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Perhaps not Broadway-ready, but an enjoyable evening nonetheless

By Beck Holden

Section: Arts

December 9, 2005

Last weekend, The Two Orphans, penned by Theresa Rebeck (M.A. '83, M.F.A. '86, Ph.D. 89) with music by Kim D. Sherman and lyrics by Rebeck and John Sheehy (M.F.A. 89), began its world-premier run as the Brandeis Theater Companys first mainstage musical, under the direction of Dennis Garnhum. There will be slight spoilers in this article. None of the major plot twists will be revealed, but those seeing the play this weekend may want to observe the warning before reading on.
True to its roots in melodrama, The Two Orphans has a particularly deep (although fairly easy to follow) plot that gradually comes to connect all of its major characters. Heres the quick rundown of the major characters without giving away anything that happens after the first twenty minutes: Two ex-slaves, Henriette (Lindsey McWhorter GRAD) and the blind Louise (Nicole Brathwaite), arrive in New Orleans shortly after the Civil War. Henriettes fiery spirit arouses the interest of The Marquis (Robert Serrell GRAD), who enlists the aid of his ex-slave sidekick Stone (Sheldon Best 08) in his quest to sleep with her. The action of the play soon grows to involve the family of La Frochard (Liz Terry THA), a small-scale crook with two sons, the crippled Pierre (Eli Schneider 06) and the violent Jake (Josh Mervis 08), as well as the family of post-war Reconstruction official Bloodgood (Luis Negrn EQUITY) and his wife Diane (Jennie El-Far 07). Other key characters include Bloodgoods nephew Armand (Aaron Costa Ganis 06) and Jakes battered mistress Marianne (Jordan Butterfield 07).

Upon entering the theater, the first things the audience sees are the two-story metal frames that serve as the highly-flexible set for the show in eerie blue light with a subtle mist. While the effect is minimal in a massive theater with the house lights turned up for audience seating, the set (designed by Luciana Stecconi GRAD) fits well with the bleakness of the play, accented wonderfully by the blue-heavy lighting (designed by Michael Jarett GRAD). The sets mobility is also impressive, as the scene changes are routinely quick and often add to the action going on in front of them. Jaretts lighting brilliantly highlights the despairing atmosphere, and the use of red light approaching the climax is a very effective touch.

McWhorter and Brathwaite handle the leading roles very naturally and develop wonderful chemistry with each other. Similarly, McWhorters chemistry with Ganiss dangerous but noble Armand is often mesmerizing while Brathwaite and Schneider provide the shows musical highlight with their duet Look with Your Heart, a truly beautiful song that they perform wonderfully. Schneider offers a generally powerful performance, lending an impressive sense of strength to his crippled character, while Best brings on impressive intensity and presence in the role of Stone;

it is nearly impossible to look away during his scenes. Serrells grasp of The Marquiss cynical sense of humor and worldview is fun to watch, especially as he uses it to manipulate everyone around him to serve his purposes. Terrys thoroughly unscrupulous and drunken Frochard offers much of the plays scant comic relief. Butterfields beautiful voice and fittingly cynical tone on the Ballad of Meghan Malone makes for one of the stronger solos of the production, while Jessical Perelle 07 sings a fun and energetic Down in the Quarter.

Group scenes offer some of the most engaging moments in the production. The chase scene against the backdrop of Christine Chilingrian 07 leading the cast in singing Oaken Bough leads to a stunning intermission cliffhanger, which is very well done. The straight-out performances of The New Orleans Song and The Worst Thing engage the audience very well and challenge it to reconsider what may be considered morally-deficient positions.

However, the show also suffers from some flaws. During the Marquiss attempt to rape Henriette (this happens early on in the show, so dont worry, this is only a small spoiler), there is a noticeable deadness, a lack of tension from the stage unbefitting of an attempt to commit such a crime. The Screaming Blues is nearly unintelligible on account of being drowned out by the band and Lost & Found, despite the energetic, fun-to-watch performance of Gwen Tulin 06, loses just enough words under the music to be hard to understand. Although the score is generally pretty solid, some songs, like Falling and Little Boats, are completely unmemorable, while Golden Slipper tends even towards the annoying. The ending also may strike many as a bit clich.

Overall, despite several failings, The Two Orphans is well worth taking a few hours to view. I see three primary reasons: It is well-acted, it is well-designed, and it is not every day that a musical makes its world premier so nearby. The show will continue its run this weekend in Spingolds Mainstage Theater, with performances at 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday as well as 2 p.m. matinees on Saturday and Sunday.

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