PLAYBILL ON OPENING NIGHT: Coram Boy — Handel With Hair

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03 May 2007

An improbable powdered wig, resting uncertainly on the head of conductor Constantine Kitsopoulos, popped up from the orchestra pit of the Imperial Theatre on May 2, and we were suddenly, officially, off to 18th-century England for a chaotic, character-cluttered, nigh-on-three-hour ride with Coram Boy, accompanied by choral surges of Handel.

George Frideric Handel (1685-1759) even climbed out of the lavish woodwork on stage and contributed a couple of cameos to the second act. As impersonated by Quentin Mare, he's a temperamental titan given to flinging his priceless sheet music in the air.

A chorale of 20, which would be excessive for most of today's musicals, joined the cast of 20 periodically on stage — truly a sight for sore Broadway eyes! — and all took their curtain calls to a full-lunged account of "The Hallelujah Chorus," bringing things to a celebratory finish.

The hero — pardon, heroine — of the evening was the director with this 20/20 vision, Melly Still, a true visionary whose bag of tricks is imaginatively spilled all over the Imperial stage and in places where they don't meet the eye — like the orchestra pit. Should you be so bold as to peek in the pit, you'll spy seven musicians gamely capped with powdered wigs.

It must be noted at this uncritical juncture that this is not a musical, but a drama with music, adapted by Helen Edmundson from a young-adults novel by Jamila Gavin.

By any other name, Coram Boy would be called Oliver Amadeus Twist — an orphan with a musical bent, leading the hard-luck life of the mid-1700s — sans the relatively cushy existence Charles Dickens dished out a century later. This tale is punctuated by scads of skullduggery — and skulldigging, along with murders of babies and at least one harpsicord.

The two principal characters, the high-born Alexander Ashbrook and the low-born Thomas Ledbury, come together in a class-leveling boys' chorus at Gloucester Cathedral. (To assure the boy-soprano illusion, the roles are played by actresses, Xanthe Elbrick and Charlotte Parry, who, with the turn of a turntable, when one of their voices cracks in concert, become Wayne Wilcox and Dashiell Eaves in a flashforward eight years later.)

This being a production of the National Theatre of Great Britain, Nicholas Hytner was very much on hand at the opening as the artistic director of that prestigious play-plant. He downplayed his role, first at the theatre giving the paparazzi's arrival commotion a pass and later at the post-premiere party at Tavern on the Green maintaining the low profile.

But director Still would have none of this modesty. "Nick is the person who made this happen," she declared. "He saw a show I did, Alice in Wonderland, and it made use of my two strong suits — design and choreography — so he suggested that I do something for the National. He said he would find space for it there if I could find a good project to do."

Hytner caved at the compliment and mockingly confessed, "I did make her do it. I did. I did. She's telling the truth." He said his next National import should be arriving on Broadway in September: "The Seafarer, Conor McPherson, and Conor will direct it."

Hytner brought over last season's big Tony winner, The History Boys, and then — mere months later, the movie version, which this month has graduated to DVD availability.

Director Still, who helmed the London production of Coram Boy, completely recast the show with Americans, save for Elbrick and Parry, who are half British. They, like Wilcox and Brad Fleischer (who plays the dim-witted lad who is drawn into his father's babysnatching trade), are prominent among the youthful cast racking up their Broadway debuts.

"The main changes we made for New York involved the sets," said Still who co-designed them with Ti Green. "We had to scale back on things, simply because the Imperial is a much smaller theatre than the Olivier is in London, but we made it work here, I think."

Novelist Gavin, who had the original vision, agreed. "Some things inevitably change because of the dimensions of the stage, but mostly for the better, I'd say, in the sense that it has brought an intensity into the audience by everything being compressed. Like: some photos, when they're very big, you get a certain blur. When you bring them down, you get a sharper, more intense vision of it. That's what it felt like with Coram Boy tonight."

