Just as the mega musicals from the 1980s, such as “Cats,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Les Miserables” and “Miss Saigon,” altered American taste and expectations in popular musical theater, two recent mammoth productions of straight plays from the U.K are also likely to make a similar impact. “Coram Boy” has arrived in time to see the departure of Tom Stoppard’s three-part epic of 19th century Russia, “The Coast of Utopia.”
As adapted by Helen Edmundson from the novel by Jamila Gavin, “Coram Boy,” set in 18th century England, boasts 40 players, a 20-member choir, and a small orchestra. It is a hybrid not like anything we have encountered in modern theater and is made up of elements that appear inspired by 19th century Penny Dreadful serialized stories, the horrifically lurid dramas presented by Paris’ famed Grand Guignol Theater, and more notably the cleverly convoluted plotting of a Dickensian novel.
All this has been embossed with new musical pieces written in the style of the 18th century by Adrian Sutton, liturgical songs from the classical repertory, and a large dollop of Handel’s “Messiah,” with the composer himself as a minor but delightful fellow (Quentin Eaves).
While “Utopia” didn’t have musicians in the pit, it was the work of a master playwright, Tom Stoppard, and masterful director Jack O’Brien. “Coram Boy” has aspirations, indeed, inspirations, that are nearly as grandiose. It is largely the work of Melly Still, who directed the original production for the National Theater, and takes credit not only for the staging but as a co-set and costume designer with Ti Green. If comparisons are to be made, and they probably shouldn’t, it is that the intellectual richness and awesome scope of “Utopia” unquestionably supercedes the rather incredulous and sensational underpinnings of “Coram Boy.”
The characters of “Coram Boy” have the prerequisites of old-fashioned melodrama. They are unmistakably good or evil, rich or poor.
It is also pointless to argue the merits of the more crudely cut story line of “Coram Boy” against the gripping narrative that drives its dramatic predecessor and model, “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,” as the latter is pure and simply Dickens, the real thing. This is not to say that this yet another foray into turntable heaven isn’t a formidable and entertaining experience. The dastardly entrepreneur, Otis (Bill Camp), unmercifully browbeats Meshak (Brad Fleischer), his mentally challenged son, whose relief from abuse is his vision of an angel.
Otis has developed a lucrative business disposing of the unwanted babies of women from the upper classes. Instead of delivering them to the Coram Foundling Hospital in London, a job for which he is handsomely paid by his clients, he murders and buries them on the remote grounds of the Ashbrook estate where he is abetted the house keeper and his partner in crime and sex, Mrs. Lynch (Jan Maxwell).
The musically gifted adolescent, Alexander Ashbrook (Xanthe Elbrick), has been allowed reluctantly by his autocratic father, Lord Ashbrook (David Andrew MacDonald), to study and sing with the Gloucester Cathedral choir. There he befriends Thomas (Charlotte Parry), the son of a carpenter and a gifted musician. The young boys’ roles are played by women to sound like boys before their voices change. They also make for very pretty boys. Didn’t anyone think to audition anyone from the Vienna Boys Choir?
More importantly, Lord Ashbrook wants Alexander to take over as heir to the estate and learn the family business and will not tolerate the boy’s request to continue to study musical composition. Alexander rebels and runs away from home. He does not know that his girlfriend Melissa (Ivy Vahanian), the daughter of the family governess, is going to have his child.
Years pass and Alexander and Thomas now played respectively by Wayne Wilcox and Dashiell Eaves, have made their separate way in the world but reconnect to find their destinies entwined. Melissa has been living in the belief that her baby died in still-birth. It is Meshak’s obsession with Melissa, whom he envisions as his guardian angel that prompted him to save her baby boy. It is the adventures of that boy (once again played by Xanthe Elbrick), and his best friend, Toby (Uzo Aduba), both orphans at the Coram Foundling Hospital, that perk up the story line in Act II.
The sight of a bewigged conductor outfitted in 18th century fashion popping up with his baton raised and ready to underscore a dramatic scene or signal the ever-ready choir for their part is a very exciting touch. One can see why a plot that turns on the wheels of old-fashioned melodrama might need musical support, as in the tradition of Grand Opera. As in that style of exalted theater, the terrifying and the traumatic are expected, as are characters whose lives are frequently seen being dashed against the rocks of despair.
Capturing the essence of the book, the winner of the Whitbread Children’s Book Award, couldn’t have been easy, but Edmundson has done a good job of making the narrative easy to follow. It was up to Still to see that the action, much of it in the fluidly episodic turntable style of “Les Miserables,” is more self-consciously theatrical than, say, your scenically empowered series on Masterpiece Theater. Best of all, the chorus rises to meet every challenge with some mighty fine tunes.
Act I is decidedly more somber and macabre, but Act II delivers the assurances that everyone worthy is delivered from evil. The acting is uniformly good and finely tuned to the requirements of this very large ensemble.
In as much as they are given prominence, there are drapes and chandeliers (we can’t do without them), ropes and set pieces to help create and define various locales. It is all spectacularly lighted by Ed McCarthy based on the original lighting created by Paule Constable. Audiences are likely to be impressed, if they allow themselves to be seduced by this ambitious play’s attempt to be original.
“Coram Boy,” Imperial Theater, 249 West 45th Street. $56.25 to $101.25. 212-239-6200.