Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Which is why scandal and malfeasance in baseball seems like much more than a case of greed and corruption, two common maladies in every aspect of our society. It is a fall from grace, a damning mark not only on the sport, but on our nation's spirit, a chafing away at the notion that we walk with nobility among the family of nations. One of the most notorious of these is the Chicago Black Sox scandal. Eight Chicago White Sox players who were bitter toward team owner Charles Comiskey (well-known to be a skin-flint) for setting low salaries and withholding promised bonuses, conspired with a criminal syndicate of gamblers to throw the 1919 World Series, allowing the second-ranked Cincinnati Red to win. Under the auspices of its indispensable New Works initiative, Minnesota Opera commissioned The Fix with music by Joel Puckett and a libretto by Eric Simonson, now receiving its world premiere in a sterling production.
Shoeless Joe Jackson is the best-known figure from the Black Sox scandal. Jackson is, to this day, considered one of the greatest baseball players of all time, a powerful hitter admired by the likes of Ty Cobb and Babe Ruth, who is quoted as saying "I copied Jackson's style because I thought he was the greatest hitter I had ever seen, the greatest natural hitter I ever saw. He's the guy who made me a hitter." The Fix establishes from the start that Jackson is its central figure. In the opening scene we meet Joe and his wife, KittyJoe is the only character whose wife or any aspect of his life outside the fix is present in the opera. It is established that Joe is illiterate, and that Kitty tries to act as his protector, to guard Joe from being swindled, especially given his trusting nature and lack of worldliness. When she sings, wistfully, that "your faith in others is your Waterloo," his response is a befuddled "My what?" His goodness makes his fall, caused not by avarice but by an abundance of good will, the most painful.
Through the rest of act one, we visit the White Sox locker room where players grouse about Comiskey, a New York hotel room where they vote to go for the fix, the nightclub where kingpin gangster Arnold Rothstein makes and breaks deals, and a lively joint in Chicago on the verge of becoming a speakeasy. The latter two settings allow for womenplumed dance-hall girls, gun molls and ladies of the nightto have a presence, particularly striking in the languid choreography by Heidi Spesard-Noble. We meet the other seven players in on the fix, including "Chick" Gandil, who set the deal in motion, Fred McMullin, Joe's roommate, who brought him into the scheme, and hot-headed "Swede" Risberg, who lets loose when Joe starts to have cold feet. Overseeing the entire debacle is writer Ring Lardner, then a sports journalist and diehard White Sox fan. As the fix comes to light, the case brought to court, and the consequences dispensed, Lardner gives voice to ways in which the scandal brought down not only eight ball players, but the illusions held by a nation.
Puckett's music draws from a range of idioms that reflect the era, with a baseline of sweeping pastoralism that establishes the grandeur of the game and the upheaval of the fix in the context of our national landscape, and brings in strains of ragtime and vintage popular music. The song "I'm Forever Blowing Bubbles," first heard in 1918 and a big hit in 1919, is sung by the players, here as a schoolboy-like hymn to earthly delights, there in a well of drunken rowdiness, and becomes a recurrent theme. He also interpolates a dream-like playing of the national anthem as the White Sox players take the field for the first game of the World Series, passing into the ether of the fix. He provides taut musical themes that create suspense and tension in sequences that might have been only expository, given that their outcome is a matter of historical record.
Eric Simonson's libretto provides the narrative in a forthright manner, maintaining the authentic voices of each character. Simonson also serves as stage director, maintaining a strong focus on the compelling enactment of this story. Conductor Timothy Meyer leads the Minnesota Opera Orchestra in giving a breathless reading of the score, attesting to the majesty of this newly hewed work.
Joshua Dennis is Shoeless Joe Jackson, with a beautiful and warm tenor voice that conveys his naiveté, and later. his pain and regret. Shoeless Joe is The Fix's fallen hero, and Dennis acts the role as well as he sings it. As Kitty, Jasmine Habersham combines a devotion to the good man she married with her weariness at how easily he is led astray. Puckett provides a soaring musical theme for Joe and Katie to pledge their love to one another, beautifully sung by Dennis and Habersham.
