BWW Review: BRIGADOON at CLO Is a Highland Fling

BWW Review: BRIGADOON at CLO Is a Highland Fling

As a work of 1940s musical theatre, Lerner and Loewe's Brigadoon was, in 1947, one of the last of its kind, a final completely sincere example of the "1940s musical" that Rodgers and Hammerstein had deconstructed in 1945 with Carousel. There's a city-versus-country sentimentality, a fetishization of rustic community life of the past, lots of hearty, folksy music delivered in traditional legit voices, a serious romantic couple contrasted with a comic romantic couple, lots of ballet and interpretive dance, and a message about love conquering all, even reality. While Carousel famously turned many of these conventions on their head in Act 2, revealing the truth at the heart of this nostalgic image of a shared past, Brigadoon plays it straight: it is, after all, about a town that wished itself out of the terrors of the future into an eternal past. Having seen Brigadoon twice as a high school show and loathed it, I was pleasantly surprised to find that I didn't hate Brigadoon at all when I saw it professionally- it just isn't the sort of show that belongs in the hands of high schoolers by and large. As directed for Pittsburgh CLO by Dontee Kiehn, and choreographed by Mark Esposito, Brigadoon moves with a quick, almost mythic momentum.

The story is simple enough: two American gentlemen travelers, brooding Tommy (Jeff Kready) and funny alcoholic Jeff (Jason Babinsky) are hunting in the Scottish highlands when they stumble out of the present day (technically the 1940s, I suppose, though they are costumed in a relatively contemporary fashion) into the titular Scottish village, which remains preserved in the 1700s. Thanks to a well-timed miracle, the village of Brigadoon only appears for one day every hundred years, leaving the inhabitants frozen in time and prevented from ever leaving, lest destruction fall on the entire village. Naturally, Tommy falls in love with fiercely principled Brigadoonian lass Fiona (Eryn LeCroy) and Jeff catches the eye of lovable strumpet Meg (Natalie Charle Ellis). Will someone be staying behind in Brigadoon, or leaving it? Here's a hint: this is a traditional-style musical from 1947, so you have at least some idea what to expect.

Our four lovebirds are played affably enough, with good heart and great voices (although Babinsky never gets to sing as Jeff, this being a musical from when there where there were actors, singers, dancers and then a FEW who did more than one). Fresh from the Barrow Street immersive Sweeney Todd, LeCroy's Fiona is a fantastic performance as an irony-free ingénue, pure of heart and righteous of conviction, with the kind of icy, legit soprano that cuts through the lush orchestrations like a mountain stream. Jeff Kready, as Tommy, has a wonderfully old-school baritenor sound; he blends beautifully with LeCroy in the duets, and acquits himself nicely on his solo ballads. (Sadly, one of my few remaining quibbles about Brigadoon is its central love ballad, "Almost Like Being in Love." Well-known as an upbeat jazz standard, almost always played with a swing, it debuted in this play as a straight-laced operetta two-step despite having the jazziest chord progression in the piece. The stately original may be the basis for the jazzy popular version, but to modern ears it now sounds neutered, like Pat Boone singing Little Richard.) Kready also deftly navigates the difficult final scenes, which take a peculiar stance somewhere between sentimental romantic melodrama and farce; the bar scene in particular feels at times like a comic touch out of Mel Brooks has been inserted into the dramatic climax. If Kready had played too serious, or too comic, in these scenes, the final moments of the play would never have stuck the landing- thankfully, he finds precisely the right tone and sticks to it.

Jason Babinsky and Natalie Charle Ellis are both playing characters you couldn't really get away with writing as stock comic types today. Babinksy's Jeff is not just a comic sidekick, but a comic sidekick whose sole personality trait is that he's a drunk. (Well, he was a drunk in the 1940s- today, he reads almost disturbingly as a barely functional alcoholic.) As studies on alcoholism and its social and genetic components have become more widely accepted, the "lovable lush" character type has fallen out of fashion; even Homer Simpson has sobered up a bit from his chronic alcoholism in the early years of The Simpsons, and perpetual inebriate Barney Gumble has moved from a lead to a sideline character. Similarly, Ellis makes a charming, vivacious rogue out of Meg, whose only real personality trait is that she's horny. In a way, it's rather progressive for a 1940s musical to create a lovable, promiscuous sex-positive female character... but Meg's big solo song, in which she sings about how her loving father basically encouraged her to pursue free love, just makes the village's mores seem rather eccentric. You can tell how much fun Ellis is having sinking her teeth into this rewarding comic role... hey, remember when an alto could play a lead role in a musical that isn't "the matron of a certain age?" If more diverse vocal types were still being written for, Ellis would be at the top of her class and a household name.

The show's real standout performance comes from Pittsburgh golden boy Dan DeLuca, late of Newsies and The Full Monty, as young bridegroom Charlie- basically imagine Gaston minus the irony and gradual villainous reveal. It takes a confident actor with rock-star levels of charisma to portray a randy, virile alpha male while doing some copious dancing and prancing (and let's be honest, Scottish highland dancing contains a certain amount of prancing). His voice is less period-specific than those of Jeff Kready or Eryn LeCroy, but he brings a yearning tenderness to his love ballad, and an infectious sense of fun and mischief to his bachelor party song and dance.

And speaking of dance... I would be remiss not to mention three standout performers who sing little or nothing, but integrate themselves deepest of all into the dance-drama hybrid at the heart of the 1940s balletic musical genre. Deanna Doyle, as Fiona's sister and Charlie's betrothed Jean, features in a number of ballet sequences, dancing the thoughts she does not dare sing. She is pursued with varying levels of intensity by the misanthropic Harry Beaton, played in a masterful fusion of prose and dance by Garen Scribner. Completing the love triangle, Erica Wong's Maggie May or may not be a mute (I can't recall the character ever saying or singing anything at all), but she expresses herself the most eloquently of all; her solo dance accompanied solely by drums and bagpipe in Act 2 is hold-your-breath chilling. Last, but certainly not least, Lenny Wolpe's cameo as village patriarch Mr. Lundie is charming, an old, friendly Scot of a slightly mystic bent. (It's almost certain that J. K. Rowling took a bit of this character and put it into Dumbledore.)

There are no perfect shows, and Brigadoon is full of filler and relatively little plot-advancing material; luckily, the filler is better than the plot-advancing parts, allowing us simply to immerse ourselves in the Highland Renaissance Faire atmosphere. A bad production may be dire, but a production as good as this one is almost like being in love.

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From This Author Greg Kerestan

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