Play It Again Sam: “Trouble in Tahiti and Arias & Barcarolles”

Sam and Dinah (Marcus DeLoach and Heather Johnson) robotically repeat their morning routine. Photo: Liza Voll

Presented by Boston Lyric Opera
Music & Libretto by Leonard Bernstein
Stage directed by David Schweizer
Music direction by David Angus
Dramaturgy by John Conklin

May 11-20, 2018
DCR Steriti Memorial Rink
561 Commercial Street, Boston, MA
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Review by Kitty Drexel

After Bernstein’s performance at the White House in 1960, President Eisenhower remarked, “You know, I liked that last piece you played: it’s got a theme. I like music with a theme, not all them arias and barcarolles.” quote taken from leonardbernstein.com. Eisenhower was a bit imperceptive.

(Boston, MA) Trouble in Tahiti and Arias & Barcarolles are presented by the BLO in one continuous operetta subtitled, “Sam and Dinah Say Goodnight (Scenes From A Marriage).” It is a “new reimagining” of Bernstein’s works which abbreviates Tahiti and merges the reduced scoring directly into Arias & Barcarolles. They are not performed individually as suggested by BLO’s marketing materials. The performance runs about 90 minutes.

Sam (Marcus Deloach) and Dinah (Heather Johnson) are a picture perfect 1950’s couple. Yet underneath the shiny veneer of prosperity, they are miserable. Their marriage is failing. Sam is a skirt-chasing businessman obsessed with how others perceive him. Dinah is an overworked, undersexed housewife performing all of the emotional labor. Their marriage is on the rocks and neither knows how to stabilize it. Around them a jazz trio (Mara Bonde, Neal Ferreira, Vincent Turregano) spews familial propaganda in stark contrast to the couple’s reality.

Paul Tate Depoo III and Jeff Adelberg have transformed the rink into a plush pink, blue and green nightclub to rival Lucy and Dezi’s Club Tropicana. Twinkly lights and leopard print direct your eyes to the club’s ensemble set up around a large screen. Onto the screen, the scene supporting animation of Johnny “dank memes” Rogers is projected. The costumes by Nancy Leary sealed us into this decade rewind: the men were dapper in tuxes; Johnson and Bonde looked like floating taffeta puffs.

The cast sang gloriously. David Schweizer’s staging echoed the turmoil written into Bernstein’s orchestrations. Johnson’s work as Dinah recalls Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique. Dinah is seeing an analyste, and can’t understand why she’s so upset all the time. Her hefty dramatic contributions to the production are why it’s so successful. We like and sympathise with her.

Meanwhile, Sam in upset at home with his wife but happy everywhere else. Deloach is a charismatic performer but Sam is an insensitive loaf who doesn’t deserve Dinah.

The trio’s approach to Schweizer’s staging is delightfully comedic. They are just over the top enough to draw attention to the preposterous 50’s social standards without inappropriately pulling focus.

The breakaway tune of the opera is the “Island Magic” aria sung by Dinah (Johnson). She’s depicting a movie she saw on a date with herself. Like the vast majority of classic paradise adventure movies, Bernstein’s description of Tahiti is racist: the native women are exoticised; the tribal men are barbarized; it is only the righteous white people who see reason… Anyhoo, BLO wouldn’t be able to change the problematic aria without drastically changing Bernstein’s work. Viewing it as commentary within an opera behaving as social commentary is the best practice here.

Trouble in Tahiti and Arias & Barcarolle’s is fun. It’s a good opportunity to see Bernstein’s work in a club atmosphere. I laughed a lot. The cast sings beautifully. Plus, it’s a good opera to see when breaking in a newbie. It’s short, to the point, and active. But, act fast. Most of the performances are sold out. Get your tickets soon.

BLO website can be difficult to navigate if one is visually impaired. Please connect with them at boxoffice@blo.org or call at 617.542.6772 for more information. The venue is accessible to the disabled community but the trip to the rink may require disabled patrons to use The Ride to get there. 

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