Currently at the Walnut Street Theatre there's a new musical about an incredible love story. Even more incredible is that it ismostly, if not altogethertrue. In 1847 in Buenos Aires, Camila O'Gorman ran off with Ladislao Gutierrez. They were both young and passionately in love. There was only one problem. She was a society debutante and he was a Jesuit Priest. Both the Catholic Church and the totalitarian Federation Government led by Juan Manuel de Rosas set out to make them an example. This was an event so shocking to the mid-nineteenth century Argentinean government that the story itself was actually banned for 100 years. Handed down by word of mouth from generation to generation, the tale of Camila O'Gorman made her a national heroine.
The musical opens with a Tango singer telling us a story of passion and forbidden love. In the following scene, the same actress then plays La Perichona, Camila's grandmother. In her scandalous youth, La Perichona had an affair with a Viceroy who spoke out against the current government. Which is why she is now currently under house arrest in the tower of her son's house as a political undesirable. She tells Camila that love is all that matters. Camilla goes to confession and reveals that she had a dream where she met her true love. She leaves abruptly when she realizes that her personal confessor has been replaced by someone new. We are then thrown into Camila's birthday party where we are introduced to all the characters including Padre Ladislao Gutierrez, the new, young parish priest -- the priest Camila confessed to. Camila is given a book of love poetry by the local bookseller. This is frowned upon by her suitor, Armand Garcia, for whom she cares nothing. At home she is chided by her sister for rebuffing Armand's proposals and her father demands that she choose marriage or the convent. For an aristocratic woman of her age there are no other options.
Very quickly the political climate heats up. The bookseller is arrested and decapitated. A ranch hand is then arrested for conspiring against the government. Padre Gutierrez speaks out against these brutalities from the pulpit. The priest also tries to help the ranch hand escape punishment. Amid these injustices, Camila confesses to Padre Gutierrez, her new confessor, and falls in love with the handsome and compassionate priest. It is obvious that the priest, too, is moved by her beauty and intelligence. Camila confides in her grandmother that the man she loves is a priest and the grandmother's response is that she should go to him. Ladislao tries to resist his desires and confesses to his superior, Padre Gannon, who tells him to mortify his flesh in penance. Though Ladislao complies, it seems to be no use, for when he must suddenly flee from government soldiers, Camila begs to go with him and he cannot resist her. The lovers run off together at the end of Act I.
Act II moves more swiftly and decisively. The lovers are in hiding as man and wife in a cottage in the small town of Corrientes where they have both secured jobs as teachers. The Commandante of the town has taken a liking to them as young, poor newlyweds and invites them to an Easter masquerade. Reluctantly, they accept and this proves to be their undoing. Padre Gannon, who has been searching for the couple, is in disguise at the party and unmasks the lovers. The Commandante offers Camila horses with which to escape, but Ladislao becomes immobilized in prayer. Sadly, Camila realizes that his passion for God is greater than his passion for her. The lovers are arrested and placed in separate prisons. Camila's father, a wealthy cattle rancher is urged to make intercessions on his daughter's behalf but refuses. It is in prison that Camila realizes that she is pregnant. If you don't know the story, then I will not reveal the ending.
The book, the strongest element of this show, has only a few minor problems. In trying to dramatize the kind of oppressive political regime that people in Argentina had to live under, the author has two peripheral characters arrested and executed very early in the first act. Unfortunately, because we have not gotten to know these characters, their plight does not elicit our sympathy. In fact, one of the executions happens so fast, it's impossible for us to absorb it in a realistic or even a symbolic sense. No sooner is the bookseller arrested for selling forbidden literature and removed from the stage, than a moment later a soldier parades back on stage with this poor fellow's decapitated head on a spike. Another man, a ranch hand, is arrested for activities against the government which are never explained.
I also found it hard to believe that the grandmother, libertine that she was, would tell Camila to go with a priest. I do not know if this was historically accurate or a fabrication of the script. But it simply does not ring true for the era.
The first act needs to focus more on the lovers and less on the political subplots. If there were only one subsidiary threadthat of the doomed bookseller, for example, who is more important to the storyperhaps it would affect us more. Another problem: the character of Camila is written as an ingenue and not as a leading lady. I found this to be a missed opportunity. In the South American film version of this tale, likewise titled "Camila", her character is portrayed as a free-thinking woman who is in the grip of a tumultuous passion. And knowingly, it is shea fiery, strong-willed leading ladywho seduces Ladislao. Having her drive the story makes an enormous difference is in the way we feel for Camila at the end of the film. There are also many more love scenes in the film in which the lovers' passion builds to the point of no return and its inevitable conclusion.
Though there are no memorable melodies, at times the music can be alternately pretty and haunting. For throughout, the score is richly flavored with tangos and religious kyries. This particular production boasts a fine cast, most notably, Michael Hayden as Ladislao, who sings with passion and intelligence, Jane Summerhays who doubles as the sympathetic La Perichona and the sensual Tango Singer, and Elizabeth Sastre as the ingenue, Camila. The lighting by Brian Nason is absolutely stunning and makes wonderful use of the space created by the stark sets by Riccardo Hernandez. The variegated spectrum of colors used in the costume design by Suzy Benzinger works in tandem with the rest of the design elements to give the feel and texture of this hot, tropical country. Her use of pastel colors in the Easter costumes and masks is a particularly interesting and untypical choice. The direction by BT McNicholl is solid and swift as we are moved deftly from point to point in this torrid saga of earthly and divine love.
In all, with its brisk pacing, exotic locale and the colorful music and dance, "Camila"the musicalmay very well appeal to certain audiences on the strength of its source storyline.
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