‘Brigadoon’ at Goodman: In musical’s bright mist, someone is lost and new meaning found
Review: “Brigadoon,” by Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe, directed and choreographed by Rachel Rockwell, at Goodman Theatre through Aug. 17. ★★★★
By Nancy Malitz
In this briskly refreshing theater season, the Windy City has performed a hat trick on behalf of the American musical. Three Chicago mainstage companies have each expertly revived a Broadway classic through a shrewd rethinking that paired careful respect for the original with sympathy for today’s audience and its contemporary state of mind in changing times.
Following Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s heart-stopping “Gypsy” and Lyric Opera’s gorgeous “The Sound of Music” comes Lerner and Loewe’s 1947 “Brigadoon,” which ran for 581 performances on Broadway and is now in resplendent bloom at the Goodman Theatre.
It’s a summertime feast of song and a dance extravaganza, with a storybook allure that’s cleverly tweaked toward modern yearnings, as directed and choreographed by Rachel Rockwell. Conductor Roberta Duchak’s reduced orchestra delivered the goods with a spirit that would have put a smile on the lips of old Franz Allers, the original maestro. Allers ushered in all the great Lerner and Loewe musicals and conducted at the Metropolitan Opera, a master of good style in every musical genre.
Rockwell has correctly sensed that today’s information-weary, conflict-benumbed public might well sympathize with the romantic appeal of a quaint enchanted village, not seen on any map, which awakens from the sleep of each hundred years as if it were yesterday, and this production does indeed ring true in a way the 1954 MGM film musical never did.
In 1946, American war veteran Tommy Albright (Kevin Earley) is hiking the Scottish highlands with his bachelor buddy Jeff Douglas (Rod Thomas), a wise-cracking Sancho Panza to Tommy’s quixotic leanings. Tommy is only days away from a marriage back in New York that he already regrets and he’s soon drawn to a lovely old-fashioned girl who, unbeknownst to him, has just awakened, along with her entire town, from a second hundred years of sleep.
Tommy is instantly smitten by Fiona MacLaren (Jennie Sophia). But is “almost like being in love” the real thing? Or is it a siren call to his lost and injured soul, which seeks respite from a bone-wearying world he no longer feels part of?
The spellbound town’s a splendid circle of enchantment that ensnares us and Tommy, but its fabulous townsfolk with their big hearts and thrilling ceremonial dances fail to seduce the far more practical Jeff.
Still, the magic of this show is its insistent fantasy, sustained early and late by the soaring vocals of the leading romantic couple. Fiona’s “Waitin’ for My Dearie” was the first number to sweeten the room, and “Almost Like Being in Love,” which Fiona and Tommy sang handsomely together while musing separately, made it clear they were two peas in a pod, mere centuries apart.
The culmination of their saga involves two more songs that are well known, Fiona’s “From This Day On,” and Tommy’s “There But For You Go I,” both heart-stopping beauties, wisdom shining through tears, that stir anxiety in an audience at the climactic turning point. Never mind that we all know the story will end happily.
Despite lyrics this great, the distinguishing feature of “Brigadoon” has long been dances that tell the town’s tale with a dreamlike intensity beyond words, originally an achievement by the great Agnes de Mille, who had broken through to critical esteem in 1942 by choreographing Aaron Copland’s “Rodeo” for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and then integrated dance powerfully into both “Oklahoma!” and “Carousel.”
Rockwell’s new choreography is less classically balletic, though custom fit to her own vision and to the gifts of her cast. The sets by Kevin Depinet are also about sustaining enchantment; he floats misty projections against a curtain of ribbons to create a breathtaking highland dreamscape, and he uses just enough wood and thatch to remind us that the town of Brigadoon still puts together its life the old way.
The power of dance in this show is such that one entire subplot is told primarily in movement — the love between Fiona’s sister Jean MacLaren (Olivia Renteria), a fluid and delicate gamin, and her fiancé Charlie Dalrymple (Jordan Brown), a match threatened by the tragic Harry Beaton (Rhett Guter), the odd man out.
Jean’s anxious ballet of hesitation prior to the wedding is as touching to watch as Charlie’s “Come to Me, Bend to Me” is to hear. It’s a fine American standard upon which Brown puts a convincing high tenor stamp as his Charlie assuages his sweetheart’s qualms. Their love is a set-up for the high drama of the Act 1 finale, in which a traditional Sword Dance involving jealous Harry erupts into something else entirely.
The rejected Harry’s no longer containable distress is translated by Guter into explosive physical fury. The townsfolk are completely involved here, as Harry spits threats that endanger all of spellbound Brigadoon: No one can leave this spectral village, or all evaporate together, and Harry says he’s going for the border.
That furious high is immediately counterbalanced in Act 2 by more dance, a terrific chase that devolves into Harry’s death, and a prolonged and silent cry of wordless grief by Maggie (Katie Spelman), the young woman who adored him. What Maggie cannot make Harry hear, Spelman’s impressive physical vocabulary allows us to see.
The slightly revised book by Brian Hill gets rid of some 1946 allusions that mean nothing today, and more sharply draws the parallel between the threat of Brigadoon’s cultural annihilation by England in 1746 and the state of the world since. It adds some texture to the story’s love affair: The emptiness Fiona sees in Tommy she has known in the faces of her own folk, and their recognition honors that sadness.
There’s some updating, too, in the personality of one Meg Brockie (Maggie Portman), who pursues Jeff with coarse gusto that, compared to Ado Annie’s “cain’t say no,” is more like a lusty “no means yes.” And Thomas’ aghast Jeff endears himself to us in part by the many different forms his incredulity takes, as Meg presses him with Mack Truck force. No wonder the town needs its leader and spiritual center Mr. Lundie (Roger Mueller), who settles his citizens and gives voice to Brigadoon’s eerie story.
I’ve always felt “Brigadoon” is revived less frequently than other blockbuster musicals because of Vincente Minelli’s inept MGM movie, contrived on a film lot sound stage with stars Gene Kelly, Van Johnson and Cyd Charisse. No one’s heart seemed to be in it, including Kelly’s, and it came off as treacle, with key songs such as “Come to Me, Bend to Me” and “There But For You Go I” gone missing. There’s more of Scotland, sincerity and sophistication in Goodman’s stage concept than in Hollywood’s celluloid contrivance.
- Performance location, dates and times: Go to TheatreInChicago.com
- Kennedy Center Honors 1985 tribute to Lerner and Loewe: Watch it on YouTube
Tags: Agnes De Mille, Alan Jay Lerner, Brian Hill, Brigadoon, Franz Allers, Frederick Loewe, Jennie Sophia, Jordan Brown, Katie Spelman, Kevin Depinet, Kevin Earley, Lerner and Loewe, Maggie Portman, Mara Blumenfeld, Olivia Renteria, Rachel Rockwell, Rhett Guter, Roberta Duchak, Rod Thomas, Roger Mueller