BWW Review: SHINING BROW at Urban Arias
Composer Daron Hagen and librettist Paul Muldoon's opera is a musical homage to architect Frank Lloyd Wright. The production by Urban Arias at Atlas Performing Arts Center is a delight. World class singers deliver a larger than life story and an historical tragedy few have ever heard of.
The show stars Sidney Outlaw as Frank Lloyd Wright, Rebecca Ringle as his wife, Catherine "Kitty" Wright, Miriam Khalil as his lover, Mamah Cheney, Ben Wager as her husband Edwin Cheney, and Robert Baker as Wright's mentor, Louis Sullivan. While Hagen's music is beautiful, it is certainly not easy to sing or play. Conductor Robert Wood does a wonderful job bringing the music to life and leading the singers through complicated rhythms and leaps in pitch.
Each singer makes the music and the character their own. Ringle is wonderfully prim as Kitty. Her stiff, high collared, dress is an immediate contrast to the glamorous Mamah, who is clad in a beaded black gown. All of the singers are excellent musicians. They make it look easy, and Robert Baker in particular does a great job acting in the role of Louis Sullivan.
While you may notice the more unorthodox aspects of the score, they are not a detractor but a support. In a talk back after the show, Daron Hagen commented that sometimes the poetry of the libretto and the poetry of the music can pull at each other-one unbalancing the other in an effort to reclaim focus. In this case, Hagen's music and Muldoon's words are expertly matched.
When it originally premiered in the nineties, Shining Brow was staged as a full scale opera complete with chorus, orchestra, and a host of supporting characters. The show you'll see at Urban Arias is much more intimate. Hagen skillfully pared down a full orchestra to the instrumentation of a sinfonietta. They never overpower the singers-a testament to composer, conductor, instrumentalists, and singers.
A simple staging allows the story to shine. Upstage, there are huge panels of angularly patterned staiNed Glass. The patterns evoke the same straight lines of Wright's work. In a similar vein, Director Grant Preisser chose to rake the stage. While the geometric shapes complement Wright's life's work, the tilted stage contradicts it and is a poetic statement to the uneven path Wright's life led.
In addition to the drama, opera and classical music in general tends to be an academic pursuit. In fact, this one comes with a glossary in the program. The music and story are full of allusions to the great American West and Manifest Destiny. There may even be a moment or two when you'll find yourself thinking "This sounds like West Side Story"-you're not wrong. Hagen based the musical interludes between Wright and his mentor Sullivan on the music of Leonard Bernstein and his mentor Marc Blitzstein.
An opera of this skill produced in such an intimate setting is a rare treat for DC theatre-goers. Every nuance is thought through from the moment you enter the mist-filled theatre. (You'll have to see why for yourself!) A word to the wise-despite pretty good diction, you may want to peruse the libretto before seeing the show as there are no supertitles. Leaving the story to stand for itself is a nice idea, but the reality of the situation is that if you are singing coloratura, scales, or anything above a high-A, no one will understand what you're saying.
Shining Brow is at The Atlas Performing Arts Center through October 21, 2017. The show is 90 minutes without an intermission.