The opening night of “Trouble in Tahiti,” a short opera by the late great Leonard Bernstein was a magical evening. I have seen productions in that same room at St. Paul’s Church on North Ave, but tonight it has been transformed in a wonderfully resplendent way. The free flowing cocktails, dinner party theme, and menu cards with the scenes was the icing on a fantastically fabulous cake.
“Trouble in Tahiti” is an opera in seven scenes that only takes about 45 minutes(ish) to perform. More on that later- but for now- what a treat and engaging 45 minutes it is! The story is about Sam and Dinah, a 1950s nuclear family having common middle-class white people problems- she feels underappreciated, he’s busy and thinks she’s whiny, they have an unseen imaginary kid and an ongoing dilemma about fixing their drifting marriage.
There are only five parts- the lead, Sam is amazingly filled by Peter Tomaszewski. His facial expressions, comedic presence and lamentations read too well for the script, and translate even better into that modern white privilege bracket that is all the news today. From his magnificent “there’s a law” toting his excellence as a winner, to his bending to his wife in the end and offering a truce- to take her to see a movie- he is pitch perfect. Dinah, played by Claire Galloway Weber, is also an outstanding songbird soprano who holds her own against Tomaszewski. Her pain is palpable, and her courage to try and find help seems a thin veiled refection on deflection. She has her own splendid funny moment performing “Island Magic,” while flouncing between a disgusted movie patron and a back up dancer for the Polynesian Dance Troupe.
The other three performers are simply known as the “Trio.” They are composed of Michael Dodge, Kerry Holahan, and Adam Cooley. They fluctuate between filling in the secondary characters (therapist, secretary, etc.) and acting as a chorus to juxtapose the problems of Sam and Dinah with bubbly pop enthusiasm, even while watching footage of the first nuclear bomb. As the program states, they “frame the narratives in a peppy, jazzy upswing of a country that refuses to stop smiling.” Standouts to all three- especially when I discuss Part Two of the evening below.
One thing that constantly sets Stillpointe apart from other theaters, is their inclusion of a full band and/or orchestra. I am just saddened that we, the patrons, don’t often get to see them. They are often tucked away somewhere, and yes, I know it is Broadway style to make them sit in the dark under the lip of the stage, but damn- bring those people out once in a while! For Part Two, two gentleman switched back and forth on the piano parts, and were front and center. But for all of Part One, the band played sublimely, but to my chagrin, I couldn’t see it. Amazing standing ovations to Conductor Ben Shaver, and Stephanie Ray (flute), Stacey Antoine (clarinet), Justin Nurin (trumpet), David Dochterman (trombone), Aaron Thacker (piano), Cody Raum (bass), and Joe Pipkin (percussion). Bravo unseen musicians!
While we are on the point of unseen brilliance, let’s nod that costume designer- Kitt Crescenzo who worked magic on 1950s aesthetic with tuxedos and fit and flare dresses. And projection designer Johnny Rogers for the standout of the evening- those pop infused art pieces behind each scene. They were majestically coordinated with the opera using the 1950s art deco, wall-paper propaganda style. Especially the nuclear bomb flyers for the Interlude (my personal favorites). But they were so arresting I found myself sometimes caught up in the images and not paying full attention to the opera. The lighting design by Adrienne Gieszl sets the tone perfectly as well, from the well-placed Polynesian umbrellas to the rich gem tones to underscore the music fit impressively with the rest of the creative production team’s efforts. I must say, I know what the budgets look like for design teams for small theater, and these people all deserve a standing ovation for the enchantment created with their resources. A huge BRAVO to the entire creative team.
I was so enthralled by the opera and my mixed drink aptly titled “resentment,” that I lost track of time. At the end of the Opera, the cast came out and took full bows. The director walked around his spunky suit shaking hands and nodding and I thought, wow, I can’t believe it is over! It was just getting cooking- fear not patrons- Stillpointe’s got a treat for you. After a 15-minute intermission, the supper club resettled and we were regaled with more song! Since this is the Bernstein Centennial (he would have been 100 this year), the cast bounced in and out of what was happily named the “Bernstein Happy Birthday Song Cycle” bringing us classic tunes from “Wonderful Town,” “West Side Story,” and “Candide” to name a few. The singing was unparalleled. And wow does Kerry Holahan have some pipes! Her voice in “Glitter and be Gay” was so astounding I swear the light fixtures began to sway. This is also when Cooley and Dodge really got to shine as leads on their own pieces instead of background scenery to the main dish. All three proved they owned that stage as much as the leads.
The evening is supposed to be a “Bernstein Cabaret” and it does check all the boxes for that title. My favorite fact about Bernstein is actually his philanthropy- a school was opened to integrate music and art into education. At a time in our history where music and art classes are being stricken from the curriculum, this is a testament to making magic and infusing creativity and art into the original idea of a liberal arts education.
SHOULD I STAY OR SHOULD I GO? Oh my god, go. And wear your finest fifties era frocks. I took a good friend, who accompanies me to many theater events and she stated, “this is my favorite thing I’ve ever seen in Baltimore Theater.” Go and enjoy the ambitious undertaking of Stillpointe as they continue to dazzle and break boundaries. Sit back with your cocktails, “Island Magic” or “Resentment” and enjoy a whimsical trip down memory lane. And don’t be a square, clap and sign along, slap the table, have a blast! (B)
But hurry- this is only runs through Jan 27th. Don’t miss this one- trust me!