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Review: Freefall's 'Bernarda Alba' ultimately doesn't work

From left, Sarah McAvoy, Jennifer Byrne, Alison Burns, Georgia Mallory Guy and Meghan Moroney in Bernarda Alba.
Published Mar. 21, 2013

ST. PETERSBURG — In many ways, Freefall Theatre's Bernarda Alba is an admirable effort, a revival of an infrequently performed work by Michael John LaChiusa (music, lyrics, book). Artistic director Eric Davis has fashioned one of his typically imaginative stagings, and he brought together a strong cast of 10 women to enact this musical based on a play by Federico Garcia Lorca.

But good intentions and excellent direction and acting are not enough when something simply doesn't work, and Bernarda Alba landed with a thud when I saw it on Sunday afternoon. Though LaChiusa is a prolific, esteemed man of the musical theater, his works tend to be arcane, rather gloomy affairs that are box office poison. The Wild Party, his best-known show (and a successful debut for Freefall five years ago), was a bust on Broadway. It seems an odd, even reckless choice for a young company still trying to find its audience to take on a piece like this that was almost preordained to flop.

Really, does Lorca's play, The House of Bernarda Alba, demand to be sung? Set in rural Spain in the 1930s, it's an allegorical tale from a harshly patriarchal culture, its severity embodied by the title character, who, after the death of her husband, locks up her five daughters for a prolonged period of mourning. Sexual repression suffuses the atmosphere — heavyhandedly referenced in the daughters' fascination with mating horses, shown in a video — but that is a tough theme to bring off in song and dance for any composer-lyricist (not to mention playwright, too) who isn't named Sondheim.

Starting with Kate Young's commanding performance as the unyielding matron Bernarda Alba, it's a shame to see so much talent squandered on such dubious material. Alison Burns, who often plays sexy, beautiful characters, is surprisingly persuasive as the ugly daughter, Martirio. Jennifer Byrne is an elegant, dark-eyed presence as Angustias, the intended of Pepe el Romano, a local lothario who is never seen but haunts the women. As Magdalena, Georgia Mallory Guy is an exuberant charmer, and Kelly Pekar is sweet as supposedly chaste Amelia.

Sarah McAvoy seems to be cornering the market on headstrong young women who defy their parents in pursuit of love. Having played Juliet in Freefall's Romeo + Juliet, she returns here as Adela, the youngest daughter whose desire for Pepe is doomed. Ann Morrison is the barefoot grandmother, Maria Josepha, a daffy old gal draped in jewelry. Heading the servant staff is Meghan Colleen Moroney as ruthlessly practical Poncia. Bela Aquino plays a maid, and Laura Hodos has multiple roles as the neighbor Prudencia, a servant and a serenading figure on the roof.

Davis and choreographer Carolina Esparza have made flamenco central to the performance, which features much foot stomping and passionate posing. With the women in black, the stage picture is often striking, and the set is like a piece of sculpture, the floor and wall being one continuous curve (Davis did both costume and scenic design).

Michael Raabe is at the keyboard and leads an interesting combo that includes viola, oboe, cello, percussion and guitar. Alas, the LaChiusa score is painfully sour, unless you get a kick out of the yelps that the singers make. Even after sitting through the musical, as well as listening repeatedly to the CD by the cast of its 2006 premiere, I am hard pressed to identify a single song that left an impression.

Diehard theater fans will want to see Bernarda Alba for its rarity and all the creativity of the Freefall production. But that doesn't mean they will be entertained.

American opera

Speaking of rarely seen works, USF Opera is staging The Mother of Us All, a 1947 opera with music by Virgil Thomson to a libretto by Gertrude Stein. The mother of the title is suffragette Susan B. Anthony (sung by Courtney Sousa). Directed by Brad Diamond, with Michael Reedy conducting, performances are at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday at the USF Concert Hall, Tampa. $15. (813) 974-2323; music.arts.usf.edu.

John Fleming can be reached at fleming@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8716.

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