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The Mapmaker's Opera

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

The Mapmaker's Opera
Joel Perez and Madeleine Featherby.
Photo by Michael Blase

The beauty and magic of both the Yucatán and the wild possibilities of romance charge the impressively conceived musical The Mapmaker's Opera, which plays its final performance today as part of the New York Musical Theatre Festival. The clashes of classes, cultures, and the sounds that define them form the framework of this adventurous show that brings alive a place and its people as few musicals these days, particularly at NYMF, are able to manage.

Certainly that's in no small part because Victor Kazan (book and lyrics) and Kevin Purcell (music) are working from a potent source. Béa Gonzalez's 2007 novel (of the same title) paints a vivid picture of the Yucatán at the start of the 20th century, and weaves together the story of a Spanish man named Diego who, entranced by Audobon's Birds of America, comes to the land to see the creatures for himself. While there, he encounters and falls in love with a young woman named Sofia who's trapped in cages of family and financial expectations, with bars that are not easily broken.

Kazan and Purcell demonstrate considerable fidelity to Gonzalez in crafting their versions of Diego (played here by Joel Perez) and Sofia (Madeleine Featherby), and gently unfold their relationship against the hustle and bustle of life in paradise. Their tale is ornamented with and punctuated by dances (choreographed, with intense Latin flair, by Stas Kmiec, and performed with sumptuous sensuality by Natalia Lepore Hagan and Andrés Acosta) that highlight the romantic fantasies and myths that guide their lives, and that underscore the on-edge contentment of two people just discovering they're in love.

Perez and Featherby share smoldering chemistry, and their vocals are superb at wringing every drop of impassioned, dreaming longing from the songs. The other performers with whom they share the stage, who include Broadway vets Alma Cuervo and Lorraine Serabian as the central, fatalistic women in Sofia's family, Sean McDermott as the American who's come in pursuit of two of the last remaining passenger pigeons, Tony Chiroldes as the optimistic "beast of burden" Very Useful, and Henry Gainza as Sofia's opera-buff beau, are excellent and varied as well. And Donald Brenner's direction, Andrew Lu's projection-heavy scenic design, Laura Crow's creamy costumes, and Gertjen Houbens's evocative lights make this one of the best-looking, most richly realized NYMF shows to date.

But for all that Kazan and Purcell get right, they're not quite able to seal the deal. At least as important as Diego and Sofia's relationship to Gonzalez was the simmering political atmosphere of the Yucatán in 1909, which led to the Mexican Revolution, and here the musical falls short. Though the sweeping social saga does seep into the action, it does so only at two significant points (the final sections of both acts), and, if not exactly ignored the rest of the time, does not inform things as deeply as it might. As a result, when the two halves of the plot fuse together, they don't do so willingly, and it's difficult to accept them as a natural pairing.

This deficiency manifests itself in a number of ways, particularly in the second act, which is almost tonally uncertain to the point of whiplash-inducing. (Two huge comedy songs are featured, after a first act that got by just fine with subtle or understated laughs at best.) And, as the finale gets closer, the writers have increasing difficulty fulfilling their available time, with sluggishness and lack of clarity stalling what before intermission seems urgent and exciting. And the closing moments, intended to be tragic, fizzle out altogether, without the myriad complexities of the setup ever completely paying off.

If these missteps make the show overall ultimately a missed opportunity at this stage of its development, it's in many ways a dazzling, and eminently fixable, one. Kazan and Purcell need to not lose sight of their goals and keep things buoyant so their vision, and that of Gonzalez, is not obscured just when it should be at its most clear. And because of their obvious devotion to doing the novel proud, and taking full advantage of the many opportunities the musical theatre form affords, they're already well more than halfway to making The Mapmaker's Opera the great musical it's capable of being.


The New York Musical Theatre Festival 2014
The Mapmaker's Opera
Tickets online and current Performance Schedule: www.nymf.org