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A Great American Musical from Portland

Review by Alice Greenwald, PhD.

There is a style of musical (pre-dating the golden age of musicals slightly) that’s was called “the musical play” as opposed to musical comedy. It is a solid and serious piece exploring important social content through a book that could stand alone and music that complements the mood and the players. ThreePenny Opera heads a list of this type that would include Lady in the Dark, Showboat, Pal Joey, and Cradle Will Rock (I’ll include Carousel as well). This type of musical play is all but extinct in my eyes.

Until now.

A Symphony For Portland deftly explores a post-pandemic America forced to resort to drastic means to survive. A world that looks uncomfortably like depression-era America. We meet a cacophony of working homeless (those individuals that have jobs and academic lives but go home to an abandoned building or shelter), unwilling sex-workers (the fodder for every exposé on sex-trafficking) and those middle-class parents who are sure this cannot happen to their children – until it does.

One might digest this synopsis and shy away for fear of sitting through a dower declamation. You’d be wrong. A Symphony for Portland is a joyous, uplifting inspiring evening of exquisite writing coupled with an old-fashioned opera-into-musical theatre score and some genuine and exuberant performances.

Christina Hemphill gives us a harsh scenario but well-peppers it with genuine faith and perseverance in her words and music. Strains of her lilting melodies stick in your head as you find yourself feeling for each character as if you knew them well. Her journey into the operetta style musical was daring, but bountifully paid off.

Jay Michaels, a familiar name on many fronts in the New York theatre scene, directed the 90-minute opus with clever subtlety in conveying the messages of play and characters but handed us just enough of his trademark physical humor and “schtick” allowing the message to shine while handing the audience necessary moments of humor and customary musical theatre catharsis.

The main plotline involves Starr and her father, a busy businessman unable to love his daughter due to the death of his wife. Starr falls in with the wrong crowd (of course) in the form of Jesse, a smooth talking flesh-peddler and Nick, a good old-fashioned malcontent – crooked cop and dealer in all things illegal. Coming to her rescue are a gaggle of good-natured indigents including Jordan, an abandoned son who has now found God; his lover, Aaron, a wild-haired free-sprit who always hears music. They are the leaders of a “Hair”-like tribe of sex-workers, bible-thumpers, and fellow homeless. The ending is predicable, how they get to it will make you cry.

Kristen Smith and Demetrius Kee well-inhabited the role of disinterested dad and innocent child. Smith’s beautiful voice and wide-eyed wonder made her interactions with deadpan dad humorous. Kee found his stride after Starr goes missing and his odyssey of search and song became heartbreaking.

Mathew Cohen and Jamiel Burkhart as unlikely lovers were quite brilliant – together and separate. The bespeckled Cohen kept us grounded with a solid, thoughtful performance while Burkhart was a singing dancing ray of sunshine culminating with an 11:00 number worth the price of admission alone.

Isaac Williams was simply perfect as Jesse, the flesh peddler. Williams’ stage presence allowed the audience to hate him and feel for him at the same time. He also packs a powerful voice. The number “Love in the Rain” showed the power of his and Smith’s voice as well as the beauty of Hemphill’s lyrics. And to have the number done amid a sea of umbrellas enhanced the mood perfectly.

Ashlyn Prieto as the obligatory nun endeavoring to help those around her was a bright spot among bright spots. A superb voice and flawless comic timing made her a joyous addition to any scene. She was shadowed by a do-good-or-at-least-trying novitiate sweetly played by a silent Sarah Rosa. Caitlyn Sommerville and Lauren Rathbun offered a look into the souls of ladies-of-the-night with two diverse and truly engrossing performances. Adding Ava Tyson as another sex-worker who, simply by reaction, told both their stories deeply, enhanced all their performances. John Stillwaggon as the bereaved parent of the abandoned Jordan never left the stage, allowing us to see the events through his eyes, solidly rooting us to the message. An excellent asset to the proceedings. Hannah Bonnett as a homeless woman who showed signs of mental illness become a powerful social commentary and – believe it or not – great comic relief.

Musicals of this nature must have an irredeemable character. Ross Pivec as Nick, who sets all crime in motion, handed us the great villain of yesteryear with glee. I was waiting for him to twirl his mustache.

Larry Daggett conducted and coralled a chamber group of musicals so smoothly as to make us feel as if the artists were sharing their thoughts, not singing. Not an easy task in such a space. Another not-so-easy task is lighting such a box. Kudos to Zach Dulny for mood and visibility.

With that in mind, Jay Michaels should be praised for stuffing so much action into such an intimate space. With Covid rules still in effect, even staging needed to be paired, yet, we, in the seats, felt like we were sitting in the abandoned warehouse with a group of pure-souls. And pure they were. When the prostitutes discuss prayer; when the homeless give what they have to others; when those in the dark see the light, you cannot help but feel uplifted. This was another gauntlet thrown before Christina Hemphill. Religion is not fashionable anymore but, in this play, Hemphill lets us believe that souls can really be saved.

A Symphony for Portland runs one more weekend, closing August 28. If Heaven is listening then it needs more time and a bigger space.


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