Music by Michael Reid
Libretto by Sarah Schlesinger
Directed by Mel Marvin
The New Victory Theatre/ 209 West 42nd Street / (212) 239-6200

Reviewed by David Spencer

This from actor Kelsey Grammar's recent autobiography, "So Far...":

"...something I learned from Jack Benny. No, I didn't actually know Jack. But one night back [when I was] in high school, Jack was on The Tonight Show. Johnny Carson asked him if there was any one thing to which he could attribute his success as a comedian.

"`Well,' Jack said, in his inimitable fashion, `I always play up to my audience.'

"It was like a gunshot. And I knew then what kind of actor I would like to be."

On a more personal note: as some readers know, I'm currently writing the music, lyrics and MIDI-orchestrations for a Young Audiences version of "The Phantom of the Opera", commissioned by TheatreWorks USA, to begin a nationwide tour in the fall. Since all TheatreWorks endeavors need to be fueled by at least a patina of educational value, my collaborator (and now good friend) librettist-director Rob Barron found a unique way into it, one that consistently makes it fun and challenging to write and keeps it from "feeling" like the zillionth musical retread of the Gaston Leroux penny-dreadful. Rob determined that our version of the story would be a metaphor for the way society treats people who are different. In many respects, a pretty weighty theme. Combined with that and the source material itself, we made a conscious decision not to write a "children's musical." To be sure, we continue to monitor our Ps and Qs with regard to language, plot complexity and appropriate onstage behavior–but those restrictions are obvious enough that dealing with them is a reflex.

We determined that, within those parameters, what we would create was an interesting musical. We'd aim high, keep the theme in mind…and see how much we could get away with. (We aimed so high that someone in the TheatreWorks hierarchy commented that "Phantom" posed an interesting situation. It was, he said, the first time in which they were dealing with a show that was reaching for so much–rather than the usual problem project, a show that didn't reach for enough. [I'm not sure, by the way, that this can be literally true, not with TW's venerable 35 year history, and not with the roster of often truly splendid writers and directors who have created shows for them in that period. But it may well be true of shows created within recent memory.])

Well, our first pass at the show was unveiled last November, before two packed workshop audiences, both of which were enhanced with a huge (and to me intimidating) block of kids. As with any show in progress, newly before an audience, some stuff worked fine, some needed tightening, a few things didn't work at all. But we were clearly on the right track; and the only real surprise was a pleasant one. And it was this:

In terms of sophistication, Rob and I got away with a hell of a lot more than we thought we would. As long as the action remained forward-moving, even the youngest kids hung in, through layered ideas and intricate music. (We lost them when we soliloquized–but that hearkens to principles of Young Audience theatre in general, and that's another discussion...or almost.) Various children, of course, absorbed various degrees of material variously. And Rob and I are now making what adjustments we can to reduce the margin of difference. (Our efforts will be tested with a New York mini-tour–the TheatreWorks equivalent of an out-of-town tryout–this April.) But in general, the kids were enthusiastic about what they saw. While the adults, many of them, found themselves unexpectedly touched.

And it was with this experience still ongoing and fresh in my mind–and Kelsey Grammar's words ringing newly in my ear from having read his book just this weekend–that I attended "Different Fields", a one-act opera set in the world of professional football, commissioned by The Metropolitan Opera Guild and Opera Memphis, which is playing an all-too limited engagement at the New Victory Theatre, as part of its season of theatre for young audiences.

Its story concerns all-star wide receiver, Aaron James (Joseph Mahowald), who has been so lionized for his prowess that the fans see him as a kind of perfect person. This is an image promulgated by a sportscaster (Steven Goldstein) and assiduously nurtured by the driven female owner of the team (Judith Engel).

It is not, however, an image much appreciated by the owner's executive secretary, a middle aged, divorced black woman named Jenny Willis (Theresa Hamm-Smith); and that's because her 12-year old son, Casey (James Harris Wiggins III alternating performances with twin brother Amir Jamal Wiggins), also idolizes Aaron. The idolatry is even more intense because, being her son, he has access to Aaron, with whom he has struck up a friendship. Jenny does not want Casey

Jenny's apprehensions are not totally unfounded. No, Aaron's friendship for Casey is not hollow, nor does he ever treat the relationship lightly. But he is more complicated–and troubled–than his public image. He's up to his ass in gambling debts, and he's being blackmailed by those who hold his marker, personified by the shadowy, barrel-chested figure he euphemistically refers to as his "accountant", a basso emissary known as Bowen (William Walker) who keeps reminding Aaron that there are "certain obligations" which must be met. Soon. And it isn't enough that he pay off his debts. He must also throw the next game.

