May 19, 2007

Sympathy for "Coram Boy"

Coram Boy would seem to have had everything going for it to become one of those must-sees for every highbrow theatergoer. It's based on an award winning British novel, albeit one for teens. It is directed by a wildly inventive director who taps into the story theater techniques that combine drama, music, dance and narrative recitations that were the rage when I was in school and many of today's theater critics were also coming of age. It is infused with Handel's majestic music, most notably "The Messiah". It was a huge hit in London. And my former actress friend Ellie, who would rather run naked through Times Square than sit through even half an hour of a show like Legally Blonde, loved it so much that she began calling and emailing friends as soon as she got home from the Imperial Theater where the show is playing and urging all of us to see it.

Yet about a third of the way into the first act, I noticed that my 26 year-old stepdaughter Anika, a trained dancer who now promotes music concerts and would rather run naked through Times Square than sit through even half an hour of a show like Legally Blonde, had her head in her hands and her shoulders were heaving up and down. I thought she was overcome with emotion. And she was, but not the emotion I had assumed. “I'm sorry,” she whispered. “ I just can't take any more” and then she subsided back into silent laughter.

The critics are as divided in their opinions of Coram Boy as Ellie and Anika are. And me? I fall somewhere in the middle. The ghost of Charles Dickens stalks this play. Jamila Gavin’s young adult novel is the story of orphaned boys in 18th century England (click here to read about the real-life Coram boys and girls) who encounter an assortment of colorful highborn and lowborn characters who challenge their innocence and ultimately reinforce their humanity. The production, adapted by Helen Edmundson and directed by Melly Still, evokes the celebrated stagecraft of Trevor Nunn's 1981 epic version of Nicholas Nickelby. I couldn’t afford the $100 ticket for Nickelby back then and so have no comparison but, like Ellie, I was dazzled by moments of Still's staging; I hope I don't spoil it for anyone who is going to see it by saying that a drowning sequence is one of the most stunning images I've ever seen on a stage. I did read "David Copperfield" when I was 12 and although Dickens isn't fashionable these days, I have remained a Dickens fan and so Coram Boy's melodramatic plot and one-dimensional characters didn't bother me the way they did Anika. But I can't say Coram Boy ever really touched me either.

Still, I admire big ambition, even when if falls short. And the creators of Coram Boy aimed high. The cast includes a 20-member chorus. The themes range from the plight of unwanted children and the cruelty of the slave trade to the glories of music and the redemptive powers of love. I can imagine my 12 year-old self seeing this show and swooning with all kinds of emotions. And so if you know a bright, sensitive tween or teen this just might be the show for him or her. The producers seem to think so too. They've initiated "The Under 18 Project," which offers half price tickets for kids. If there's one you want to take, click and type in the code, CBFAMPK.

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