Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco

The Willows Theatre Presents Joyful Noise

Also see Richard's reviews of Sexaholix ... A Love Story
and For the Pleasure of Seeing Her Again

The Willows Theatre is currently presenting Tim Slover's ingenious drama Joyful Noise. Joyful Noise is the story of the the making of "The Messiah." The play takes place during four years of George Fredrick Handel's life in London, when his career had reached its lowest point. Joyful Noise had its premiere at the Lamb's Club in San Diego and later played off Broadway. The play has been compared to Peter Shaffer's Amadeus. As in Amadeus, the glorious music of the master is woven throughout the production. This play with music is a noteworthy glimpse into 18th Century England and is an inspired look at the triumph of the creative spirit.

In 1741, during the reign of George II, the fifty-five year old Handel had lost favor with both the king and the English public. The composer's last four operas were so disastrous that he vowed never to write another opera. The wife of George II, the patroness of the composer, had died and the monarch refused to pay for any more of Handel's living expenses. Handel considered a return to his native Germany.

The main characters, other than Handel himself, include the famous singer Susannah Cibber, who had been the toast of London for years at the Drury Lane Theatre until she became involved in one of the most spectacular sex scandals of the 18th Century. Her life was almost destroyed by her depraved husband and she was ostracized by London theater circles.

Charles Jennens, the librettist, who had collaborated with Handel on the highly successful oratorio Saul, requests that the composer collaborate on a new work based on a collection of biblical verses. Mr. Jennens is calling the new work The Messiah. At first Fredrick resists until he hears Mrs. Cibber's angelic voice. The a capella Coventry Carol wins over the composer, and he agrees to write a score.

Bishop Henry Egerton, who has the ear of the king, feels Handel to be unchristian in everything he has written. Egerton feels that scriptures do not belong in a theater, but only in the Church. He maneuvers to set the king against the composer and this work.

Joyful Noise dramatizes the feuds, jealousies and political wrangling going on between the Church and theater surrounding the creation of this magnificent work. The Church is opposing the work, jealousy is rampant between the two lead female singers, and the librettist hates the score. The composer hates the English and premieres the work in Dublin where it is acclaimed as a great success, but he still has to battle the Church to get the work presented in London. The play has a magnificent and stirring ending.

The small cast is wonderful. Gary S. Martinez as the curmudgeonly composer is cantankerous, funny, and touching. Pilar Kuhn as Mrs. Cibber not only has a angelic voice, but she is a marvelous actress as well. Kitty Clive, the second singer and crude Drury Lane actress, is properly catty in her role. Barbara Grant is excellent as the composer's "groupie" and very close friend. Richard Edwin Anderson plays George II as a monarch with genuine human attributes. His German accent is outstanding. The rest of the small cast includes Simon Vance as the stuffy bishop, Patrick Sieler as the librettist and Greywolf as John Christopher Smith, all good in their roles.

The set is reminiscent of Witness For the Prosecution, all overpowering with dark wood and staircases. A center turntable makes various quick scene changes that are occasionally a little too quick. During the matinee that we saw, there was a grinding noise coming from the turning that was not a "joyful noise," and it came to such a sudden stop it almost knocked the actors off the set. Several had to hold on.

Joyful Noise plays through May 26, at the Willows Theatre in Concord. Tickets can be obtained by calling (925)798-1300 or The next production is The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas which opens on June 10.

Cheers - and be sure to check the lineup of great shows this season in the San Francisco area

- Richard Connema

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