Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Under the Gaslight
Like most most of the American versions of the genre, Under the Gaslight follows the trials and triumphs of a smart, plucky, capable and, of course, impossibly virtuous heroine who somehow needs to be saved in the end. When the secret of her lowborn birth is exposed to all of New York high society, beautiful Laura Courtland (Olivia Wilusz) selflessly releases her well-born fiancé Ray Trafford (Ryan Dean Maltz) from his obligation, and disappears in the middle of the night. When we next see her, she is living in a Skid Row hovel and has assumed an alias to cover her tracks. Aware that Byke (Corey Quinn Farrell) (described in the program as "One whom the law's reach never quite touches")a man who claims to be Laura's fatheris looking for her, Laura lays low and assumes an alias. Though destitute herself, Laura takes in a frightened teenage urchin, Peach Blossom (Kendall Kent), who is herself trying to escape the evil clutches of Old Malkin (Katherine Fried), her employer (and, unbeknownst to her, Byke's "nefarious colleague"). Meanwhile, a disabled Civil War veteran, Snorkey (Austen Fisher), still in his Union uniform, appears just in time to foil an attempt to abduct Laura. And the plot thickens ... .
Melodrama often gets a bad rap, for a variety of reasons. It is associated with shameless over-acting, one-dimensional characters, and nostalgic or even reactionary social values. I shared several of these preconceptions, so I was little surprised not only by how much I enjoyed the show but also by how interesting I found it. It may be a long time before one will again have the chance to see a melodrama directed and performed this well. Additionally, Under the Gaslight affords an opportunity to get acquainted with the new class of University of Minnesota BFA actorsand they are very impressive.
The two standout performances are Austen Fisher's Snorkey and Kendall Kent's Peach Blossom. Snorkey is this play's stock "faithful servant," and Fisher somehow manages to carry off some of the most maudlin and sanctimonious speeches (you hear violins) without provoking a single cringe. Fisher, an immensely likable actor with a winning smile and sharp comic timing, is one to watch. Kent's Peach Blossom is mercurial and the actress throws herself into each of the moodspious, mischievous, sweetly affectionate, bratty and impossibly saucywith passionate, full-bodied abandon. Above all, Kent, who looks a little like a young Judy Garland, has tremendous presence and is unfailingly interesting to watch (just try to look away when she's onstage!).
Olivia Wilusz plays Laura Courtland with quiet dignity, and her steady, self-possessed delivery provides a much needed anchor (pun intended) for the high-jinks and hysteria that surround her. Ryan Dean Maltz nicely conveys Ray Trafford's milquetoast flakiness as he moves from sincere adoration of Laura to selfish disregard to remorse and finally to determination to prove himself a worthy suitor. Damion "Domino" D'Lorion Rosa is delightfully jaunty as music peddler Bermudas, and he shines in the olios (brief musical entertainments between scenes) as the MC and conductor of the "Minute Waltz" contest, whose several contestants try (actually) to get through the piece in less than one minute.
The production values are top notch and the show represents a close and altogether successful collaboration of director John Miller-Stephany, musical Director Andrew Cooke, and costume and scenic designer Mathew J. LeFebvre. The traditional painted backdrops are richly evocative and the costumes are so lush and elegant that you want to try them on yourself (the "Downton Abbey" effect!). Andrew Cooke and olio consultant Vern Sutton are to be praised for selecting period pieces that are not only interesting from a historical perspective, but also manage to very effectively showcase the particular talents of each cast member. Highlights include a rousing three-man version of "That Baseball Rag" and a sweetly sung turn-of-the-century ballad called "The Moth and the Flame," complemented by a trio of delightfully maudlin "insect" songs (including the well-known "Glow Little Glowworm"). "The Bowery," performed with infectious enthusiasm by Fisher, is the evening's showstopper.
Miller-Stephany steers his actors away from highly stylized gestures (eye rolling, handkerchief dabbing, etc.) and stagey histrionics, and also from the kind of self-mockery and ironizing that would morph melodrama into camp. He gets his actors not only to play it straight, but also to play their parts with ferocious conviction.
The fate of the Showboat after this "farewell production" is uncertain. Like many other regional theater centers, the Twin Cities has seen a spate of theater closings over the past two years. It would be sad to see another one go, especially one as pretty as the Showboat's 220-seat jewel box with its Victorian decorations and vaudeville-style footlights and corner pit pianoespecially at a time when there are so many talented but homeless theater groups now competing for space. It is understood that the Showboat is an expensive venue to keep up, especially at a time when the University has severe budgetary constraints and reduced legislative support. There are also reports that ticket revenues have been declining in recent years, though the audience was full (and enthusiastic) the evening I attended. I am not sure exactly whether or why the Showboat confines itself to melodrama (and it appears that the department produced at least some plays that did not belong to the genre in former seasons).
But even if one is confined to melodrama, the view of the genre as intrinsically reactionary may be overstated. There were always melodramas that violated precedent and challenged conventional views (on slavery, race, gender, and class). Under the Gaslight is harshly critical of aristocratic decadence and exclusion based on class; and, with the exception of one villain, the poorer characters consistently come off better than the richer ones. Additionally, perhaps the melodramas of the past can be adapted for modern audiences. We do after all have lots of techniques these days for adapting classics to reflect contemporary social realities, attitudes and values. Better still, why not commission new plays that introduce new stock characters to the traditional pantheon or experiment with stretching the limits of the genre? In the meantime, see Miller-Stephany's gem of a production while you can, because in real life, unlike in many melodramas, there may be no last-minute hero to save this theater from its fate.
Augustin Daly's Under the Gaslight, a production of the University of Minnesota's Department of Theatre & Dance, through August 27, 2016, at the Minnesota Centennial Showboat on Harriet Island, downtown St. Paul. For tickets or more information call 651-227-1100 or visit www.showboat.umn.edu.
Adapted and directed by John Miller-Stephany