Review Roundup: INTIMATE APPAREL Opera at Lincoln Center Theater

Intimate Apparel is currently running at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.

By: Feb. 01, 2022
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Intimate Apparel

Lincoln Center Theater's Intimate Apparel, a new opera with music by Ricky Ian Gordon and libretto by Lynn Nottage, based off of her play of the same name, and direction by Bartlett Sher just opened at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.

Set in turn of the century New York, Intimate Apparel tells the story of Esther, a lonely, single African-American woman who makes her living sewing beautiful corsets and ladies' undergarments. Seeking love and romance, Esther embarks on a letter writing relationship with a mysterious suitor laboring on the Panama Canal, and comes to realize that only her self-reliance and certainty of her own worth will see her through life's challenges. The role of Esther will be performed by Kearstin Piper Brown at Tuesday through Saturday evening performances and Sunday matinees, and will be performed by Chabrelle Williams at Wednesday and Saturday matinee performances.

Let's see what the critics had to say...

Jesse Green, New York Times: That the play was excellent to begin with was no guarantee of a viable libretto. But looking back on its 2004 Roundabout Theater Company premiere, starring Viola Davis as Esther, you can see that "Intimate Apparel" already had the necessary ingredients for a powerful opera: spine, scope and poetry. The spine remains neatly articulated. The first scene quickly establishes that Esther (Kearstin Piper Brown) has the discipline and drive to make a career of her handiwork; with the savings she sews into the lining of her crazy quilt she plans one day to open a beauty salon. The scene also establishes her pride, as she rejects the last-chance men who come to the parties given by her landlady, Mrs. Dickson.

Helen Shaw, Vulture: Did Intimate Apparel actually need to become an opera? Most of my pleasures in the show came from elements that are purely Nottage's: Without Gordon's music, it was already an exquisitely woven play, dense with threads about self-reliance, true seeing, and the necessity of touch. Some plays blossom when adapted (Sarah Ruhl's Eurydice, for example) but Intimate Apparel stays almost unaffected by this particular conversion. As a proof of concept for an operatic co-production model, though, it was an inspired choice. Who doesn't want to see this play again? In any form? And the concept works.

Frank Rizzo, Variety: Nottage has stripped down her play to a tight libretto. There's an elegant, poetic simplicity in its essential journey of the human heart as it navigates matters of race, gender, religion and class. Overlaying it all is Gordon's lush score, which remains true to its operatic scope - and is aided by super-titles which help when words are lost in the musical stratosphere. While far from a true compositional hybrid, the score still manages to reference ragtime and other styles for the various characters played by a rich-voiced ensemble, accompanied by Nathaniel LaNasa and Brent Funderburk on two pianos and conducted by Steven Osgood.

Adam Feldman, Time Out NY: The pleasures of this production are real. The singing is often gorgeous, and the cast-which also includes Adrienne Danrich as the matron of Esther's boarding house-acts convincingly; Sher's elegant staging features lovely work by designers Michael Yeargan (set), Catherine Zuber (costumes) and Jennifer Tipton (lighting). And opera neophytes need not be scared away: The music is pleasant to the ear, and the lyrics are all projected as supertitles on the back wall. That makes intimate Apparel easy to follow. What's harder is getting swept away.

Robert Hofler, The Wrap: With "Intimate Apparel," Gordon has written a full-scale opera with recitative and no spoken dialogue, and it was a delight to see senior citizens at intermission turning in their hearing devices because they didn't need them. It helps that the lyrics are projected on the back wall of Michael Yeargan's simple unit set. Otherwise, the superb singing voices on display here are not amplified, and the only thing that might improve them is a little more space between us and them so that the arias can truly take flight. "Intimate Apparel" was commissioned as an opera by the New Works Program, a joint venture between Lincoln Center Theater and the Metropolitan Opera, and this new opera is big and bold enough to deserve a place on that big stage.

David Finkle, New York Stage Review: Impressively in its favor, this Intimate Apparel is beautifully sung throughout by each of its focal players: Brown, Austin and Gets foremost, but also Adrienne Danrich as Esther's landlady Mrs. Dickson, Jasmine Muhammad as Esther's frenemy Corrina Mae, and Naomi Louisa O'Connell as society matron Mrs. Van Buran, who takes a very forward liking to Esther. Bravos and bravas to them all. (Incidentally, Gets tries on a Yiddish-inflected accent but inconsistently.)

Juan A. Ramirez, Theatrely: In many ways, the piece will be more successful on private listening than onstage. I cannot understate how miraculous the cast's performances are, how gracefully they flow along Nathanial LaNasa and Brent Funderburk's pianos, and I suspect, at home, a recording will play like an elevated two-hour "lo fi beats" loop. But onstage one needs, if not radical genre-switches, then nuanced variations-something, anything-to express the richness of the story, and of its characters' shifting emotions.

Juan Michael Porter II, New York Theatre Guide: What is most remarkable about the new production, which is presented at Lincoln Center Theater's Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, is that it continues to function as a play. There is no flattening of nuance or emotion, as can often happen when properties are given the operatic treatment. This is likely thanks in large part to Nottage a?? who has adapted her own text for the new libretto a?? as well as her partnership with composer Ricky Ian Gordon, director Bartlett Sher, costume designer Catherine Zuber, and choreographer Dianne McIntyre, in bringing the story to life.

Photo Credit: T. Charles Erickson


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