The Vanishing

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goodman brigadoonOnce a long, long time ago (well, the 1940s and the 1950s) the word musical theater didn’t really mean a collection of jukebox hits that your parents listened to, or a musical version of either a Disney film or a gritty British movie with music written by pop culture icons. The dirty phrase “Andrew Lloyd Webber” was mercifully unknown.  During that time a musical meant a show with gorgeous, lush scores, transportive stories that can still at times stretch credulity, unabashed emotionalism that can border on the silly and campy.  Though American musical theater at its height was the last unapologetic bastion of feel-good escapism during the time when film and dramatic plays were moving towards heightened naturalism and raw portrayal of emotions, it still produced some of the most unforgettable music existing from the incomparable talents of Rodgers and Hart, then Hammerstein; Leonard Bernstein; Bock and Harnick, Lerner and Loewe.  So when I heard that the Goodman Theater was going to stage a revitalized, possibly re-envisioned take on Alan Jay Lerner’s and Frederick Loewe’s 1947 classic about a Scottish village that only appears once in a hundred years, I was intrigued but unconvinced. Can I, a 21st century musical theater queen ravenously brought up on a diet of realistic Sondheim, literary Boublil and Schoenberg,  grounded Ahrens and Flaherty, cerebral Guettel, with pop-music drizzles from Elton John and Cyndi Lauper, actually like a show with a story as incredible as this? Plus I wasn’t a fan of Gene Kelly’s stilted film version (the elegant, aristocratic Cyd Charisse is about as believable as an 18th century Scottish peasant maid as Matt Bomer is as my massage therapist…I mean really?). But as I’ve said so many times on this blog over the years, I love going to the theater and becoming inexplicably, memorably astounded. Brigadoon, marking the significant Goodman debut of Rachel Rockwell, one of Chicago’s most talented theater directors, is enthralling, superb, inarguably enjoyable, lingering with you days after you see it, setting a high bar for musical theater in Chicago and regional theaters as a whole.

So let’s get it out of the way, Brigadoon’s book with that disappearing village and Scots frozen in time is truly incredible and truly flawed.  Lerner’s original writing, although revised by Brian Hill to be more anchored in the real world, just isn’t very good. The lack of true conflict (the village’s existence is threatened by the desire of one of its inhabitants’ to escape but this becomes more of a subplot in relation to the growing love affair of the leads Tommy Albright and Fiona MacLaren) is an issue.  The exposition in Act One on Brigadoon’s unique history as delivered by the village teacher Mr. Lundie is still long and well, expository.  But to Hill’s credit, he makes the story more understandable if not totally believable to 21st century theatergoers.  He makes Tommy troubled and unsettled which makes sense then that he wants to stay in Brigadoon instead of going back to New York City and getting married to his fiancée.  Hill also provides a more realistic, less magical reason for the spell that causes the village to disappear every hundred years – it’s to protect Brigadoon from the violence and war prevalent in 18th century Scotland, a concept that is as relatable to us now (maybe even more so) than when the show was first conceived.

But if you can overlook the flawed book, and in this production, you will, Brigadoon has so many superlative charms. Rockwell’s direction, for one, full of kinetic, muscular movement especially in her adaptation of Agnes deMille’s landmark original choreography, is terrific. She sweeps you along but also highlights the intricate emotions in the characters’ relationships which makes the show more involving and dramatic and less spectacle.  Roberta Duchak’s musical direction and Josh Clayton’s orchestrations full of trumpets, strings, and bagpipes enables the impeccable Lerner and Loewe score to engulf you in its comforting, spell-binding, hazy-mist embrace. Kevin Depinet’s formidable, impressionistic set design, impressive in its unabashed “bigness” and creativity (a shimmering scrim both doubles as a rainstorm and a surface to project Shawn Sagady’s vivid projections that range from a Scottish forest to a New York City restaurant).

And Rockwell has shrewdly cast the show with the best of Chicago’s staggering pool of musical theater talent, most of them making their Goodman debuts. As a devoted and passionate supporter of Chicago actors, I’m just beyond thrilled to see folks I’ve loved in smaller theaters all over the city dazzling the audience in Chicago’s biggest stage.  Kevin Earley is the sole New York actor in the cast (after the departure of another actor) and though at times I think he underplays Tommy’s requisite cynicism, his singing is absolute perfection. You swoon at his performance of the gorgeous “Almost Like Being in Love” and most especially in the difficult “There But For You Go I”.  Jenny Sophia as Fiona gives a truly knockout performance – earthy yet radiant, full of life and vibrancy which makes the fact that she will reawaken a hundred years from now truly heartbreaking. And her singing blows you out of the theater as well, magnetic in both the “Almost Like Being in Love” duet with Earley and in solo numbers like the haunting “From This Day On.”  Rod Thomas who stepped in last minute in the role of Tommy’s bromancing best friend Jeff is charming, funny, and charismatic.  Jordan Brown, who I thought was a star in a smaller role in the tepid Juno, is boyishly exuberant as Charlie Dalrymple, the young groom whose wedding Brigadoon is celebrating during the day the village appeared to Tommy and Jeff. Brown’s lovely performance of “Come to Me, Bend to Me” , one of the most ravishing songs in the Lerner and Loewe canon, full of adoration and longing for his soon-to-be-wife,  is memorable.  Chicago musical theater stalwarts Maggie Portman, Joseph Anthony Foronda, Michael Aaron Lindner, Craig Spidle, and Roger Mueller, whom I have admired in years of theatergoing all shine in a strong supporting ensemble. And finally there’s Rhett Guter, who I found mesmerizing in Gypsy earlier this year, playing Harry Beaton, the one Brigadoon inhabitant who wants to escape the village. Guter continues to show what a hot, exciting musical theater talent he is, impressively and breathtakingly leading  “The Sword Dance” (which, you got it,  requires the male dance ensemble to dance and leap and pirouette and do all kinds of brilliant yet difficult stuff across crossed swords, also showing what those Scots wear under those kilts, ahem), DeMille’s most significant piece for the musical.

With this cast, this score, this set, and Rockwell’s direction, this lavish and dream-like Brigadoon is about as close to musical theater perfection as you can experience. I’d be willing to wait a hundred years for another production to come if it’s as good as this.

You’re like a Scottish moss if you don’t get enchanted by this unmissable production of Brigadoon. It’s running until August 17 at the Goodman Theater, 170 N. Dearborn St.

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