Kelly Markgraf, as Ring Lardner, is given some of The Fix's most beautiful and stirring musical pieces, singing soulfully of his love for the game and the team, and the bereft feelings that follow the fix as he takes his own descent into the bottle. The entire cast does full justice to the muscular score, with notable turns by Nicholas Davis as Fred McMullin, Calvin Griffin as Eddie Cicotte, Sidney Outlaw as "Lefty" Williams, Christian Sanders as Swede, Andrew Wilkowske as Bill Burns and Wei Wu, making an impressive Minnesota Opera debut as the duplicitous Chick.
The physical production, with stage design by Walt Spangler, is breathtaking. A stage curtain with a sepia-toned view of the Chicago skyline circa 1919 rises to reveal the grandstands of Comiskey Park seen from the rear, with a massive, block letter sign reading WHITE SOX in lightbulbs hanging above. On the stage below, set pieces are moved in and out to create the necessary locations, including a handsome-looking liquor bar for the Chicago nightclub. Robert Wierzel's lighting design contributes to the sense of growing darkness gathering around the fallen men, and Shoeless Joe in particular, and Trevor Bowen's period costumes are a perfect fit.
I have had mixed responses to the output of Minnesota Opera's New Works Initiative, from the glorious Silent Night to the scabrous The Shining. The Fix rises to the top tier of these works, as it delivers a musical gift to opera lovers, locally, andif there is justiceacross the nation. To put it in the simplest terms, it is a grand-slam.
The Fix, through March 24, 2019, at Minnesota Opera, Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, 345 Washington Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $25.00 - $133.0. For information and tickets call 612-333-6699 or go to www.mnopera.org.
Music: Joel Puckett; Libretto: Eric Simonson; Conductor: Timothy Meyers; Stage Director: Eric Simonson; Choreographer: Heidi Spesard-Noble; Scenic Design: Walt Spangler; Costume Design: Trevor Bowen; Lighting Design: Robert Wierzel; Hair and Make-Up Design: Priscilla Bruce; Associate Stage Director: Doug Scholz-Carlson; Assistant Conductor and Chorusmaster: Andrew Whitfield; Assistant Director: Adam Da Ros; Répétiteurs: Mary Box, Allen Perriello and Andrew Sun; Fight Choreography: Tom Ringberg; Diction Coach: Keely Wolter; English Captions: Eric Simonson; Production Stage Manager: Kerry Masek.
Cast: Liam Beck-O'Sullivan (boy), Nicholas Davis (Fred McMullin), Joshua Dennis ("Shoeless" Joe Jackson), Charles Eaton (George Gorman/Arnold Rothstein), Calvin Griffin (Eddie Cicotte), Jasmine Habersham (Katie Jackson), Kelly Markgraf (Ring Lardner), Stephen Martin (Ray "Cracker" Schalk), Sidney Outlaw (Claude "Lefty" Williams), Dennis Peterson (Hugh Fullerton), Christian Sanders (Charles "Swede" Risberg), Benjamin Sieverding (Alfred Austrian, Esq.), William Clay Thompson (Charles Comiskey/ bodyguard), Christian Thurston (George "Buck" Weaver), Brian Wallin (Abe Attell/Judge Hugo Friend), David Walton (Oscar "Happy" Felsch), Andrew Wilkowske (Bill "Sleepy" Burns), Wei Wu (Arnold "Chick" Gandil), Christian Zaremba (Sidney Stager/Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis).
Chorus: Danielle Bekvermit, Brian Haase, Joel Mathis, Phillip Takemura-Sears, Colyn Tvete. Dancers: Michelle de Joya, Alejandra Iannone, Jordan Omeish, Brittany Wilson.