BWW Review: THE LION, THE UNICORN, AND ME at The Kennedy Center
I love the concept behind Kennedy Center's Family Opera. In an age where arts funding is among the first cuts to education budgets, it's difficult to introduce new generations to theatre, particularly something with a reputation for being a bit older, stuffier, and traditionally reserved for those of wealth. The Family Opera at Kennedy Center works to dispel this on a few levels - the shows are deliberately produced to be accessible to young audiences, and give children interested not just in patronizing the arts but also in participating in them an opportunity to do so on a famous stage alongside talented adults. It's a fabulous program.
Unfortunately, my admiration for the concept may be part of why this winter's production of The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me was so disappointing. Obstinately a fun take on the Nativity story, the opera, which premiered at Kennedy Center in 2013, tells the story of an angel who has been given the duty to find an animal to help escort Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem so Mary can give birth. The angel, after hearing from a number of candidates, narrows the list down to three options: a lion, a unicorn, and a donkey. He ultimately selects the donkey, and Act II then shows the journey and birth play out. However, the opera falls far short of its role as a gateway to the arts; had this performance been my exposure to theatre, or even just to opera, I don't think I would have pursued an interest.
Part of this problem stems from an identity crisis: The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me doesn't seem to know who its audience should be. There were a number of times in which I was forced to ask myself whether I was confused because I was Jewish, and unfamiliar with the Nativity story, or if the show itself was just confusing. My friend, who was raised Christian, confirmed for me that it wasn't my lack of background - the show doesn't teach those unfamiliar with the story, but it also strays too far to enhance it for those who are familiar. There were also additions that made little sense, like two singing potted plants (I think?), and it wasn't clear why certain animals were chosen to be featured as contenders - it took consulting the playbill to recognize one as a hippo, and the snake's inclusion felt like a missed opportunity for a biblical reference in favor of citing its ability to hiss as its main credential. The flamingo was an odd choice all around, and its insistence that is pinkness was what made it the right animal for the job was nonsensical as well as scientifically inaccurate (the pink color, for those who aren't biology nerds, comes from the shrimp they eat). I did appreciate the joke about the lion's previous work experience including bouts with Hercules and Daniel, but this stood out as a rare moment of cleverness in the show.
Beyond that, while the intended audience should be children and families, there were a number of weirdly inappropriate moments - not in a Disney/Dreamworks sense of a wink for adults, but blatantly direct moments that made the show uncomfortable, such as the use of the word "ass" as a barely-working double-entendre and a line about being "good with virgins." The show also over-used the phrase "if you know what I mean," even after specifically spelling out what was being referenced. Jokes and references for adults can be wonderful in kids' shows, but they're meant to go over the kids' heads, not be blatantly personified in a strangely seductive cat performance.
Additionally, the libretto itself is frustratingly lacking. The phrasings often sacrifice meter and sense in favor of a rhyme, and often enhance the confusion. I followed along with the subtitles to make sure I wasn't simply mishearing (I wasn't), but even that was difficult since they flickered out at one point. The music, too, was disappointing - there was little musical variation, and nothing particularly exciting or interesting; when I walked out, I could barely recall the actual tones of the music. The result of this is a disappointing opera - nothing really stays with you, and the performance felt more like sing-talking than actual singing.
This is a shame, not just for the original concept, but also for the performers as well. The mix of adult, professional opera singers from the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist Program with the WNO Children's Chorus was wonderful, and it was clear the cast was trying to enjoy themselves - though, in the case of the scripted celebrations, that "trying" became more apparent. The children were incredibly talented, and it was lovely to see how well they blended with the adults, a number of whom I happily recognized from previous performances. But no amount of stage talent can balance out a poor story or libretto, nor could they distract from the misplaced set pieces that collided during the finale.
As much as I admire efforts to introduce more people to the arts, The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me simply misses the mark. Despite its wonderful cast, the show has far too many flaws for this to be a worthy introduction to a love for theatre.
The Lion, the Unicorn, and Me runs for approximately 80 minutes with one 20-minute intermission. Performances play at the Kennedy Center from December 14th through December 16th.
Credit: Scott Suchman