BWW Review: Epic and Extraordinary: Robin and Clark's TREASURE ISLAND Sets High Water Mark in Musical Theatre Excellence
There is magic afoot at MSMT's Pickard Theater - and miracles! Not supernatural ones, but rather those that happen when a fresh new work of musical theatre dazzles the public with its excitement and beauty. And that is exactly what Marc Robin and Curt Dale Clark's TREASURE ISLAND A MUSICAL ADVENTURE does as its charts an epic and extraordinary course that gives MSMT audiences a production that is grand, genuinely thrilling, and emotionally satisfying in a timeless way. Robert Louis Stevenson's novel has been adapted for stage and screen numerous times, but none has been as compelling, as simultaneously classic and contemporary as this new musical version, which had its world premiere at the Fulton Theatre in 2018. This East Coast premiere of TREASURE ISLAND offers audiences an opulent production, a brilliant team of creatives, cast, and crew, who pour all their energies into crafting an adventure for the ages. Known for bringing "Broadway to Brunswick," with TREASURE ISLAND MSMT has produced a show that is worthy to inhabit any Broadway stage and to find a lasting place in the American musical repertoire.
Marc Robin and Curt Dale Clark's adaptation of Stevenson's novel takes an unabashedly traditional approach to the period retaining an historically accurate feeling about 18th c. seafaring life. At the same time, it poeticizes the themes of the story and layers onto the narrative a psychological depth that transforms pure adventure into a poignant coming of age drama. There is swashbuckling adventure, to be sure, as well as darker currents balanced by humor, but ultimately the tale they have wrought is a complex and stirring one, uplifted by a lush score written in the legitimate Broadway style, replete with recurring and intertwining motifs, underscoring of action and dialogue, and an expansive Overture and Entr'acte. The songs offer variety from upbeat musical theatre numbers to patter songs to moving anthems and ballads, all fitted with sophisticated lyrics. The overall effect is one of sweeping, majestic grandeur.
TREASURE ISLAND has had a two-decade-long journey to its present incarnation, and even since its world premiere at the Fulton last September a few final cuts and added touches have been made - among them the incision of about ten minutes dockside in Act One. The resulting effort moves with perfect, polished precision, fitting neatly into the parameters of the more intimate Pickard Theater, while losing none of the vibrant impact.
The production also has - for the first time in its development - a director other than its creators. Seeking to mine their work for new insights and different perspectives, Robin and Clark have entrusted it into the capable hands of Mark Martino. Martino remains true to the essence of story and the characters, while taking the opportunity to add detail and deepen interactions. A cinematic style is built into the piece, and Martino moves the action with swift seamlessness that adds to the sense of high stakes adventure. There are a few different takes on songs, most notably Long John Silver's "Joys of Cooking" which now plays rather like an act of showmanship to impress Jim, allowing Long John to feign geniality. The overall staging is meticulous in both its kinetic thrust and composed pictures, and Martino makes skillful use of the space, filling it to the brim without ever letting it seem overcrowded by the twenty-six cast members and imposing scenery.
The fight choreography, such an integral part of the show's spectacle, remains the work of Joseph Travers, whose fight sequence with authentic period weapons that closes Act One is one of the most thrilling, hair-raising, athletic moments of live theatre one will ever experience. Since the Pickard Theater does not allow for the height and the multiple levels of the Fulton, Travers has redesigned the sequences imaginatively, using the full breadth of the horizontal stage planes and managing some aerial feats thanks to the athleticism of the cast.
Music Director Ray Fellman (with assistance from Ben McNaboe) leads the nine-person pit orchestra, eliciting from them a lush, vivid sound that does full justice to David Siegel's stunning original orchestrations, (skillfully reduced by McNaboe). The presence of a number of purely instrumental moments like the Overture, Entr'acte, and Storm Scene allow these musicians to shine. There is a sheer visceral delight in having these twenty-six men, all possessed of powerful, emotive voices join in complex harmonies and frequently create a palpably thrilling wall of sound.
