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CurtainUp DC  Report: August 1998
Great Expectations

by Les Gutman

August DC Report Topics
Great Expectations, the Musical
Web pages mentioned in this report

As we upload most of the new season schedules into CurtainUp's Annotated Address Book for DC (take a look via the link below), we have a perfect opportunity to contemplate what our expectations for DC theater are. This is not to say that schedules can't change or that surprises cannot be added along the way. But, unlike New York, almost all DC theater comes by way of established companies that plan a season at a time. So, we can reasonably assess what we might expect.

The picture is a promising one. It includes theaters undertaking fresh new courses after a period of stasis or decline (Molly Smith taking over at Arena, Joe Banno at Source -- both theaters with renovation plans either in gear or at least on the table); theaters capitalizing on recent enhancements to refine and strengthen their mission (Studio); and many theaters continuing to plug away on an upward course, doing what they do best. There is Woolly Mammoth, making the unpredictable predictable; the Kennedy Center, making the predictable predictable; and Signature, making the astonishing predictable. It could be a great year.

Review: Great Expectations, the Musical
I feel quite certain that the creators of this musicalized version of Great Expectations are lovers of Dickens. (In a note in the playbill, the director, Catherine Flye, who also had a hand in the adaptation presented by Interact Theatre at the Folger, acknowledges that she is.) Perhaps that is why they were not so brazen as to associate his name directly with their product. (The "credits" do not list his name, although there is plenty of background material on Dickens and the novel elsewhere in the playbill.)

I think I would be quite a bit more favorably disposed toward this production had it been reëntitled Light Expectations. As a reasonable facsimile of the best novel of one of the English language's best novelists, it fails. As light entertainment, it should get a passing grade. Although it does no violence to the essential message of Dickens' story, it does strip it of most of its plumage and thus of its significance. (For the record, I've reviewed one other stage adaptation of Dickens, the Pearl Theater's Hard Times, linked below, and I had the same problem with that production.)

The appeal and indeed the art of Great Expectations (the novel) is, first and foremost, the remarkable characters it draws. The musical, on the other hand, makes virtual stick figures of the characters. The central character/narrator, Pip, is played here by an adult (Mark Aldrich) and, early on especially, a child actor (alternately, Patrick Clague and Derek Kahn Thompson). Aldrich sings well, and endears himself to the audience; the young Pip is especially engaging. I will not attempt to compare Dickens' intricate portrait of Pip with that found onstage, but suffice it to say that neither gets close to the complexity or the sense of moral ambivalence that is at the heart of what makes Pip memorable.

The deficit is not limited to major characters on whom Dickens lavishes his attention. A less important character like Pip's sister, Mrs. Joe (Margie Tompros), suffers as well. She is a comically domineering yet attractive woman, with a fine singing voice. But that's about all we know of her. Here is what one paragraph of the novel discloses:
[She] had such a prevailing redness of skin that I sometimes used to wonder whether it was possible she washed herself with a nutmeg grater instead of soap. She was tall and bony, and almost always wore a coarse apron, fastened over her figure behind with two loops, and having a square impregnable bib in front, that was stuck full of pins and needles. She made it a powerful merit in herself, and a strong reproach against Joe, that she wore this apron so much.
The notion that a picture is worth a thousand words must antedate Dickens.

For a novel to work onstage, it must find a means of expression that conveys its impact. In this production, the riddle is not solved. A passing effort is made at being faithful to the novel (scenes, many consisting of songs, are tied together with Pip's recitation of Dickensian narration), but in the process the essential detail is jettisoned and nothing that is added dramatically to replace it. In particular, stabs at musical comedy-style irony create an undertow.
The shortcomings of the material cannot detract from the fervor of the production's best performances. Fred Grandy finds the moral compass of Joe Gargery and quietly lets us feel its pull. Ralph Cosham, a backbone of Interact's company, is perfect as the lawyer Jaggers; Dori Legg as Biddy and Howard W. Overshown as Pip's London compass, Pocket are nearly so. Johanna Gerry's Estella is also quite good as is Rick Stohler playing both Wopsle and Drummle. Slightly less satisfying are Andrew Wynn as Magwitch (conveying little sentiment in any direction), the vanilla Pumblechook of Frank Robinson, Jr. and the overplayed Wemmick of Tom Howley. Even less pleasing is the silly, almost cartoonish take on Mrs. Havisham by Kate Kelly, who nonetheless snared one of the show's best songs.

For the most part, the show's songs could be described as workable but neither memorable nor especially clever. (This might explain why this material fell by the wayside two decades ago.) Although some songs seems to fit neatly into the play's progression, others seem to exist mostly for there own sake, aiding neither plot nor character development. Pip's duet with Joe, "Ever the Best of Friends," strives for but never really achieves the emotional high point reached by Joe's Act Two duets with Biddy, "We Should Walk a Little While" and "At My Time of Life," the latter unquestionably the show's best song. Of several ensemble numbers, "The Finches of the Grove" is the most successful, not only musically but also in conveying the sense of the world into which Pip has moved in London. The weakest, perhaps tellingly, is the title song which in reprise is the last music we hear -- not a great memory with which to leave the theater.

The collateral artistic elements are a mixed bag. The extensive, interesting musical accompaniment is arranged, conducted and performed to excellent effect, with strong support from Gary Daum's sound design. Linda Garner Miller's choreography, on the other hand, lumbers about the obstacle course of the Folger's stage, forcing us to remain focused on what a laborious task it is to keep a score of actors in motion in a small, fairly clumsy space. Ironically, Ms. Flye's staging of the non-musical elements succeeds in overcoming precisely this problem.

The design elements are all quite good. Robin Stapley's scenic design creates remarkably effective images for a wide range of quickly timed scenes, with crucial assistance from F. Mitchell Dana whose lighting is excellent. The fun Rosemary Pardee had in creating these Victorian wardrobes is quite evident and no doubt responsible for meeting our greatest expectations in that area.

The show will be around for awhile, well into the first month of school from which I assume a large part of its audience is hoped to be derived. Catherine Flye says she hopes the production will whet the appetite for Dickens. I hope she's right, but I doubt it would have whet mine.
by Hal Shaper and Cyril Ornadel [based on the book by Charles Dickens] 
Adapted by Hal Shaper, Catherine Flye and Lee Armitage 
Directed by Catherine Flye 
with Mark Aldrich, Patrick Clague, Derek Kahn Thompson, Fred Grandy, Kate Kelly, Johanna Gerry, Ralph Cosham, Andrew Wynn, Joseph Cronin, Tom Howley, Frank Robinson, Jr., Margie Tompros, Dori Legg, Howard W. Overshown, Rick Stohler and 5 others 
Scenic Design: Robin Stapley 
Costume Design: Rosemary Pardee 
Lighting Design: F. Mitchell Dana 
Sound Design: Gary Daum 
Choreography: Linda Garner Miller 
Conductor: Alfredo Pulupa 
Folger Elizabethan Theatre, 201 East Capitol Street SE (703) 848 - 2632 
A Production of Interact Theatre Company 
opened August 8 closes September 20 
Reviewed by Les Gutman August 11, 1998
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Links to Web Pages Mentioned in this Report
CurtainUp's Annotated Address Book: DC
CurtainUp's review of The Pearl's Hard Times

©August 1998, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp
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