BWW Review: I AM ANNE HUTCHINSON/I AM HARVEY MILK Premieres at Strathmore
Three years after Andrew Lippa's I AM HARVEY MILK made its world premiere, the ambitious and versatile composer (and, in this case, performer) brought his work to the glorious Music Center at Strathmore, just outside of Washington, DC. Only, it wasn't the one act I AM HARVEY MILK that has been performed almost 20 times since its premiere. Instead, it was a full-length event that paired what is mostly known with that which is unknown.
For the first part of the evening, the lucky audience learned the story of a little known 40-something year-old mother in 17th century New England, Anne Hutchinson. Like Harvey Milk - the first openly gay man to hold public office - she dared to question and act against what was expected for 'her kind.' Women in her day were not allowed to preach the Word of God, and well, contradicting accepted Puritanical thought on matters of doctrine wasn't exactly a good idea either. Yet, Anne preached to men and women alike, shared her faith publicly, and also questioned accepted ideas of the church. For that, she was deemed a criminal - a deviant in society who committed vaguely stated crimes - and must be held accountable for her actions by all powerful men like Governor John Winthrop (Andrew Lippa). With the premiere of I AM ANNE HUTCHINSON - featuring the exquisitely talented and versatile Tony Award-winning Kristin Chenoweth in the title role - paired with I AM HARVEY MILK, Lippa sought to offer up important and relevant social commentary through gloriously sung choral music, and explore the similarities between the two individuals - one the focus of numerous films, articles, and the like and one, not.
Lippa and stage director Noah Himmelstein weren't quite as successful as I might have hoped in delivering a cohesive and even full-length concept opera by pairing the two pieces together. Looked at individually, I AM ANNE HUTCHINSON is much stronger. Further, a final scene, featuring Chenoweth (who also played Harvey Milk's mother in "I AM HARVEY MILK") in her black puritanical garb alongside Lippa (portraying the adult Harvey Milk) attempted to weave the two stories together, but didn't quite succeed. It felt a bit tacked on. Still, there's no denying that some wonderful music was on display at Strathmore this weekend.
For the first act, the audience was able to experience Ms. Hutchinson's tumultuous journey and really become immersed in her experience and that of her confused son Samuel (ably played by Colin Wheeler who vocally held his own against one of Broadway's best). The narrative was clear, the lyrics told the story, and the music was varied and sonically interesting. The small but mighty Chenoweth proved once again that she's an acting and singing force to be reckoned with, and with every ounce of her body, convincingly played the wronged, but stalwart woman. The songs showcased her technically perfect voice, flawless diction, enviable vocal range, as well as her ability to interpret a song. An ensemble of some of the best voices from the Broadway stage and beyond (including Nicholas Rodriguez from Arena Stage's much lauded production of OKLAHOMA several years back), portrayed the establishment who questioned Anne's activity, and added a rich choral element to the piece. Backed by the National Philharmonic (conducted by Joel Fram) playing August Eriksmoen's solid orchestrations, the whole first act served up a heavy dose of ear candy mixed with an important story and message.
Perhaps because the second act focuses on a subject that's likely more familiar to contemporary audiences, especially following the 2008 film MILK, it may not have been as important for Lippa to let a focused narrative guide the development of his piece. In this piece, we meet Harvey Milk as a young child (earnestly portrayed by Colin Wheeler), and then as an adult making political waves. Along the way, we witness a few of the challenging moments of hatred he had to endure along the way, as well as the brighter moments. Yet, we never really become part of his journey, and for anyone who is not all that familiar with Milk's life and his legacy, we might not fully appreciate - by virtue of Lippa's work - Milk's experience and legacy. The songs are more than pleasant to listen to and are well-constructed. Fun - though maybe stereotypical - numbers like "Friday Night in the Castro," which depicts gay nightlife in San Francisco, also excited many in the audience on Saturday night.
Yet, I sadly wasn't very moved by the whole piece. Except for maybe some of the final moments ("Leap" and "Tired of the Silence"), as someone not wholly immersed in the LGBT fight for equality, the piece didn't really grab me emotionally, or convey to me why Harvey Milk's experience/actions were so important. Small video clips depicting important moments for the LGBT community in its fight for equality in recent years, and a few uses of projection (Andrew Lazarow) drive Milk's legacy home in a way that's appreciable, but the music/storytelling does not accomplish this on its own.
What did consistently move me in the second act, however, was the choral singing, and the commitment all of the performers had to sharing the story. The all-male Alexandria Harmonizers lived up to their name, and offered up some of the best choral singing I've heard in this area along with the small group of some of the theatre's best male vocalists onstage (though Larry Keigwin's choreography for the ensemble was a little busy and slightly cheesy, the heavenly vocals distracted me from it). Lippa, as Harvey Milk himself, also offered up a solid vocal performance, and clearly connected with the material on a personal level, although, perhaps not as convincingly as Chenoweth in act one.
Still, quibbles aside, I am enormously thrilled that Strathmore took this one on. It's not the kind of event the largely classical venue usually presents and I hope to see more risk-taking in the future. The pieces offer up stories that need to be heard, and there's no denying the music and performers are first rate.
I AM ANNE HUTCHINSON/I AM HARVEY MILK played the Music Center at Strathmore in North Bethesda, Maryland on April 23 and 24, 2016. This review covers the performance on April 23.