The Girl Of The Golden West
nytheatre.com review by Jason Jacobs
August 1, 2012
If you're not a devotee of 19th century American melodrama (full disclosure: I am) or a regular at the Metropolitan opera, you may not be familiar with David Belasco's 1905 play Girl of the Golden West. I was eager to see how the play company Rady&Bloom would interpret Belasco, and enjoyed watching them blow the dust off an American classic while remaining true to the spirit of the original.
Belasco was born in San Francisco in 1853, just a few years after the California gold rush, the historical period that inspired this play. After its success on Philadelphia and New York stages, he expanded it into a novel (the primary source of this production), and a few years later Puccini adapted the play for La Fanciulla De West, an opera considered the original "spaghetti Western." Belasco's play helped contribute to a cultural myth of the West as a locus of freedom, where any man (or woman?) could recreate and redeem himself. Reframed as a country-folk-hipster song cycle/performance, this piece explores these themes in a contemporary form.
Most of the story is conveyed through short songs and music, interspersed with direct narration and occasional dialog. At first, the style is a bit disorienting. The opening sequence is difficult to understand, and my performance started with balance problems between the instruments and the singers. But as the performers found their footing and balance with the musicians, they drew us into the story and their unique re-vision of the West.
The music, written by many of the ensemble members, evokes a wandering, plaintive feeling, without conforming to any recognizable genre. It may take its inspiration from cowboy music and early country, but I also heard sounds of blues, traditional folk, and rockabilly. Melodies often give way to vocal riffs and flourishes—especially worthwhile in the case of composer and lead performer Catherine Brookman, whose voice takes us to such moving places. I don't know if anyone walks out humming these tunes, but we feel the effect of this music to create an atmospheric world.
Director and adaptor Jeremy Bloom tightens the focus of Belasco's cycloramic western to its central romantic triangle: Minnie, usually referred to as simply "the Girl", runs the saloon of a rustic California mining camp; she is loved by all the men in the camp and pursued by power-hungry Sheriff Rance. When handsome stranger Dick Johnson walks into camp (he is actually a Mexican outlaw on the run), he captures Minnie's affections and trouble ensues.
Bloom establishes a detached, presentational style in the performances, giving his actors room to play freely and riff on their characters but keeping them in the same theatrical world. Brookman plays the Girl with a perky innocence, but the range of her singing voice reveals greater depths as the piece goes on. Although Tom Hennes has the attractive face and pretty voice for the darkly romantic Martinez, his low-energy performance is barely audible from the middle of the audience. Bloom uses his other two actors in non-traditonal casting that pays off in spades: as antagonist Rance, Star Kwofie packs a powerful belt and captures the heavy's pugnaciousness with humor. Brian Rady plays both the soft-hearted bartender Nick and the vengeful spitfire Nina Micheltorena, providing great comic relief. Musicians Ellen O'Meara, Lucas Seagall, and Joe White provide the tunes and also fill in to represent the men of the camp—always present like regulars in Minnie's saloon.
Rady's set is abstract but evocative: a collage of rustic materials with a kind of paint-by-numbers mountain landscape in the background. It's an intriguing playground for the performers, well-sculpted under Jeanette Oi-Suk Yew's lighting. For costumes, Kathleen Doyle makes strategic use of contemporary western-style clothes, showing how our fascination with the West still plays out in our fashion choices.
As someone familiar with both Belasco's play and Puccini's opera, I enjoyed seeing these artists reimagine and retell the story in their own voices. But for those who have never seen The Girl, this version offer its own modest discovery of gold.