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Chicago by John Olson

Brigadoon
Goodman Theatre

Also see John's reviews of The Last Ship and This Is Our Youth


Emma Rosenthal, Jordan Brown and Courtney Cerny
The very thought of "revisals" has scared me ever since seeing David Henry Hwang's new version of Flower Drum Song. The good news in Brigadoon's revised book by Brian Hill is that it's respectful to Alan Jay Lerner's original rather than a rethinking of it. No new or deleted characters—no additional plotlines. His intention seems to have been to provide additional context for the slim but fanciful story of the 18th century Scottish village that materializes for just one day every 100 years with its villagers just a day older than the day/century before.

For the most part, Hill's additions don't hurt, though they don't help very much either. The morose lead male character, Tommy Albright, is given more reasons for his malaise. We're told he's a World War II veteran, depressed from experiencing the horrors of war. Fair enough, but Tommy is still a bland stick figure of a romantic hero. It seems all we're supposed to know is that he's shaken out of his funk by the lovely lass Fiona, a villager some 200 years his senior (though not looking a day over 27). Oddly, Hill has made more changes to the character of Tommy's buddy Jeff Douglas, the hard-drinking, womanizing cynic that Lerner created simply as a comic foil for Tommy. Hill has removed some of Lerner's jokes that today might seem to make light of Jeff's alcohol abuse, but while keeping other laugh lines for Jeff and creating some new ones, he's deepened Jeff's cynicism as well. Jeff is now more strident in urging Tommy not to stay in Brigadoon where he would vanish at midnight along with the rest of the village. And there's more SPOILER ALERT he now kills Harry Beaton the spurned lover who attempts to leave Brigadoon, an act which would cause all the villagers to vanish.

The backstory of the villagers' motivation for seeking the miracle that allows them to vanish and reappear has been changed as well. In Lerner's original script, they sought to live in no particular era so they would escape the evils of any particular time. Here, Hill ties that wish to a more practical motive, one with its roots in the Battle of Culloden in 1746 in which Scottish clansmen were killed and clans dispersed. Brigadoon's schoolmaster Mr. Lundie now explains that the town preacher Mr. Forsythe prayed for a miracle that would allow the village to escape this persecution unscathed and intact. It's a fascinating grounding in history, but perhaps makes the simple villagers seem a bit less noble to have sought the miracle out of self-preservation rather than a quest for spiritual purity. Hill also moves Tommy's solo "There But for You Go I" from early in act two to the 11 O'clock number spot where it seems out of place as it's sung to his memory of Fiona after he's back in New York, rather than as a profession of love to a very present Fiona.

All that said, this is still the Brigadoon I remember from my youth. Seeing it for the first time in decades, I'm struck by just how typical of the WWII and postwar musicals it is in its emphasis on music and dance over story or character development. Like Oklahoma! and Carousel, which as the original Brigadoon were choreographed by the legendary Agnes de Mille; or On the Town choreographed by the even greater legend Jerome Robbins, there are long dance sequences. Brigadoon has several of them, including the Scottish Highland dance by Charlie in "I'll Go Home with Bonnie Jean," Jean's ballet steps to "Come to Me, Bend to Me" and the stunning "Sword Dance" just before act one closes. Director-choreographer Rachel Rockwell, with credit given to de Mille for the original dances, winningly makes the most of them with her athletic dancers. The lovely, ballad-heavy score by Frederick Loewe with lyrics by Lerner is intact as well. While no one will mistake it for the work of Spring Awakening's Duncan Sheik or American Idiot's Billie Joe Armstrong, it's still a very solid score in a Great American Songbook way, and Rockwell has hired a cast of wonderful singers who deliver it impressively.

Jennie Sophia, who toured as Nellie Forbush in the Lincoln Center's South Pacific is a dream as Fiona. Nailing the highest of her high notes as solidly as anything else in her range, she acts the heck of the role as well, making Fiona a lovely and kind yet direct and plain-spoken young woman. As her Tommy, Kevin Early is equally impressive in his vocals but remains rather stiff in acting his sadly underwritten character. Jordan Brown, who's done mostly non-singing dramatic work in Chicago (including his chilling work in Profiles' In the Company of Men a year ago), proves himself to be a sensational singer and dancer. As Charlie Dalrymple, the young man who marries Fiona's sister Jeannie (beautifully danced by Olivia Renteria), Brown is so charming and goofily enthusiastic that he makes up for all the charisma Tommy lacks. In the fourth major singing role, that of the comically oversexed milkmaid Meg Brockie, is Maggie Portman. Portman creates a very human and likable girl, even solidly selling her two comedy numbers that are more repetitive than funny.

Supporting these actors are an experienced corps of Chicago players beginning with Roger Mueller (Tony-winner Jessie's father) as the kindly Mr. Lundie, Joseph Anthony Foronda as the grieving Archie Beaton, Larry Adams as Charlie's father Stuart, and Craig Spidle as the loving dad of Fiona and Jean. Only Rod Thomas, who stepped into the role of Jeff during rehearsals, seems to struggle with his character—trying to manage the extra dose of cynicism Mr. Hill gave him to play along with his not-all-that-funny comedy lines. Rhett Guter, who impressed as Tulsa in Chicago Shakespeare's Gypsy earlier this season, dances the heck out of his role and handles well enough the demands of playing the jilted lover about whom we're told little except that he lost Jean to Charlie and is very unhappy about that.

The highlight of the production design is its costumes by Mara Blumenfeld: authentic looking tartans for men; peasant dresses for the women; and smart postwar period looks for Tommy and Jeff. Kevin Depinet, one of Chicago's masters of realistic scenic design, has instead created a minimal, suggestive set with just a simple cyc in the background and two cutout scrims flying above the stage representing highland hills. This scenic simplicity is fair enough given that the bulk of the action occurs outdoors (he uses just a few flying beams to suggest the A-frames of the houses), but one might logically expect a bit more stage magic from a theater with the size and resources of the Goodman. As it is, the production values here are no greater than one would find at Chicago's Drury Lane Oakbrook, the Equity house in the suburbs where Rockwell and many of these actors work so frequently. This is as much a compliment to the Drury Lane (where in truth many of their shows have been more elaborately designed than this one) as it is a disappointment in what the Goodman is doing. There is an impressive projection of the New York nightclub near the musical's end, though, designed by Shawn Sagady.

At the end of the day, despite Hill's harmless but unnecessary revisions, we have a very faithful and lovingly performed 1940s musical, one of the best of that era. Rockwell uses a presentational style that allows the vocals and dances to take center stage, and keeps the narrative moving smoothly enough to tie it together. Most musicals today go for something a little more thought-provoking than the idea that love can win out over barriers of space and even time. But even that hyper-romantic concept may be welcome among many, and even if it isn't, one can revel in the glorious songs and dances.

Brigadoon will play the Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago, through August 17, 2014. For ticket information, visit www.goodmantheatre.org or call 312-443-3800.


Photo: Liz Lauren

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-- John Olson



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