Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Also see Arty's review of The Abraham Play
The Great Work opens in present time, with acclaimed composer Hans Gartner, in his 80th year, making an appearance at Carnegie Hall. Upon walking on stage, he suffers some kind of strokethe nature of his ailment is not clearand is escorted off the stage by his 30-year-old daughter/manager, Charlotte. We next see Hans embarking on a trip to his homeland, Vienna, traveling with Charlotte, though against her better judgment. We soon learn that Charlotte and Hans have an icy relationship. We also learn that Hans intends to revisit ghosts of his youthful years in Vienna. He tells Charlotte the story of the ambitious twenty-year-old Hans, the wealthy von Laudon family who hired him to instruct their willful daughter Frannie in piano, and the love that blossoms between Hans and Frannie's older sister Elisabeth. When faced with a choice between his ambitions and his love, Hans made a decision that directed the rest of his life.
By sharing his well-guarded past with Charlotte, Hans hopes to restore their relationship before his time runs out. He also offers guidance to Charlotte in her handling of her own troubled love life, which she is loath to accept. At the same time, he seeks an opportunity to unveil a song he wrote for Elisabeth, a work that he has never shared. Thus, the titular "great work" can be the process of nurturing and repairing love, as well as a work of art inspired by love. Of course, there are complications, but nothing that can keep this story from arriving at its predictable conclusion.
One problem with The Great Work is that we are asked to believe too much. Hans is an internationally acclaimed musical great, but what we hear of his work is not symphonic compositions or dramatic art-songs, but fairly mid-level songs that fit well in a chamber musical (like The Great Work), but are not the stuff of legendary careers. We also are asked to believe that after composing one simple song, his first, the sophisticated Elisabeth would proclaim him a genius, and that an influential family friend similarly leaps forward to invest in launching Hans' career after hearing him perform just once. The outcome between Hans and Charlotte also lacks persuasive rationale in what comes before it.
In The Great Work's favor are the songs. While not world-class masterpieces, they certainly are pleasing and fit handily into the narrative; the dialogue, which is crisp and rings true to life, despite numerous holes in the plot; and the performances. David Carey creates a moving presence as the elder Hans, recognizing the price he has paid for choices throughout his life. Andy Frye has the gleam of youth and optimistic enthusiasm as he takes his moves in the direction of his dreams. However, though both are well honed performances, there is no observable connection between them, no lasting mannerisms or turns of phrase that traversed the fifty years.
Kendall Anne Thompson as Charlotte does so well at creating her character's brittle exterior that we are at first put off by her, but she gradually reveals an inner vulnerability, born of wounds and disappointments, and draws upon our sympathy. Bergen Baker as Elisabeth projects the athletic glamour of the well-born, forthright, and confident. Though she and the young Hans (as played by Frye) are from different worlds, there is a chemistry between them that makes their love believable. Shinah Brashears as Hans' teen-aged pupil Frannie, and Maeve Moynihan as Hans' younger sister Therese both bring youthful vitality to their performances. All sing well, giving David Darrow's score a chance to shine, and Kendall Anne Thompson especially brings vocal power to Charlotte's emotionally gripping songs.
The physical production of The Great Work is somewhat baffling. The show is performed in a square central playing space with seats on risers along all four sides. From the center of the ceiling, tension chords radiate out in each direction, which are pulled down by members of the ensemble to create frames in various configurations around the action. I am sure this was well thought through, but the effect for me was somewhat distracting and in no way illuminated the story. There are also moments when cast members toss handfuls of paper petals in the air, which surely is meant to signify something, though after giving it considerable thought, I still cannot say what. The costumes, at least, are well tailored to reflect the differences in social station and time period. The orchestra, under Jason Hansen's direction and orchestrations, plays beautifully, drawing the emotional tones imbedded in Darrow's music.
The program notes for The Great Work state that the play rather markedly changed course less than two months before it opened. Originally, it was about the work of Franz Liszt. What led to the change is not stated, but it means that the work had to have been rushed. More time might have helped to develop a more cogent and compelling plot, and find ways to use the busy physical production to illuminate the story. Adult children and aging parents struggling to mend life-long schisms, and a man or woman late in life reflecting on a lost love are common themes in literature. More time might allow the creators of The Great Work to find a unique intersection of those themes that would make this story special.
The Great Work, a production of 7th House Theater, continues at the Guthrie Theater's Dowling Studio through January 3, 2016. 618 South 2nd Street, Minneapolis, MN, 55115. Tickets: $26.00, Seniors and Students: $23.00, public rush tickets for unsold seats 15 - 30 minutes before each performance, $15.00, cash or check only. For tickets call 612-377-2224 or visit www.7thhousetheater.org.
Music and Lyrics: David Darrow; Book: Grant Sorenson; Director: Cat Brindisi, David Darrow and Grant Sorenson; Musical Director and Orchestrator: Jason Hansen; Set Design: Kate Sutton-Johnson; Costume Design: Samantha Haddow; Lighting Design: Adam Raine; Sound Design: Nicholas Gosen; Props Design: Abbee Warmboe; Stage Manager: Jack Tillman; Technical Director: Stein Rosburg.
Cast: Bergen Baker (Elisabeth von Laudon), Shinah Brashears (Franny von Laudon), David Carey (Hans Gartner, age 80), Andy Frye (Hans Gartner, age 20), Aleks Knezevich (Joseph Schonfeldt), Adam Moen (Tobias Nowak), Maeve Moynihan (Therese Gartner), Kendall Anne Thompson (Charlotte Gardner)