Adam Green, Maggie Lacey, and Naomi O'Connell. Photo by T. Charles Erickson

Adam Green, Maggie Lacey, and Naomi O’Connell in THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO at the McCarter Theatre Center through May 4.  – Photo by T. Charles Erickson

What was good got much, much better.  THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO, the second of the two FIGARO PLAYS on offer at the McCarter Theatre in Princeton makes up and then some for any shortcomings found in the first.  This exuberant production is high-energy and infectious from the very beginning, and it continues to dazzle through its three-plus hours that fly by all too quickly.

Where Adam Green’s Figaro of THE BARBER OF SEVILLE seemed rather lackluster and introspective, here, he’s a dynamo who whirrs even when standing still.  He’s always thinking, even when he’s incorrect, and the result is like watching a tightly wound spring that may explode at any second, and he maintains this tension throughout the entire evening and then overcome a huge monologue Beaumarchais has given him near the very end of the play which he does with ease.

Indeed, the entire cast is to be commended in superlatives as they whisk the audience along in this delightful melee.

Once again, if you’re a fan of the opera, you’ll know the story.  Figaro (Green) is back in the employ of Count Almaviva (Neal Bledsoe) who is now married to his quest of the first play, Rosine (Naomi O’Connell), and Figaro is about to be married to his love (Suzanne) Maggie Lacey.  The only problem is that the Count is infatuated with Suzanne and wants to reestablish a custom he previously abolished, droit de seigneur or the right of the master that allows him to bed a servant’s wife on her wedding night.   Neither Figaro, Suzanne, nor Rosine is happy about this, but Almaviva seems to have decided that he has to do it although he is not truly happy about it himself.  He has once again enlisted the aid of Bazile (Cameron Folmer) to act as his go-between, but Bazile has his mind on other issues.

The complications in this play are many, and they add a host of new and hilarious complications.  Since Almaviva wants Suzanne as his mistress, he is pleased that Marceline (Jeanne Paulsen) who is Dr. Bartolo’s (Derek Smith) housekeeper has a promissory note that states that Figaro must marry her.  Almaviva hopes to push this issue in court, but he is somewhat obstructed by Bazile who is in love with Marceline.

Further complications come from one of Almaviva’s pages Cherubin (Magan Wiles) who is also the godson of Rosine.  Cherubin is in love with anything wearing a dress, and he has fallen from favor with the Count because he has been found canoodling with the shepherdess Fanchette (Betsy Hogg) who is also a target of the Count’s affections.  Cherubin is also in love with Rosine and even states that he thinks making love to Marceline would be an excellent adventure.  How all of these characters try to get the better of each other through trickery and disguises and the secrets one discovers along the way makes this one wonderful roller-coaster ride.

The focus has shifted from Rosine and Almaviva as the lovers to Figaro and Suzanne who are now those in trouble and needing help, and Lacey’s Suzanne is every bit a match for Figaro’s wiles.  Lacey is simply superb.  She is charming and has a presence that draws the audience to her.  When she is on stage with O’Connell who delivers another stellar performance, it is bliss.   Magan Wiles’ Cherubin is a glorious study of pained adolescence.  She captures the changeability of youth perfectly and is at once pitiable and annoying (in a good way).

Neal Bledsoe seems much more at home in this Almaviva skin.  His man of action who seems torn between two minds is a much more positive presence on the stage.  The man is still a major heel, but he’s a heel one can understand and possibly find sympathy for.  Derek Smith is, once again, wonderful.  I don’t need to add any more to that.  I’ll happily go to see him in anything if these two plays are any indication of his abilities.

The plot twists are numerous and the evening speeds by all too quickly.  It’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed a night in the theatre like this.

Charles Corcoran’s sets are more pleasing to the eye here.  Granted, there are more scenes and locations in this play than there were in the first, but here, the dull walls are given variety by windows allowing more light and patches of blue to show through.  There is a lighter, brighter feel to these settings.  Joan Arhelger’s lights offer more variety here as well and are generally better suited to the lightness of the script.  Only in the night scene near the end do they go through some tortured changes and leave most of the cast in half-light and shadow.

There is a wonderful variety in the costumes by Camille Assaf here; no longer is everything dull.  Even though were still mostly in a palate of earth-tones, there are some rich hues that offer some relief from the brown/gray of the sets.  Assaf’s designs are once again nicely realized, and this wider and brighter palate server them well.

Stephen Wadsworth’s adaptation and direction are once again delightful as well.  The pace is perfect with the audience being allowed to pause and reflect when necessary and pushing through the comedic moments, heaping them on one another to glorious effect.

I am truly sorry for gushing, but this production so richly deserves it.

Another aspect of this script that I found particularly interesting was its timelessness and appropriateness for today.  Marceline, who had little to do in the first play but who is pivotal in this one, delivers a telling monologue about the place of women in society.  She bemoans the fact that women are subjected to a society that does not fully value them, that looks on them as commodities who are worth less than men.  I found this to be highly topical concerning the statements currently being made by some politicians concerning equal pay and opportunities for women today.  She also rails against her being even more powerless because she has no money and is at the mercy of the rich who own and control most of society.  This too is all too poignant when compared to the world some 250 years later.

It must be noted that Jeanne Paulsen is brilliant as Marceline.  Her monologue is delivered honestly and directly, and one can feel her pain as she explains her plight.  Paulsen is solid throughout the night, but she truly shines here.

