Friday, September 19, 2014

The Mist and Magic of Brigadoon

By Genevieve Heinrich
Photos by Emily McKnight of

the ladies of the village
Iowa City - Every hundred years, or so the story goes, a village emerges from the mists of the Scottish highlands and lives out a single day of its existence. This is a village that, by all appearances, manages to pack more life into each of those days than humanity is able to in that whole century. This seems so true that a young world-weary idealist from the United States of the 20th century is smitten by its charms, and those of one of its inhabitants. Still, not all in this hamlet is as pristine as it seems and, despite its happy ending, Brigadoon touches on some serious themes along the way. Issues of self-determination and profound disconnection weave throughout this show's lilting melodies.

Iowa City Community Theatre does an admirable job diving into the darker side of this lighthearted piece of early musical theater. Director Josh Sazon emphasizes a lack of connection between the actors, evident in both the staging and the performances, that beautifully reflects that which is in the script and score: librettist and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner gives one song sung entirely through closed doors; another retrospective collation of songs is sung while a character's speaking voice is muted; he adds a subplot about a spurned lover who rages about his inability to find or even follow his dreams. The characters in this show are as disconnected from each other as the town is from the world. Composer Frederick Loewe reflects the longing as well as the joy inherent in most Celtic music, and this production's capable orchestra, under the baton of musical director Ed Kottick, captures these disparate musical themes well.

Colin Nies as Tommy; Jacqueline Lang as Fiona

This desperation to connect - to do so on one's own terms and in spite of the restrictions of one's situation - is what makes this show emerge from the mists of an early musical theater tradition of trite tunes and fancy footwork, and continue to resonate with today's audiences. Lest you think this a thoroughly cynical, modern take, however, there is plenty of emphasis on footwork and tunes as well. The choreography, by Jill Beardsley, has a lot of fun with the traditional-style music and dances. The cast really hits its stride on the song "I'll Go Home With Bonnie Jean;" they are truly enjoying the dancing here, and are playful and familiar with each other.

Vocally, this production is somewhat of a mixed bag. There are some lovely voices throughout the cast, but they seldom balance well with each other, even among the strongest voices in the principals. Although I much prefer the timbre of an un-mic'd musical, it seems that both as audiences and as actors we've become too used to the easy balance in volume that having mics on the cast provides. Despite that, though, this show had its share of musical successes. "Waitin' For My Dearie" showcases the beautiful voice of Jacqueline Lang (Fiona). Lang shines again in her duet with the equally talented Colin Nies' Tommy on the familiar standard "Almost Like Being In Love" - this number alone makes the show worth attending; as Sazon said in his curtain speech, the audience is hard-pressed not to sing along.

(l-r) Rich LeMay, Tom Schulein, Joe Mosher
Act II opener "The Chase" was an excellent choral performance. The men in the ensemble were quite impressive as they gave their all vocally even while running and fighting across the stage. Also impressive throughout the cast was the hard work each individual had clearly put in to affecting a solid brogue. Success rates varied, but the effort was palpable and the majority of cast members were consistent and well-practiced. Overall, the vocal work of the ensemble - both musically and in accent work - was clear and unified. Special mention should go to a few stand-out ensemble members who were always a joy to watch in their actions and always engaged and vulnerable in their reactions. Rich LeMay, Audrey Thompson-Wallace, and Kelsey Ford (who also appeared late in the play as Jane Ashton) were cast leaders, strong dancers, and able scene partners. Tom Schulein as Andrew MacLaren also put in some great work and had a few wonderful moments with his castmates.

The devil is in the details for a show like this, and there were a few seemingly minor details that I found distracting from the overall effect. The map used in the first scene was clearly a world map; even folded, the continents were visible. The dialogue grounding that scene - involving finding a small village that wasn't on the map - would seem to demand something more local. Another example was the use of the family bible. A large chunk of exposition revolves around this prop, making it very obvious when the actors open it to the middle to sign and to read family history, rather than the first few pages. Set pieces like a rolling table seem incongruous to the era. These are specifics, however, that the average audience member might not be bothered by.

The set was a disappointing aspect of this show. Some of the painting and design was truly lovely, but it was sparse in a way that failed to evoke the magic and mystery of the setting. The first and third panels, which did not change, were beautiful... but it was unclear what they were intending to show. A solid color or even a black drape would have been more harmonious with the variations of the center panel. With so many different locations in the show, a more natural and fluid set design may have been unrealistic. It was a frustratingly simplistic use of space, though, and contributed to some static staging.

Overall, the fun music and energetic dancing make Brigadoon a fun family evening out. The show runs through September 28, Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30 p.m. and Sundays at 2. Ticket information available here.

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