Playwright: Michael John LaChiusa
At: BoHo Theatre at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont. Tickets: 773-975-8150; BoHoTheatre.com; $33-$35. Runs through: Dec. 10
BoHo Theatre Company's production of Marie Christine is powerful, moody and even sensual at moments, with some of the finest singing and playing I've encountered in off-Loop theater, especially from a troupe of BoHo's modest size. Nonetheless, Marie Christinethe piece itselfis not easy to like. It's easy to admire, respect and understand, but finding yourself emotionally attached is very, very difficult.
The reason why is that composer/lyricist Michael John LaChiusa is an extremely gifted, singular artist who refuses to compromise with popular taste. Any time he chooses he could write a musical filled with hummable tunes and catchy hit numbers, but he adamantly refuses to do so. Instead, he writes serious, complex jazz operas ( if one must pigeonhole his music specifically, it is jazz ) frequently with wrenching, unhappy stories. They are richly-textured, musically-challenging works but they also are somber, dark and chilly and go for the guts rather than the heart.
Such is Marie Christine, modelled closely upon the myth of Medea, the glamorous witch who sacrificed everythingeven resorting to murderin order to marry Jason, the great hero of the Golden Fleece. When he ditched her for a more politically powerful marriage, Medea's vengeance was terrible, unforgiveable and unforgettable.
LaChiusa's Medea is Marie Christine L'Adrese ( Kyrie Courter ), a high-born, wealthy 1890s New Orleans Creole beauty with voodoo knowledge. She marries a dashing and passionate white ship's master from Chicago, Dante Keyes ( Ken Singleton ). In 1890s New Orleans, he's her social inferior but not in Chicago where his racially-mixed marriage is a secret. When he dumps Marie Christine for political opportunity, hell hath no fury like a woman scorned.
The story is strongly told through LaChiusa's clear lyrics and driving, rhythmically-complex music. He channels bits of ragtime and honky-tonk typical of the 1890s time period, but chiefly uses a variety of jazz idioms, among them close-harmony singing for the important chorus part. Musical director Aaron Benham leads a splendid six-piece orchestra, and also has guided his singers to superb performances in partnership with director Lili-Anne Brown and clever choreographer Breon Arzell ( who is everywhere these days as actor or choreographer ). I have issues with how LaChiusa closes the work, but they mustn't be the focus of this review.
Brown's casting couldn't be better. Alto Kyrie Courter, previously seen at Kokandy Productions, personifies wounded innocence-turned-to-fury as Marie Christine, her passion hardening into obsession. As romantically named Dante, baritone Ken Singleton couples a huge, operatic voice with true leading-man looks. It's apparent from the first smoldering moment that they are a fatal pair. The supporting players, some with meaty singing roles, are capable and well-cast. All wear Izumi Inaba's stylish, sometimes elegant costumes. Sentimental Marie Christine is notbut impressive it is.