BWW Reviews: Jeanine Tesori's Opera, THE LION, THE UNICORN, AND ME, Debuts at Kennedy Center and Charms Audience

The Washington National Opera (WNO), a bit of a Washington, DC institution, has never presented a work by a female composer - until now, that is. The Kennedy Center is currently the site of award-winning musical theatre composer Jeanine Tesori's commissioned world premiere opera featuring a libretto by J.D. "Sandy" McClatchy and solid direction by WNO Artistic Director Francesca Zambello. Suitable for the entire family, particularly during this holiday season, The Lion, The Unicorn, and Me takes us on a rather unique trip to Bethlehem - one that's filled with joyous music, charming and undeniably talented children, and showcases the talent of young opera singers.

Based on a novel of the same name by Jeanette Winterson, we go on a journey back in time with an angel (11 year-old boy soprano Henry Wager). He's a bit unsure of the task he has ahead of him - "cast" an animal to help Mary (mezzo-soprano Catherine Martin) and Joseph (tenor Patrick O'Halloran) get to Bethlehem to deliver the Christ child.

There's a flamingo (soprano Lisa Williamson), a cat (mezzo-soprano Deborah Nansteel), the confident and slightly cocky and self-absorbed Lion (bass Soloman Howard) and a special unicorn (soprano Jacqueline Echols) as options. Presenting their cases and special skills in song, they try to convince the angel and onlookers of their suitability for the task. Yet, when a donkey (baritone John Orduña) appears on the scene, he focuses not on how special he is, but what he can and has done for others. It's clear he's the one to take on the important task. What follows is the story of how the donkey gets Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem and the challenges and blessings they encounter there with the donkey at their side and the angel looking on.

Certainly, particularly at this time of the year, there's no shortage of concerts and plays that focus on Jesus' birth. Yet, the original nature of this story - initially slightly different than what we've all heard before - and the fact that it's presented in a way that can engage modern, cosmopolitan kids and adults alike is likely to make it a hugely popular offering by opera companies in the 'family opera' slot.

This is deservedly so. The music and the libretto work seamlessly together to create something special. Neither panders to the youngest child in the audience, yet offer something that's sophisticated while at the same time accessible. Although presented here as an opera with opera singers, I also think it would work with musical theatre actors if presented by a company with a solid musical theatre track record. The beauty of The Lion, The Unicorn, and Me is that it's not strictly an opera piece nor is it a musical theatre piece masking as an opera piece.

Tesori's diverse compositions are a key ingredient to the success of the production. Whether creating a number that includes choral work from the children or solo pieces for the principals, she gets kudos for not repeating herself and always offering something that's melodically catchy while still being interesting. The tender, spirited choral numbers are an asset and are certainly well-sung in this production. The selections she offers for the Lion and the Donkey in the first act are among her best work to-date. The music beautifully captures the essence of these characters as does a later number in the second act for Mary and are expertly sung by Howard, Orduña, and Martin.

Howard and Orduña rich voices are a thing of glory in and of themselves, but I appreciate that they seem to authentically connect emotionally with the music and not simply use it as a platform to show off their impeccable technique and nothing more. Martin's crystal clear mezzo-soprano voice is certainly going to serve her well in the opera world, but I can also see it working for more legit roles in musical theatre as well.

Yet, it's Tesori's selections for the angel that are the perfect blend of tenderness and sophistication while not sounding too saccharine. Wager's sweet, angelic boy soprano voice proves well-suited to the whole lot of them. While at times he comes off (to me, at least) as a child with musical theatre credits trying to consistently sing in a way that isn't completely comfortable or natural to himself, his natural stage presence, willingness to engage with the music, and technical ability are one of the reasons this production is so successful. Zambello should absolutely be commended for this casting choice.

With assistance from a skillful 11-piece orchestra, under the energetic baton of Broadway's Kimberly Grigsby, it's not hard to become fully immersed in the music as it fills the intimate Terrace Theatre. The orchestrations - which the multi-talented Tesori did herself - do justice to the material and are certainly well-performed.

McClatchy's libretto, like Tesori's music, is superbly constructed so that the comedic moments do not come off as forced or out of place in such an inspirational story, but he doesn't get wrapped up in presenting too much of a dramatic, overwrought story either.

While some of the opera singers prove to be better actors of the story than others - with the recognition that some have to do more to do 'acting-wise' - there are a few standouts to mention in this regard. Wager has a knack for comedic timing whether singing or speaking and he undoubtedly has a strong career of him as a singer who can also act. Orduña exudes a sense of having a servant's heart, an important characteristic for a donkey. As he vocalizes the sounds a donkey would make on occasion, it's important to note that he looks as comfortable doing so as he does when singing actual lyrics full of meaning. Howard also presents a strong personality as the Lion and is ultimately believable as the king of the jungle.

Others face a few challenges. Bass Wei Wu has a glorious instrument that's put to good use as a shepherd soloist in the second act, but fails to grab my attention as the innkeeper. At the performance I saw, he seemed largely detached from what was going on around him in the scene and only seemed at ease when showcasing the many dimensions of his well-trained voice. Likewise, Echols' strong and haunting soprano voice embodies how a mythical unicorn might sound, but it appeared to me that, on opening night, she was not exactly connecting with the lyrics. Though her voice is a thing of wonder, she did encounter some diction challenges - dropping off a few consonants here and there - which sometimes made it challenging to understand every lyric even as her voice more than reached the back of the Terrace Theatre.

Colorful sets (Michael Yeargen) and costumes (Erik Teague) help make the event even more magical without pulling focus from the story at hand. Production-wise, the show is not elaborate, but it doesn't need to be.

All in all, Zambello is deserving of many accolades for commissioning this piece and paying attention to all of the details.

I believe Tesori is one of the, hands-down, best musical theatre composers of our day - let's just say I think Violet and Caroline, or Change offer some of the strongest music we've seen in that world in the last fifty or sixty years and leave it at that. Thus, it's exciting to her have the chance to show off her hefty musical gifts under the auspices of the esteemed WNO. A solid choice, indeed.

Running Time: 90 minutes, including an intermission.

The Washington National Opera's The Lion, The Unicorn, and Me plays at the Kennedy Center's Terrace Theatre - 2700 F Street, NW in Washington, DC - through December 22, 2013. For tickets, call the box office at 202-467-4600 or purchase them online.

Photo: By Scott Suchman, Wager and Orduña pictured.

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From This Author Jennifer Perry

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