It's a dark secret that is kept under wraps...but not before the impressionable and shattered Casey gets to overhear it...

Now, in one respect, the plot and characters of "Different Fields" are anything but fresh. They are, in fact, a collective amalgam of cliché upon cliché, and there are times when an astute adult can recite the next line of libretto even before it is sung. Librettist Sarah Schlesinger has done almost nothing to reinvent a worn and familiar formula. Worse, the text takes didactic pauses (such as a near-naked polemic disguised as an aria, in which the disappointed mother sings, "Where are the heroes?").

But curiously, "Different Fields" transcends this. For a number of reasons, I think.

First, whatever the flaws of the libretto (and there are others, mild misaccents and distracting false rhymes, in those rare moments when it is rhymed at all), Ms. Schlesinger seems to have written it with total conviction. However clichéd her characters and ideas, she respects them nonetheless, and they don't seem to have been written cynically. So there is a paradoxical dignity to the proceedings, that lends them dignity and gives the characters credibility.

Second, there's the music by Michael Reid. In recitative it can be modernistic and atonal, but it never stays without tonal center for long, and lands firmly on bold, sometimes striking melodies and motifs for its arias. There's not a hint of patronization in its musical vocabulary, nor, as far as I could determine, compromise, and yet, in the way it foursquarely lays out the elements of its musical material, it serves as a perfect introduction to the conventions of opera. In fact, especially with the help of a teacher or parent, those elements can be quite cogently broken down and discussed in the show's aftermath. The achievement is really quite remarkable and not to be taken lightly.

Libretto and music combine to created an event that is meant to enlighten both children and adults; both thematically–teaching children not to admire people for the wrong reasons, nor think admired people are without flaw; and teaching adults who are admired that they have a moral responsibility to their young fans–and as a guide to perceiving an entire art form. Thus it falls into a "family audience" arena, and, because of its theatrically unusual subject matter, has something of the dramatic texture and resonance of an Afterschool Special. (In fact the producers of the Afterschool Specials would do well to consider taping this piece for broadcast as part of their series.) Because the piece's narrative is so familiar–and so brashly manipulative into the bargain–adults may hate themselves for being moved by it...but they will be. And to most kids it will probably be compellingly uncharted territory.

The cast is peopled by actor-singers and dedicated opera singers, and the level of acting varies accordingly, with Mr. Mahowald and Mr. Goldstein, as musical theatre veterans, being–pardon the phrase–most on top of the game. But the singing is always fine and sometimes more than that, at least among the adults (whichever Wiggins twin I saw seemed to be an unusually middling actor/singer for a pro child performer these days). And the direction by Mel Marvin, himself known best as a composer, is as clean and streamlined as the writing. A clarity also reflected in the spare set and evocative projections of John Michael Deegan and Sarah G. Conly. (I'm somewhat cooler toward the thinly-realized orchestrations by Michael Ching, though the vocal and instrumental work has been guided ably by musical director Joshua Rosenblum.)

As I watched the New Victory stage, at the performance I attended, I also kept a close watch on the kids. For the most part they hung in, very attentively. Unsurprisingly, when the story stopped for a soliloquy, or to a thematic editorial, the very youngest began to fidget. (Albeit quietly, I am pleased to say; this was a very well-mannered group.) One adorable under-five blonde girl was especially interesting to me–precisely because she was too young for many of the show's concepts, and my version of "Phantom" will sometimes have to play before children under its ideal age as well. I was gratified to note that she was generally fascinated, if not always comprehending–and that after a brief aria-induced zone-out on her mother's lap, she was suddenly upright and laser-attentive once palpable conflict kicked in again. I have no idea how much she understood in the literal sense. But she clearly had a strong impression of what was going on, and a clear interest in how it was going to turn out. Which, to my way of thinking, overrides everything else. You can never underestimate a young audience's earned curiosity, their desire to rise to a higher level, when it's offered honestly. If you can hold them without pandering, they'll always meet you at least halfway.

And "Different Fields" does that job admirably. It plays up to its intended audience, never down. It's a noble, and very successful experiment. It deserves to be followed by others of the same ilk.

The bad news is, New Yorkers and their families have until only February 18th to see it.

The good news is, the New York engagement will be followed by bookings in Nashville and Memphis. You Internetters in or near those areas, take note, buy tickets, and spread the word.

Jack Benny's philosophy is alive and well...

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