nytheatre.com review by David Ledoux
September 19, 2007
It's nothing new to say that the life of an artist is difficult. The people who put their demons on display so that others can, at the most, gain insight and, at the least, enjoy a moment of entertainment are often frustrated, financially questionable, and sometimes emotionally unstable. The determination and passion it takes to endure a life in art is a beautiful and important thing which often gets overlooked in our culture of "the bottom line." Imagine though, having to face this world as a child, and then as a young woman, in the mid-19th century, married to another brilliant artist whose health would slowly and violently deteriorate, leaving you alone to raise your children and continue your life's work tirelessly.
Virtuosa, which opened at the New York Musical Theatre Festival Wednesday night, shows us such a picture. Clara Schumann, brilliant pianist and composer by the age of nine, overcomes a strict and hotheaded father, marries fellow musician Robert Schumann, picks up the pieces of her life after his institutionalization and then death, and continues playing and composing for the piano. Katrina Ferguson plays the Clara we see telling her life's story, while Allison Brewster Franzetti provides the piano-playing Clara. Both women are present onstage throughout the play, which is a kind of one-woman-show-meets-piano concert. There are moments when Ferguson's and Franzetti's Claras come together to provide an underscored storytelling, but there are also moments when all action stops and we can enjoy Franzetti's brilliant piano playing alone. This was the high point of the play for me. Seeing the passion and technical skill of Franzetti's playing was inspiring.
I appreciated that the play trusts the power of the music without needing to try and conform to a more conventional musical theatre model. There is storytelling and then there is the music that the story centers around. Therefore from a music enthusiast's standpoint this is a wonderful evening. However as a play, I never got the human side of who this woman was.
Diane Seymour's script is informative and generally keeps the story moving, but it focuses so much on the circumstances of the history that it never seems to penetrate into who Clara is. I also got this same impersonal impression from Katrina Ferguson's performance. Ferguson is clearly a talented actor with a strong presence, however this performance is disconnected and stiff. When she speaks to the audience she does not seem to really be speaking to us; she is intoning the lines in a strident manner that never hints at real talking or real communication. It sounds like she is acting, saying the lines very well, but she misses the relaxed ease a storyteller needs to connect with an audience.
In all, Virtuosa succeeds as a classical music interest, but needs to dig around in the personal depths that made its subjects brilliant. But to reiterate: It's hard to be an artist. This is wonderful subject matter and all should be commended for telling one of those stories on the periphery of history that we don't always get to hear about.