Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco


by Richard Connema

The up-and-coming Willows Theatre is presenting the West Coast Premier of an exciting new musical called Brimstone. This company is becoming one of the major regional companies in the Bay Area. They are not afraid to present new or little-known musicals. Last season they presented a superb production of The Rothschilds.

Brimstone was originally produced by the Music Theater Works in New York for the Berkshire Theatre Festival several years ago. It was an instant success and there was talk about the musical going to Off-Broadway. However, Irish composer Patrick Meegan wanted to do more work on the score before it went before the general public. He took it back to his home in Dublin for extensive work on the score.

Richard Elliott, artistic director of the Willow, expressed a desire to present its West Coast premier and also the newly arranged score to the Bay Area. Mr. Meegan consented and he flew to the Bay Area to help work on the production. The result is an emotional and exciting new musical that should find a place in, at least, the regional canon.

The musical is set in Belfast in 1988. Eamon, played by Bruce Thompson, returns to Belfast after being a successful Princeton-educated architect. He is a well-educated person who describes himself as an atheist Catholic. He comes home to attend the funeral of his younger brother who was shot by the Brits as a "terrorist" for the IRA. Eamon finds not much changed about his warring homeland except for Mairead, played by Cindy Goldfield, his childhood sweetheart. She became romantically involved with the younger brother, involved in terrorism, and has spent most of the past several years in a prison. Her prison sentence had been kept from Eamon so as not to disrupt his life.

Eamon finds himself thrust into the fight and gives his former sweetheart insight on how to destroy the 400 year old Royal Hall of Justice, the very building that inspired him to become an architect.

The separation of Eamon and Mairead and the rekindling of their romance are the heart of the story. The musical drama is a politically charged love story that travels into the same emotionally ravaged and war-torn territory as Miss Saigon, only in this musical it's brother against brother. The production bristles with harsh reality, gunshots across the stage are chilling and the language has a street-tough tone you would expect in Belfast. It's not the stuff of an American musical but it's a stunning show. It does have all the ingredients common to all musicals: passionate, wild, beyond-all-odds belief in something, and yet as simple as the triumph of love against all odds.

Meegan's music is an inviting blend of traditional Irish folk sound with a more contemporary back beat. Some of the tunes are slyly funny, others are satiric and some are soaring and sentimental. There is also charming step dancing that is more realistic than Riverdance. Here the music and dance take on more ominous and defiant shades.

Bruce Thompson and Cindy Goldfield are super in the their roles. Bruce gives a capable and committed performance in the lead role while Goldfield's face and voice have a persuasive sense of urgency, a feeling that she's really lived Mairead's hard, grinding life. Bruce was recently seen as Bobby in the Marin Players production of Company and he was top-drawer in Theatre Works's production of Putting It Together. After the show runs, he joins the national touring company of Titanic.

Ron Picket, another Bay area actor-singer, plays the owner of the local pub. He is stunning, both as a dancer and in the wonderfully complex character he creates as Seamus.

This is far from a typical musical, but it's an important show. I applaud Mr. Elliott for having the courage to present this show and I hope it goes to more regional theatres. The production has raised the stature of this company. Next season they are presenting Applause, Funny Girl and Dreamgirls. Not bad for a small company.

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