“Trouble in Tahiti”
The Leonard Bernstein opera was a wonderful surprise. I had been looking forward to seeing this primarily because it was not familiar. I was also apprehensive. The synopsis and reviews I’d read described a jazz-based score that included scat singing. Jazz is a broad term that includes some music I like very much and other music that I dislike as strongly. I was unsure what I would be getting. Scat singing is much more clear cut. With all due respect to Ella and Mel and the other gifted artists who employ this style, I confess I usually hate it. To my happy surprise, I found the music very accessible. The ‘jazzy’ style was heightened by 4-piece combo on stage which included bass, drums, keyboard and reed player. The scat singing was all done by the 9-person chorus where it supported the orchestration rather than replacing the melody line of the principal singers.
I’d read that one could hear the beginnings of musical ideasl that would later come to fruition in West Side Story. This is certainly true. There is a beautiful moment in the show in Scene 4 called “A Quiet Place”. While a fully developed song in its own right it also sounds and feels like a first draft of “Somewhere” from WSS.
Written in 7 scenes, the two principals show us their unhappy marriage. In the first 6 scenes the couple speak to each other harshly in every exchange save one. In between there are wonderful moments of soliloquy that are often tender and reveal a deep affection. Ironically the one time, prior to the final scene, when they speak kindly to each other is when they meet each other accidentally in the park and both lie about having other plans to avoid having lunch together. A relationship is truly in trouble when the only time you are nice to each other is when you are lying.
The final scene seems optimistic. The couple seems to reach out to each other and, while none of their issues are resolved, they appear to be moving back to a more positive place in their relationship. Except, we have seen the only time these people are nice to each other is when they are lying to each other, or themselves, or both. It is left for the audience to decide.
This will never be my favorite Shaw play. Truth be told, it will never make my top 10 list of favorite Shaw plays. It is two acts totaling 2.5 hrs including intermission. Most of the humor and virtually all of the action are in Act 2. This is not a recipe for success.
The director’s notes indicate they chose to reset Shaw’s 1910 play to 1962. An interesting idea but I’m not sure it suits the play. Much of the action in Act 2 is based on the novelty and danger of flying in an airplane. Are people of 1962 really so startled to see an airplane? (Admittedly they would be once it came through their ceiling.) Aside from Snoopy, were pilots and passengers still wearing leather hoods and goggles in 1962? They are a necessary device in this case to create the shocking ‘reveal’ of the passenger’s gender (Gasp! She’s a Woman!) but it is, at least, anachronistic in the 60’s. (No spoiler alert needed here – It is a surprise to the other characters in the play but if the audience looked at the program they know.)
The set and costumes are beautiful. The acting is consistent and well suited to the material.
Later in the evening I was looking at an old photo of Zoe Caldwell from the 1966 production of “Misalliance”. It is interesting to note that Ms. Caldwell, near iconic in her day, played a character who does not enter until Act 2.
I’m pleased I saw this production. It isn’t a trip to the Shaw Festival without seeing a Shaw play. And now I know to look for other Shaw plays when I visit in future. They haven’t done “Man and Superman” lately.
I once heard Patti Lu Pone bemoan the state of the musical theater saying; “they used to be called musical comedy”. This struck me as odd for a performer whose success is based as much on Evita, Fantine, Norma D, and Mrs Lovett as it is on Reno Sweeny, but that’s a topic for another post. If being a musical non-comedy is a misdemeanor this show is headed for death row. Still, it is wonderful and this production does it proud.
The show did not yield any standards or additions to the Great American Song Book. There is no ” Being Alive”, “I’m Still Here” or “What I Did For Love”. But there are wonderful tunes. And songs in the show convey heart-tugging emotion. I expected to be misty-eyed at the end of “On the Wheels of a Dream” (I always am!) but I’d forgotten about “Our Children’ and “Back to Before”.
One of the most optimistic moments for me took place not on the stage but in the audience. The first time the character of the Fire Chief uses “the N word” there was a audible reaction from the audience. Less than a universal gasp, to be sure, but a clear expression of discomfort. I am not so naive as to think we’ve moved past racism. But if we’ve reached the point that a blatant expressions of it is startling to the middle-aged audience in an affluent resort town then I choose to see that as progress.