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The Hatpin at the Adobe Theater

The Hatpin
Lorri Oliver, Maya Reese, Rafi Bromberg and Roby Schapira
It's always admirable when any theatre is willing to sacrifice box office take by picking a theatrical season that challenges an audience's intellect and emotions. Albuquerque's Adobe Theater is a community theatre which is known for marching to the beat of its own drummer. It doesn't matter whether it mounts Shakespeare, Shaw or old school musicals—sometimes the theatre produces a hit, sometimes audiences are smaller. Regardless, it is the spirit of doing theatre to move and inspire that has given the Adobe its reputation.

In the spirit of trying new things and taking theatrical risks, the Adobe Theater is currently offering theatergoers something altogether different: The Hatpin—an Australian import with music by Peter Rutherford and book and lyrics by James Millar. Based on the 1892 account of Amber Murray, a homeless, single, teenage mother who placed an advertisement in a Sydney newspaper to find a family to care for her young infant, The Hatpin is a musical unto its own. The show chronicles the life of Murray, her friendship with Harriet Piper, a fruit vendor who was her boss and confidante. Both Murray and Piper became involved in one of the biggest criminal court cases in Australian history.

The Adobe production, under the able directorial hands of Jane and Cy Hoffman, is special because it is the U.S. amateur premiere of the show (it premiered in the U.S. at the New York Musical Theatre Festival in 2008). One thing audiences should know is that this musical does not possess joyful, recognizable tunes, though the show in its writing, scoring and presentation is very reminiscent of the musicals Titanic or Parade. In spite of the similarities, it does not have the scale that those other, bigger musicals have. Instead, it is an intimate, up-close-and-personal journey of a woman in search for justice. One thing is certain from the outset—there is always the sense that something is amuck and that it will reveal itself. It is this sense of foreboding that helps the audience fully connect to the final moments of the show, where revelations are made and the tone makes a complete shift.

Thematically, The Hatpin is universal. Throughout history, women and the poor have been exploited and mistreated, and the show's creators have depicted this clearly. They also provide characters in situations the audience can relate to, including the helplessness they feel when faced with discrimination and injustice. The pack mentality of society is alive and well in The Hatpin.

The Adobe production of The Hatpin is filled with extraordinary local talent. Maya Reese, as the distraught single mother Amber Murray, is wonderful and easily likeable. She connects to the material, and the glimmer that awakens in her eyes when she both smiles and cries makes her very vulnerable and believable. Lorri Oliver, a film and television actress, plays Harriet Piper with a strong physical presence. The combination of her brassy, Patti LuPone-esque vocals and her seamless acting makes her performance brilliant. She also adds much of the humor to this mostly pensive production. Her rendition of "Bad Fruit," a song tantamount to the modern-day slogan "Mean People Suck," is particularly enjoyable. Its conciliatory tone also sets her up as a motherly advisor to Amber. Daniel Caimi and Cody Wesner as the scheming couple Charles and Agatha Makin, who take in Amber's son Horace, capture the essential creepiness that their characters must possess. Caimi is perfectly subtle and emasculated, and Wesner's passive-aggressiveness has the audience wondering what exactly her game really is. Wesner is a very capable actress and has one of the finest singing voices in the show. One of the production's standouts is UNM theatre major Janine O'Neill as the Makin's daughter Clara. Clara is perhaps one of the most complicated characters in the show, demanding that the actress who plays her find a huge range of emotions and personality traits. O'Neill goes from indifferent to empathetic, from scared to fearless, with ease. Her testimony in the courtroom in the show's final scenes is the most riveting of all and makes the audience wish they had heard more from Clara, especially her beautiful, bell-like vocals.

The Hatpin's ensemble is terrific. The Hoffmans have cast a wonderful array of types and voices that help to embody the spirit of the community as a whole. Familiar faces such as Rafi Bromberg, who also plays multiple smaller roles, are a delight to watch. Roby Schapira's vocals also add a nice element to the production. Stormy Wesner, Morgan Davison and Michelle Boehler, who play Marianne Leonard, Minnie Davies and Rebecca Rigby, three other mothers who have left their children in the care of the Makins, are also standouts.

Barbara Bock's set design is perfect for the production and the Adobe's smaller, thrust-stage space. It allows for easy locale shifts, which change throughout the musical, whether it's a tree representing an open reserve where Amber is abandoned by her lover, a simple door that stands for the Makin family's many residences, or even the coldness of a late 19th century courtroom. Judi Buehler and Bev Herring's period costumes accurately fit the tone of the show. There are times when Michael Girlamo's lighting design seems too subdued or too bright, but having performed in a production myself at the Adobe, I believe those issues to be related to the limited system in place at the theatre.

Overall, the orchestra and the vocals, under the direction of Loretta Robinson, are excellent. The show opens with an ensemble number that is very tight vocally, and the cast keeps that vocal cohesiveness throughout. Perhaps the only criticism I have of the ensemble is that in general they show less energy and emotion than they muster up in the finale. The two opening ensemble numbers seem to drag. Also, the intimacy of the Adobe can sometimes be daunting for an actor in terms of his or her willingness to interact with the audience. Stronger storytelling "to" the audience instead of just singing "at" the audience is needed. That said, Jane and Cy Hoffman's direction is thoughtful and deliberate and allows for small nuances that make each moment of the show real.

Amber's words sum up the feel of The Hatpin. "In some other story, my son is smiling, warm ..." While the plot of the show goes from serious to grave, in the end there is hope and rebirth, which inspires and gives testament to the resiliency of man in the wake of the human condition. This is the kind of theatre that makes you want to take a moment afterwards, before interacting with others, to process and regroup. I felt the need to leave the theatre and get away so I could come to my own understanding of what I'd just seen. That is the kind of impact the production has on the audience. One final piece of advice if you are planning on attending The Hatpin, bring lots of tissue—you're going to need it. If you forget, undoubtedly, there will be an usher waiting with a box of them at the door.

The Hatpin continues through May 22 at Albuquerque's Adobe Theater. The remaining performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and 2 p.m. on Sunday. Tickets: $16 for General Admission and $14 for students and seniors. For reservations call the Adobe's box office at 505-898-9222 or for more information visit www.adobetheater.org.


Photo: Ossy Werner

See the schedule of theatre productions in the Albuquerque area

-- Paul Niemi



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