She put in a lot of research in charting the ghastly terrain that the story followed, but, she said, "I did it as I went along. It was very story-led. I heard about this character in the 18th century who was being called a Coram Man, trafficking in babies, blackmailing — so I was following that story and creating my family and my characters. Handel is a character in the book, and the music does culminate in a performance of 'Messiah.' In the book, you have to allow the reader to imagine the music — maybe they know the music, maybe they don't — but with the play there are no maybes. In the first half of the book, there were other English music, and I think they made a fantastically good decision to use only Handel all the way through as a unifying factor, particularly since the play and the book are in two parts. Handel just pulls everything all together. I was brought up on Handel. My parents adored 'Messiah.' I think that 'Messiah' is very much built into the British psyche."

Most of the music in the play — at least a good hour's worth — was the work of Sutton-by-way-of-Handel. "Handel's music, as taken from 'Messiah,' is only about less than ten percent," Adrian Sutton pointed out. "The score is actually developed from using raw elements taken from Handel's, not only from 'Messiah' but from 'Theodora.' So it's not true to say it's a Handel score because only bits at the end are verbatim Handel. The rest of the score is new work that has been created from thematic material from Handel."

Music coordinator John Miller admitted he used "special powers" to get the boys in the band to put on their powdered wigs: "I offered them a job." Hence, we had two violins, one viola, one cello, one bass, one keyboard and a conductor, properly coiffured for the period. Conductor Kitsopoulos is becoming an old Broadway hand, according to Miller: "The show I got him away from the opera world was the tour of The Secret Garden, and that got him hooked on showbiz. He's since done Swan Lake, La Boheme and Dracula."

Adapter Edmundson clearly had no fear about adapting the plot-packed Coram Boy, having already tackled War and Peace as a co-production for the National and the Anna Karenina that came to BAM a few years back. "I do original works as well as adaptations," she said. "I like both. Obviously, originals are more personal, and they take longer to develop. On the other hand, I think adaptations really do push me to be brave and theatrical. If you have things happening in the story which really need to be dramatized to be faithful to the story, it pushes you to put things on stage you normally would not.

"Coram Boy came out as a novel in 2000 or 2001. I only read it when the National approached me about adapting it. It was aimed very much at the teenage market in England. The characters are there for the teenagers to identify with because these are teenagers going through very, very difficult things and very, very strong emotions."

Most of the evil-doing in the play is centrally located on Bill Camp's able shoulders. An always-dependable actor, he is enjoying a banner season this year — Sore Throats (a bruising domestic donnybrook with Laila Robins), Heartbreak House, and now this.

Camp seems to be channeling different Dickens film villains for each act — Robert Newton (Bill Sikes in the 1951 "Oliver Twist") for his Act I Otis Gardiner, and Cedric Hardwicke (Ralph Nickleby in the 1947 "Nicholas Nickleby") for his Act II Philip Gaddarn. "You mention these actors, and I don't know who they are," he admitted with a grin, "but I do love to do villains. It was truly fun to work on. Usually there's a very good reason for their villainy, and so it's always a great process to find the humanity in a villain as well."

Not that he soft-pedals his meanness. "Given the script, I do nasty things in the script." Exhibit A: Gardiner promises to deliver unwanted or out-of-wedlock children to the Coram Foundling Hospital but those who live through his death march wind up as workhouse laborers. Exhibit B: Gaddarn is a foppish pedophile who menaces youngsters.

Supplying more subdued villainy is the equally reliable Jan Maxwell as Mrs. Lynch, a sinister housekeeper in cahoots with Gardiner. She admitted she's reveling in this experience: "We're such a close company, and the director is such a wonderful human being and a fascinating person that you can't help but have a joyous experience. We were just talking tonight that I don't think a cross word has been spoken the entire rehearsal process. It was just a lovely, lovely experience. When you have people who are about the work and know what they're doing, it just becomes a fascinating experience."

Those sentiments were echoed throughout the cast. "It's funny, Melly makes you feel like you're still in school working on something," said Fleischer. "That's the way I felt for everything. I actually, truthfully, never got nervous before a performance — mostly because she gives you so much stuff to concentrate on. You're just so busy the whole show in such a great way it takes over everything. Every minor detail she has covered."

His role of Gardiner's son is, arguably, the most emotional in the show. "I can't imagine being lucky enough to get his play, let alone a part like this. It's the heart of the play. You see all the decisions he has to make and what he chooses to do and how he goes about it."

