Reviewed by David Spencer
I think there has not been a spectacle on Broadway quite like Coram Boy since The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby, which would make sense in that everything about it is perfectly Dickensian, save its originating author.
The source material, a prizewinning young adult novel, is written in fact by an India-born woman who emigrated to England, Jamila Gavin. I'm rather loathe to synopsize any of her 18th century epic here for several reasons: the story is just too damn sprawling to knock down to size, no thumbnail description I've considered or found is an accurate representation of the story's intricacy and scope, and, bottom line, I don't think this is one that should be compromised by spoilers. Since Coram Boy is not by Dickens, it's not in the zeitgeist so discover the novel and/or the play—compellingly adapted by Helen Edmunston—for yourself. I'll just say the story has elements of class differentiation, spans two generations, and tells of sons and the fathers (or lack of a father) that shaped them. Music figures heavily into the mix too, as one of the boys aspires to a career in music and winds up apprenticing to George Frideric Handel, composer of The Messiah—who is also a character. Kidnapping, murder, black and white slavery, families ripped asunder, families brought back together, evil and nobility, true love and illegitimate birth, chases on land and a battle at sea are seasoning for the stew. And almost everything gets resolved via reveal: i.e. "Do you mean young X is really the missing young Y?" (Don't worry, that's not a spoiler. You know it all along and wait for them to catch up.)
Featuring an ensemble of 20 actors, plus a full singing chorus, plus a small but powerful orchestra in the pit, plus an expansive (albeit suggestive rather than literal) set with several levels including a choirloft, plus period costumes, plus multiple role-playing, plus the use of choral sounds not just for music, but for the reverberations of both psychological and literal atmosphere, plus a bigass turntable, Coram Boy is about as theatrically ambitious as a play can get. And I have to say, in its one longish evening it is hugely more gratifying than The Coast of Utopia's three.
Dynamically directed by Melly Still in a manner that recalls Nicholas Nickleby's theatre games fluidity, it's a bit chancier in not depending upon spoken narrative for transition. The scenes and their characters speak for themselves and any transition of time or place is handled poetically. One example: the very young boys are all played by grown young women. Not only does this allow a psychological depth and eight-performance-a-week consistency that boys of the correct chronological age wouldn't be able to deliver in this intense an environment, but it keeps the storytelling firmly in the atmosphere of poetic imagery, which further allows this effect: our music-loving boy is singing, the turntable starts to revolve, he's singing beautifully, and then the worst thing ever happens, the thing he's most feared, his voice, right out there in public, shows its first evidence of changing, and it cracks on a high note, and as the revolve takes him out of sight, he tries again to reclaim the note and it won't come, and when the revolve brings him back into our view, the actor has changed, he is an actual young man at puberty—although even here, he is not really quite so young; just young enough to make the further transition from teenager to young adult before our eyes. (And don't despair about parting with the young actress after having bonded with her through half the play—she makes her return too, in a narrative inevitability that completes an entirely different kind of circle.)
It's a little amazing—and reassuring—that Coram Boy on Broadway holds such excitement, because it was originally developed at London's Royal National Theatre in an atmosphere of high experimentation; the kind of thing that bonds a company of actors in a unique way. And of course that bonding happened among the London cast. And though the Broadway production is an import, the cast are all (or predominantly) American. Any subsequent cast would have to find its own sense of communion—harder to do when you're working in shorthand, after the experimentation is done and the template is set. But maybe in taking their journey together, there was a different kind of starting from scratch; in any event, the excitement of an ensemble with a collective identity (as opposed to "merely" an accomplished cast doing an expert and creditable job—consider the difference between most long run productions seen in their first six months and then again, some seasons down the line) can be considerable (as the revival of Les Mis_rables proves).
The cast is a splendid one, principal roles being played memorably by Bill Camp, Dashiell Evans, Xanthe Elbrick, Quentin Mare, Wayne Wilcox, Charlotte Parry, and Uzo Aduba—among a number of gifted others.
Now as thrilling as Coram Boy is, and despite an irrefutably roused and enthusiastic audience response overall, there's something curious to note: the play seems not to be for everyone (though it struck me as being near-foolproof). I have encountered a number of very bright, theatrewise people who sort of hemmed and hawed thus: "I saw it...I liked it, sort of...but I wonder how it will last, who'll really want to see it, what I was supposed to come away with..." and etc. And I don't have the answer to that. In the end, a play speaks to you or it doesn't...but maybe, in response to the emphasis on children as main characters, these are people unconsciously latching onto the story's origin as a novel for younger readers, and finding themselves less empathetic than they wanted to be. All I can tell you is, me, I'm happy to get sucked into a young adult or family-audience story, be it Treasure Island, Doctor Dolittle, Doctor Who, Home Alone, E.T. or The Hobbit. As long as I care about how the sentence "Once upon a time there was..." ends, I'll come on board for anything, and stay on board so long as the telling is true. And if you're the same, considerations like "target audience" never really figure into it.
As Coram Boy proves, there's joy in simply being an easy target...