Coram Boy: Handel, With Care
Melodrama, by definition, is predominantly plot-driven and not meant to be especially deep in character exploration and thematic details. You have to go into it with an accepting attitude and a willingness to feel certain emotions just because the author tells you to. So I'm rather aware how inappropriate it may seem for me to say that my general dissatisfaction with Coram Boy, the Melly Still-directed National Theatre of Great Britain production of Helen Edmundson's adaptation of Jamila Gavin's novel, is due to the text's dramatic thinness. It's a bit like saying there was too much dancing at the ballet. So feel free to disregard my lack of enthusiasm for the evening as a whole (as I'm sure many of you do all the time anyway) and take note of the many positive things I have to say about Still's frequently gorgeous production full of ravishing stagecraft that uses more simple creativity than technical know-how to thrill and entertain. Perhaps the production's major flaw is that Edmundson fails to tell the story with the same kind of sophisticated artistry as Still, and I can hear all you admirers of melodrama screaming, "That's the point!"
The piece gets its name from England's first foundling hospital, established by Thomas Coram in the mid-1700's. Impoverished and unmarried mothers, desperate to leave their infants in a place where they would be fed, educated and sent off to learn a trade, would often be tricked by villainous "Coram men" who would accept money for their supposed efforts to bring their babies to the orphanage, only to have the children meet with gruesome ends.
The complicated and epic plot of Coram Boy is beautifully set to the music of Frederic Handel, who was a major benefactor to the hospital and appears as a character. Aside from the 20 actors, there is a 7-piece chamber orchestra and an onstage choir of 20 who sing Handel excerpts (adapted by Adrian Sutton who also contributes Handel-inspired compositions) as an emotion-swelling foundation to the story. Women very effectively play the young male roles and a boys choir made up entirely of women sounds remarkably like young lads under music director Constantine Kitsopoulos.
The plot concerns Coram man Otis (Bill Camp), who has his slow-witted son Meshak (Brad Fleischer) bury his purchased infants, sometimes alive. His lady love, housekeeper Mrs. Lynch (Jan Maxwell), sends them the newborn son of Melissa (Ivy Vahanian), a young woman whose baby's father, Alexander (Xanthe Elbrick as a boy, Wayne Wilcox after puberty), unaware of her pregnancy, has run away from his wealthy family because of his father's disapproval of his musical aspirations. When Otis' practice is discovered, Meshak runs off with the boy, named Aaron, to Coram. With Meshak given employment by the hospital and the growing Aaron (Elbrick again) befriending fellow foundling Toby (Uzo Aduba), a descendent of African royalty, the second act follows the dangerous and scandalous adventures that await when the boys grow old enough to become apprentices.
Director Still co-designed the set and costumes with Ti Green and along with lighting designer Paule Constable (whose work is recreated by Ed McCarthy) they paint sumptuous visuals using nothing more complicated than a turntable floor. An angelic entrance and a shipboard battle that leads to an underwater view of a daring escape provide warmth and excitement, but in Still's hands even a simple switch of actors from the younger Alexander to the older is just so right.
The Ensemble Company does well with their primarily one-note characters, particularly Fleischer, who doesn't overdo the pathos with his sympathetic Meshak, but this production, from start to finish, is a director's showcase. With Broadway audiences getting a first glimpse of her talent, Melly Still is a real find.
Center: Ivy Vahanian and Company