I wanted to brilliantly weave some of Wadsworth’s translated lines through this review, but I thought it might be more fun to let them live on their own.  That way, those of you who go to see this show, and you should go to see this show – both shows, would also have the joy to see from whence they come.

Here are a few of my favorites  (I’m sorry if any are incorrect.  I was writing as fast as I could, and it was dark, after all.):

“What mortal abandoned by heaven and womankind would want you?”

“If I could get her without a struggle, I’d want her even less.”

“I won’t speak to my character, but I’m definitely better than my reputation.”

“Of course I tell him everything except what I don’t tell him.”

“I should have known that you were my mother when I started borrowing money from you.”

“If you don’t stand up to them, you are utterly dependent to them.”

…And my favorite,

“The only good thing about a theatre is that you can take a nap in it.”

Like several other Wadsworth translations/adaptations, I am sure that there will be more chances to see THE FIGARO PLAYS as it is produced in other regional theatres, but if you are in the Princeton area, by all means try to see both of these plays.  Even though THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO is a more developed and complex story, the two together are a remarkable theatre-going package.  There is a reason the works of people like Beaumarchais survive.  There is a timelessness and a universality that reaches across decades, and they are just as fresh and alive each time they are performed.  Together at The McCarter Theatre Center, they are simply a joyous romp.

THE MARRIAGE OF FIGARO continues in repertory with THE BARBER OF SEVILLE through May 4 in the Matthews Theatre at the McCarter Theatre Center, 91 University Place in Princeton, NJ 08540.  For information, call (609) 258-2787 or visit their website at http://www.mccarter.org.

 

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There’s a joyful noise at London’s Palladium Theatre, and fortunately, it’s heading towards Broadway in 2011. SISTER ACT: The Musical is one of those feel-good times that doesn’t pretend to be anything special but ultimately is. The show is running through October in London, and producer Whoopi Goldberg is going to be taking over the role of Mother Superior for a few weeks in August. I’d like to have seen that.

The show’s book is by Cheri and Bill Steinkellner who have written hit television shows like Cheers, and it’s based on the original film by Joseph Howard (the pseudonym for a group of writers that includes Paul Rudnick and Carrie Fischer among others) and has the same positive energy. Alan Menken’s music is incredible. His adapted gospel numbers have all of the same incredible energy as the music in the film and really showcase the talents of the company of sisters. Glenn Slater’s lyrics are, for the most part good. However, his lyrics for the two songs for Shank and his “crew” are a bit forced and get stale quickly. They are jokes that go on for too long.

The story of the musical is very close to the film about a disco club singer, Delores Van Cartier (Patina Miller – All My Children), who witnesses her boyfriend Shank (Simon Webbe – of the band Blue) murder someone. She escapes and is placed in protective custody in a failing convent/church in Philadelphia run by a no-nonsense Mother Superior (Sheila Hancock – a West End legend). Delores has trouble adjusting, but when she takes on the task of teaching the pitiful choir to sing, she and they shine.

The only place this musical falls a bit flat is when it’s not about the sisters. The material for Shank and his henchmen (Nicolas Colicos, Ivan De Freitas, and Thomas Goodridge) is just not special enough to match the exuberance and special quality of extended sequences of the sisters learning to sing and performing. In fact, one song for the trio, “Lady in the Long Black Dress,” is pretty much cheap humor and out of place.

Patina Miller is a delight as Delores, and I hope that she’ll be moving to New York with the production. The three main sisters, Sister Mary Patrick (Claire Greenway who matches all of the wonder of the film’s Kathy Najimy beautifully), the indomitable Mary Lazarus (Jacqueline Clarke who is as feisty as the film’s Mary Wickes), and the repressed Mary Robert (Katie Rowley Jones) who finds her voice and her confidence, are all adorable as are all of the sisters. This is one time that I think the choice to cast types parallel to the film worked because they are not merely imitating the originals; they are originals themselves.

This is one of those musicals where one walks out of the theatre with an aching face from smiling so much. Once again, there’s no pretence here. This show is not claiming that it is high art or meaningful theatre; it’s a good time in the mold of MAMA MIA! One has solid characters for whom one can root, and even though the ending is predictable, especially after watching and knowing the film, it’s still gloriously happy.

Menken’s score soars during those wonderful numbers for the sisters. From the extended singing lesson lead by Miller in “Raise Your Voice” through “Take Me to Heaven,” “Sunday Morning Fever,” and the finale, “Spread the Love Around,” the energy builds and sweeps the audience along to its joyous conclusion. Fortunately, the cast recording on First Night Records captures all of this beautifully. Alan Menken is surely one of the more important writers we have in musical theatre today, and he shows why here. Even in those songs that don’t quite work for Shank and the henchmen, the music is sound.

The physical production in London is colorful and appealing. The sets by Klara Zieglerova seamlessly move the action along and offer some stunning visuals as the church is reborn. I particularly loved the 20 foot tall “disco Madonna.” Anthony Van Laast’s choreography is fitting here, and he has done an excellent job of letting the charming sisters’ lights shine in their numbers.

SISTER ACT - Patina Miller and Sisters

SISTER ACT: The Musical is opening in Germany this fall and is scheduled to open in New York next spring. If it is received half as well as it has been in London, it will be the ticket to get.