BWW Reviews: Grand and Glorious CHAMBERLAIN Stirs the Heart
Maine State Music Theatre's second production of the season, a revival of the Knapp-Alper 1996 musical Chamberlain A Civil War Romance, proves to be a grand and glorious theatrical experience, an endeavor of epic proportions that delivers spectacle, emotion, and inspiration in equal measure.
Spanning more than fifty years in the life of Brunswick's legendary Civil War hero, Maine governor, and Bowdoin college president, Joshua L. Chamberlain, and focusing on his relationship with his passionate, mercurial wife, Fannie Adams, the musical, in this brilliantly executed new production, directed and choreographed by Marc Robin, offers both epic sweep and touching intimacy. Large in musical and dramatic scale, lavish in production values, and cast with a first rate ensemble of singing-actors, Chamberlain dazzles the ear and eye and warms the heart.
Originally commissioned by MSMT's then-artistic director, Charles Abbott, Chamberlain - like other shows such as LES MISERABLES, Camelot, or Man of LaMancha - must create a coherent narrative from sprawling historical events and larger-than-life characters. Lyricist/ book writer, Sarah Knapp succeeds admirably at this tricky task, weaving a tale of parallel, frequently conflicting loves - that of Chamberlain for duty and destiny pitted against his devotion to his wife Fannie. She gracefully intersperses private moments with panoramic events, always approaching the latter (except in the rousing Act I finale at the Battle of Little Round Top) from the private perspective of her protagonists. Relying on the letters of Joshua and Fannie, Chamberlain's own rousing rhetoric, and the words of poets like Shakespeare and the Brownings, Knapp fashions unabashedly romantic and inspiring lyrics that easily translate into song. In this version, revised for the current revival, she keeps the dramatic arc taut and filled with palpable tension, while humanizing her characters with tender wit and vulnerability.
Steven M. Alper's music rises to the dramatic challenge, finding a language that blends the 19th century vernacular of religious and patriotic hymns and parlor tunes with the show-stopping expansiveness of the legitimate Broadway style. His musical idiom is an organic outgrowth not only of the material and the period, but also of the individual characters' psyches and milieus, and he balances big solos with complex ensemble pieces. Speech seamlessly segues into song, and dialogue is often stirringly underscored. The orchestrations by Larry Hochman, Douglas Besterman, and Bruce Coughlin combine subtlety and sweep, and add luxuriant texture to the overall canvas. The six pit musicians under the direction of Ray Fellman play passionately and sensitively, creating the impression of a much larger orchestra.
Marc Robin directs with a cinematic flair, moving the action seamlessly from scene to scene, keeping a tight reign on pace, and creating panoramic, painterly tableaux that resonate with historic grandeur, all the while, not losing sight of the human dimensions of the drama. His choreography is fluid and his musical staging has a naturalistic ease. His handling of Act I, scene 5 Little Round Top battle is brilliantly conceived and executed. At the same time he is able to elicit highly nuanced performances, not only from the principals, but also from the ensemble, each of whom assumes a number of character identities throughout the evening. But most of all, Robin imparts to this production a strong visionary bent: Chamberlain is about ideals that are worth living and dying for, just as it is about flawed human beings, who rise to occasions thrust upon them by life and history.
MSMT's cast, a combination of veteran actors and young performers, outdoes itself in fulfilling Robin's concept. In the title role James Patterson gives a towering performance, capturing the dignity and self-doubt of the hero, the determination and vulnerability, the agonizing conflict between destiny and self, and he convincingly conveys Chamberlain's advancing age and physical ailments. His chocolaty velvet baritone soars and caresses, summoning the heroic power needed for "I Still believe in Destiny." Kathy Voytko captures the prismic personality of Fannie Chamberlain, by turns, capricious, captivating, cranky, passionate, needy, fearful, and ultimately forgiving. Her luminous soprano handles the musical challenges of the part with flexibility and bravura, shining in her big moments such as the vulnerable "Alone in the Dark" and the angry "So Sorry for Me."
Sam Weber and Ben Mayne play Chamberlain's brothers Tom and John with incisive contrast. Weber embodies the youthful energy and optimism of the young Union solider in Act I and the jaded despair of a disappointed and drifting alcoholic in Act II, while Mayne manages to convey the consumptive clergyman John's sweet, gentle idealism without ever descending into the saccharine. David Girolomo is an imposing Reverend Adams, Heidi Kettenring a strong-voiced, sharp-tongued Mildred, while Mike Schwitter enjoys a show stopping turn as the southern soldier Jebediah Logan, who delivers "Heaven Must Have Plans" with a moving innocence. The remainder of the extremely talented cast is called upon to create a series of cameos as soldiers and townsfolk, often grouped musically into smaller units, as well as large ensembles.
The company has spared no efforts in creating a lavish production to match the heroic scope of the drama. Robert Klingelhoefer's masterful scenic design is structurally spare - a series of sliding panels which evoke First Parish Church or a series of interior-exterior combinations, coupled with atmospherically painted drops of woods and the Bowdoin Chapel; these, taken together with the meticulously executed period props by Kyle Melton, at once evoke a sense of place and a timeless fluidity. In Jeffrey S. Koger's lighting design with its subtly changing time and mood shifts, the overall picture is one of dreamy Romanticism. Kurt Alger's costumes, always a visual treat, are exceptionally lavish and elegant, especially Fannie's wardrobe, which reflects her penchant for striking, fashionable attire. Colin Whitely's sound design - (with the exception of a few instances where underscored dialogue struggles against the orchestration) - handles the technical demands of the large ensemble scenes as well as the intimate moments with assured balance.
Performed, as it is in this revival, in Chamberlain's own state and hometown, naturally enhances the emotional impact of the performance. But Chamberlain A Civil War Romance speaks to themes more universal than Maine- centric ones. MSMT's new production makes an eloquent case for bringing this contemporary musical to a wider audience. Quite simply, this show offers the kind of inspiration that is sometimes rare in modern musicals. It demands of its audience and its interpreters a commitment and passion worthy of its hero.
MSMT rises boldly to the challenge. The company, which has a fifty-six-year history of professional excellence, continues to raise the bar. This magnificent Chamberlain represents a new high in artistic vision and accomplishment.
Photos courtesy of Maine State Music Theatre, Photo 1:Mike Hadley, photographer; Photos 2, 3: Judy Beedle
Chamberlain runs until July 12 at the Pickard Theater on the Bowdoin College campus, Brunswick, ME. Maine State Music Theatre, 22 Elm St., Brunswick, ME 04011, Curt Dale Clark, Artistic Director, 207-725-87 or www.msmt.org