Sunday, May 14, 2023

"Three Decembers" by Skylark Opera Theatre at Jungle Theater

Skylark Opera Theatre is definitely my kind of opera. No offense to traditional opera with large casts in large venues sung in foreign languages. But the kind of opera that Skylark does - always sung in English, usually with smaller casts in smaller or non-traditional venues - is easier for me to connect with. For six performances only they're presenting the new (i.e., written this century) opera Three Decembers, with music by Jake Heggie and libretto by Gene Scheer based on a play by Terrence McNally. Just three performers accompanied by two pianos tell the intimate (and Mother's Day Weekend appropriate) story of a mother and her two adult children. She may not be the best mother, but she loves her children, she just may love the theater more (can you blame her?). I had an almost front row center seat for this gorgeous performance, feeling really connected to the story that's told so beautifully through words and music in the entirely sung-through show. The characters are singing their dialogue instead of speaking it, which only heightens the emotions of love, grief, frustration, disappointment, and betrayal. If you're someone who feels intimidated by opera, or isn't quite sure it's something you'd like, I encourage you to start with the accessible, intimate, English kind of opera that Skylark does (click here for info and tickets).

The story is set in, yes, three Decembers, each ten years apart. A handy synopsis helps set the scene, but it's pretty clear from the show. We begin in 2006, with Bea and Charlie at the memorial service for their mother, famed stage actor Madeline Mitchell. They begin reading the letters she sent them at Christmas every year (because she was often off doing something exciting). We then flash back to 1986, with the two siblings on opposite coasts, Charlie dealing with his partner Burt's AIDS diagnosis, Bea a young mother of two children with a troubled marriage. Bea watches her mother in her Broadway debut, and afterwards they have a discussion of Maddie's lack of support for Charlie. Ten years later, in 1996, Burt has died and Charlie is grieving. Maddie has been nominated for a Tony Award, and her children show up to support her. Things are contentious, as they often are with Maddie and her children, and some truths come out. We circle back to the memorial service, with Bea and Charlie coming to terms with who their mother was and who she wasn't, and loving her anyway.

from glam...
(Anthony Potts, Siena Forest, Norah Long, photo courtesy of Skylark)
I can think of no one better to play Maddie than Norah Long, #TCTheater veteran who has been seen on nearly every stage in town. She just so effortlessly is this woman who is a consummate performer, who loves her children and tries to be there for them, but who is most fully alive on stage. Norah also portrays the hardships that Maddie has been through as a single mother, showing that she is more than meets they eye. There's a scene in which the three performers stand at the front of the stage while music plays, no words or singing. We see Maddie's entire life story pass over Norah's face in the space of a few minutes, and it's a thing of beauty. Siena Forest and Anthony Potts (both of whom were in Theater Latte Da's La Bohème last year) are also excellent as Bea and Charlie. You can really feel the kinship between them as they commiserate about their parental situation. All three actors beautifully express the emotions of their character through their performances, in a way that makes these people and this family feel very real and relatable.

... to pajam
(Anthony Potts, Norah Long, Siena Forest, photo courtesy of Skylark)
The Jungle Theater's intimate proscenium jewel box of a theater is a perfect venue for this piece, much of which is set in and about the theater. Old timey stage lights line the front of the stage, black curtains hung across the stage open just enough to reveal the two pianos at the center against the backdrop of the brick wall of the theater. A couple of standing screens, a desk, and some chairs are all that are needed to set the scene. Broadway star Maddie's wardrobe is impossibly chic, gorgeous gowns and smart pants and flowy caftans, with her children dressed a little more conservatively in somewhat dated '80s and '90s clothing (props and furniture by John Novak, costumes by Kathy Kohl).

Gary Briggle has been serving as Interim Artistic Director since the departure of Robert Neu, and after this show is passing the baton to the new Artistic Director James Barnett. Gary deserves kudos first for choosing this lovely and rare gem of an opera as the final show in his tenure as AD, secondly for the perfect casting, and last but not least for directing and staging the piece so beautifully. The story is clear, the emotions are true, and the aesthetics are stunning (including some gorgeous lighting cues, designed by Karin Olson). Under Music Director Carson Rose Schneider (who plays the piano along with second pianist Eric McEnaney), this modern opera score sounds gorgeous and emotionally evocative.

Only four performances remain of this gorgeous modern opera, which really couldn't be performed any better than Skylark's production. If you're an opera fan, you might enjoy seeing the smaller more intimate side of opera. And if you think you're not an opera fan, this is an excellent piece to begin to expand your music-theater experiences. Click here for more info and to purchase tickets, then head on down to Uptown before the show closes on May 21. And if you can make it to the matinee today, May 14, use code MOMDAY for $25 tickets!