Reviewed by Michael Dare
"A story wants to be told a certain way, or it is merely the alphabet badly recited. At the right time the words borrow us, so to speak, and then out can come the unsuspected sides of things with the force like that of music.”
- Ivan Doig
The dialogue is rarely the best part of a novel. In-between the quotes, the novelist is telling you what one of their characters is saying, but outside the quotes is the author stripped bare and entirely dependent upon their particular use of language. If a character says something the reader disagrees with, they could end up hating the character, but if the TEXT says something the reader disagrees with, they could end up hating the author.
All novelists provide perspective, good ones a perspective unique to themselves, and great ones a perspective simultaneously unique and universal. Ivan Doig is one of the great ones, and I can say that despite the fact I've never read a single word he's written, because I have seen Book-It Repertory's new production of Prairie Nocturne.
I don't know how I missed him but strangely enough, I'm glad I did, because what better way to get turned on to an author than through a Book-It production. If you close your eyes, it's like a book on tape - a bunch of actors are reading a book to you - and if it's a good book, you'll keep listening. Open your eyes and there they are, in costume, on a stage, still reading to you, but going in and out of character as the book demands, sometimes doing accents and pantomime, surrounded by state of the art stagecraft, where the slightest change of set and lighting moves you instantaneously from a mountain cabin to a riverboat going down a canyon to a limousine going down the street, they give you just enough to picture it in your mind's eye, but never too much to distract from the language of the storytelling.
This time, director Laura Ferri and adaptor Elena Hartwell invite us back to the 20s in Montana to investigate the relationship between Susan, a music instructor, and the two men who love her, Monty, a singing student, and Wesley, a cattle tycoon who brought Monty to her in the first place. The triangle is complicated by the fact Wesley's married (to a wife we never meet), and Monty is black, the Klu Klux Klan is on the rampage, and he's and a mama's boy. Luckily, his mama filled him with a spirit of gospel that blessed him with a voice and repertory for the ages, taking him from the backwoods of Montana all the way to Carnegie Hall. (Monty has a real-life counterpart, Taylor Gordon, who actually did go from Montana to Carnegie Hall in the 20's. Doig says "I tape-recorded his memories of those times not long before he died, familyless, in 1971, and his papers and other Harlem Renaissance archival holdings are rich with detail," details he uses to fill the book with authenticity.)
Myra Platt, as Susan, is more talented than anyone has a right to be. She not only blazes through some excellent Chopin, she co-wrote the original music to Ivan Doig's lyrics with Theresa Holmes. Despite the flashiness of the other characters, when you start wondering who this is really about, it all comes down to her, and we become as much her pupils as Monty.
Shawn Belyea does the best he can with the thankless role of Wesley, the good natured gentleman whose relationship with Susan was in the past, and who doesn't get to do much but be a man and relive the love of his life without ever reconsumating it, but Geoffery Simmons get a real star turn as Monty. With Denzel's good looks and sensitivity, plus a magnificent singing voice, watching his rise from rodeo clown (really!) to tuxedoed solo artist is totally engrossing.
Special props to Faith Russell as Angeline, Monty's mom, who not only gets one spectacular solo number in a church at the end of act one, but has one of my favorite moments of the evening, a moment I'm always looking for in a Book-It production, a moment uniquely theirs.
In the book, every time Monty sings, he's infused with the spirit of his mother, so at his first singing lesson, when he first opens up and reveals the strength of his vocal cords, she's stage left singing with him, backing him up, giving him the encouragement he needs. Obviously she doesn't do that in the book. In the movie, they might have done something schmaltzy, like in the Lion King, have his dead mother appear in the clouds to sing with him, but here, it's a subtle touch, a translation of the spirit of the book as well as the actual words. Only Book-it could have pulled it off.
February 7 - March 4, 2012Previews: February 7, 8, 9
Opening Night: Friday, February 10
Center House Theatre, Seattle Center
Evening shows begin at 7:30pm
Matineés begin at 2:00pm
Buy Tickets Online or through the box office: 206.216.0833.