Sunday, May 8, 2016

Dark Challenges to Unconditional Love

People often wonder what magic ingredient keeps relationships stable and solid. Is it the twinkle in one person's eye? The warm caresses of a spouse? The intellectual and spiritual intimacy that has built up over the years?

All of these ingredients (and many more) can weave a loving tapestry that continues to gain strength over time. Ironically, the factors that can destroy a relationship are much easier to identify. They include:
Any one of these issues can pose a severe challenge to a partner's unconditional love. Whether the situation reaches a breaking point early in the relationship or after many years, reconciliation requires compromise and compassion. How two partners work together to rebuild their trust in one another will determine whether they are truly friends or, at best, frenemies.

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For those living monogamous lifestyles, the cruelest form of betrayal is often infidelity. It's bad enough to discover that one's spouse has been having a extramarital affair. But when that partner becomes pregnant with a trusted friend's child, the griefrage, and humiliation can be overwhelming.

Tony (Martin Rojas Dietrich) and Rosabella (Amanda Johnson) in a
scene from The Most Happy Fella (Photo by: Dominic Colacchio) 

In 1956, Frank Loesser's musical entitled The Most Happy Fella opened at the Imperial Theatre six weeks after the rapturous Broadway premiere of My Fair Lady. The Lerner & Loewe musical quickly became as hot a ticket as today's Hamilton. Although The Most Happy Fella achieved a respectable run of 676 performances, it never acquired the box office momentum of My Fair Lady.

Giuseppe (Scott Maraj), Pasquale (Daniel Olson), and Ciccio
(Tim Wagner) sing "Abbondanza" in a scene from
The Most Happy Fella (Photo by: Dominic Colacchio)

Despite having two popular hit songs ("Standing On The Corner" and "Big D"), the operatic nature of Loesser's through-composed score could not compete with the mass popularity of songs like "Wouldn't It Be Loverly," "With A Little Bit of Luck," "I Could Have Danced All Night," "On The Street Where You Live," and "Get Me To The Church On Time."
Tony (Martin Rojas Dietrich) and Rosabella (Amanda Johnson) in a
scene from The Most Happy Fella (Photo by: Dominic Colacchio)

But what an astounding score! I've been fortunate enough to see a half dozen productions of Loesser's musical. While most were fully staged and accompanied by sizable orchestras, one production (with a mere two-piano accompaniment) was every bit as compelling as experiencing The Most Happy Fella at Michigan Opera Theatre, The New York City Opera and Festival Opera. As one listens to the score, it's stunning to revisit small patches of music that (where other composers might have settled for a simple musical bridge) have been crafted with unabashed lyricism.

Now that George Gershwin's 1935 opus, Porgy and Bess, has finally been acknowledged as a true American opera, I think the time has come for audiences to accept that, in so many ways, The Most Happy Fella is a much better California-based opera than either Puccini's La Fanciulla del West (which received its world premiere from the Metropolitan Opera on December 10, 1910) or Carlisle Floyd's Of Mice and Men (which received its world premiere from the Seattle Opera on January 22, 1970).

As the final production under the artistic leadership of its co-founder and artistic director, Greg MacKellan, San Francisco's 42nd Street Moon recently debuted an intimate staging of The Most Happy Fella in the 200-seat Eureka Theatre with a three-piece chamber ensemble headed by music director Dave Dobrusky on piano, with Nick Di Scala on woodwinds and Andres David Vera on cello.

Directed and choreographed by Cindy Goldfield (with sets and lighting by Kevin Landesman and costumes designed by Stephen Smith), this proved to be one of the company's most strongly cast shows from a vocal perspective. Martin Rojas Dietrich was a magnificent Tony, with a personal warmth and vocal splendor that effortlessly filled the small auditorium. I was especially happy to see Robbie Rescigno cast as the affable farmhand, Herman. As Tony's restless foreman, Noel Anthony did an absolutely splendid job with "Joey, Joey, Joey."

Joe (Noel Anthony) and Rosabella (Amanda Johnson) in a scene
from The Most Happy Fella (Photo by: Dominic Colacchio)

The female roles are clearly divided between the romantic lead, Rosabella (Amanda Johnson), her sidekick, Cleo (Nicole Frydman), and Tony's sister, Marie (Caroline Altman). These three characters offer a clearly distinct set of vocal types ranging from a lyric soprano to a brassy belter.

As the shy waitress who answers Tony's original mash note, Amanda Johnson did a beautiful job with Loesser's music. Nicole Frydman provided a strong comedic counterpart as Amy/Rosabella's sassy friend, especially in her duets with Herman ("Big D" and "I Made A Fist"). I've always had a weak spot for Marie (Tony's overprotective sister) and thought that Caroline Altman handled the role with a refreshing amount of grace.

Marie (Caroline Altman) and Cleo (Nicole Frydman) in a scene
from The Most Happy Fella (Photo by: Dominic Colacchio)

As the following clip from the 2014 New York City Center Encores! Great Musicals in Concert production of The Most Happy Fella amply demonstrates, Loesser's score for this rarely-performed musical contains an embarrassment of musical riches.

