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FRINGE REVIEW: ELLEN CRAFT

It's a fascinating story, and one just ripe with musical possibilities: Ellen Craft, a young slave in the 1850's, disguised herself not just as white, but as a white man in order to escape bondage. Sherry Boone, one of the most brilliant and underused performers on Broadway, has made this harrowing tale into a new opera that premiered at the Fringe Festival.

Conceived after Sherry Boone and star Linda Dorsey lamented the difficulty of finding work in theatre as light-skinned African-American actresses, Ellen Craft is, in its way, part of a solution to multiple problems on Broadway: a dearth of musicals about the African-American experience, a dearth of musicals in which women are the primary focus, and, underlying it all, a dearth of musicals written by women. (Another new Fringe musical, Africa and Plumbridge, tries to overcome these shortages similarly.) Unfortunately, while the true story of Ellen Craft is a veritable gold mine for a stage show, lyricist/librettist/director Boone and librettist/composer Sean Jeremy Palmer only scratch the surface of the complex emotions involved in this dramatic story.

The spirit-crushing, identity-dissolving nature of slavery is wonderfully set to music in the beautiful, bittersweet anthem "No Shame In Bein' A Slave," which is repeated throughout the opera. And therein lies the musical's biggest problem: the same emotions are sung over and over again by various characters, with little variation on the angles. Act One, showing the events leading up to the Crafts' exodus from Georgia, tries to set the scene and depict the horrors of slavery, but walks the line between gradual and stagnant. Act Two, depicting the flight north, is similarly needlessly slow. In a journey laid with traps and fraught with constant peril, there somehow manages to be barely any tension at all. A redneck slave-catcher on a train boasts to the disguised Ellen that he can recognize any escaped slave, and is, in fact, keeping an eye out for the missing Crafts. This should be a terribly frightening moment. It isn't. While we spent most of Act One getting a feel for the terrible lives of slaves on the plantations, Act Two does not give us much more than a glimpse of the terror slaves on the run must have felt. What could have made for terrifying and intense theatre feels restrained, as though Boone and Palmer did not want to scare their audience too much.

Palmer's music is remarkable and original, using different kinds of music for different characters in the many social strata of the antebellum south. Classical operatic music gives way to folk tunes with African drums underneath, proud anthems move into rececitive, and it all flows together to create a seamless whole. Boone's lyrics are a little simple, but work well with the music. And if her libretto is not as strong as it could be, Boone's direction more than compensates. Her skill is especially apparent in an Act Two flashback that chillingly and gracefully depicts the gruesome murder of a slave. It is truly hard to graphically depict violence onstage without going overboard (see also You'll Have Had Your Hole), but trusting the intelligence and imagination of her audience, Boone creates an image more powerful than a literal depiction could ever do. While much of the rest of the opera lacks the tension the story needs, Boone creates great chemistry between her actors, making the smallest of glances between them significant.

The cast is, by and large, very strong. Linda Dorsey, as Ellen, sings beautifully and with great power, making Ellen a vivid and real woman. Rising star Donna Lynne Champlin proves that her gifts for musical comedy work just as well in dramatic opera, too, and switches from charming to chilling with unnerving speed. Terence Archie, as Ellen's husband William, is blessed with a rich, beautiful voice that expertly captures the quiet strength of a true survivor. Hugh Fletcher, Christine Clemmons, and Samantha Jeffrey, as two ill-fated slaves and young Ellen, respectively, are very powerful in their scenes, and make their moments memorable.

Ellen Craft

is certainly a worthy project, and the lady herself must be delighted that such talented creators as Boone and Palmer have joined forces to tell her story. With some revisions and tightening, they will have an excellent new opera that can proudly take its place at the Met or NYCO.

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From This Author Jena Tesse Fox

Jena Tesse Fox is a lifelong theatre addict who has worked as an actress, a singer, a playwright, a director, a lyricist, a librettist, and (read more...)