In Oscar Wilde's famed novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, the protagonist remains youthful and beautiful through all the decades of his evil life. Only his portrait, hidden in the attic, reveals the ravages of sin and time. Dorian Gray, the OpenStage musical production now showing in Fort Collins, worked a kind of analogous magic on me. I walked in a reasonably spry middle-aged woman and tottered out an ancient crone.
Oh, yes, it was long. The second act, particularly, refused to end. Periodically, the cast revved up for the kind of big ensemble number that usually brings a show to a close, and just as you were breathing a sigh of relief, someone would segue into another bit of dialogue. Or there'd be a touching encounter between Dorian Gray and his own boy-self, and again you'd reach for your program and purse, and again the show would gather new momentum. It began to feel like an assault: wave after wave of music and song washing over your head, sending you face first and spluttering to the ocean floor.
There's a lot right with this production, but it can't compensate for the sameness or derivativeness of much of the music, the odd lapses in conceptual judgment or the self-indulgent length of the second act.
Oscar Wilde knew about stagecraft, but The Picture of Dorian Gray is a novel, not a play. The action follows one trajectory -- a spiral into damnation -- without the kinds of contrast drama usually requires. Director Jules Aaron and writer/creator Thomas Sheehan have chosen a presentational style for the musical. It feels a bit like an oratorio, though there are snippets of text, and the actors are costumed and in character. I like the groupings on stage, the way the actors periodically freeze in place like statues while still communicating an intense aliveness. The group numbers are energetic and precise, and the first act contains a handful of moving songs ("Something of the Boy," "Such a Gentle Man"), as well as lively and entertaining ones ("A Gentleman's Club," "Anything You Like"). Several fine voices are featured, and it's a pleasure to hear them unmiked. But the stylization distances the audience, and there are some lapses into sentimentality of a rather different kind than Wilde's own: The scenes with the boy; Sybil Vane, cast off by Gray, singing "Go to sleep, little one" as she prepares to slit her own wrists.
There are several excellent performances. Larry Hensel plays Basil Hallward, creator of the famed portrait, and his singing voice is glorious -- rich, generous and full. If his acting doesn't quite match up, it seems churlish to complain. Charlie Ferrie is Lord Henry Wotton, the Pygmalion who inducts Dorian Gray into a life of amoral sensuality. He's a good strong actor, with a good strong voice. There's fine work in smaller roles, too: Stuart O'Steen, Ken Fenwick, Seth Caikowski as Alan. Christianna Sullins brings a sweet singing voice to the role of innocent Sybil Vane. Then there's Devora Millman as Lord Henry's wife, Lady Victoria. I'm having trouble deciding if her performance was brilliantly on target or way off. She's certainly a magnetic performer. She sings and moves well, draws focus effortlessly and evokes fascinated laughter with her ultra-clear enunciation and ironic phrasing. (Though a shaky English accent tends to sound even shakier when the words are delivered with such authority.) It's a high-camp, thoroughly artificial performance that would no doubt have delighted Wilde himself. But no one else in the ensemble employs this style, which leaves Millman oddly marooned.
Paul Green has the necessary physical beauty for Dorian Gray. His voice is less full than that of the other male singers, but it has a lovely, dove-soft quality in the upper registers. He also possesses -- as his masquerade-party costume reveals -- a magnificent torso. But Green is not as expressive an actor as one might wish. He lacks sensuality, and sensuality is key to the role. There's nothing admirable about Dorian Gray, whose excesses cause the downfall of everyone associated with him, but in the novel, the reader can't help empathizing with his swooning sensuality, his world of white lilacs, moonlight, seduction and pure sensation. We're also primed to empathize with his dream of eternal youth, because the text stresses the horrors of time and mortality. (Composer Edward Reyes provides a powerful first-act song about this called "The Hourglass," which is given an equally powerful rendition by Ferrie.) Still, we feel distanced from Green's Gray, even when he endures the Faustian horror of the ending.
As I watched, I did find myself thinking a good bit about the destructive powers of narcissism (Dorian Gray almost literally drowns in his mirror) and how it's still abundantly with us in the persons of musicians, movie stars and politicians ("'I call upon all nations to do everything they can to stop these terrorist killers,' Mr. Bush said on the first green of Cape Arundel, at 6:15 a.m. 'Thank you. Now watch this drive.'").
There are scenes and songs in Dorian Gray that might have come right out of The Threepenny Opera. The musical depicts dens of sin that remind us of Dickens. It's hard these days to evoke the fin de siècle aesthetic, however. Wilde's aphorisms and outrageous poses, his elevation of triviality to a high virtue, his insistence that the artificial is superior to the real and the delicious lie to the truth, weren't superficial trappings. They were part of a passionately held view of the world and the role of the artist within it. These days we're moralistic, but we're also blasé about the things the Victorians considered most decadent: opium addiction; a desperate girl in a dirty dress offering sex for money; the love that dares not speak its name.
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