BWW Reviews: GERTRUDE STEIN SAINTS at the Fringe Turns Avant-Garde Opera into Glee (in a Good way)
Dressed all in white, singing like angels and dancing like the devil, the 13 performers of "Gertrude Stein's Saints" are young, energetic, talented, and, let's face it, hot enough to be cast in Glee. (One of them, Jordan Phillips, has already appeared as a guest star on the TV series.) What's most remarkable about this ensemble, all of them drama students at Carnegie Mellon University, is that, instead of covering songs by Journey or Rihanna, they have composed original music and turned two inaccessible avant-garde operas into a rousing entertainment.
Best-known for her friendships with Hemingway and Picasso, her Paris salon, and for having said of Oakland "There is no there there," Stein wrote dozens of books, the most popular of which was her memoir, "The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas." In 1926, the composer Virgil Thomson asked Stein to collaborate with him on an opera. Their collaboration, "Four Saints in Three Acts" ran on Broadway in 1934, its most notable innovation at the time the use of an all-black cast.
Director Michelle Sutherland, also a Carnegie Mellon student, staged an all-male production of Four Saints in Three Acts at the university in February, replacing Thomson's score with their own compositions. She followed this up with an all-female production of Saints and Singing, an earlier Stein work. "Gertrude Stein Saints" combines the two.
At the Ellen Stewart Theater of La Mama ETC, where the show is being performed only through Wednesday, the company hands out a little booklet that contains the entire libretto. This, however, is a nearly-useless courtesy, since the text feels besides the point. There is no plot, no discernible characters, and the lines are repetitive gibberish, words uttered for the sake of their sounds: e.g. "There is no parti parti-color in a house there is no parti parti parti-color in a house." In Theatre Plastique dramaturg Emma McFarland's analysis, Stein "draws parallels between the relationship saints have with God, and the relationship artists have with the work of art." That sounds fine, though Stein herself said: "If you enjoy it, you understand it."
It is hard not to find the joy in "Gertrude Stein's Saints," 75 minutes of songs and dance numbers, mostly a cappella though sometimes somebody plays guitar or keyboard, with music ranging from gospel and spirituals to country to boy band rock to rap.
There are individual moments that stand out - solos by Denee Benton and Carter Redwood, the Elvis shimmy by Jacob Vine, the striptease by Jimmy Nicholas down to his underwear, which is an American flag. Everybody gets their moment in the sun, but this is a true ensemble piece, from first striking tableaux to the finale, when the entire cast dons sunglasses while their bodies glow with a projection of an American flag.
Photographs by Jonathan Mandell