It's a delicious irony though Michael John LaChiusa wrote that "the American Musical is dead" in the August issue of Opera News, he's doing more than anyone else this season to keep it alive. His See What I Wanna See at the Public this fall proved that musicals can still surprise and move. But now he's capped off the year by breathing fresh air into a gasping art, creating not just a good musical or a great musical, but a musical for the ages.
Bernarda Alba, which just opened at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center, is that impossibly rare thing: an engrossing musical drama, so superbly integrated that all boundaries between speech, music, and dance blur and dissolve before your eyes. Though it's based on a contemporary classic play, Federico García Lorca's The House of Bernarda Alba, like all great adaptations it eclipses its source. Composer-lyricist-librettist LaChiusa and director-choreographer Graciela Daniele have brought to arresting theatrical life the soul of Lorca's compact emotional epic in a way that will make it impossible to ever look at the original the same way again.
They begin their transformation in the show's opening seconds, when the cast's 10 extraordinary actresses establish the rhythm that instantly hurtles you into the 1930s Spanish setting, where you have every right to expect being assaulted by passionate heat. The fire here, though, is the kind that stings rather than warms: In the prologue immediately following the clapping, stamping introduction, the five sisters and their indomitable mother at the center of the story are revealed as passionate creatures who can never let their inner fires out, and are thus turning to ash on the inside.
After her second husband dies, Bernarda (Phylicia Rashad) thrusts the family into mourning: everyone must wear black, neighbors must not be allowed to see inside the house, and the girls must pursue relationships only as Bernarda sees fit. But even her control has bounds: She may wish to marry off her oldest daughter Angustias (Saundra Santiago) to the dashing Pepe el Romano, but he wants her only for her sizable dowry. His heart, however, truly belongs to the youngest and prettiest daughter, Adela (Nikki M. James), though each of the sisters - especially the dowdy Martirio (Daphne Rubin-Vega) - longs for him in her own way.
LaChiusa explores the sisters' feelings fully, following Lorca's lead in not letting their carping and competing degenerate into prosaic, hand-wringing pronouncements. LaChiusa's found a searing musical equivalent to Lorca's taut psychological exploration, and he plumbs the depths of each daughter's external and internal imprisonment with stunning acuity.
This is most obvious in a miniature song cycle near the middle of the show, in which the daughters' hopes and fears silently smolder while they try to maintain a brave outer front to each other. Angustias sings of Pepe's intoxicating charms; Magdalena (an unrecognizable, uncompromising Judith Blazer) of her wrenching loneliness; Amelia (Sally Murphy) of her inviolate innocence; Martirio of her invisibility to men; and Adela of her dream to live a life beyond the one her mother has chosen for her.
But there's no dramatic moment that LaChiusa and Daniele have not similarly amplified. The most striking example is the use of dueling flamenco dancers to represent the violently erotic union of a stallion and an escaped mare, which reflects the girls' own unfilled sexual desires. But this moment of raw, visceral beauty is matched by chillingly musicalized scenes in which Bernarda coerces her brood into repudiating an unwed mother, and in the show's devastating finale, when Bernarda's tyranny reaches full, terrifying fruition.
All this forms such an enveloping and seamless a theatrical experience, with everyone operating at their intensely focused best. Daniele's direction and choreography flawlessly blend into swirling, pounding scenes that never loosen their grip on you. Christopher Barreca's barren set and Toni-Leslie James's funereal costumes are sumptuously stark. Michael Starobin's orchestrations, for guitar, woodwinds, strings (including harp), and percussion, are ideally wedded to the music and peerlessly performed by Deborah Abramson's orchestra. Stephen Strawbridge's harsh lights are crucial enough to become an eleventh character.
But the 10 LaChiusa has written form a unit knit so tight that you can feel, with every line and lyric, the years of resentment and resignation that are only now being let loose. The youthful curiosity of James's Adela is inseparable from Rubin-Vega's jealous and deceitful Martirio, Santiago's desperate Angustias, or the rapidly unraveling matriarch of Yolande Bavan's Maria Josepha (Bernarda's mother). Candy Buckley has several fierce moments as Bernarda's maid and confidant, Poncia, including the bitter "Thirty Odd Years," hauntingly prophesying the tragedy lying ahead. Even in more minor roles, Blazer, Murphy, and Laura Shoop and Nancy Ticotin as two other servants never feel extraneous.
Particular mention must be made of the majestic Rashad, whose steely evocation of unyielding will is so affecting that it surpasses even her own tour-de-force (and Tony-winning) turn as Lena Younger in the 2004 revival of A Raisin in the Sun. Her performance of her sole significant solo, "The Smallest Stream," sung as Bernarda washes herself and ponders her role in a masculine world, so drips with self-awareness and unstated grief, rage, and repression that it alone would identify Rashad's as the musical performance of the season, were all her other scenes not equally powerful.
But she's just one piece of this exquisitely beautiful puzzle, with which LaChiusa may finally claim his title of the most visionary musical author of his generation. To know his work in general is to know where modern musical theatre is; to know Bernarda Alba is to know the absolute best of what musicals can and ultimately must be. It's vital, important, unparalleled work, essential viewing for anyone who truly cares about musical theatre.
So if you live in New York, buy your tickets now. If you live elsewhere, make travel arrangements immediately. If you live in another country, dust off your passport. Do whatever you have to do, but do not miss Bernarda Alba.