Flaws in the Fabric
First performed in 1947, Brigadoon was the earliest major musical hit for Frederick Loewe and lyricist Alan Jay Lerner, the team that went on to create Camelot and My Fair Lady. Though the libretto for Brigadoon is slight and sentimental, the show is filled with wonderful songs -- some as famous as "Almost Like Being in Love," others such lesser-known treasures as "There But for You Go I."
In the play, Tommy and Jeff, two hip and cynical New Yorkers vacationing in the Scottish highlands, stumble onto a village called Brigadoon, a magical, out-of-time place that appears only once a century because every night, while the villagers sleep, a hundred years pass. (Lerner and Loewe took this story from a German tale, and there's nothing of the real Scotland about their Brigadoon. It's a setting shaped by pure Hollywood fancy and filled with bonnie lasses, leaping lads, mists, tartans and heather.) As the New Yorkers enter the village, preparations are under way for the wedding of bonnie Jean and her Charlie, and they serve as a pretext for a lot of folky, dancey stuff. Tommy, naturally, falls for Jean's beautiful sister, Fiona. Harry, a local youth hopelessly in love with Jean, provides the show's dramatic tension.
There are also a lot of dumb sexist jokes that reveal the embedded-in-the-social-fabric misogyny of the time.
The weakness of the script really doesn't matter much when the songs are being borne aloft on the voices of the CU Opera's talented cast, but it does derail the ending. Brigadoon raises a lot of plot points that are too easily disposed of, as well as ideas that -- no matter how light and romantic the context -- could use more exploration. Harry's attempt to defect from Brigadoon is driven not only by Jean's rejection of him, but by a desire to learn more about the world. It's an implicit comment on the stifling insularity of purely romantic dreams. But Lerner and Loewe dispose of Harry violently and abruptly, without bothering to concoct a reasonable explanation for his death or allowing it to cloud the rest of the proceedings. (In contrast, consider how Jud's rage at being rejected in Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! adds a deeper tone to the musical's palette, shading the rest of the action.) Though Tommy adores Fiona, he has reasonable concerns about giving up his entire life for the unreal beauties of Brigadoon -- but such worries melt away too swiftly and easily in the final scenes.
The lighting in this production is problematic, the set -- although mechanically ingenious -- ugly and crowded, and the costumes functional. Some of the blocking feels raw. But many of these folks can really sing. They do so joyously, energetically and unmiked. Christopher McKim is a fine, strong Tommy, and he's well matched by Leslie Whistler's gracious Fiona. Their voices marry beautifully on such songs as "The Heather on the Hill" and "Almost Like Being in Love" and remind us of the deep satisfaction provided by an old-fashioned duet. McKim brings real poignance to "There but for You Go I."
As bridegroom Charlie, Don Groves is another standout. He has a rich, luscious tenor, but even more than that, a genuine exuberance that lights up the stage. His rendition of "Come to Me, Bend to Me" is a showstopper. Carolyn Miller plays Meg, the kind of woman they'd have called "round-heeled" in those days, and she performs her two comic songs with skill and spirit. Jeff's is the non-singing voice of cynical rationality; Joe Hurst gives an appealing performance in the role. And there's a haunting bagpipe solo from fifteen-year-old Galen Priest.
The debonair Dennis Jackson, whose hand has guided the CU Opera for two decades and who recently announced that he'll be leaving to head a program in North Carolina, plays the schoolmaster, Mr. Lundie, with aplomb.
There's some of the messiness and shuffle you expect from a student performance here. A successful production of Brigadoon requires visual appeal -- elegant scenery, balletic dancing. (In the film, which starred Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse, dance was emphasized at the expense of the singing.) Though the movement design is skilled, choreographer Marilyn Cohen clearly lacked access to the caliber of dancer she needed. Brigadoon features a couple of dance majors, at least one of whom does very well, but the dreamy setting calls for a level of light-footedness and musicality that's not in evidence here.
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