Taproot Theatreis that increasingly rare phenomenon, a neighborhood playhouse that both serves and involves its local community. It's clean and well-maintained, the lobby is always staffed with enthusiastic volunteers, the plays are selected to appeal to a loyal subscription base, and there is obvious pride of ownership both in the audience and from the stage. It's a charming and admirable organization, and a delightful place to see a play.
Their current offering, "Joyful Noise", fits this venue and its audience perfectly. It's a well-written, conventional drama about Georg Friedrich Handel and the circumstances surrounding the composition of "The Messiah". This impressively mounted production, directed by Scott Nolte, is far from bad, but it is also a bit too far from good. In spite of some solid work, and earnest intention, the play fails to generate really passionate drama, and its theme of redemption through inspired art ends up feeling more like the pleasure of simple success than the glory of inspired greatness.
For me, the core of the problem was John Murray, as Handel. I simply never really believed that this man owned his music, let alone that he was a genius under enormous pressure not only to restore his reputation, but to create transcendent art. Without that sense of both urgency and passion, those around him have little reason for their own devotion and belief. In the case of his doubters, their lack of belief seems too inconsequential, more embarrassment than abandonment. Mr. Murray simply lacks depth, and his charm and good nature can hardly account for the dimensions of either his failure, or his success.
The play is about more than just Handel, however. It is also about woman who has been disgraced and scandalized, and who is given a chance, through the gift of her voice and this divine music, to redeem herself. As Susannah Cibber, Catherine Lee is straight-forward and appealing, with a nice voice and intelligent line readings. What she lacks is enough range for the variety of situations she is found in. For the most part, her delivery is so uniform, both in pace and emphasis, that it lacks impact over the course of the evening. In a woman of complexity and texture, we see mostly an interesting but unvaried surface.
Her vocal and social rival, Catherine "Kitty" Clive, played by Rachel Hornor, has an equally compromised past, and an additional layer of hypocrisy and self-righteousness to make it all the more interesting. Although at times she is broad enough to suggest parody, there's enough modulation over the course of the play that her excess becomes sympathetic. The diva rivalry is a bit heavy-handed, especially in a physical cat-fight that is entirely over the top, but the essential conflict between the women is expressed through their singing, and that's satisfying and theatrically correct.
Best realized is the role of Mary Pendarves, played with maturity and focus by Pam Nolte. Her emotional proportion is the most appropriate, and her connection with everyone else is affecting and convincing. Along with Mark Sparks, as the aide Smith, hers is the character I most believe understands the workings of genius, and I never doubted or questioned her devotion to Handel, nor the impact of his music on her. These two created a powerful and intricate frame, in which the character of Handel is a rather sadly missing picture.
The physical production of "Joyful Noise" is quite exceptional for a small theatre. The scenic design, by Don Yanik, is a huge page of music which opens into doors in the center, and sparse furniture as needed. The costumes, by Nanette Acosta, are beautiful, rich and finely done. Jay Venzke's lighting design is attractive, and nicely enhances the play's changing moods. The music, an important element of this play's physical production, is competently directed by Scott Hafso.
In the end, "Joyful Noise" is the sort of production that is the hardest to review. There's good work done, real dedication apparent, and obvious care put into the detail. But somehow there just isn't enough sense that it's all vital, that the stakes are high enough, and that souls, as well as reputations, are invested in this creation. The notes are all there, and the voices pleasing, but the music never really soars.
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