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LETTERS TO EDITOR
My Life With Albertine by Elyse Sommer
A concept that takes your breath away with its daring and visually enchanting staging. . . a star-quality leading lady. . . expertly orchestrated music that will undoubtedly sound richer when heard a second and third time around. Put it all in Playwrights Horizons' handsome and comfortable new theater and you've got My Life With Albertine, Richard Nelson's latest literary raid on behalf of sophisticated musical theater.
As with The Dead, Mr. Nelson has dipped into the work of a literary giant. After using a more managable short story for his James Joyce inspired play with music, he has now taken on Marcel Proust's daunting, multi-volume, 3000 page Remembrance of Things Past for a show whose sixteen songs (that's not counting Reprises) and 8-piece band quite definitely define it as a musical.
Nelson, who also directs and co-wrote the lyrics, has done inventive work in whittling down Proust's introspective epic. Instead of trying to capture all the moment-by-moment remembrances of things past that Proust summoned up to reverse the intractable flow of time, Nelson has focused on the segments dealing with the artist-hero's obsession with a young woman named Albertine who became his lover for a couple of years but haunted his ruminations ever after. The result is teen-aged Marcel's coming of age love story with a melancholy Proustian ending. His seaside meeting with Albertine turns claustrophic and bitter, with the frustration at Albertine's remaining "scarecely more than a silhouette" causing him to lose his grip on her as well as on himself.
Nelson has incorporated much of Proust's own language into both dialogue and lyrics, which probably makes this the most highbrow musical in town. That's not to say that My Life With Albertine is a substitute for reading what writers and scholars' rank high on great books of the 20th century lists -- and what many readers rank equally high among books they have promised themselves to read or finish reading before they head to the great beyond. On the other hand, neither is a reading knowledge of the material necessary to follow what's going on; in fact, those who've read all or some of Remembrance are likely to look for nuances from the book which landed on the cutting room floor rather than to sit back and enjoy the show's own Nelsonesque charm and cleverness.
Besides the condensation of the original texts a major change has been made in the interest of allowing this Proust to sing. This takes the form of a career switch for Marcel, from writer to composer. This concept is enhanced by structuring the libretto as a play-within-a-play, with a proscenium (complete with regularly opening and closing curtain) right in Marcel's wood-paneled Paris home. The apartment thus becomes the partially visible backstage where the actors sit and stand around waiting for their next turn in the limelight, much as they did in The Dead.
The salon-de-theater remembrances feature two Marcels, Brent Carver playing the backward-looking narrator and Chad Kimball, his seventeen-year-old self. Carver has the soulful, somewhat weary persona one imagines for the introspective and frail Marcel depicted by Proust. Kimball is a bit too robust and cute for us to connect him with the more intense Carver. He is more convincing during the falling in love scenes at Balbec-by-the-Sea than during jealous guardianship after he hustles her away from her high-living, Lesbian friends. This miscasting does not apply to his voice which does full justice to some of Ricky Ian Godon's best songs-- like the "The Different Albertines" duet with Carver and the second act's terrific epistolary musical exchanges with Albertine, the lovely to look at and listen to. Kelli O'Hara.
Ms. O'Hara bookends the show singing both the opening and closing spmgs. Carver, who introduces O'Hara before stepping aside for the flashback to unfold, later reprises her " Is It Too Late?" opener. This and other reprises are more welcome than annoying in a score with melodies that soar this operatically.
The three leading characters are supported by a cast that includes several who are overdue for star vehicles of their own, notably Donna Lynne Champling and Emily Skinner. Champlin gets a lovely solo, "Lullaby", as Marcel's grandmother and her transition to her second role as the family retainer, Françoise, is effectively visualized when she places the Paisley printed robe worn by the now dead grandmother into the grandson's hands. (That Paisley gown is one of many gorgeous and authentically 1919 costumes designed by Susan Hilferty). Emily Skinner as the flamboyant Lesbian, Mlle Leo, spends far too much time in the background, though Ricky Ian Gordon has given her a belt-it-out solo, "I Want You", at the top of the second act.
Despite the streamlining and some fun, comic numbers like "Ballec-by-the-Sea" and "I Need Me a Girl", this hardly qualifies as fast-paced, musical. Sean Curran's choreography is more low-key than high-stepping. The first act especially has some sluggish scenes. The cut-to-the-starcrossed-young-lovers story could have done with some additional trimming and the production smacks of a bit too much multi-tasking. Nelson and Gordon would have also done well to relinquish their lyricists' hats, or at least bring a lyricist on board to avoid some of the Proustian excesses (e.g. which might have prevented Marcel's song about making love to Albertine from adding the silly sounding"tongue me" to "kiss me, kiss me.").
Not the least of the show's overall pleasures derive from the visual impact of Thomas Lynch's very Parisian and theatrical set which, in addition to the proscenium-de-salon, includes a graceful upstage balcony for the musicians. If you put aside comparisons to the experience of reading Proust, My Life With Albertine, offers enough all-around pleasures to make it a must see for anyone who appreciates innovative musical theater.
James Joyce's The Dead, Richard Nelson's previous literary musical
Dream True, Tina Landau's musical based on George DuMaurier's 1991 Peter Ibbetson, for which Ricky Ian Gordon wrote the music and lyrics.
At This Theater
Leonard Maltin's 2003 Movie and Video Guide
Ridiculous!The Theatrical Life & Times of Charles Ludlam
Somewhere For Me, a Biography of Richard Rodgers
The New York Times Book of Broadway: On the Aisle for the Unforgettable Plays of the Last Century
6, 500 Comparative Phrases including 800 Shakespearean Metaphors by CurtainUp's editor.
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