Saturday, April 23, 2011

Seance on a Wet Afternoon

Photo: Carol Rosegg

In writing Seance on a Wet Afternoon, was Stephen Schwartz hoping to create his Sweeney Todd? There are definite similarities: grim subject matter, a middle-aged couple full of manipulation and evil-doing, a large chorus commenting on the goings-on, even a two-story set that turns to present different rooms of a house. Unfortunately, however, Seance on Wet Afternoon is not the masterpiece that Sweeney Todd is. But this tale of a medium who has her husband kidnap a child, in order to then "find" her and receive acclaim, has some definite strengths.

First, and most importantly, Schwartz manages to sustain a continuous level of tension throughout the piece, despite its too-slow first act. The entire opera is satisfyingly unsettling. Second, Schwartz provides moments of real beauty, though they are not as frequent as one would want. The high point for me (and, judging by applause, for the rest of the audience) was when the mother of the kidnapped child expresses her anguish in an aria gorgeously sung by Melody Moore. The third strength is that the libretto, based on a novel written by Mark McShane and a movie directed by Bryan Forbes, has an intriguing story to tell. Last but certainly not least, the design elements and orchestra are excellent. A curtain of long glittering chains evokes both a sense of constant rain and a creepy feeling of claustrophobia.

[spoilers below]

The weaknesses include the following: The show is too long and too slow. The supratitles are annoying and hard to ignore, and they are mostly unnecessary. Schwartz's lyrics, while deserving high points for intelligibility, are often silly and/or lame and rarely more than adequate. Lauren Flanigan plays the humor well but falls down on the pathos. (In another parallel with Sweeney Todd, she has a scene in which she realizes that she will have to kill a child. A number of the Mrs. Lovetts I have seen, in particular Christine Baranski, played that realization with a chilling combination of sadness and nonchalance. Flanigan's realization was considerably less textured.) The crowd scenes of reporters and photographers add little to the opera, and they are awkwardly staged. (Not meaning to beat a dead horse, but director Scott Schwartz is no Harold Prince.)

Overall, Seance on a Wet Afternoon provides an interesting evening in the opera house but, considering the source material, might have provided a thrilling one.

(Press ticket, 6th row slightly to the side.)


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