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A CurtainUp Review

(L-R) Tod Mason
Teri Dale Hansen
and Mark Cortale
(Photo: Carol Rosegg)
The new Illyria Theatre Company's mission is to stage revivals of musicals that have pushed the traditional boundaries of the genre and to develop new works. The company couldn't have picked a better debut show than Splendora to fulfill the first part of that mission.

Like the upcoming big bang revival of The Music Man, this musical's leading lady is a small town librarian -- well sort of, her library is a bookmobile. The time is the present and the place, a tiny town deep in the heart of Texas (Splendora, Texas a real town with a population of 745!). But this isn't an idyllic American as apple pie musical romance. The genteel Miss Jessica Gatewood (Teri Dale Hansen ) has a secret that makes her budding romance with Brother Leggett, the town's assistant pastor (Tod Mason) into something that might make your visiting aunt from Dubuque blush.

Not having seen Splendora in its 1995 debut at the Bay Street Theatre in Sag Harbor and shortly thereafter at the American Place Theatre, I can't really comment on how much has changed in this "revised" production. However, it has now, as then, an intriguing libretto and lyrics and music with enough appeal to make you understand why it won a Richard Rodgers Production Award as well as two Drama Desk Award nominations.

Unlike too many current musicals, Splendora is a team effort that meshes the talents of Peter Webb (book-- based on Edward Swift's 1970s cult novel), Stephen Hoffman (music) and Mark Campbell (lyrics). Webb has created five gossipy and nicely differentiated Splendorians to serve as a chorus for the central story of Miss Jessica who will be running the bookmobile right outside the house she has purchased -- the house from which a young man named Timothy John Coldridge mysteriously disappeared fifteen years ago. This genteel lady in her turn-of-the-century clothes seems like a refugee from a Tennessee Williams play, as does the young man (Mark Cortale) at her side whom none of the ladies of the town seem to see or hear.

Is he her lover? Her husband? If he is, why would she flutter and flirt her way into the affections of Brother Leggett (Tod Mason)? Like the most astute member of the chorus and Splendora's sheriff to be, Sue Ella Lightfoot (Kristine Zbornik), it won't take you long to catch on to the complexity within such simple lines as "there's two sides to everything." (Think Jane Eyre as per our recent review of the British Shared Experience Company' s adaptation !).

It also won't take you long to realize that for all its good intentions, the company's limited resources don't add up to a revival with consistent sparkle. Jim Boutin's set with the front porch of Ms. Jessica's cottage swinging open like a big door and taking us into her parlor is serviceable and Caroline Birks has provided the right Gibson Girl look for Miss Jessica while dressing the gossipy Splendora ladies in amusing Texas tacky outfits. Still these efforts fail to dispel the let's put on a show bare bones aura.

This production's biggest flaw stems from the musical staging. While the three-piece orchestra is invisible at the rear of the stage, director Dona Drake has not been able to prevent the musicians, especially pianist Jeffrey Biering, from drowning out the actors' voices during most of the first act. Or maybe I've got it the other way around and the fault rests with the performers. All except Kristine Zbornik, Susan Roberts (as the town tramp, Maga Dell Spivey) and Tod Mason seem to need most of the first act to gain the upper hand over the instruments.

Fortunately, the second act makes up for the "lost" lyrics and slow narrative tempo of the first. Maga's ditty about "a man named Dewey who invented the Dewey decimal system" is a genuine show stopper. The duet "Dear Heart" sung by Jessica and Brother Leggett and "How Little I Knew/Had He Kissed Me Tonight" by the three principals makes you wish you had a CD to listen to the whole score again. The show as a whole proves that the announcements about the death of composers and lyricists in the tradition of Sondheim and Bernstein are premature. One can only hope that the Webb-Hoffman-Campbell triumvirate will give us a musical with strong enough commercial legs to warrant the kind of production and audience they deserve.

Book by Peter Webb
Lyrics by Stephen Hoffman
Music by Mark Campbell
Direction and musical staging by Donna Drake

With: Shannon Carson, Culver Casson, Mark Cortale, Teri Dale Hansen, Tod Mason, Susan Roberts, Carol Tammen, Kristine Zbornik
Orchestra: Jeffrey Biering, piano; Tom Oberle, woodwind; David Gotay, cello
Set Design: Jim Boutin
Lighting Design: Susan Hamburger
Costume Design: Caroline Birks
Wigs: Wigmaster Associates
Running time: 2 hours including one intermission
Chelsea Playhouse, 125 W. 22nd St., (6th/7th Avs), 307-4100
Performances from 2/08/2000; opening 2/17/2000
Closing 3/26/2000
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 2/15 performance

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