Monday, July 29, 2013

Music theater in the mountains

I spent the early July holiday weekend in a place new to me, at a music theater camp of which I had never heard, experiencing a theater work I'd never seen. It was quite exhilarating.

Jane Austen said that everything important happens at parties and Margaret Visser wrote a book called Much Depends On Dinner, but for my money the coffee hour after a Sunday church service is equally serendipitous. At one of these encounters several months ago at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Mamaroneck, N.Y., I chanced into a conversation with a fellow parishioner named Ann, who told me she is involved with the Seagle Music Colony in the town of Schroon Lake, N.Y.

The Seagle Colony is the oldest summer residential training program for young opera singers. Founded in 1915 by baritone Oscar Seagle, it regularly gets more than 400 applications for some 30 places. I like summer theater, music and dance, so I filed the information away, along with Ann's invitation to join her at her summer house in Schroon Lake, which is about 250 miles north of New York City in the Adirondack Mountains.

The Oscar Seagle Memorial Theater
Over the next few months, the stars fell into place and on July 5, we arrived. The town of Schroon Lake and its nine-mile-long lake is a classic summer tourist destination, with dozens of seasonal homes, cottages and motels. We enjoyed a walk along the town park, beach and main street featuring restaurants, stores, an old movie theater called The Strand and a gas station. The vibe isn't commercial, but relaxed, outdoorsy and genuine.

Ann has been involved with Seagle Colony for years, as a supporter, board member, volunteer grant writer and host to some of the young singers who arrive for two months of classes, coaching and performance. Although the students and faculty are housed in cabins on the 20-acre campus in the woods, each singer is paired with a sponsor who can "tell them how wonderful they are," in Ann's phrase. In other words, a local "mom" or "dad" who can be their contact point, take them out to dinner, be a sympathetic ear - even help with laundry.

We went to see the first offering of the season: Street Scene, the 1946 musical with music by Kurt Weill, lyrics by Langston Hughes and book by Elmer Rice, on whose play of the same name the work is based. This year, Seagle is also presenting Albert Herring, Eugene Onegin and 42nd Street, along with a children's opera called Three Little Pigs and a couple of concert evenings.

We attended a lively pre-show lecture by director of productions Richard Kagey, who also directed Street Scene. The story concerns the residents of an East Side Manhattan brownstone apartment building and takes place in 1946 over a sweltering summer evening and morning. It's an unusual musical - Weill described it various ways, including "American opera" - with a very large cast. Kagey said that more than 50 roles had been whittled down or doubled for the 30 or so singers. It's also one reason Street Scene is usually revived these days only by opera companies. It's too expensive to produce commercially.

Weill intended it to be a microcosm of the city and so we see the man whose wife is about to give birth, the elderly Jewish leftist, the stoop-lounging gossip and her friends, the violent husband and the unfaithful wife, the young couple in love, the kids underfoot -- just to name a few of the characters.

Two excellent pianists, one of them Music Director Richard Williams, provided the accompaniment, but I found the score, on this initial encounter, difficult to take, full of dissonance and minor chords. In addition, Weill, Rice and Hughes chose to focus on the sad, tumultuous relationship of Anna and Frank Maurrant, which ends rather predictably.

At the lecture, one questioner asked who were the main characters and Kagey mentioned the young lovers, Rose Maurrant (daughter of Anna and Frank) and Sam Kaplan (son of Abe, the radical), but these characters don't have a significant scene until an hour into the show. Like Tony and Maria in West Side Story, they sing about how they would love to get out of the brutal city ("We'll Go Away Together"), but in the end, Rose goes off without Sam and that's about it.

Other characters are introduced with delightful songs - Mr. Buchanan in "When a Woman Has a Baby" sings about how difficult it is for the man in these circumstances and Italian immigrant Lippo Fiorentino extols the wonders of ice cream in "Ice Cream Sextet" - but we don't see much more of them as the panorama of the streets rolls on. It seemed to me that since Rice was intent on presenting a broad swath of city characters, he didn't go very deeply. None of the characters, perhaps with the exception of Rose, develop or change much throughout the drama. In addition, the show's tempo - entrances, exits, stage movement - could have been quicker.

Realizing that Seagle is a training center, I noticed that acting skills ranged upward from basic. Strong standouts in character roles were Eric Ferring as Mr. Buchanan, Jack Swanson as Lippo Fiorentino and William Hearn as Abe Kaplan. Anna Laurenzo, as gossipy stoop-sitter Emma Jones, acts as a Greek chorus, but I wish the authors had varied the emotions of the character more.

Meghan Garvin as Anna Maurrant expresses a most affecting sense of melancholy and despair, while Maren Weinberger as daughter Rose depicts a young woman wise beyond her years who has had to grow up fast in the tenements. Andrew Surrena matches her with a sweet yet passionate Sam Kaplan. I look forward to seeing Christopher Filipowicz, who played Frank Maurrant, develop his acting further.    

Although the creators of Street Scene didn't listen, figuratively, to Alfred Hitchcock, who is reputed to have said, "Drama is life with the dull bits cut out," I was very glad to make the show's acquaintance and add it to my theatrical collection.