nytheatre.com review by Heather McAllister
October 16, 2009
Ever since I saw Zeffirelli's film Brother Sun, Sister Moon as a child, I have been a huge fan of Saint Francis of Assisi. With his unabashed love of animals, his gift for seeing the beauty of our environment, and his joy in helping those less fortunate—Saint Francis is my kind of saint. The fact that he came from a wealthy family and was in fact a warrior and a troubadour—someone who wrote songs and generally caroused and had a good ole' time while kicking some butt—until a religious vision prompted him to reject all that was familiar, all that was "normal," makes his choice of extreme poverty and devoted service even more amazing.
Saint Francis is righteous. Kissing lepers, spurning gorgeous soul mates, choosing at every turn to do right whatever the cost, he follows the gospel in the extreme. Confident, strong, and selfless, to me Saint Francis is the super hero of Saints. Troubadour, The New St. Francis Musical, tells the story of this utterly loveable Saint Francis as he abandons his father and troubadour ways, and begins his life's work helping the poor and living as simply as possible.
In this production, I was expecting music similar to Donovan's (who wrote songs for Brother Sun, Sister Moon), but the score by Bert Draesel and John Martin is unfamiliar, like attending services in a church I don't know. It sounds like newly discovered hymns crossed with light opera with some rock opera thrown in. All with a good message, a good story, but unfortunately no tunes stayed with me to hum on the way home.
The acoustics in the Theater at Church of the Epiphany are great. The voices of the cast blend, rise to the high ceiling, and ring together beautifully.
We go through Francesco's life in flashback, meet his non girlfriend/fellow rich kid/fellow religious convertee Clare, meet his wealthy, grumpy father, his friends and friendly enemies. At 2 hours, 15 minutes, the tale is long but it rushes past. I wanted to linger on the characters' changes and discoveries a little more. The moments didn't really have a chance to sink in, but rather skipped like stones over the surface as we traveled from locale to locale: Mt. Laverna, Assisi, Rome, and Egypt.
The story of Francesco, his goodness, his earnest struggle to help the poor and live chastely and simply is very touchingly told in this production. Francesco keeps his troubadour's love of song until his dying moment. He embraces joy, and shares it through his songs like the birds he calls his sisters. He's happy, he loves his friends. He's a good person with a big heart and a beautiful way about him.
However, I would have liked to see more of Francesco's secular side in the flashbacks, as he's pretty pious throughout. And, as much as I love the story of Saint Francis, this Troubadour has some troubles. The play is performed in the round, with only a wooden "X" of mini platforms for the actors to work on. Decorated with a few stuffed birds and paper butterflies and some very unattractive draperies, Gian Marco Lo Forte's set is sparse and sometimes seems a little awkward to navigate. Luckily, the costumes by Sarita Fellows are rich, Matt Ehlert's lighting has great depth, and the voices of the cast make me sigh.
Among the Brothers, foil/friend Elias is so insanely power-hungry it seems illogical that he would be a Franciscan at all and endure living in such extreme poverty. It's unclear why he doesn't leave for another brotherhood with a looser approach if he's so furious and disgusted with how Francesco is running the operation. Rob Maitner does the best he can with this moustache-twirling villain, but I longed to see his inner conflict. We know Elias loves Francesco, but I can't see it in this script.
Robert Felbinger is a wonderful Francesco, strong and earnest in his convictions with a compelling presence. I particularly enjoyed "Follow the Wind," his duet with Bernardo, played by the striking Samuel Perwin, and his scene with Brother Juniper, whose song "I Wonder, I Wonder" is sweetly performed by Alex Yacovelli. The cast as a whole has ethereal voices and the play put me in a peaceful contemplative frame of mind. I love Saint Francis, and I'm glad Troubadour is spreading his word.