Sunday, May 06, 2007

PLAY: "Coram Boy"

How appropriate that Coram Boy has come to the theater that Les Miserable left behind: although Coram Boy is technically a straight play (the twenty-person chorus is an underscoring classical influence), it's also a period piece with a staggering cast, an epic set (and swelling effects to fill the Neo-Gothic display), multiple levels and multiple sub-plots, and--as befits all big shows--a rotating stage. While some of Coram Boy is just an opportunity for director Melly Still to show off all the means at her disposal, the end result of this bleak and melodramatic show is hopeful--not just for the orphans who have been rescued from their villainous abusers--but for Broadway productions as well.

The play begins in 1742, using theatrical effects from the get-go, as half the cast become props (gargoyles and angels) to set up the cavernous cathedral in which we meet both Meshak Gardiner (Brad Fleischer), the rapturous but mentally unbalanced son of Otis Gardener (Bill Camp, playing the Alan Rickman-like villain to perfect), and Thomas Ledbury and Alexander Ashbrook, two young choir boys who become good friends through their love of music (despite the large gap between Ashbrook's status and Ledbury's). Unlike Spring Awakening, the roles of the children aren't age-appropriate, although it pays off for these young soprano-voiced boys (played, by vocal necessity, by girls like the talented Xanthe Elbrick).

The first act is dedicated to showing Thomas's coming-of-age, the landmark at which his father, the Lord Ashbrook, will strip him of music and make him act like a man. It also focuses on exposing Otis Gardener's wrongdoings, as he collaborates with Mrs. Lynch (Jan Maxwell) to find women of means who need "men of means" to extricate their unwanted babies. The title and concept of the play comes from the Coram Hospital that was the only real orphanage back in the day, and Gardener makes his money off women who trust that he will ferry their children into this better place, rather than to the usual roadside ditch. In actuality--and here's where the production is most powerful--Otis just buries them behind the Ashbrook house, dead or alive, and the cast is called upon as props once more to represent all the buried, wailing baby corpses. The reason why Coram Boy works, why it grows beyond shallow melodrama, is because of this grandiose scope: one actor making the squalling of a baby is nothing, but a fleet of them becomes an unsinkable and theatrical armada of talent, and it is hard to go wrong with such overbearing emotion.

The second act, picking things up eight years later, deal with the repercussions of Act I's conclusion, along with a new focus on the eight-year-old Coram boys, Toby and Aaron, and their new nemesis, Philip Gaddarn, a rich merchant who makes his money illicitly selling the young, disease-free Coram girls into slavery, and putting the black children like Toby into fine garments as liveried servants that can use their fine pink tongues to do whatever the rich might expect of them. Be glad that this sort of evil, unspoken but clearly implied, isn't amplified or acted out by the entire cast: that effect would go too far. As is, Helen Edmundson (who adapts Jamila Gavin's novel) and Melly Still pick the right battles, amplifying only the things that would look cool on stage, like an underwater sequence or an angelic flight from the upper tier.

Coram Boy makes for an easy target because of how big and positively preening it is, at times. But the criticism of this Broadway spectacle is misplaced: this is a convincing, if overwrought world, with characters at least as enjoyable as those from Les Miserable. Although the speedy plot often forces a gloss of the tragedy and love stories, the whole play will strike a nerve, will take your breath away, and will make you tear up.

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