The production values are sumptuous and creatively imagined - befitting the scale of the story. Robert Andrew Kovach's set evokes the various locales of the play: the rainy cemetery, the Admiral Benbow Inn, the Bristol dock, and the ship Hispaniola (deck galley and Captain's cabin), as well as the colorful tropical paradise of the island and its stockade. Working with a combination of drops, moving set pieces and projections, he creates a romanticized vision of place and period, often reminding of Turner in the painterly hues, misty haze, and atmospheric shadow. The projections go a long way in blending the three-and-two-dimensional scenery into a single visual element, adding depth, and layered components. The Overture has the feel of an old moving picture as the sequence of images - treasure maps, islands, ship, waves, and flags moves closer and closer seemingly leaping off the screen and into the darkened house, and the Entr'acte uses a shorter version of the same concept to give us the a glimpse of the island (which bears an uncanny resemblance to Stevenson Samoa).
Paul Black's lighting design enriches this landscape with shifting hues of cobalts, oranges, and pinks, summoning the effects of fog, starlight, and sparkling rain, as well as the shimmering light of the island foliage. This is a difficult show to light because of its rapidly shifting kinetic moments, but Black solves these, as well as the poetically still ones and always creates a sense of magic and mystery.
Ryan Moller builds a set of costumes and wigs that speak volumes about the characters and their respective classes and contexts. All created from lavish fabric and enriched with meticulous detail, the British upper class and ship's officers cut dashing figures in their handsome long coats, tri-corner hats and uniforms, while the pirates sport a wide array of exotic, outlandish, and remarkably sexy attire. Perhaps the most colorful costumes come for the foppish Squire Trelawney, where with each elaborate hat and outfit, Moller accentuates the humorous vanity of the character.
Patrick LaChance handles the excellent sound design, effectively balancing a densely orchestrated score and underscored dialogue with sensitivity to the singing-actors. Stage Manager Mark Johnson (Amy Bertacini, assistant) and their team ably keep the action flowing cinematically.
This production of TREASURE ISLAND avails itself of a twenty-six person, all-male ensemble of great diversity, each actor possessed of a rich voice and strong dramatic presence, and an overall excellent grasp of the dialects. At the heart of the narrative, of course, are Jim Hawkins and Long John Silver, but this is a production where each and every character in the script is drawn in highly individualized detail, and MSMT's cast brings each of these characters to vibrant life.
As Jim Hawkins, Michael William Nigro is a revelation! The twenty-year-old gives an incandescent performance that shines with white-hot passion, purity and gleaming vocal radiance. Among his show stopping solos and duets are "Look at Me," "Wonders of the World," the affecting "Miracles/Someday", and the eleventh hour, bring-down-the house anthem, "Calm Before the Storm." In this demanding role that requires stamina, athleticism, and interpretive maturity, Nigro makes Jim's journey to manhood grippingly genuine. From bright-eyed naïf, to eager adventurer, to a young man struggling to shape his own moral compass amid ambiguities and dangers, he invests Jim with a combination of reality and mythic dimension worthy of Stevenson's great boy hero.
In the juicy role of the manipulative, wiley Long John Silver, Aaron Ramey portrays the pirate as a larger-than-life, virtuosic presence - commanding, controlling, gruff, arrogant, and rough around the edges, though with a core of compassion that is slowly and visibly awakened, making the last scene heart-rending. His seemingly forthright manner cleverly conceals his sly maneuverings, and his real intentions are only visible on a very few occasions such as when he cajoles Jim about secrets. Vocally, Ramey gives a compelling performance, using his resonant baritenor to strong effect, especially in his ballad, "Someday," and his final scene with Jim is truly moving in the way he opens up to his emotions.
