Monday, March 25, 2019

LOoP Premieres We Met in Moscow

 Lindsey Lefler and Tom Hamann in a scene at the
Tchaikovsky Concert Hall Cafe in Moscow
By Tina Arth

Light Opera of Portland (LOoP) is offering a two-week world premiere of the new musical We Met in Moscow, a love story based on the actual experiences of Portland State University Professor Emeritus Ralph Bunch and his late wife, Eleonora Andreevna. Bunch commissioned LOoP Artistic Director Dennis Britten to write the book and lyrics, with music by troupe member Kevin Lay, and the show is directed by Britten with musical direction by Lay. I have co-written two musicals, and having survived the bizarre highs and lows of the seeing my babies exposed for the public, I know what a thrilling but excruciating experience it can be. The main thing I learned from the experience is that any musical is extremely unlikely to debut in its final form – for authors who are open to it, seeing their words and music through the eyes and ears of an impartial audience highlights the strengths and weaknesses in a way that table reads and rehearsal just cannot do. It was in that spirit that I approached the opening night of We Met in Moscow, and in that spirit I was neither surprised nor disappointed with the production.

The story is a lovely one – around 1990, middle aged PSU Poly Sci professor Richard Ballad is nearing the end of a long marriage marked by growing estrangement when he travels to Moscow, meets, and soon falls in love with one of Russia’s premiere computer scientists, Eleonora Andreevna. Both are still married, and when Richard returns to Portland neither has admitted their feelings for the other. The long-distance relationship gradually develops, helped along by Eleonora’s discovery of a rare viola in the Tchaikovsky Museum that Richard buys for his son Hanzo. Richard eventually takes a temporary teaching position in Moscow to be nearer to Eleonora. When Richard develops a near-fatal case of meningitis in Russia, Eleonora intervenes to get him the best medical care possible until he can safely return to the U.S. – but she is unable to get a visa to come with him, and they cannot marry until his divorce is finalized.  Instead, Eleonora moves to Vancouver, Canada, where Richard can visit regularly until they are finally able to be married.

Neither the songs nor the script are 100% ready for prime time, although the potential is definitely there. It’s a complicated story, and some of Britten’s dialogue is unnecessarily expository and repetitive – often we find the actors telling us how they feel, and why, instead of allowing the key points to emerge organically. Lay’s music is consistently lovely, but at times so complex that the orchestra and vocalists find it challenging to mesh – in fact, one of the show’s songs was deleted after the dress rehearsal. Twenty scenes (ten in each act) with lots of associated scene changes slow down the action, and the extensive use of audience-level platforms at the far right and left sometimes leaves us craning our necks to see what’s going on.

That said, the cast (many of them LOoP regulars) deliver some fine performances. As Eleonora Andreevna, soprano Lindsey Lefler handles even the most soaring high notes with aplomb, and she captures her character’s grim resignation as the Soviet Union is collapsing yet shows traces of real fire when love and hope come into her life. Tom Hamann (as Richard Ballad) provides a nice contrast – never having been denied freedom, he has more of an American “can-do” attitude, yet we see touches of the dulling effect his loveless marriage has on his (pre-Eleonora) life.  I think I might have enjoyed Linh Nguyen’s broad take on the teenage Hanzo had I been able to see him, but I was sitting front row, center and the placement of his key scene on a platform beyond and below stage left meant that even by craning my neck I could watch only his back. One of the finest moments in the show arrives in a Scene One flashback where Eleonora’s mother, played by Gabrielle Widman, comforts her nightmare tortured daughter with the haunting and beautiful “Lullaby for Eleonora.”

As always with LOoP productions, the vocal ensemble work is rich, powerful, and consistently lovely. Choreographer Rachel Brown has done an admirable job of crafting performers with wildly variable skill levels into competent dancers, although the stage gets dizzyingly full at times – this is a case where fewer dancers would yield greater results. Given the number of scenes (and the number of lamps on the stage) Carl Dahlquist does a remarkable job working the lights, so we can forgive him for one slight (and pretty funny) slip on a telephone sound cue (kudos to Widman for saving the day!). As mentioned, the show has a complex score, and conductors Kevin Lay and Becca Stuhlbarg ensure that the orchestra does full justice to Lay’s compositions.

Should you go? Yes, but only if you can bring an open mind to the fact that you are seeing a work in many ways in its infancy. The sometimes exquisite vocal and orchestral performances, combined with the bones of a beautiful love story, will be adequate justification for those interested in seeing a nascent work with so much room to grow.

We Met in Moscow plays Friday, March 29 and Saturday, March 30 at 7:00 PM and Sunday, March 31 at 2:00 PM at the Alpenrose Opera House, 6149 SW Shattuck Road, Portland.

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