I call this “a musical (of sorts)” because I found the musical pieces to be more like “mood pieces” or “related interludes” rather than songs which really advanced the plot in some fashion. Of course, I’m probably old-fashioned, but, for me, Oklahoma! established the idea that musical pieces should be integral to the plot development, not primarily just mood setting devices. Still, the music did consist of songs from the period of the Civil War period and were, generally, quite well performed and they were clearly chosen to accompany parts of the text. The text, itself, was drawn from actual letters and diaries of a limited number of specific people. These included a woman who was born as a slave, purchased her freedom, moved (eventually) to Washington, D.C., worked for Mrs. Jefferson Davis prior to the outbreak of hostilities and went on to work for and befriend Mary Todd Lincoln; a Union officer from Maine who (among other adventures) led his troops in the defense of Little Round Top during the battle at Gettysburg; a young, married couple from Texas who were separated by the war; and, a young cotton planter (and his wife) from Alabama who was highly conflicted about the causes of the war.
So it wasn’t a traditional musical, but it was quite interesting to hear (less exciting to watch, although that wasn’t badly handled) and quite moving in many places. I’m pretty sure the cast could vary widely in size, but for this performance there were sixteen reader/singers, performing 28 named roles, plus an additional performer who read the stage directions (which I’m not sure was completely necessary, but was something I hadn’t seen before and didn’t hurt anything). All in all, I had quite a good time and enjoyed the experience, although I may have been influenced by having recently watched Ken Burns’ The Civil War when it was rebroadcast on PBS, so I have sort of had the Civil War on my mind recently.
I’m unsure as to how well this script would work as a “fully-mounted” stage play. It’s described as taking place in an attic, where the Narrator discovers some old diaries and letters in an old trunk. Thus, the gimmick is that the letters, etc., which he is reading “come to life.” That means it’s a little “Our Town”ish, but I don’t really have a problem with that as I’m rather fond of Our Town. Still, I’m less sold on the idea of the script as a “play,” than I am on its potency as a Reader’s Theatre piece. I thought it worked quite well as a staged reading, although I think I would have handled the staging a bit differently.
Seeing this got me to wondering if anyone actually does “Reader’s Theatre” any more. I confess that I’m rather fond of this form. It’s simple, can be done with very basic costuming, doesn’t really require elaborate lighting (good lighting can be helpful, but the emphasis is generally on the aural, so more than a good, clean visual is not really required), and the setting can be as simple as a flat floor with a few reading stands and, perhaps, some stools, or can include some risers and platforms for larger casts. Since the performance is “read” (scripts are carried, but the performers usually know it quite well), rehearsal time can by shortened a good deal. I have always liked this form as it allows additional opportunities for performance beyond the limitations (time, money, etc.) of “full scale” production and can be mounted pretty quickly in the space between “Main Stage” productions, or in smaller venues, and requires fewer technicians and additional personnel. And, the experience can be at least close to as complete as with a more traditional production, at least with many scripts. Yes, it probably works best with a script which relies heavily on words, not visual gimmicks. It would be hard to make the illusion of Count Dracula appearing in a painting work very effectively in Reader’s Theatre, but it’s easy to do with a well-painted piece of scrim and a well-designed fireplace unit. I know. I’ve done it! It’s even possible that some of my readers may remember working on this production in the Niggli.
In any event, I’d like to encourage people to at least consider the occasional Reader’s Theatre production. With the right script, it can be an interesting evening, in spite of the fact that the performers were “just reading” from the script. I’d also encourage folks to take a look at Civil War Voices as a potential production. I’m interested enough to think that I’d like to see it in a more fully “fleshed-out” production, although I think there would be challenges to doing it that way. I think creating the “attic” environment with the flexibility to work for all of the scenes could be a real challenge. Of course, I really haven’t had a chance to study the script (having just heard it once), but I think it could be an interesting challenge to the designers as well as having acting and singing challenges for the cast. Rather a nice show, I’m quite glad that I went.
Later this month, we are going to see the OCP production of The Man of La Mancha. I confess that I’ve never really seen it, although I feel that I know it pretty well from designing lights (such as they were [I think]) and building Delbert Hall’s scenic design (I think I’m remembering that correctly) for a production in Hoey Auditorium back well before the renovation. I remember that Karen Furno, Allan Freeman, Ronnie Fender and Ty Stephenson had major roles (there was a large cast of others, but these folks come to mind immediately). I also remember feeding Karen hot tea backstage as she was having some voice issues and I stage managed the show, as well. In any event, I know the show pretty well, but have VERY little recollection of what it looked like “out front.” I confess that I’m quite curious as to how this production will handle the “rape” of Aldonza, which, as I remember it, was (at least for a time) considered quite controversial and made the show quite infrequently performed. Perhaps I’ll write up some comments about the OCP production after I’ve seen it….