Chicago Theatre Review
A Romantic Fantasy in Glorious Style
Brigadoon – Goodman Theatre
Guaranteed to produce a lump in the throat of any self-respecting Scot, the shrill, wailing skirl of bagpipes that opens this newly refreshed production of Lerner & Loewe’s 1947 classic romantic fantasy properly sets the mood. Primarily set in a tiny, 18th century village that mysteriously emerges out of the highland mist for one day every 100 years, this musical about the power of love is sumptuously produced for the first time in thirty years and it should be on every theatre goer’s must-see list for the summer.
Originally produced on the heels of the Great Depression and as an escape from the horrors of WWII, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe became inspired by Rodgers & Hammerstein’s groundbreaking “Oklahoma” and “Carousel,” both of which dealt with more serious subjects and featured a seamlessly fused script, score and choreography to tell the story. It was the beginning of a new era. Gone were the days when a musical stopped the story, if one even existed, to insert a frothy, hummable but unrelated song or dance designed simply to entertain or lighten the mood. Unlike Rodgers & Hammerstein’s works, which were based upon other literary sources, Lerner & Loewe’s first Broadway hit is mostly original, the product of Mr. Lerner’s imagination.
After several international revivals and still popular as a challenging staple for educational, regional and summer stock companies, this show hasn’t seen the lights of Broadway for 34 years. The Lerner estate, hoping to find a way to make this musical more relevant for contemporary audiences, permitted and encouraged actor/director/writer Brian Hill to collaborate with one of Chicago’s premiere director/choreographers, Rachel Rockwell, in an attempt to “refresh” the libretto. The result is terrific.
Hill’s new adaptation focuses more on the insanity of War, a subject tactfully ignored in the original but which still resonates with today’s audiences. Instead of the martyred Mr. Forsythe saving his village from the evils of witchcraft and black magic, Hill chooses to have Forsythe’s sacrifice be based upon Scotland’s involvement in battles wherein innocent young men gave their lives for political reasons. In the opening scene Tommy Albright, one of the main characters, confides how his time spent on front lines during WWII has changed him. It sets up his readiness to believe in the miracle of love and this magical village.
Mr. Hill has tightened up most scenes and updated the 1940’s humor just enough to bring this show into the 21st century. The show’s beloved depiction of a colorful Scotland, more mythical than historically accurate, still remains. The romance between a world-weary American searching for a simpler, more idyllic life and a young Scottish lass who longs for love, an intellectual equal and someone who appreciates their quaint, rustic ways endures. A verse is eliminated from “The Love of My Life,” the staging for “Almost Like Being in Love” is improved by becoming a pair of musical monologues shared by the loving couple and delivered to another character. The final verse of “The Chase” that opens Act II is more reverent and heartfelt than in the original. However, Loewe’s lush, rich score, brought to life by Josh Clayton’s beautiful orchestrations, arranged and musically directed by Roberta Duchak and played by her talented 13-piece pit orchestra (with an onstage drummer, fiddle-player and two bagpipers) has never sounded better.
Ms. Rockwell demonstrates why she’s the perfect director/choreographer for this job. Her production is both warm and honest and, while being an homage to the original, is more energetic and playfully inventive. The play’s magical quality is constant and Ms. Rockwell does everything to play out its theme that “faith moves mountains” and, as Mr. Lundie says at the end of the musical, “if love is strong enough, anything can happen…even miracles.” This production is glorious.
Ms. Rockwell’s 28-member ensemble, most of whom are members of Actors Equity and many making their Goodman debut, is a veritable parade of talent. Jennie Sophia, Fantine in Drury Lane’s recent “Les Miserables,” is perfection as Fiona MacLaren, the Scottish lass who won’t settle for just any Scotsman. Her impressive soprano soars, along with her female besties, harmonizing in “Waitin’ for My Dearie.” But, together with Kevin Earley’s exceptionally well-sung, honestly-acted Tommy Albright, their duets of “Heather on the Hill” and “Almost Like Being in Love” almost stop the show. Later the actress brings audiences to tears with her honest rendition of “From This Day On.” Mr. Earley (extraordinary in Marriott’s “Pirates of Penzance”and with Broadway credits galore) has the same effect on audiences with his ardent “There But For You Go I.” This pair rewards audiences with their earnest portrayals of a starry-eyed couple whose love transcends time and space.
The entire supporting cast is wonderful, as well. The always lovable bundle of energy called Maggie Portman is a sassy, lusty Meg Brockie. She establishes her come-hither character early while “selling a bit o’ milk an’ cream” during “Down on MacConnachy Square.” Whether seducing unsuspecting young men or breaking the mournful mood with “My Mother’s Wedding Day,” Ms. Portman practically steals the show. Jordan Brown, whose previous impressive Chicago acting credits belie his prowess here as a singer/dancer, portrays eager, likable young bridegroom Charlie Dalrymple. As his bride, the lovely, captivating triple threat Olivia Renteria, whose ballet skills are extensively showcased throughout the production, displays the joyful countenance of a sweetly innocent young Jean MacLaren.
Rhett Guter, so brilliant as Tulsa in CST’s recent production of “Gypsy,” dazzles as the moody Harry Beaton. His dancing skills are put to the test in the full-cast production number, “I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean,” beautifully sung by Mr. Brown. However, where Mr. Guter truly shines is in the “Sword Dance” and the wedding reel that conclude Act I, as well as with his athletic dexterity exhibited in Act II’s “The Chase.” And Katie Spelman, who shares choreographic credits for this production, along with Gordon Pierce Schmidt and Rachel Rockwell, is bewitching as Maggie Anderson, the young lass pining quietly for Harry Beaton’s affection. Ms. Spelman’s tragically beautiful Agnes DeMille-inspired “Funeral Dance,” performed to the mournful keening of bagpipes and drum, is beyond words.
Favorite Chicago actor Rod Thomas, usually more at home as a song-and-dance man, effortlessly steps into the vacated role of Jeff Douglas, Tommy Albright’s cynical, comic sidekick and best friend. (Mara Blumenfeld’s colorful, detailed and multi-textured 18th century Scottish period costumes, featuring several authentic tartans represented in the men’s swirling kilts and their ladies‘ elegantly worn plaids, offers her own visual joke by clothing Mr. Thomas in Clan Douglas tartan, after his own trousers become “torn”). The ensemble features the talented likes of Roger Mueller as a wise, caring Mr. Lundie; Craig Spidle and Larry Adams as the fathers of the bride and bridegroom; Joseph Anthony Foronda as Archie Beaton; George Keating, Michael Aaron Lindner, Rob Riddle, Ann McMann and many others lending their talents as the townsfolk; Emily Rohm and Richard Strimer as Tommy’s New York socialite fiancee Jane Ashton and his favorite barkeep, Frank.
Audiences will leave this production with a renewed admiration for the artistry of Lerner & Loewe in what would become the first of their Broadway hit musicals. Brian Hill and Rachel Rockwell have brought the script, once considered tired and humorless, into the present, and Ms. Rockwell and her creative team have created a new vision for this beautifully melodic, optimistically romantic fantasy, all swirling kilts and skirling bagpipes, that will doubtless soon become the show’s official version. With two additional weeks now added, there’s no excuse for missing this glorious production that reminds audiences of the power of love.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented June 27-August 17 by the Goodman’s Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago.
Tickets are available at the Goodman box office, by calling 312-443-3800 or by going to www.GoodmanTheatre.org/Brigadoon.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.