Circle Theatre is known for resurrecting musicals that flopped on Broadway. It’s been thrilling to witness director Kevin Bellie and company stretch themselves, mounting shows we’d never get a chance to see otherwise.
Their current offering is Thou Shalt Not, a production that had the misfortune to open in New York in the wake of 9/11. Though expectations ran high, the musical floundered. The spin the producers put on its hasty demise was that it was “too dark” to sell to audiences at that time. But the ambitious new version at Circle reveals there were problems other than simply poor timing.
Hats off to Bellie for having the chutzpa to recreate this fascinating yet flawed show. While their efforts are not totally successful, this Circle production provides us with the opportunity to experience a unique and already legendary musical that otherwise might have slipped into oblivion.
Based upon Emile Zola’s 19th century novel, Therese Raquin, this tragic tale of gilt-ridden lovers brings to mind those 1940s “film noir” sizzlers like Double Indemnity and The Postman Always Rings Twice, where a restless wife and her lover conspire to murder her undesirable husband. Perhaps that’s why the storyline was updated from 1860s Paris to the postwar New Orleans of 1946-47.
The setting switch also provided composer and lyricist Harry Connick, Jr., who grew up in the Big Easy, with the opportunity to use his hometown for musical inspiration. There’s lots of local color jazz, blues and ’40s swing music. There’s even a Mardi Gras sequence and a high struttin’ New Orleans funeral march. But although many of these tunes set your feet tapping, they resemble showcase numbers from a revue rather than a book musical.
Connick has been singing, acting and composing since he was a child. Many of us may know him from his recurring role on the NBC sitcom Will & Grace. He’s got talent going on in all directions. But one of the problems with his jazzy-flavored Broadway debut score for Thou Shalt Not is that it lacks the flow and depth that show tunes now need to advance the plot and deepen characterizations. Connick’s music is often buoyant but other than those few raucous French Quarter ensembles, there are no showstoppers with soaring lyrics. The ballads are especially blah and tuneless.
Bellie provides lots of lively choreography. He often underscores the emotion of a scene with dance”everything from jitterbug to ballet.
The storyline is pretty formulaic. Trapped in a loveless marriage of convenience to her sickly cousin whose very touch makes Therese feel as if she’s “being erased,” the frustrated young woman has a passionate fling with an itinerant jazz pianist just returned from World War II. When the pair plot to kill the husband in cold blood, their lives quickly unravel.
I’m a sucker for The Big Easy. It’s one of my favorite places, chock full of simultaneous exuberance and decadence. And the opening of this show is beckoning and exhilarating. African American performers Ty Perry and Gerald Richardson footnote the segregation of the era in their lyrics, “They don’t know what we know. They don’t go where we go.” But the show doesn’t bog down in sociology. The war is over. Since there hasn’t been a Mardi Gras for the duration, everyone is ripe for celebration. Yet a mood of claustrophobia quickly kicks in.
One of the biggest problems is that the gloomy story never makes the people sympathetic. What other musical can you think of where one of the only fun, spunky characters sings her head off in the first act, then suffers a crippling stroke that renders her mute and wheelchair-bound for Act Two?
Eric Lindahl looks and sounds fine as the handsome drifter Laurent but his performance often comes off too boy-next-door, not pouty and dangerous.
While Jenni Sumerak has a lovely voice and dances like a dream, her performance as the smoldering Therese seems vague and tentative. At times she appears to be in a trance, curiously unaffected by what’s taking place. Both Lindahl and Sumerak lack the fire or chemistry to be convincing as a pair of torrid lovers who commit a horrible crime of passion.
Marc Pera is strong as the most fascinating character, the invalid, cuckolded husband of Therese. He’s named Camille, like the female Garbo character who also spent a lot of time coughing from consumption. As a ghost Pera shines, returning with a vindictive song, “Oh, Ain’t That Sweet.”
Anita Hoffman is fun as livewire Madame Raquin, the spunky proprietor of a haberdashery in Zola’s original novel. Here she’s a “big mama” who runs a jazz joint on Bourbon Street. When she isn’t smothering her sickly son she’s busy belting red-hot numbers like a Creole Sophie Tucker.
Henry Odum makes the most of a bit role as a Cajun police officer.
Bob Knuth’s fine, atmospheric French Quarter set accommodates a variety of action. The musicians can be seen performing in an open window in a gallery above the Bourbon Street level. Sections below open up so various prop pieces can slide in and out when needed. There’s even a lamppost.
Apparently when the show died on Broadway there was no attempt to market either the book or the music, some of which was nightly improvised, especially for the ballet interludes. Musical director Jon Steinhagen has created assorted new arrangements to amplify this Circle production.
Other than during the Mardi Gras episode, the hit and miss costuming fails to provide a clear sense of time or place.
Beth Scheible is the stage manager.
While the artist of the vibrant paintings currently on display in Circle’s gallery lobby was not identified on opening night, I recognized the unmistakable style of local artist Jonathan Franklin. Many of his harlequin-looking characters appear as if they just stepped off a Mardi Gras float.