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Bernarda Alba
by Rob Kendt

©2006 Paul Kolnik
Phylicia Rashad in
Bernarda Alba
So this is what the fuss is all about. Michael John LaChiusa's Bernarda Alba is nearly all the things he intends it to be, and that a discerning audience might wish it to be, too: a serious and seamless musicalization of Federico Garcia Lorca's forbidding final 1936 masterpiece, The House of Bernarda Alba, given a seductive staging by Graciela Daniele and a passionate, definitive rendition by its all-female cast. These ingredients are no recipe for a hit Broadway transfer, surely, and the show may not settle all the arguments LaChiusa's work inspires. (Is it opera or musical theater? Is his modernist aesthetic bracing or chilling? Is he writing too damn much?)

But Garcia Lorca's stark, vivid tragedy of sexual repression seems tailor-made to show off LaChiusa's native strengths: his grasp of the living rhythms of theatrical language, which pervades not only his music and lyrics but his expert shaping of the libretto; his eagerness to cut directly to the dark, despairing marrow of his material; and his raw, almost Gothic sensuality.

Flamenco is more than just an exotic flavoring here. Much as Sondheim convincingly referenced traditional Japanese forms and sounds for Pacific Overtures, LaChiusa and Daniele build Andalusian stylings into every element. The play starts with zapateado stomps and whooping cante singing, and as the exquisite balcony-seated band kicks in, we could be hearing a lost opera by Manuel de Falla. The whole score pulses with castanets, spiky Spanish guitar, finger-cymbals and finger-snaps (the fragrant orchestration is by Michael Starobin), and many of the tunes use Moorish-sounding scales. The occasional splash of Broadway syrup in a few ballads is jarring, and LaChiusa's story sense is still much stronger than his often pedestrian lyrics. But neither of these shortcomings break the show's overriding mood of duende.

Though Garcia Lorca's play famously contains his most stripped-down, least florid language, as a whole it has the linguistic punch of a poem and the symbolic force of myth. The widow Bernarda Alba (Phylicia Rashad) locks up her five unmarried daughters in chaste mourning, though a young male suitor, unseen, has stirred the passions of three of them: the oldest, Angustias (Saundra Santiago), the youngest, Adela (Nikki M. James), and the ugliest, Martirio (Daphne Rubin-Vega). In a stunning tableau of longing that builds to the chorale "I Will Dream of What I Saw," each of the daughters gets a terse, complementary signature song.

For a show so dark-spirited, Bernarda Alba is remarkably lively, thanks largely to the extraordinary actors, marshaled with flair by Daniele through her trademark blend of movement and dance. Nancy Ticotin stylishly executes most of the terpsichorean duties, but Laura Shoop, as a servant girl, holds her own opposite Ticotin in a sizzling mating-dance standoff, and James writhes expressively through a wrenching, climactic solo, "Open the Door."

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What Rashad lacks as a singer she makes up for in fierce hauteur, giving the sung word "whore" the sulfurous potency of an incantation. And she delivers Bernarda's few soft moments with a riveting sensitivity, like she's drinking deep from a secret stash of sweet memory. The plum role of her not entirely trusted servant, Poncia, has suffered the most cuts in LaChiusa's streamlining, but a striking, gypsy-styled Candy Buckley stands her ground as the house provocateur, an irrepressible if largely unheeded voice from the rough-and-tumble outside world.

©2006 Paul Kolnik
Judy Blazer, Saundra Santiago, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Sally Murphy & Nikki M. James
in Bernarda Alba
The excellent multiethnic ensemble doesn't look like a family, but it acts like one, or at least like the archetype of one. It may be a mark of the production's generosity that despite playing the two daughters with the least at stake, Judith Blazer and Sally Murphy make especially indelible impressions--Blazer with a hoarse a cappella lament that evokes a blues wail, and Murphy with a priceless shudder of girlish glee when a corps of male field hands passes by the house.

Bernarda Alba may not be the resounding vindication LaChiusa needs after last fall's twin debacle, when he first published his impolitic rant against "faux musicals" in Opera News, then offered the world his own extremely phony and pretentious See What I Wanna See. In this case, though, his work can speak for itself, because this aching, beautiful tone poem is the real thing.

Bernarda Alba
Written by Michael John LaChiusa
Directed and choreographed by Graciela Daniele
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center

Print This Story / Send the Story to a Friend / 3/6/2006 5:31:00 PM


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