Another who pays a high emotional price for Camp's cruelty is Toby, an eight-year-old black Coram boy. Uzo Aduba begins the part with an innocent buoyancy and then lets the effects of the sexual abuse settle in. "Those first moments when you get into the play, you're so excited for Toby — this opportunity to leave the orphanage to be a servant at this estate — and the next time you see him he's so beaten, so tattered, so dehumanized. You really don't know what it's like if you suffer day-to-day abuse. You don't know who to look to, to seek refuge, so all of it has to be contained inside of you. I don't know many adults who can grapple with that sort of experience, let alone an eight-year-old. At eight, he has to really mature, grow up in a moment's notice and understand this is his reality."

It's a show where everybody is constantly juggling multiple roles. Most actors have to count on there fingers how many characters they play. "I'm not sure how many roles I played," admitted Eaves. "I think I lost count around mule and gargoyle and servant."

Tom Riis Farrell, who lends his portly presence to the proceedings, owned up to "basic everyman, a tree, a slave trader, the governor of the Coram hospital and a Gaddarn thug."

He, too, credited the director with talking him through, and into, all of the above. "Melly is unbelievably enthusiastic," he said. "Her enthusiasm carries over to everyone else. I think she has a really good sense of who's going to be a nice person in the long run.

"Part of the audition was sitting with her and just having a chat. You know, 'What do you think about doing a project like this where, when you're not being used in a scene, you're off learning more Handel? And when you're not doing that, you're doing yoga?' What I said to her at that point was 'So you're going to pay me to get my chops back? Is that correct?' I said, 'That sounds idyllic.' She had that kind of discussion with everyone."

At first, Ivy Vahanian who plays one of the victims-of-the-times, thought there'd be no safety in numbers with a large cast. Remembering names became more of a problem than remembering lines. "There are so many people, then the chorus came on, and we were 'Oh, boy. How do we do this?' But there is such a sense of camaraderie and family it was easy. Honestly, I'd look at people and say, 'I know you. I know I know you.' We all had that experience. Melly did an incredible job of casting the like-minded and like-spirited."

The marvelous Elbrick, who stays an excellent chance of a Tony nomination for her debut, appears to be president of the Melly Still Fan Club. "Very different from any other director, she focuses entirely on the ensemble experience, and it means we have been this strong unit throughout from the very first day. She started immediately, playing ballgames with us, and here we are now. No one moves without someone else following. It's just an incredible unit. She's such a young spirit. I don't think there could be any other director who could find these childish spirits and bring them to the theatre like this and make it happen. She's like an eight-year-old, coming to us in pigtails. She's just a beautiful spirit."

Among the first-nighters were director Jerry Zaks, comedian Robert Klein (a "big time" Handel buff — who knew?), Tommy Tune and Marshall Brickman (arriving separately but cooking up a secret musical project), Ted Sperling ("working on a show that I'm taking to the O'Neill Center this summer called The Red Eye of Love, which I'll be directing. Music is by Jan Warner"), Victoria Clark, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Leonard Foglia, Mark Hampton, attorney Mark Sendroff, Jamie de Roy ("I've seen it three times and cry every time, but then I'm a producer"), Gordon Greenberg (keeping his fingers crossed that he'll be able to plant his Pirates of Penzance at the Paper Mill Playhouse this summer), Kevin Chamberlin, a suddenly svelte Rick McKay ("Barbara Cook sent me to a nutritionist"), Primary Stages' Casey Childs and Signature's James Morrison, Cady Huffman (readying for a reading of Pure Country with Carlin Glynn, Will Chase and Julia Murney), Marge Champion (back from performing her show at the Actors' Home in Englewood, NJ), Rex Reed (back from Bali and Australia — with a pinched nerve. "I can hardly walk. I've got to find somebody who will give me a Cortisone shot"), Frank Wildhorn with Brandi Burkhardt (back from Zurich), Seascape's Elizabeth Marvel (going from lizard to Louisa — she starts filming "The Life and Times of Louisa May Alcott" next week), John Guare, Sutton Foster (not showing off — "I'm just taking a break right now"), Harvey Evans and Barbara Cook (preparing for her 80th birthday concert Nov. 19 at Avery Fisher Hall) and, last but not least, F. Murray Abraham, the Oscar-winning Salieri no doubt enviously checking out Mr. Handel's work.