Séance on a Wet Afternoon

Music and libretto by Stephen Schwartz
Production directed by Scott Schwartz
Musical direction by George Manahan
Featuring Lauren Flanigan, Kim Josephson, Melody Moore
New  York City Opera, Koch Theatre Lincoln Center
production web site:  http://www.nycopera.com/calendar/view.aspx?id=12533

April 19, 2011 — May 1, 2011

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
April 19, 2011

  • “People want a show … one little lie.” (Myra and Bill)
  • “Something here smells like my mommy.” (Adrianna)
  • “I know this place, I remember this place.” (Myra)
Séance production poster outside Koch Theatre, 15 April 2011. Photo by: Martha Wade Steketee.

Stephen Schwartz and creative team have crafted a shadowy world with scrim-y walls and windows you can’t see through and metallic beads in waves and streams (that wet rain, remember) to present a haunting story that started as a book and became a 1964 film featuring a shimmering and harrowing performance by Kim Stanley as the medium, the seer, at the core of this melodrama.  Set designer Heidi Ettinger‘s Victorian doll house set out of wood and scrim pivots to reveal living room and kitchen and upstairs bedroom where the core plot of the story unfolds (a kidnapping that’s intended to be just a little lie, a ruse, an excuse for the medium to save the day), then much goes awry.  We have dialogue then arias, some splendid, and a few ensemble pieces that are indeed haunting and nuanced.  But for the most part we have charming set pieces that don’t quite earn their twee-ness, that frame a score that feels not quite deep enough, not quite haunting enough, not quite … enough.

Myra Foster (Lauren Flanigan) has a business as a fortune teller, running séances out of her home.  Her husband Bill (Kim Josephson) indulges her, helps run the business and corral the customers who meet around the séance table in the backroom.  Myra wants to generate more business and recognition for her gifts and Bill indulges her.  Myra’s spirit guide Arthur (Michael Kepler Meo), a young boy Myra believes is her own young son who died, has a plan involving “one little lie” (and more) to help Myra improve her business profile.  Myra and Bill will kidnap Adriana Clayton (Bailey Grey), the only child of rich parents (Melody Moore and Todd Wilander), hold her in Arthur’s upstairs room, convince the child she is contagious and at a hospital, and Myra will step in to help solve the case in a public way and save the day. (A version of the television show Medium, perhaps, in which a ruse is developed to drum up business for the clairvoyant.)  Somehow the detail of how the child will be released from her “hospital” and returned (if the scheme were to be executed according to plan) is never sufficiently described.  Reporters populate a swarming ensemble in trench coats, note pads, umbrellas, filling the stage between interludes, summarizing plot, worrying about the location of the missing child.  A clairvoyantly-sympathetic but increasingly suspicious police investigator Watt (Phillip Boykin) meets with everyone, and facilitates a final, pivotal meeting at the Foster household.

There are memorable musical moments, to be sure.  The mothers mourn in two stunning arias that might be tweaked into ballads.  Melody Moore as Mrs. Clayton received the most enthusiastic, and earned, extended applause in my performance after her aria late in the second act — while in her mansion living room, considering the hope and love her daughter Adrianna has given to her.  THE musical moment for me of the evening.  Flanigan as Myra has many chances to catch fire as the haunted, troubled and possibly truly clairvoyant woman, and connected with me emotionally only once — late in the story, when her belief in her son is compromised (her husband has presented a differing view of their son’s birth).  Albee’s George and Martha’s game of the imaginary son gone alternately, and perversely, awry.  In this moment of realization and temporary clarity, rising from a crumpled pile on the floor of her home, Myra notes in a quietly powerful aria “I know this pain / I remember this pain”. We realize that she has lived the story of Arthur as her spirit guide who may or may not truly be guiding her to clairvoyant realizations to heal her heart, to stop the pain of the death of a child.  Kim Josephson’s Bill grows in power as the opera proceeds, as the layers of his facilitation of Myra’s delusions emerge.  He explains his love for Myra (oddly to the child Adrianna — this aria plays in diction and in lyric content as if it should be directed toward an adult sensibility) as a love of the woman she once was.  “You didn’t know her when I first knew her” he sings.  And we understand his pain, his connection, his own deception.  The children playing Arthur and Adriana have achingly beautiful voices and probably long careers ahead — Adriana in particular has a Broadway belt with sweet ballad shadings.

These beautiful moments do not, in the end, add up to a full opera.  Melodies don’t quite soar, lyrics aren’t rich and deep enough.  There are moments to be sure, but the full weft and weave of operatic resonance are not yet here in this work.

© Martha Wade Steketee (April 20, 2011)

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