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The joyful noise of the title is the glorious "Hallelujah" chorus of George Frederick Handel's "Messiah". But those drawn to this play because they expect it to be filled with Handel's music are likely to disappointed. Like Amadeus, it is a behind the scenes drama revolving around one of our musical greats. It focuses on a particular period in Handel's life and the events that almost prevented the staging of his most famous work.
Tom Stevenson as Handel
That caveat out of the way, there's much to enjoy in this production by the country's third largest repertory company, the San Diego based Lamb's Players (no connection to the Lambs Theater where Joyful Noise is playing!).
And I'll hardly spoil any surprises if I tell you that it does end with a generous excerpt from "Hallelujah".
Essentially Joyful Noise is a historical play about the making and production of a famous musical work. It is an interesting and often funny story that is as much about the politics of art as its creation. Central to the plot, if you want to use the fictional term for this fact-based story, is the down on his luck Handel. He is sufficiently discouraged by his failing popularity to consider returning to Leipzig, saying that he'll go to see Bach who might let him turn pages for him while he plays the organ. He amusingly discards this plan with the declaration that "the trouble with Germany is that it has too many Germans." As portrayed by Tom Stephenson, this Handel retains his sense of humor even though he's clearly desperate for something to reinvigorate him. That something comes via the manuscript for "Messiah" brought to him by the avid music connoisseur Charles Jennens (Paul Eggington).
By the end of the rather long-winded first act we see Handel on the verge of an epiphany, but with another hour to go there remain further complications blocking a smooth path to the joyful debut of his masterpiece. Its Covent Garden opening is threatened by the opposition from the influential clergymen who were appalled at the idea of a sacred work performed in a secular theatre and sung by "lewd" actors -- one of whom, Susannah Cibber (Mary Miller), has been involved in a headline-making sex scandal.
It is a brief flashback to Susannah's adultery trial that gets the story off to its dramatic start and paves the way for the interweaving of its various elements: The effect of Queen Caroline's death on Handel's ebbing fortunes and on her grieving husband George II's (Robert Smyth) relationship with his "clerk of the closet" or private divine the ambitious and reactionary cleric Henry Egerton (David Cochran Heath); the intervention of Handel's neighbor, a kindly patroness of the arts named Mary Pendarves (Linda Bush), on Susanna's behalf; and the rapprochement between the feuding Kitty and Susanna (based on Kitty's peeve over a stolen part).
The cast does a fine job in bringing all these characters to life and making the most of the humorous interchanges with which playwright Tim Slover has invested his script. Robert Smyth, who also directs, is particularly good as the King who quietly puts down the prejudices of his Bishop as when he tells him "You have good qualities but you must be careful. Good qualities are hard to overcome."
Deborah Gilmour Smyth in the showy role of Kitty Clive adeptly displays her comic talents and, all too briefly, her rich soprano.
Jeanne Reith's lush costumes don't quite compensate for David Thayer's rather overly spare scenic design. Considering this minimalism, there seems an awful lot of moving around of furniture which gives the production an excessive sense of busyness. I'd like to have seen a little less of this activity, some editing of the first act and a lot more "joyful noise".
Written by Tim Slover
Directed by Robert Smyth
With Tom Stephenson, Mary Miller, Deborah Gilmour Smyth, David Cochran Heath,
Paul Eggington, Doren Elias, Linda Bush
Set/ Lighting Design: David Thayer
Costume Design: Jeanne Reith
Sound Design: Greg Campbell
Running time 2/12 hour including 15 minute intermission
2/11/2000-3/31/2000; opening 2/17/2000
Lambs, 130 W. 44th St., (Broadway/6th Av), 239-6200
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer based on 2/14 performance