Performances of The Most Happy Fella continue through May 15 at the Eureka Theatre (click here to order tickets).

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Whereas Tony's remarkable compassion leads to an extremely happy ending for The Most Happy Fella, the key characters in Mfoniso Udofia's new play, runboyrun (which recently received its world premiere from Magic Theatre) are lucky to settle on a tentative truce.

Part of a nine-play cycle about the Ufot family from Nigeria, runboyrun finds Disciple (Adrian Roberts) and his wife, Abasiama (Omoze Idehenre), living in Worcester, Massachusetts in 2014. It's 36 years after they met and married in Houston. New England's biotech industry has suffered numerous layoffs since the great recession of 2009, reminding everyone that time does not fly when you're not having any fun .While a cold and bitter New England winter rages outside their home, a wealth of terrors continue to rage within Disciple's mind.

Disciple (Adrian Roberts) returns home from work on a cold
Massachusetts evening in runboyrun (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley) 

When Disciple arrives home from work with news that his teaching contract has been renewed, it takes a while before Abasiama emerges from her hiding place under a blanket on their living room couch. She is lonely, depressed, and trying to stay warm. Although the couple have raised three children, time has not been kind to their marriage.
  • Disciple's salary barely allows them to make ends meet. 
  • The monographs he's been writing about Nigerian history offer little escape from his unhappy marriage.
  • Although their three children (Adiagha, Toyoima, and Ekong) call home on a regular basis, communication between Disciple and Abasiama has become extremely pressured and difficult.
  • Disciple's temperamental eruptions can quickly lead to calling his wife a harlot.
  • Because they can only afford one car, Abasiama is often stranded at home without any transportation.
  • Both husband and wife are thinking about getting a divorce.
Disciple (Adrian Roberts) and Abasiama (Omoze Idehenre) in
a tense moment from runboyrun (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

With no means to comprehend that Disciple has spent most of his adult life struggling with posttraumatic stress disorder as a result of the tragic family events during his childhood, Abasiama is at a loss to understand the forces that continue to torment her husband. However, thanks to the playwright's imagination (and Udofia's skill in depicting events in Nigeria through the family of ghosts that inhabit Disciple's mind), the audience slowly gleans why he was so thrilled to meet Abasiama in Houston and insisted on calling her "Sister" as she rested in a maternity ward following the birth of her first child.

Sister (Katherine Renee Turner) and boy (Rotimi Agbabiaka)
play a favorite game in runboyrun (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

As an intensely shy and easily frightened boy, Disciple's childhood was strictly ruled by his formidable mother. In addition to an older brother, Ben Gun (Rafael Jordan), who was wounded and blinded in the Nigerian Civil War during the 1960s, the boy had an older sister, Eno (Katherine Renee Turner), who was able to pierce Disciple's wall of silence by showing him how to play make believe with some snail shells and a "magic" stick. Despite his family's strict warnings not to leave their compound, one day Disciple broke free and started to run, with fatal consequences for his sister.

Mother (Nancy Moricette) lectures boy while Ben Gun
(Rafael Jordan) and Disciple (Adrian Roberts) look on
in a scene from runboyrun (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Directed by Sean San José, the characters in runboyrun careen between depression and exuberant play, between bitter, vindictive outbursts and the moment when Abasiama finally breaks through the psychological walls of her husband's internal terror. As Udofia explains:
“I write big plays. I want them to go deep, dark, and down as opposed to out and bright. Abasiama chooses to love a husband who is fractured (not of his own doing, but who causes pain). In the heat of certain battles that are chronic and perpetual, how do you consistently choose love? Is that always right? I wonder when and how does an initial breakage or damage heal and, if it doesn’t heal, when does it become a tradition you make for yourself [to] live over and over again? I wonder about that in women and men. When is enough enough? Is there ever an ‘enough’ that is bigger than love itself?”
Disciple (Adrian Roberts) and Abasiama (Omoze Idehenre)
in a scene from runboyrun (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Magic Theatre's ensemble juggles Disciple's flashbacks with a fierce determination to recreate the man's family history as it remains in one his warped memories. As the frightened boy who will grow up to be named Disciple and eventually travel to America, Rotimi Agbabiaka delivers a stunning performance of white-hot intensity that is nothing less than heartbreaking. Katherine Renee Turner is radiant as his older sister, with Nancy Moricette giving a searing portrayal of the family's terrifying matriarch.

As the older Ufots living in 2014, Adrian Roberts and Omoze Idehenre capture the tragic and exhausted resentment of a couple who have remained together for far too long. Although Abasiama cannot stop herself from trying to help her husband overcome the emotional obstacles which have deadened their marriage, it's patently obvious that this is one family drama whose main characters keep struggling to survive with little hope of a happy ending.

Abasiama (Omoze Idehenre) listens to Disciple’s story about his childhood
in Nigeria with sister (Katherine Renee Turner) and boy (Rotimi
Agbabiaka) in a scene from runboyrun (Photo by: Jennifer Reiley)

Whether in English or Ibibio, the sheer musicality of Udofia's writing is undeniable. Performances of runboyrun continue at the Magic Theatre through May 15 (click here for tickets).

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