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The Scarlet Letter

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Did you think the pop opera was dead? It's not, at least if the musical version of The Scarlet Letter now playing at the Wings Theatre has anything to say about it. However, as this particular adaptation does little good for its original source material, the genre remains, at the very least, on life support.

The reason for this can be found in the adaptation; this isn't exactly Nathaniel Hawthorne's version of the story. Here, everything is broken down into its component pieces, and musicalized in broad emotional and dramatic strokes; the overall effect is that this isn't a musical version of the novel as much as a musical version of the Cliff's Notes of the novel.

Michael David Smith and J.R. Mounts have approached the show as a standard pop opera. Hester Prynne (Elizabeth DeLaBarre) sings of her childhood and her forbidden love with the local reverend, Arthur Dimmesdale (Kristoffer Lowe), while her estranged husband Chillingworth (Colin E. Liander) has his heart set on revenge and retribution. The musical ignores most of the depth and complexities of Hawthorne's work, stripping away most of the vital religious underpinnings that were the basis for the original story in the first place, and reduces the plot to little more than a love triangle between its three central characters.

The creators sacrificed the more thorough examination of the morality and religious fervor of 1642 Boston that permeated the novel; rather, The Scarlet Letter seems structured as to give each of the leads a solor or two painfully detailing every expanse of their inner feelings. It is difficult, at times, to remember you're not watching Les Miserables, to which The Scarlet Letter, witih its overwrought recitative and counterpoint, bears more than a passing resemblance.

Like Les Miserables, The Scarlet Letter is completely sung, and that gives you plenty of time to focus on the score. The music is never as weak as it is derivative, and despite some of its pretty melodies and ensemble numbers, it just always seems like you're listening to some other show. Regardless, DeLaBarre, Lowe, and Liander all give strong singing and acting performances, and work noticeably hard to infuse their lyrics with every bit of emotion possible. Liander comes across the best, and though his Chilligworth is little more than a jealous jilted husband, he puts everything he can into it.

Robert Hollinger's direction of the show is against a mostly bare stage (except for a leveled platform with a cross embedded in it), and while it heightens the comparison with other shows, is perfectly fine for The Scarlet Letter. His brisk pace is matched by Paul L. Johnson's musical direction; both keep the audience's eyes and ears focused where they need to be, and make sure that no detail of this musical adaptation of the show is missed.

While this version of The Scarlet Letter is more faithful to Hawthorne than the film version released a few years ago, it remains too dependent on easy answers and explainable emotions. The unavoidable problem with this version of The Scarlet Letter is that Mounts and Smith made Hawthorne's unconventional novel far too ordinary for the story's own good.

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The Scarlet Letter
by Michael David Smith and J.R. Mounts
Wings Theatre
154 Christopher Street
Through December 22
Tickets: (212) 627-2961
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours with one ten-minute intermission