BWW Review: Chaffin's Barn's Earnest and Uneven New Musical ESTHER Premieres
There is much to be done if the show is to have a future outside The Barn
Nothing fills a critic's heart and soul with as much glee as the premiere of a brand-spanking-new musical, heretofore unseen by mortal men (and women). Thus, I'm happy to report that Esther, a new musical that premiered Thursday at Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre in an abbreviated four performance run, has some exceptional elements to be found in its two hours of performance time, although clearly there's much to be done if the show is to have a future outside The Barn.
Whether that's a concern of the writers - Dan Zimmerle is credited with the show's creation, with original music by Heidi Guthrie (Paul Shaffer, perhaps best known as the bandleader of the house band on CBS' Late Night With David Letterman, contributes "Haman the Wonder of the Land" to the score) - is unknown to me. According to director Martha Wilkinson (the company's artistic director), the script and score had languished for years in Zimmerle's desk drawer before he approached the creative team at The Barn about the possibility of a production.
Based upon the Old Testament book of Esther, the story centers on Queen Esther, the wise and beautiful wife of the King of Persia, who with her cousin Mordecai convinces King Ahasureus (also known as Xerxes I) to rescind an order to eradicate all the Jews in his empire, thus exposing the machinations of the evil and conniving Haman. Esther became queen after a contest of sorts, in which the King selected his queen from among a coterie of the kingdom's most beautiful virgins after he banished his first queen (Vashti) when she refused to be paraded around court like some prize-winning show poodle.
The story of Esther is a compelling one (although I have to admit that most of my knowledge is derived from the Christopher Guest film For Your Consideration, in which the wondrous Catherine O'Hara plays an actress in the show-within-a-show Home for Purim), filled with enough plot portents to entertain even the most discerning audience. But in order for it to prove thoroughly theatrical, it's important the playwright have a clear vision of what he's hoping to accomplish and, perhaps more importantly, what he hopes his audience will take away from the fictionalized interpretation of the tale.
In the case of Esther, the show quite simply tries to be all things to all people, muddying the play's message and resulting in a musical that doesn't seem to know what it is or who its heroine is. Earnest and sincere, perhaps to a fault, Esther seems at one moment to be settling into a comfortable, if not particularly inspiring, church pageant mode, while at the next hoping for a musical comedy vibe a la the latest Disney Theatricals' stage extravaganza. As a result, the new musical offers a well-meaning, pleasant enough diversion performed by an eager-to-please cast - and that pretty much sums things up.
All too often, the script slips into a kind of Sunday School earnestness with its leaden dialogue, theological pronouncements and redundant lyrics. Rather predictably, those moments are followed up by jarring scenes of lowbrow sketch comedy that, frankly, seems incongruent. Hence, my view that the show doesn't know what it wants to be - yet. Perhaps Zimmerle's play would prove more successful if he were to take the story of Esther and update it to the 20th century: Weimar Germany seems an ideal vehicle for the story, with a rich industrialist marrying a beautiful young Hebrew woman and joining together to defeat Hitler's jackbooted, brown-shirted band of thugs, who stand in for Haman and his bumbling henchmen. Think Kander and Ebb meet Mel Brooks (or more to the point The Producers and Grand Hotel have a baby) and throw in a beauty pageant as a subplot and you'll catch my drift.
The script's shortcomings notwithstanding, director Wilkinson and choreographer Everett Tarlton ensure audiences will be engaged for two hours. Thanks to their experience (is there a better team of musical theater collaborators to be found in these parts?) and to the efforts of their fresh-faced and eager ensemble of actors, the well-paced action moves at a good clip, despite the heavy-handedness of the script.
Guthrie's music manages to move the plot along nicely in a middle-of-the-road musical theater manner (the compositions that stand out some 48 hours after seeing the show are the numbers with a vaguely klezmer-inspired feel), and Kelsi Fulton, Dan Kozlowski and Steve Haan perform it in such a way that somehow elevates it.
Cast as the regal beauty Queen Esther, Kira Arrington has an ethereal quality about her that is well-suited, radiating confident stage appeal in the process. Likewise, Matthew Roberts (as Ahasureus or "Asparagus" as he is referred to in one particularly amusing lyric) is genuinely likable, even if he's called upon to remind us, time and again, that he is not only a king, but also a man.
Along with Arrington and Roberts, Howard Snyder and Micheal Walley make their respective Chaffin's Barn debuts as Mordecai and Hegai. Snyder's dialogue is repetitive (he's constantly telling his ward Esther how much he loves her and how proud her long-dead parents would be), but he makes the most of his time onstage, and Walley very nearly walks off with the show as the outrageously fabulous and fey eunuch (at least that is, we presume, what the writer is going for with the character) who lends a queer eye to Esther's preparations to win the King's proposal. Walley's broadly comic performance, however, proves to be a clear audience favorite.
Caleb Pless is convincingly manipulative as Haman, while Nick Spencer is good as Memucan/Bigthan. And Terrell Hunt makes an impressive Barn debut as Teresh. Ensemble members Kameryn Harris, Tiffany Thiele, McKenna Driver, Catilyn Porayko and Iordanis Ekimogloy play a variety of small roles to fill the intimate Barn stage in such a way to suggest a much-larger cast.
Austin Olive's lighting design illuminates the stage with color and drama, and we feel quite certain there's not a pashmina, scarf, shawl, throw or table runner left to be found in West Nashville, thanks to designer Miriam Creighton's clever and creative, imaginative and eye-popping costumes.
Esther, A New Musical. By Dan Zimmerle. Original music by Heidi Guthrie. Directed by Martha Wilkinson. Choreographed by Everett Tarlton. Presented by Chaffin's Barn Dinner Theatre, 8204 Highway 100, Nashville. For further information, call (615) 646-9977 or go to www.chaffinsbarntheatre.com. Running time: 2 hours (with one 15-minute intermission).