By Bill Beard
Lerner and Lowe’s first big hit, Brigadoon, opened on Broadway in 1947. From the promo notes: “It is the enchanting tale of an 18th-century Scottish village that only appears once every 100 years, but for one day only … and the complications which arise when it is accidentally stumbled into by two 20th-century Americans on a hunting trip. While Tommy and Jeff try to sort out the town’s strange circumstances, including that no outsiders can stay unless they fall in love, and no resident can ever leave or the village will vanish forever … Tommy meets the love of his life.”
The last Broadway production was in 1980, so the show has been waiting 34 years for its own “re-appearance” as a major American “possibly-bound-for-Broadway” production. But it’s been well worth the wait! Goodman Theatre’s new revival (read that “refreshing re-telling”) of the lyrical, fanciful Brigadoon, is not only a revival; it is also a revitalization, a recovery of something wonderful; a restoration of faith in what was really almost the “birth” of a new genre, the American Romantic Musical Theater. “Those were the good old days!”
Forgive me, but I have become gravely discouraged and disgruntled with the past few decades of desperate attempts to re-invent Broadway; to explore the most ridiculous of subject matter, push good manners and decent morals to the most extreme limits, find the most shocking moments possible, and then present it all at the highest decibel sound level available. Luckily, however, there has always remained an appetite for good, solid story and song, à la Sondheim and Schwartz.
But after my some 60-plus years in and around theater, I can’t help remembering and loving the fundamental (perhaps simplistic, I know) beauty of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s lyrical, yet powerful, vehicles; including the magical fantasy of Brigadoon, Lerner and Lowe’s first of a great list, My Fair Lady, Camelot, Gigi! OK. So, its “magic” involves a couple of New York guys on a hunting trip to Scotland who just happen to stumble upon this little “one-day-in-a-hundred-years” miracle village. Fantasy? Of course. But isn’t the whole concept of “telling a story on a stage with ‘actors who dance and sing’” a real departure from reality in the first place? That’s why I love theater anyway! So obviously, I went to the Goodman with great anticipation to find out if this old gem could still shine.
Well, Director-Choreographer Rachel Rockwell has once again proven a brilliant, visionary artist. With a revised book by Brian Hill and the musical direction of Roberta Duchak, she has given new life and vitality to this rare little jewel of musical theater history.
I will now confide that I was so intrigued with her choreography that I stopped by an all-night video store and rented the original MGM (1954) movie, starring Gene Kelly, Cyd Charisse and Van Johnson. I have no idea when I last viewed it, but I still had a clear memory of the dances; in particular, “The Heather on the Hill.” Yes, Gene and Cyd were still absolutely wonderful. But somehow or other, they seemed so precious, so “other worldly,” so pretentious. Oh, yes, absolutely fabulous dancers; but almost a fantasy within the fantasy. And I will admit that I was still mesmerized with the extended Kelly-Charisse dance in “Heather,” which was missing from the Goodman production.
But Ms. Rockwell’s choreography more than made up for that. Built on a foundation of traditional ballet, she blended Scottish country and highland dance into the perfect style (with all due respect for Agnes deMille’s original work). With a very strong male contingent, highlights like the “Sword Dance” and “I’ll Go Home with Bonnie Jean” were extraordinary; especially the ballet expertise of Rhett Guter as Harry Beaton, the role made famous by Edward Villella.
Perhaps the most energetic performer of the evening was Jordan Brown as Charlie Dalrymple. He not only danced well; his acting and his rich and resonant tenor voice gave him that triple threat control of the stage whenever appropriate, without ever going “over the top.” Similarly noticeable was Maggie Portman as the irrepressible Meg Brockie, walking a fine line just shy of overt scene stealing. Her scenes with the talented Rod Thomas as Jeff Douglas were delightful; Mr. Thomas has a keen sense of the comedic delivery, but never lost the reality of the character. He created a charming, witty companion (unlike the dull and dreary Van Johnson in the film). Thomas is a versatile actor, and every bit as good here as I remember him in She Loves Me (Writers Theatre) and Sugar (Drury Lane).
Of course, the “romance” in this romantic comedy flourishes immediately upon Jeff and Tommy’s arrival in the village. When Tommy meets the beautiful Fiona MacLaren, they are instantly attracted, and it is she who takes them to hear the story of Brigadoon’s fate: “No one can ‘stay’ in the village unless they are in love with one of the villagers, and then, of course, they become part of the miracle and may never leave.”
Jennie Sophia is the perfect Fiona; and Kevin Earley as Tommy is even more outstanding. They both have beautiful singing voices; full, rich, controlled; and with a completely convincing character believability that invokes an audience warmth and acceptance. Their rendition of the beautiful “Almost Like Being In Love” brought a marvelous response from the entire audience. Indeed, the entire cast is superb; one hopes that this production will indeed be moved into New York. It deserves it.
Meanwhile, it plays at Goodman through Aug. 10. Go! For information: 1-312-443-3800, or online at GoodmanTheatre.org.
From the July 23-29, 2014, issue