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A CurtainUp Review

A for Adultery

Paul Dick is not the first theater person to have found inspiration in Nathaniel Hawthorne's dark tale of Puritan religious fervor. Pulitzer-prize winning playwright Suzan-Lori Parks wrote her own version of Hester Prynne's disastrous love affair with the spineless Reverend Dimmesdale, giving it the in-your-face title F***ing A. Two summers ago, feminist scholar Carol Gilligan, convinced that Hawthorne was a man ahead of his time, staged a fairly straightforward version (with a few added a few new wrinkles) at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox near the cottage where Hawthorne lived and worked. (See links below).

The story's operatic qualities have inspired a previous pop opera which did little for Hawthorne's authorial legacy or the musical theater. I'm afraid Mr. Dick's version isn't going to change the situation. It's not that he isn't true to his source material. Nor does he lack experience -- after all, he's become an old pro at musicalizing classic tales, from the Bible (Moses, My Love), to Flaubert's Madame Bovary.

I quite liked Wuthering Heights the only of Dick's previous musicals I saw and didn't mind it being what you might call a piano opera since that instrument served as the only orchestral accompaniment as it does in A For Adultery. Somehow, this time around, that one-instrument orchestra doesn't do much to enrich the score though the fault doesn't lie with the piano playing but the thinness and repetitiveness of the music.

Director Cara Reichel, who has done some impressive work with the Prospect Theater Company, has assembled an all Equity cast, but except for Kelly Jeanne Grant who plays Hester Prynne, the acting and singing is underwhelming. Jeffrey Doornbos seems to visibly gear up for a change every time he switches from dialogue to singing. Ronald Roy Johnson, Jr as Hester's cuckolded husband Roger Chillingworth hardly lives up to his name. His malevolence seems straight out of an old road show melodrama and he's not much more convincing in a more rueful mood. The composer apparently liked "Chillingworth's Regret" well enough to make it one of the show's reprises so Johnson must be credited for doing his best not to stumble over lyrics like " I was a fool/and you were young/about to bud/your greening time."

To get back to Kelly Jeanne Grant, the centerpiece of the story and this production, she is a lovely Hester, capturing the feistiness of a woman who stands her ground against the cruelty of Boston of the Seventeenth Century Calvinist settlers. She makes you understand why, despite other less than perfect stage and movie adaptations, Hester Prynne continues to hold a place in American literature and our hearts. Grant's singing voice is rich and clear and had me wondering if, had she been surrounded by matching talents, the music might not have soared a bit higher.

I have no complaints about Naomi Wolff's costumes and Ji-youn Chang's lighting. Timothy Richard Mackabee's utilitarian set designs uses two movable sets of steps and a platform to good effect. Overarching the stage are four tall crosses -- unfortunately, when the horizontal bar of one of these came unglued during the first scene, it proved to be a metaphor for much of this production.

F***ing A
Scarlet Letter

Wutherig Heights

A for Adultery, a Musical
Based on Nathaniel Hawthorne's "The Scarlet Letter"
Music, lyrics and book: Paul Dick
Director: Cara Reichel
Music Direction: Peter Mills
Cast: Danielle Melanie Brown, Jennifer Michelle Brown, Kelly Jeanne Grant, Jesse David Johnson, Ronald Roy Johnson, Jr, Joyce Lynn, Jeffrey Doornbos, Cornelius O'Connor, Jessica Ordman, Julia Tilley
Set Design: Timothy Richard Mackabee
Costume Design: Naomi Wolff
Lighting Design: Ji-youn Chang
Running time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, includes one intermission
PASSAJJ Productions at The Beckett Theater, 410 W. 42nd St. 212/239-6200
6/04/04 to 6/20/04; opening 6/05/04
Thursday - Saturday @ 8pm, Wednesday & Saturday @ 2pm, Sun @ 3pm -- $16.25
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on June 5th matinee performance
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