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For the Last Time: A New Jazz Musical
Hawthorne's theme of sin and its tragic effects, inspired jazz singer and composer, Nancy Harrow, to compose For the Last Time, a jazz musical now in its world premiere off-Broadway production at Theater Row's Clurman Theatre. While Hawthorne's book was set in 1860's Rome, amid museums and historic artifacts, Harrow places her story in 1950's New Orleans, a city of mystique and art, voodoo, Cajun tradition and inventive jazz. In both cases, a small group of friends bond in an creative life of friendship and support. When one character's unhappy past threatens her life, a passionate reaction results in tragedy for everyone.
Harrow wrote the book with director Will Pomerantz. The slight story was added to the disjointed rhythms and syncopations of '50's jazz, a score composed by Harrow years earlier. The eight-piece jazz band echoes the characters' emotions and a conjurer/narrator, played by Reggie D. White, occasionally appears to enlighten his listeners with his know-how about sin and power.
Main characters include Miriam (Brittany Campbell), a talented artist and loner with an air of mystery. She welcomes her cousin, Hilda (Anita Welch), a conservative Baptist who she has come from Cleveland for some of that New Orleans "hi-de-ho" to boost her writing inspiration.
Miriam introduces Hilda to Kenyon (Carl Clemons-Hopkins), an outgoing up-and-comer whose self-confidence influences everyone —, especially Donatello (Britton Smith), a young man from the Cajun back country who loves nature and music. Miriam points out a resemblance between Donatello and Praxiteles' marble statue of a faun, said to be the epitome of naïve innocence. They are drawn to each other and within a few days, like Hilda and Kenyon, are moving toward deep romances.
Miriam's unwelcome past insinuates itself into her life when Teacher (also played by Reggie D. White), suddenly appears. Teacher seems to be a respectable art instructor, but he was always obsessed with Miriam. She sees him as abusive and manipulative. Later, at the grand opening of Kenyon's new nightclub, as everyone dances to "Carnival," a jubilant celebration of Mardi Gras, Miriam again sees Teacher. Frightened, she looks at Donatello who is enraged. Tragedy ensues.
Miriam and Donatello are both horrified. For the first time, Donatello faces guilt and moral responsibility and runs back to the country to find solace in nature. Miriam is desolate. Hilda sees what happened but cannot talk about it. Kenyon is so in love with Hilda that he gives up his new nightclub to leave town with her.
Directed by Pomerantz, the brief story is secondary to Harrow's music and the strong band led by Cody Owen Stine. Though hampered by uneven sound quality, the singers are solid; notably Clemons-Hopkins who greets Hilda with "What the Romans Do," a joyful welcome to New Orleans. His "Sea Change" is a positive statement of love for Hilda. Campbell, backed by a saxophone, sings of Miriam's woes of "Strong Women" and her brooding "Marble Faun" is an intimating jazz waltz. Smith's Donatello has a chance to portray his guilt dramatically with, "How Can This Be Love?" Underscoring of scenes with haunting beats keeps the mystique of the city constant with the threat of danger.
Set designer John McDermott's wrought iron stairs and balcony offers space for both girls' apartments and shifts efficiently for the nightclub space. A balcony along the top serves to overlook the French Quarter and a windmill where Donatello later hides. Costume designer Whitney Locher puts Kenyon in snazzy black and white shoes. Exuberant colored ruffles illuminate "Carnival." The narrator is distinctive in a wide-brimmed hat.
For the Last Time, leaves much unresolved. How do such deep romances develop in just a few days? Why does Kenyon give up his nightclub so fast? What was the horrific secret between Teacher and Miriam? When the four separate for the last time, where will Miriam go?