by: Alix Cohen
The iconoclastic work of composer/lyricist/librettist Michael John LaChiusa will not leave you humming. It will, however, fill you to overflow with impressions and ideas. Heartbreak Country, titled after a song written for the author’s musicalization of the iconic film, Giant, is a journey through time and geography, mores and stories. Knit together by scene introductions and illuminating quotes, the piece includes selections from eight theater pieces presented by seven extremely talented actor/vocalists. LaChiusa’s challenging oeuvre requires heavy lifting.
“The Smallest Thing” from First Lady Suite is an immensely evocative song imagined as the expression of Jackie Kennedy, November 23, 1961. Kate Baldwin embodies what it must’ve been like for the First Lady both before and at the historically decisive moment the president was shot. We begin with The sun was ruthless/I’m sweating in an open car… then reach In the heat of the blood of my husband …I feel everything and nothing but the smallest thing…Baldwin lives the moment, voicing colors of endurance with restrained grace.
Later in the program, playing Leslie in Giant, Baldwin’s warm soprano conveys determination and excitement to Andrew Samonsky’s proud, besotted Brick: “Your Texas” (featuring eloquent cello) and the sweeping “Heartbreak Country” (with nuanced flute.) Leslie’s endearing, womanly attributes shine. Samonsky’s smooth vocals add an appealing shyness to Brick’s initial concerns and heat to the love songs. “I tried to create the blue of the Texas sky with my music,” LaChiusa commented. Success.
The glowingly pregnant Sherry D. Boone brings the house down playing Marie Christine a tragic heroine “entrenched in and ahead of her time.” We were thrown out of Eden for knowing too much she declares suffragette-style (with Kate Baldwin.) “And You Will Lie/I Will Give” conjures three nay-sayers like the witches of Macbeth (Mary Testa, Kate Baldwin, Emily Skinner) who warn Marie about belonging to her man. Both tunes have percussive, tribal undertone. Boone’s powerful craft highlights investment, vocal range and control creating a memorable, gospel feel.
“How Many Women in the World” (The Wild Party) and “Central Park” (See What I Wanna See) allow Marc Kudisch to display signature showmanship. In the first, a cuckolded lover, he rages against the promiscuous Queenie with staccato lyrics and visceral emotional impotence. In the second, playing a CPA who sheds his conservative life in pursuit of a miracle, his complicated soliloquy expresses disillusionment, then exhilaration. Both numbers encourage Kudish’s expansive baritone to soar between lyrically specific exposition. Memories of his star turn in The Glorious Ones echo.
The duet “Safe/The One I Love” (Hello Again inspired by Arthur Schnitzler’s La Ronde ) features the excellent Bryce Ryness (with Kudisch.) Its scenario dramatizes an awkward disco meeting of two gay men with insouciant personas who may or may not be in pursuit of love. While Kudisch’s purportedly romantic character directs the scene with fade-ins, line cues and cuts, Ryness, whose comic chops were skillfully exhibited in the most recent Around the World in Eighty Days, is an hysterical, barely responsive caricature. Impeccable timing frames glorious, self-occupied vapidity. The two voices play off one another in counterpoint and harmony. Its epilogue? “On the couch would’ve been better.”
“Remember Me,’ (Little Fish), employs Ryness on acoustic guitar as Emily Skinner wonders If I myself were to somehow someday up and disappear/ What of me would be left behind to show that I’d been here? apparently inspired by feelings that arose after 9/11. Skinner performs one of LaChiusa’s unusually melodic songs with empathetic simplicity. The artist shares very different abilities in her rendition of “When It Ends” (The Wild Party). Portraying the ultimate, been-there/done-that woman, she manages to bridge bump n’grind scoring with pithy social and romantic emptiness, ending with a memorable stage whisper.
Mary Testa tries to push away her character’s fatalism in “There Will Be a Miracle” (See What I Wanna See): You can never rush a miracle/You can’t force a thing to be/I am desperate for a miracle/But it won’t come just for me. While lyrics persuasively struggle, the performer’s clear confident vocals do not. Reprising her stage role as Annie Edson Taylor, the first woman to survive going over Niagara Falls in a barrel (Queen of the Mist), Testa exclaims “There Is Greatness in Me.” Her performance ranges from slow, confident a capella, to hyped-up, percussive insistence. Unexpectedly shifting octaves are no threat to the veteran artist.
A dense evening of extremely varied material, Heartbreak Country is, if exhausting, splendidly performed and produced.
** Photos (except for Michael John LaChiusa) by Kevin Yatarola
Lincoln Center presents American Songbook http://americansongbook.org/
Heartbreak Country: Michael John LaChiusa’s Stories of America
Jack Cummings III- Conception/Director
Kate Baldwin, Sherry D Boone, Marc Kudisch, Bryce Ryness,
Andrew Samonsky, Emily Skinner, Mary Testa
Mary-Mitchell Campbell-Musical Director/Piano
David Gardos-Piano, Steve Lydon-Reeds, Laura Bontrager-Cello,
Marc Schmied-Bass, Damien Bassman-Drums
The Allen Room JALC
February 1, 2014