BY JOHN FLEMING
Times Performing Arts Critic
“Once upon another time. In a little town in Spain there lived a woman and her five daughters."
So begins Bernarda Alba, the musical by Michael John LaChiusa (words and music) that opens Friday at Freefall Theatre. Based on a play by Federico Garcia Lorca, The House of Bernarda Alba, it is set in rural Spain in the 1930s and revolves around a matriarch who, after the death of her husband, imposes a long period of mourning on her daughters. They rebel against the cloistered, hothouse atmosphere.
Starring in the title role, Kate Young heads an all-woman cast of 10, which represents a first for artistic director Eric Davis. "I have done plays that have a larger proportion of women to men but never an all-female cast," Davis said. "There is actually a lot of masculinity in the story as well. A powerful sexuality is what it is all about. So I think it's an interesting balance to have this all-female cast and the male director."
In a way, Davis is going back to Freefall's origins. The company made its acclaimed debut in 2008 with The Wild Party, a LaChiusa musical with a jazz theme that was staged by Davis at the Studio@620.
In Bernarda Alba, the score is influenced by flamenco singing and dancing. Davis thinks that is a good fit for the Tampa Bay area, with its Spanish heritage.
"It's thrilling and so Spanish and so about the world of this play," he said. "All sorts of things are built into the score that are from flamenco. It's an incredible leap outside the comfort zone of traditional musical theater."
Carolina Esparza, a longtime flamenco performer in Tampa, is the production's choreographer.
Davis finds another local peg in the similar aesthetics of Lorca and Salvador Dalí, hoping to draw fans of the Dalí Museum in St. Petersburg to the play. "Lorca was concerned, as Dalí was, with pushing ideas not only in art but in politics and society," he said. "Visually, in the set, I've tried to inform our production by this connection between Lorca and Dalí. There is some surrealist imagery in the piece."
LaChiusa has been a prolific creator of musicals, most recently with Giant, based on the Edna Ferber novel. His score for Bernarda Alba employs a small orchestra with keyboard, percussion, reeds, guitar and cello, led by Michael Raabe.
"I think he's one of the most interesting voices in contemporary musical theater," Davis said. "He writes incredibly inspiring and actable music. There's this concept in Spanish art and flamenco called duende, and I think LaChiusa has that."
Duende is a Spanish word that refers to "soul" — art and music that are particularly emotional.
"Bringing it to this piece gives us a running start in the production with this music full of intense emotion," Davis said.
LaChiusa shows can be esoteric, but Davis thinks the Freefall audience is ready for Bernarda Alba.
"I think when people leave the theater they will have a couple of reactions," he said. "First of all, I think they will feel like the play has been done to them. It's one of these plays that is just a runaway train of intensity. So I think they will feel like the play has happened to them, which is what I feel like theater should always be trying to do. And they will also feel like they have experienced something unique."
John Fleming can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8716.