Bernarda Alba: If Mama Was Married

The house of Bernarda Alba is a stifling hot, sorrowful place of tyranny. But Bernarda Alba, the new Michael John LaChiusa musical based on the play by Federico Garcia Lorca, glows with white-hot emotions filled with passionate longings and cries for freedom. With a majestic, flamenco-inspired score, dynamic dance-infused direction by Graciela Daniele and a powerful, anguished performance by Phylicia Rashad in the title role, Bernarda Alba is a captivating ninety minutes of intense and inspired musical drama.

Playwright Federico Garcia Lorca, prominent as part of the Spanish avant-garde movement of the early 20th Century, was executed in 1936 by Franco's Nationalists. The House of Bernarda Alba, finished only months before his death, can be taken as an allegory against fascism.

Played by an entirely female cast, it is the story of a newly widowed mother of five daughters who insists on the traditional 8-year grieving period for her late second husband. "Not a breath of outside air is going to enter this house," she warns them. "It's going to feel like we've bricked up the doors and windows." She has already seen to it that her insane mother (Yolanda Bavan) has limited contact with the outside.

The young women, all of marrying age, are bursting with romantic and sexual desires they must repress under mother's iron rule. In this world, the loss of a woman's virginity before marriage is a disgrace to the family, the community and to the church. ("All women who lust in sin must die", goes a lyric.) But there's been a handsome young man courting eldest daughter, Angustias, the only offspring of her first husband and the only one with a substantial dowry. He's also caught the eye of youngest Adela (Nikki M James as "the pretty one") and Martirio (Daphne Rubin-Vega, far too attractive to be playing "the ugly one"). The jealousy and competition that permeates through the household burns more harshly than the unbearable Spanish summer sun.

LaChuisa's fiercely rhythmic score, played by a 9-piece orchestra with Michael Starobin's always interesting, string-heavy orchestrations, is dramatically stirring. His book and lyrics are filled with simple, direct poetry. There are no applause buttons in the piece, a smart choice that emphasizes the suppression of emotions in the household. Daniele's staging and choreography includes thrilling moments of flamenco dance and one smolderingly sexual ballet solo for James. In one scene, dancers are used to imitate the pounding hoofs of two horses who can be heard furiously mating outside the house, taunting the virginal inhabitants. The score includes human percussion sections involving intricate rhythms of foot stomps, handclaps and fan movements, which Daniele's company attacks with tremendous flair.

Phylicia Rashad is a mountain of dignity and fury in the title role. LaChiusa does not write demanding vocals for her character and focuses on her deep, forceful tones. "You made me your whore!" she growls at the memory of her dead husband. What she does in the final moments is a breathtaking piece of musical acting. Daphne Rubin-Vega is wonderously touching as the daughter who convinces herself that God blessed her with ugliness and bad health so she'd be safe from lecherous men. The rest of the company, especially Saundra Santiago, Judith Blazer and Sally Murphy as the other three sisters and Candy Buckley as a servant who foresees the crumbling of Bernarda Alba's house.

Toni-Leslie James' costumes, nearly all black, help create extraordinary visuals for Daniele's dances. Christopher Barreca's set is appropriately sparse; a hard wooden floor populated with black chairs and dominated by an imposing door. Stephen Strawbridge does exceptional work with his lighting design.

Though Bernarda Alba is certainly not a happy show, it is not a somber one either. The spirited embers of rebellion keep a warm, steady heat even throughout the saddest moments. The combination of LaChiusa and Daniele was never so perfect. Bernarda Alba is glorious from start to finish.

Photos by Paul Kolnik: Top: Phylicia Rashad
Center: Judith Blazer, Saundra Santiago, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Sally Murphy and Nikki M James
Bottom: Nikki M James

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