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Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Shining
Minnesota Opera
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Every Sentence Is for the Birds, Bad Jews, Complicated Fun, and Leap of Faith


Brian Mulligan, Kelly Kaduce, and Alejandro Vega
Photo by Ken Howard
The Shining is the tenth offering under the banner of Minnesota Opera's New Work Initiative since the ambitious program's 2008 launch. The work is based on the best-selling 1977 Stephen King novel, which is also known by way of the 1980 movie directed by Stanley Kubrick with an iconic performance by Jack Nicholson. The story is extremely dark, with more internal psychological distress and anxiety than blood or gore. The idea of setting a tale so gothic, so fraught with emotion and peril, sounds like a stroke of genius.

Unfortunately, the result falls short of genius. The opportunity to transform the emotional cyclone spinning within The Shining's central couple, Jack and Wendy Torrance, into bracing and defining musical moments has not been realized in Paul Moravec's score. There are two notable exceptions. Wendy's "I Have Always Loved You" aria in act one beautifully and memorably captures her longing for the object of that love, as she already senses Jack's fall from any kind of grace. In the opera's epilogue, Dick Hallorann, the character who represents the potential for a positive future for Jack and Wendy's young son Danny, delivers a lovely aria that offers hope and comfort to counter the utter descent into darkness that precedes it. Otherwise, the music, while played with precision under conductor Michael Christie's baton, seems to follow the colloquial speech of the characters, short on emotional highs or lows, and with few memorable moments.

Mark Campbell's libretto faithfully follows King's book. Jack and Wendy Torrance have taken a job as winter caretakers at a grand mountain resort, the Overlook Hotel, in a remote part of Colorado. The couple's relationship has been at risk due to Jack's drinking and anger issues that cost him a teaching job, as well as affecting their young son Danny. Jack claims these are both under control, and the couple sees the caretaker job as an opportunity to rekindle their love and rebuild their relationship, while Jack is determined to work on his long-aborning novel.

We quickly learn that Danny has a prescient ability, recognized by the hotel chef Dick Hallorann, who counsels Danny to embrace his psychic powers, and also to call out to him if he encounters trouble. Dick then departs for a winter position in Tampa. Hotel manager Stuart Ullman reveals some of the hotel's lurid history to Jack. A previous caretaker had killed his wife and two daughters, a guest at the hotel committed suicide after being jilted by her younger lover, and it was also the site of a mafia-style slaying. Jack then receives instruction on operating the hotel's furnace, strongly cautioned that the boiler must be drained twice each day to keep it from exploding. Once he is left in charge, Jack is visited by the ghost of his own abusive father, followed by ghosts of the hotel's unsavory past. The hotel itself becomes an inescapable force, its single-minded goal expressed through the ghosts it houses: deliver to us your son.

Jack, unable to focus on his novel, casts it aside in favor of writing the Overlook Hotel's ghoulish history, as the hotel creeps into his psyche. Unrelenting pressure on Jack, fears that overwhelm Wendy's love, Danny's innate sense of what will come to pass, and the hotel's insatiable appetite to control its habitués erupt cataclysmically. All of it can be seen coming in advance, but the work is skillfully crafted to maintain suspense and the staging offers elements of surprise that hold audience attention.

While the story is hard to ignore, it is also hard to embrace. Jack Torrance is a weak character and while one might pity him, it is hard to have sympathy for him or to care about his welfare. Wendy is not developed as a person in her own right, only as one who reacts to Jack, first through love and then through terror, and Danny is only the embodiment of his fears, impulses, and instincts. The only character who seems to have depth is Hallorann, the chef, who is present only briefly at the beginning and end of The Shining but whose presence gives the work some mooring.

Yet, one cannot fault any of the performers for this. Brian Mulligan as Jack depicts clearly the character's descent into madness, and his rich baritone sings the work beautifully, albeit there is little of the music to hold on to. Kelly Kaduce has a beautiful soprano that makes Wendy's "I Have Always Loved You" aria a highlight of the production, and she too acts skillfully, so that we can see the pain with which Wendy's love for her husband dissolves into terror and, ultimately, loss. Arthur Woodley's powerful bass brings gravitas to his portrayal of Dick Hallorann while allowing for the character's essential tenderness. As Danny Torrance, Alejandro Vega makes a tremendous impression and there is no doubt a bright future for this young actor who, though only in fifth grade, is already a veteran of noteworthy Twin Cities' productions. Mark Walters uses his baritone to depict venality without remorse as Jack's father Mark Torrance.

The Shining's physical production is ambitious, perhaps to a fault. We approach The Overlook Hotel at the start through a series of projections that bring us closer and closer, through the forested mountains, to its isolated vale, to dizzying effect. This opening feels effective, but the effect diminishes when it continues with projections and lighting dissolves that move us from floor to floor, corridor to corridor of the Overlook, repeating what must be the hotel's wallpaper pattern, which becomes overly busy and distracting, rather than contributing to the narratives growing sense of menace. Boxes carved out within the playing space create the hotel kitchen, office, and the Torrances' quarters, confining the action in ways that make it feel small. When the space opens up to stage an unceasing masked ball attended by the hotel's ghosts, it lacks a sense of the hotel's fevered past, in spite of numerous projection and light effects. The most effective set piece is the boiler room, with its potential for calamity made scarily visible. The costumes effectively create ghostly depictions of the Overlook's past guests and staff.

It is evident that Minnesota Opera has given a tremendous amount of care to this world premiere of The Shining. The performances are its greatest strength and the physical production is ingenious, if perhaps overly busy. The libretto clearly tells the bold story, but its force is undermined by its score. While an overly melodramatic score might cheapen or seem to mock the story, this score seems to veer too far away from dramatizing the psychological terror on hand. For the most part, The Shining feels chilly, rather than chilling.

The Shining plays through May 15, 2016, a production of Minnesota Opera at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul, MN. All performances are sold out. For information on Minnesota Opera go to www.mnopera.org.

Music: Paul Moravec; Libretto: Mark Campbell, based on the novel by Stephen King; Stage Director: Eric Simonson; Conductor: Michael Christie; Choreographer: Heidi Spesard-Noble; Set Design: Erhard Rom; Costume Design: Kärin Kopischke; Animation and Projection Design: 59 Productions; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Sound Design: C. Andrew Mayer; Wig and Make-Up Design: David Zimmerman; Assistant Director: David Ramadés Toro; Head of Music and Chorus Master: Robert Ainsley; Assistant Conductor and Chorus Master: Jonathan Brandini; Fight Choreography: Doug Scholz-Carlson Repetiteurs: Jessica Hall and Lindsay Woodward; Production Stage Manager: Kerry Masek.

Cast: Robb Asklof (Stuart Ullman), Ben Crickenberger (a Mafia Guy), Jeni Houser (Mrs. Grady), Kelly Kaduce (Wendy Torrance), Cassie Klinga (Grady Girl), John Robert Lindsey (Lloyd), Alejandro Magallón (a Crooner), Joel Mathias (a Senator), Brian Mulligan (Jack Torrance), Zoey Paulson (Grady Girl) Rick Penning (Bill Watson), Shannon Prickett (Mrs. Massey), Alex Ritchie (Horace Derwent), Benjamin Sieverding (A Ranger, Man in Dog Mask), Colyn Tvete (a Mafia Guy), Alejandro Vega (Danny Torrance), Mark Walters (Mark Torrance), David Walton (Delbert Grady), Arthur Woodley (Dick Hallorann), Lu Zang (a Mafia Guy).


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