisite dance routines designed by Esse and the richly orchestrated music. We can thrill to duets like, “You’ll Never Walk Alone”, sung here in operatic style by Julie and Nettie (Ann Arvia).
The biggest surprise though comes in Act Two with the introduction of Louise, Billy’s daughter, played by masterfully by Skye Mattox. A mere slip of a girl who moves like spilled mercury, Mattox is as graceful as a prima ballerina and as fluid as a cool stream.
A twelve-member orchestra playing multiple instruments backs up the extraordinary cast.
Through December 24th at Arena Stage, 1101 Sixth St., SE, Washington, DC 20024. For tickets and information call 202 488-3300 or visit www.ArenaStage.org.