BWW Reviews: Bernstein's MASS at Penn State a Monumental Undertaking and a Giant Performance
Fifty years ago, the Pennsylvania State University opened its College of Arts and Architecture, which includes its various performing arts departments and its noted musical theatre program. A little over forty years ago - has it been that long? - Leonard Bernstein's MASS, commissioned by Jacqueline Kennedy, was first performed at the opening of the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC. It seems somehow fitting that the one, MASS, should be performed as part of the other, the College of Arts and Architecture's, golden anniversary, as it was on April 5 and 6, 2013 at the University's Eisenhower Theatre, directed by the University's Ted Christopher and conducted by Gerardo Edelstein. It is also comprehensive in including most of the disciplines of the College of Arts and Architecture in its production. (As well as, it seemed, most of the College, having over 300 participants on stage.)
It is delightful to realize that in forty years, MASS actually has not lost its power to shock an audience, even one whose members, unlike its opening night audience, know what to expect in a full staging. To begin with, what is MASS? Is it a drama, is it musical theatre, is it oratorio? It's frequently performed as oratorio when a full staging is difficult or impossible, but is not designed as one; perhaps Bernstein summed it up appropriately in its full title, MASS: A THEATRE PIECE FOR SINGERS, PLAYERS, AND DANCERS.
Singers there were in abundance in this production, which called for town and gown talents alike, with no fewer than four choirs involved (Concert Choir, Town and Gown, Essence of Joy, and the Children's Choir), and the entire Philharmonic Orchestra, along with the performers who made up the cast. The singers continued into the cast, particularly notably in the cases of the Celebrant, played by Jim Hogan, and the Child Acolyte, sung by Kevin Dolan. Hogan, about to debut in Philadelphia's Arden Theatre's A LITTLE NIGHT MUSIC, for which he seems perfectly cast, was an impressive Celebrant, transforming from the free-spirited singer of "A Simple Song" to priest to anger-filled demi-prophet before the eyes of cast and audience. Dolan is a talented young actor and singer who possesses the particular virtue, for actors his age, of being notable without upstaging other performers or drawing attention away from them.