Monday, November 21, 2005

Opal (Kalliope Stage)

Kalliope Stage does area premiere of ‘OPAL’

‘OPAL,’ the Richard Rodgers and AT&T Award-winning musical by Robert Lindsey Nassif, is getting its local premiere at Kalliope Stage. Nassif ,who penned the book, music and lyrics, is known to Cleveland audiences for his authorship of ‘HONKY TONK HIGHWAY,’ and ‘ ELIOT NESS IN CLEVELAND,’ which had local productions.

Opal is a full-length musical in one long act, that explores a young girl's attempt to "make earth glad" by helping those around her fulfill their needs and desires. Billed as the true story of Francoise D'Orleans, who, as a child, was shipwrecked off the Oregon coast. It is a bittersweet story that supposedly grew out of Francoise's own diary entries.

The reality, however, was that ten months after the diary was published, D’Orleans was accused of fraud. Critics said she fabricated her biography, especially her claims that she was adopted by the Whiteleys and that her parents were actually French aristocracy. She was also accused of writing the diary as an adult, not when she was a child.

After the untruthful revelations, Opal fled America and was found in England more than 20 years later wandering through the rubble and burned-out buildings left in the wake of World War II. She was committed to an insane asylum, identified as Schizophrenic, and remained there the rest of her life. She died in 1992, just weeks before the New York debut of the musical based on her writings.

No matter the veracity of the tale, the bottom line is that Opal’s story is compelling, mysterious and tragic.

The play opens with the shipwreck and illustrates what happens when Francoise is taken in by The Mamma, an embittered woman. The child, who believes her parents will come back one day, is given the name Opal, the same name as The Mamma’s dead daughter. To psychologically survive, Francoise creates a world of fantasy which includes naming things by cultural connections in her background. For example, she names her pet pig “Peter Paul Rubens.” She gives nicknames to the people of the town: “the thought-girl with far away look in her eyes,” “the girl that has no seeing,” and “the man that wears gray neckties.” Her extraordinary imagination affects the lives of those around her.

This isn’t the traditional musical theatre feel-good fluff story with a neatly packaged happy ending. This is a story that is a mix of happiness and sorrow.

Kalliope Stage’s production, under the adept directing of Paul F. Gurgol, is generally excellent. Gurgol does a masterful job of using the theatre’s small stage to its maximum. He has cast members linger around the stage, doing various tasks such as needle-point, knitting, and sawing wood to the best effect. The scenes flow well and transition effectively. The pacing is excellent. The opening storm scene is quite realistic and his creation of visual pictures, such as the human tree, is impressive.

There are some very strong performances. Marla Berg as Sadie McKibben, the washer woman who befriends Opal, has a fine singing voice and develops a clear character. Kris Comer, the blind girl, creates a perfect image of a woman who is vulnerable and in need of love. Scott Posey has a powerful voice and also hits all the acting notes right as The Shy Man that Wears Gray Neckties. His future bride, The Thought-Girl with the Far Away Look in her Eyes, is nicely developed and sung by Jodi Brinkman. Each of the narrators is effective.

On the other hand, Ayeshah Douglas as The Mamma fails to texture her role. Her lines often miss depth of meaning and she acts, rather than reacts to Opal and the other characters.

Evaluating a play that has a child lead is often a difficult task. No matter the quality of character development and singing abilities, it is expected that the child, due to her age, is to be judged as “wonderful.” However, I feel that it is unfair to use one criteria for the rest of the cast and another for child actors, especially ones in musicals like ‘ANNIE,’ ‘OLIVER,’ and ‘OPAL’ where they are the pivotal centers of the show. With that said, eleven year-old Dani Apple makes for an acceptable Opal. She has a nice singing voice. Her acting is not quite as good. She often says lines, rather than creating meanings. Her speaking voice sometimes gets into the high registers which is hard on the ears. Gurgol needed to work with her on emotional development which stretched beyond yelling when she was distraught, and looking directly into the eyes of other characters as she speaks.

The choral work is excellent as are the musical sounds created by Brad Wyner and Anthony Ruggiero. Russ Borski’s set design is effective and Lance Switzer’s lighting works well.

CAPSULE JUDGEMENT: ‘OPAL’ is an arresting play that gets a very good production at Kalliope Stage.