Theater Review - Diva lessons

Operatic Bel Canto raises more questions than answers

Actor’s Express’ Bel Canto features a diverse and extensive song list for a show that is not technically a musical. Daniel Alexander Jones’ play includes performances, in whole or in part, of the Christmas carol “We Three Kings,” Jimi Hendrix’s “Castles Made of Sand,” the spiritual “Sweet Little Jesus Boy” and plenty of opera, especially Puccini’s Tosca.

Directed by new artistic director Jasson Minadakis, the production loads the play with as many thematic and visual ideas as it has musical influences. As an ambitious script, Bel Canto suits Minadakis’ Atlanta directorial debut, but the play feels more like a catalog of intriguing concepts than a seamless execution.

The action takes place not long after Jimmy Carter granted amnesty to Vietnam draft-dodgers in 1977. Teenage Benjamin Turner (Theroun Patterson) expects his long-absent father, an anti-war activist who fled to Canada, to rejoin his family, but Benjamin’s mother Bessie (Minka Wiltz) holds out few hopes. She and her son have relocated from politically charged Berkeley, Calif., to cold, conservative Massachusetts to make a fresh start.

Benjamin seems literally like a boy when we first see him. He asks his mother, “Where do wishes come from?” while frolicking in the snow, represented by a video projection across the set that looks like the snowfall of a Rankin-Bass Christmas special. Then, in a moment either imaginary or supernatural, he encounters an elegantly dressed woman who sings her dialogue and favors the famed opera diva Marian Anderson (Laurie Williamson). She enigmatically cautions him to take care when making wishes.

Benjamin soon meets two people who’ll be crucial in his new life. At his new high school, he defends aspiring artist Terence (Shon Middlebrooks) from a gay-bashing incident. Later, he encounters singing teacher Barbara Scarlatti (Vinie Burrows), who convinces him to take lessons in exchange for painting part of her house.

The Marian Anderson figure reappears as an “invisible” presence during opera class. The play doesn’t fully explain the character — she could be ghost, muse or angel — but Williamson plays her just right. She has a clear, compelling singing voice and the still poise that suits an opera star looks just a little bit alien when she stands alongside “real” characters.

Bel Canto follows Benjamin as he discovers his talent, makes peace with his parents and explores his sexuality, roughly in that order. The play treats Benjamin’s homosexuality as a given and avoids the cliches of “coming out” plays. Josie Burgin Lawson effectively represents the bigoted “establishment” as a school nurse who proves to be both a comical busybody and an intolerant authority figure.

But Jones’ writing frequently alternates between the realistic and the lyrical, with Benjamin’s early scenes with his mother sounding especially stilted. At one point Bessie reminisces about her husband in a poetic speech about their sex life, a strange thing to discuss with her son. She comes into sharpest focus in a funny scene with no dialogue: Benjamin listens to opera while a black-and-white Maria Callas film is projected across the set, and mother and son playfully act out the melodrama.

One of the production’s many unusual theatrical effects involves recorded music. Barbara mimes handing Benjamin an object, which he takes, and when he opens his hands the audience hears a snippet of an aria. It’s a goofy device that’s more self-conscious than the show’s symbolic use of color. When Benjamin paints Barbara’s room, he draws red streamers from the ceiling and drapes them around the set, so the passionate, scarlet hues replace the set’s innocent, snow-white motif.

Faced with some tragic news, Benjamin finds catharsis in a singing lesson early in the second act. Afterward, though, Bel Canto’s dramatic complications peter out. Benjamin opens up to Terence by saying, “You make me feel, and I’m scared of not feeling,” an angsty remark that could be typical of any teenager. But it doesn’t square with what we’ve seen of Benjamin up until this point. Both through the writing and Patterson’s sensitive performance, Benjamin reveals deep feelings about his parents, injustice and, gradually, opera itself. As a protagonist, he’s almost too well adjusted and self-confident.

Broadway veteran Vinie Burrows makes Barbara a fittingly oversized character, with the kind of robust hamming you expect from an eccentric opera teacher. She’s especially heartfelt with two richly detailed speeches about her youth that express the excitement over music and the tragedy of the color barrier, which mean to emphasize Benjamin’s own conflicts as the son of a black mother and white father.

While Bel Canto raises identity issues that touch on race, sexuality, politics and the artistic temperament, it seldom follows through with any one. Watching it is like talking to someone who answers a question with another question. The songs, from Hendrix to Puccini, evoke the feelings that the play wants to explore, but words fail Bel Canto when it tries to explain the inexplicable.