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Ellen Craft: A New Opera

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Opera is rare at the New York International Fringe Festival; good opera is even harder to come by. Ellen Craft is not only good opera, but it's brilliant, thrilling, and moving, easily enjoyable wherever your tastes may lie on the theatrical spectrum.

It was conceived by Sherry Boone, who's blown off her share of roofs performing in shows like Marie Christine and First Lady Suite. While lovers of New York musical theatre can only hope she doesn't give up performing entirely, that would be opera's gain: She demonstrates here that her talent extends even further than previously suspected, providing not only lyrics to music composed by Sean Jeremy Palmer, but also directing the piece and collaborating with Palmer on the libretto. (Palmer demonstrates his own versatility as well by choreographing the show.)

Together, Boone and Palmer have brought an oversized, impossible American legend stunningly to life; the story is made all the more amazing by the fact that it actually happened. Ellen, a light-skinned black woman in 1849 Georgia, escapes from slavery on a Georgia plantation to the freedom of the North by masquerading as a white man, while her darker-skinned husband William poses as her slave. This simple, emotion-rich story proves ideal for the legitimately operatic treatment it's given here.

Boone and Palmer fully explore not only the feelings of Ellen (the divine Linda Dorsey) and William (Terence Archie) and their sympathizers, but also of the slaves willing to be content (or play content) with their lot, and even the slaves' white owners, with their pompous gentility best typified by Ellen's owner, Mistress Craft (Donna Lynne Champlin). All of the production's beautifully defined characters, however, combine to depict the glorious panorama, in its infinite love and hatred, of the pre-Civil War South.

It helps that such a fine cast has been assembled. Dorsey's voice is rich and voluptuous, capable of flawlessly expressing her character's joy and love or her plaintive frustrations and fears. Archie also possesses a strong and characterful voice, and he has true vocal and physical chemistry with Dorsey, providing the show with plenty of heat and urgency. Standouts in the cast are numerous, but the more notable include Christine Clemmons as Ellen's ill-fated friend Mary, Hugh Fletcher as the dangerously ingratiating slave Ronald, and Samantha Jeffrey as the younger Ellen.

Also worthy of note is musical theatre veteran Donna Lynne Champlin, who infuses Mistress Craft with a gleefully understated racism that makes her simultaneously lovable and loathsome. Her characterization is so strong, it seems a shame to mention her vocal shortcomings, but her voice lacks the coruscating resonance and power of her costars', and as the show is unamplified (wisely and wonderfully so), she's the only one you ever have even the slightest trouble hearing. But she's an expert communicator, so her messages always come through loud and clear.

So does the rest of the composition, with Boone's lyrics usually direct and to the point, but lovingly and thoughtfully crafted to achieve the maximum dramatic and musical effect. Palmer mixes operatic-level recitative, arias, and choral numbers with African-American spirituals, and a few dashes of traditional tribal music (used primarily to tie Ellen's present to her family's violent, troubled past) to create a varied and highly melodic score. Whether depicting Mistress Craft's birthday party, a carriage ride, the tense journey by train for Ellen and William, or even a slave auction, it always succeeds not only as gorgeous music but heartfelt drama, as the best music theatre must.

It's a shame, if an understandable one, that this score is performed here only with a piano (played by music supervisor Linda Dowdell) and drums (Marlon Cherry); it's more than worthy of a full orchestral treatment. Musical director and conductor Steven Jarui ensures the music has the proper feeling, always pulsing, flowing, and growing with just the right fervent energy.

As often is the case with Fringe productions, this one is not free of problems: The design elements (Mikiko Suzuki's set, Shana Albery's costumes, and Mike Boll's lighting) are generally representative and functional, never providing ideal accents to the material. Dorsey also runs into some difficulty with het character when she first dons her male disguise in Act II, and the show itself takes longer than it should to get back up to speed after intermission.

But these problems are minor and eminently fixable, and would result in making this already solid piece even stronger. It deserves to be seen and heard, and its vibrant musicality and strong dramatic rootings make it ideal for either theatrical or operatic stages. Ellen Craft's story and music adroitly capture the heartbreak, pain, and most importantly the hope of its period; when these characters sing out for understanding and freedom, their cry is unlikely to ever leave your ears.

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New York International Fringe Festival
Ellen Craft: A New Opera
Through August 22
Running Time: 2 hours with one 10-minute intermission
Michael Schimmel Center for the Performing Arts at Pace University, 3 Spruce Street, East of Park Row, at the corner of Gold Street
Schedule and Tickets: 212.279.4488