As surrogate father figures for Hawkins, James Patterson as Dr. Livesey and Michael Iannucci as Squire Trelawney make an endearing odd couple - the first formal, even starchy and stern, the second a prissy peacock - yet both sincere protectors of young Jim and adults who enrich his world. Patterson uses his burnished lyric baritone to fine effect in Livesey's big vocal moments and conveys an aura of genuine compassion, while Iannucci plays the dandy with loveable humanity, never allowing him to become a caricature. David Girolmo is cast to perfection as the stalwart Captain Smollett, a man of uncompromising honor and duty, and he makes the most of some standout vocal moments such as the parley scene.
James Michael Reilly plays the two contrasting principal roles of the terrifying Blind Pew in Act One and the befuddled castaway Ben Gunn in Act Two. Managing the shift between fierce and evil to witty, wise, silly, and sweet, he skillfully etches these two bookend figures. Dominating Act Two with his lithe, ubiquitous, chameleon, monkey-like portrayal of Gunn, his is a remarkable acting turn.
Often using doubling within the ensemble, the cast members manage to create several memorable portraits in the course of the work. Todd Buonopane (also Burdette Wyeth) is the Squire's ironic and long-suffering valet Redruth; Jim Hogan contrasts the gentle-voice Priest of the funeral scene with the steely First Mate, Mr. Arrow. Tyler Johnson Cameron makes an affecting, Abraham Gray; JC McCann (also a pirate) is an imposing Rufus Davis; Matt Gibson portrays the brave Irishman, Mr. O'Brien (also a pirate and dance captain), with Joel Crowley as his compatriot, Mr. Joyce.
Among the pirates Danny Rothman portrays an embittered, drunken Billy Bones in Act One, followed by a portrayal of the murderous pirate Israel Hands (and later Victor Wolf) in Act Two. Jason Simon gives George Merry an appropriate simple-minded, bumbling presence; Brian Krinsky is a deep-voiced, bearish, blood-thirsty Tom Morgan, Gabriel Rosario is a menacing Sly Dog Gribble and also serves as fight captain; Jeffrey Rashid is a dangerous Akir; Cameron Mullin an tactical, treacherous Job Anderson; Jermaine Miles an ill-fated Tobias Bridge.
Rounding out the ensemble with vigorous, colorful presences are Troy D. Wallace as Mr. Hunter, Taylor Greatbatch as Meads Slyker, Anthony Zambito as Robert Balfour, Glen Davis as Linus Riddle, Michael Ivan Carrier as Alain Bonet and Anthony Brieux, Ray Huth as Tom Strong, and Karl Melberg as Gordon Tusley.
The production of a large-scale new work is a major undertaking for any company, and one, inevitably fraught with risk, but also one necessary to enhance a theatre's national reputation. This East Coast premiere of TREASURE ISLAND is a masterful indication of MSMT's capabilities and merits to stand on the national stage along with other prominent regional companies that produce original work.
In producing new work, a test of the mettle of the material often comes not only in the world premiere, but in subsequent productions which must demonstrate the lasting merits of the piece and its flexibility to be performed by different companies in different venues with different artistic direction. MSMT's second-ever production of TREASURE ISLAND A MUSICAL ADVENTURE confirms these virtues. Performed here in a re-imagined setting with a smaller cast and orchestra takes not a jot away from the grandeur of the work.
Robin & Curt Dale Clark's TREASURE ISLAND A MUSICAL ADVENTURE is a gift not only to MSMT (and the Fulton before) but also to the canon of American musical theatre. In a work which deals with The Miracles of human nature, this musical is, in its own way, a theatrical miracle - a work of genius and craft, compassion and wisdom, poetry and heart. One wishes fair winds, smooth seas, and a long and continuing journey for TREASURE ISLAND and its creators.
Photos courtesy of MSMT, photographer Jared Morneau
TREASURE ISLAND A MUSICAL ADVENTURE runs ar MSMT's Pickard Theater, 1 Bath Rd., Brunswick, ME from June 26-July 13,2019 www.msmt.org207-725-8769