Dorian is so gorgeous in its look, so primal in its emotions, and - above all - so theatrical, it puts heartless musicals like The Ten Commandments to shame. From beginning to end, Dorian plays almost like a primer in how to bring a classic to the stage. The show chooses exactly the right moments to portray through scene and song; the whole piece plays not so much as a musicalization of Oscar Wilde's novel but a new work that was inspired by the novel and created directly for the stage.
The central conceit is to have Dorian's portrait - the one that grows old in the attic while Dorian remains outwardly young - played by a live actor. This simple concept alone may be enough on which to hang the entire show, as it creates so much dramatic opportunity. Whenever Dorian does something cold and heartless, we see its immediate effect on his disembodied soul, as the actor playing the Portrait suffers on his behalf. It's the sort of raw emotion that is essential to a gothic musical - and Dorian has it in its purest unadulterated form.
Dorian also has a full and vibrant book, courtesy of James J. Mellon and Duane Poole. The show follows Dorian as he returns to his childhood home in New Orleans to hunt down his past. Scenes take place in 1984, at a time when the South was not as evolved in terms of race relations as other parts of the country. When Dorian falls in love with Celia, "a colored girl," it sends shock waves through the upper class. Mellon & Poole have wisely set their show during "Carnival Season," which allows for masked balls, wildly ornate costumes, and a hint that communication with the spirit world isn't entirely far-fetched.
But it isn't just the plot itself that works; individual lines are smart and effective. The portrait painter, Henry, also doubles as the show's narrator, and his worldly commentary nearly always gets laughs, either for its inherent humor or its sly foreshadowing of the basic plot development we all know will occur. "Don't think," he tells Dorian, "Thinking does terrible to things to the face. Einstein - ugly man."
Scott DeTurk and Mellon also provide the score, and it is here that Dorian shows its weakness. While the music itself, with a jazzy New Orleans flair, is more than sufficient to get the job done; the lyrics are, on the whole, pedestrian. Dorian looks at his portrait and sings, "You're the face they see/when they look at me." Rhymes are simplistic and they prevent any attempt at meaning in the lyrics. Dorian's book promises wit and perceptiveness, but its lyrics never get beyond rhyming "Something is wrong" with "I don't belong."
Max von Essen has a lovely tenor voice, which nicely matches Dorian's first-act innocence. It also blends beautifully with that of Nikki Renée Daniels's Celia; their love duet is a high point. Kevin Bailey's voice has a bit of an abrasive edge to it, which is perfect for Henry - as Henry's purported avuncular interest in Dorian hides a rather more selfish one. Also standing out is Armelia McQueen as Celia's mother. McQueen has a stunning first act number, "Without Tomorrow," which would bring the house down if it had remained a solo rather than involving several other characters. McQueen works a special kind of magic with this ballad, and the spell is broken when other voices join in.
That particular problem actually shows up repeatedly in the show, as though Dorian's creators don't trust their material enough to actually let it stand on its own. Frequently, characters comment on the action to each other, as though the characters presently live in a world outside the play and are looking back on it. But the commentary is often destructive of any effect the play has on the audience. The audience, enraptured, watches the Portrait react for the first time to something Dorian does - and the moment is immediately destroyed by an outsider to the scene commenting that yes, the Portrait is reacting. When Dorian ultimately mistreats Celia, the scene should be emotionally devastating in and of itself, just from watching what Dorian does and how Celia reacts. The audience doesn't need to be told how much Dorian is hurting Celia.
On opening night, some technical difficulties delayed the show, but it appeared to clock in at something approaching three hours. The first act is as tight as it can be, but the second act needs trimming - with the show's climax being played out over two sequences when it could just as easily be played in one. It's a minor quibble, but it shows that there's still some work to be done.
Dorian runs at the Noho Arts Center in North Hollywood through November 21, 2004. For tickets, see DorianTheMusical.com
Open at the Top Productions and Denver Center Attractions present Dorian. Music and Lyrics by Scott DeTurk & James J. Mellon. Book by James J. Mellon & Duane Poole. (Based on Oscar Wilde's "The Picture of Dorian Gray.") Scenic Design Craig Siebels; Lighting Design Jeremy Pivnick; Costume Design Scott A. Lane; Sound Design Scott DeTurk; Musical Direction Robbie Gillman; Original Orchestration Bruce Coughlin; Additional Orchestration Ken Fix; Production Stage Manager Chris Warren Murry; Press Representative Kim Garfield; Associate Producer Susan J. Blyth; Casting Cindi Rush Casting; Assistant Choreographer Robert Pendilla; Assistant Director; Make-Up & Hair Design Paul Hadobas. Conceived, Directed & Choreographed by James J. Mellon.
Photo: Ed Krieger