Theatre Mirror Reviews - "Bel Canto"

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note: entire contents copyright 2003 by Larry Stark

"Bel Canto"

by Daniel Alexander Jones
Directed by Robbie McCauley

Set and Video Design by Mirta Tocci
Lighting Design by John Malinowski
Costume design by Robin McLaughlin
Sound Design by Chris Noyes
Video Design /Editor Gabriel Reed
Movement Design by Thomas DeFrantz
ASL Interpreters Elbert Joseph & Jody Steiner
Audio Describer Robin Fradkin
Production Stage Manager Donald Christy

Benjamin Turner................Burl Moseley
Barbara Scarlatti.............Lynda Gravatt
Bessie Turner/Dady Velvet.....Renita Martin
Terence Long....................Jimonn Cole
Marian Anderson...............Merle Perkins
Miss Pava...................Maureen Brennan

There are very good and important reasons to go to The Wheelock Fanmily Theatre and see "Bel Canto" --- which is a co-production with The Theatre Offensive involving Black characters, openly gay characters, and opera on the very same stage at the very same time. The show was "developed with the assistance of the Sundance Institute Theatre Laboratory" and represents a landmark cooperation between "Family" (read "kids") Theater, Black Theater, and Gay Theater all in one of the largest "smaller" theatres in Boston. The intriguing set-design, the directing by Robbie McCauley, and the acting in every beautifully played part are all stunningly professional and imaginative. Daniel Alexander Jones' script pushes all the right buttons, and its quick, lively dialogue has gems for every taste. I have no idea, then, why I was so bored. (Obviously, it's me.)

At the center of all the action is a high-school loner (Burl Moseley) with a (White) dad evading the draft in Canada (The year is 1978) and a solidly vibrant mother (Renita Martin) who --- unlike her son --- has stopped expecting dad's return.
He literally runs into a pompously encouraging opera-teacher (Lynda Gravatt) who starts tough-love voice lessons for the boy --- in amongst her reminiscences of past triumphs.
The kid's "angel" is, literally, Marian Anderson (Merle Perkins) --- a white-robed figure insisting his wishes are already beginning to be granted though never fully expressed. Most of her dialogue is sprecht-stimme.
At one point, the kid defends another (Jimonn Cole) being picked on as a queer, which results both in a broken arm and eventually in an adolescent love-affair.
That boy's father is a blind guitarist recreating the solos of Jimi Hendricks while refusing to quit smoking. (This part is effectively created by that same Renita Martin who plays mum.)
There is a one-scene walk-on by Maureen Brennan as a by-the-book school nurse pigeon-holing our hero six ways from center while never noticing he is a unique individual.
The set uses a series of rising levels on Wheelock's wide, shallow stage, backed by video-projections by Mirta Tocci and Gabriel Reed, the most effective of which is a repeated snowstorm poetically described as a metaphor for the variety and change that is life.
And, if you like sprecht-stimme and think highly of opera, these always interesting people will give you a thoroughly enjoyable evening.

If, like me, you think of "wretched-tatif" as unreal speech, it may be a different experience.

For me, this string of ideas never focused on and finished anything. The story of the ebullient teacher, still living with her own Italian father's disavowing his Black daughter, never dovetailed with that of the hero's runaway White father. There was never a confrontation of Hendricks' and Puccini's music. The young artist who drew and the hero who sang never got time to explore what made them identical, what made them different. The play ended with a pair of deaths --- off-stage --- neither of which were explored as events nor as to their consequences. Eventually, I got the feeling this play was put together by a political committee dealing in surfaces rather than themes, and interested in offending as few people as possible.

In other words, I was impressed more by the performances than the play, and aware at every turn of the historic rather than the esthetic success of the production.


"Bel Canto" (5 - 22 June)
180 The Riverway, Boston MA

THE THEATER MIRROR, New England's LIVE Theater Guide