Michael John LaChiusa's "Marie Christine" is a triumphant contradiction. It's a stark, severe but successful musical.
It often seems that optimism is as essential to musicals as song and dance. Even shows like "Ragtime" and "Les Miserables" that deal in misery tend to finish on a happy, or at least consoling, note. But audiences can live without happy endings. "Miss Saigon," for example, has not been held back by its tragic desolation.
It may be no accident that "Marie Christine" tells essentially the same story as "Miss Saigon." A woman of color falls for a charming white man and is doomed by his ultimate return to his own tribe. But LaChiusa pushes even further into this tragic territory.
"Marie Christine" has been widely advertised as a version of the Greek tragedy "Medea," so we know in advance that it will end with the scorned woman killing both her lover's new wife and her own children.
Yet "Marie Christine" owes its power precisely to LaChiusa's brilliant reworking of the "Medea" myth. He manages at once to make it fresh and to retain its gut-wrenching compulsion.
His Medea is a Creole woman in New Orleans a century ago, and her arrogant lover is a young sea captain with political ambitions in his native Chicago.
Her voodoo charms are the perfect equivalent of Medea's sorcery. His involvement with a corrupt ward boss gives us a convincing vision of a world in which this exotic woman must be sacrificed.
To tell such a story in music, LaChiusa draws in part on the familiar rhythms of blues, jazz and ragtime. But the musical framework is, quite rightly, constructed from the harsher, more-discordant, sounds of contemporary opera. So there are no stirring anthems or dazzling production numbers.
But there is a fiercely uncompromising fusion of story and song. Everything about Graciela Daniele's fluid, elegant production is in harmony with this basic intention. Her choreography moves the cast with a stately formality appropriate to the ritual enactment of a tragic fate.
In the main roles, Audra McDonald and Anthony Crivello project their characters onto a screen of timeless myth. Mcdoanld’s voice wraps itself around the angular notes of LaChiusa’s score with such mastery that her songs seem as direct and natural as speech. Yet, even when she Christine' is expressing the most passionate emotions, she remains regal.
That means Crivello has to create a personality powerful enough to captivate this haughty queen. He does.
Christopher Barreca's sets, Toni Leslie-James' costumes and Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhaur's lighting have a spare, abstract quality that gives the story a mythic dignity.
The one problem is that the book doesn't fully allow us to see McDonald moving from unhappy lover to implacable avenger, so the savage finale doesn't quite have the intensity it needs.
By then, though, LaChiusa's unblinking vision is so compellingly clear that it will not easily be dislodged from the mind.
The worst aspect of Michael John LaChiusa's new musical, "Marie Christine," at Lincoln Center's Vivian Beaumont Theater, is Michael Jolm LaChiusa's new music.
For one thing, much of it sounds like rather old music, and for another, much more of it appears stranded in that contemporary no-man's-land that divides opera from the Broadway musical.
It sounds, as they say in England, neither fish, fowl nor good red herring.
These days, it can't be easy to find a suitable theme for a "serious" Broadway musical. LaChiusa's choice of the "Medea" story is shrewd, its transposition into the Creole world of post-bellum New Orleans cunning. Yet even the libretto – or book or whatever you want to call it -- provides its own difficulties.
For one thing, the "Medea" aspect of the story doesn't get going until the second act. Also, the story doesn't quite hang together.
Marie Christine, the voodoo-practicing Creole, meets her white, seafaring Jason in New Orleans and later runs off with him to Chicago, where she bears him children. Before leaving, however, and just in time for the first -act curtain, she stabs her brother to death.
Audra McDonald, who gives a shattering performance as Marie Christine, could win a Tony for it. She is a phenomenal talent, surely destined to be a musical-theater legend, and she's reason enough to come to the theater.
Graciela Daniele's staging was both inventive and imaginative, while the settings by Christopher Barreca made perhaps the best use ever of the Beaumont stage. The costumes were apt and meaningful, as was the atmospheric lighting of Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.
I was disappointed in Anthony Crivello's Dante, Marie Christine's faithless lover, but Mary Testa was absolutely marvelous as a blowzy but likable Chicago saloon moll. Shawn Elliott showed a stealthy menace as a political boss, and the fine-voiced Vivian Reed shone as Marie Christine's dead mother.
Yet when all was said and sung, one returns to that turgid music, which even the masterfully subtle orchestrations of Jonathan Tunick couldn't breathe into life.
The magic is real, all right, a force that brooks no denial, no resistance. Like most unearthly powers, it doesn't break down into easily defined elements. But when Audra McDonald sings her first notes as the Medea-like heroine of ''Marie Christine,'' Michael John LaChiusa's solemn, sometimes somnolent musical tragedy at Lincoln Center, there is clearly sorcery at work.
That opening line of melody, pitched at the low end of Ms. McDonald's wide register, is simple, as are the words it is teamed with: ''My name is my mother's name.'' Yet the phrase shimmers with elemental energies just waiting to be unleashed, and the implicit potency hypnotizes. There is no doubting that this enchantress can make good on every threat and promise she utters. Underestimate her at your peril.
''Marie Christine,'' which opened last night at the Vivian Beaumont Theater at Lincoln Center under Graciela Daniele's direction, is a resounding confirmation of Ms. McDonald's status as a vocal artist of singular skills and sensibility, the foremost interpreter of a new generation of composers that includes Jason Robert Brown, Ricky Ian Gordon and Adam Guettel. Those who have felt that this 29-year-old performer, who has picked up a Tony for each of her three previous appearances on Broadway, was ready for a fall will not see her stumble here.
The swirling, complex music of Mr. LaChiusa (''First Lady Suite,'' ''Hello Again''), who wrote ''Marie Christine'' expressly for her, taps her oceanic potential in ways her performances in ''Carousel,'' ''Master Class'' and ''Ragtime'' only hinted at. Ms. McDonald, in turn, is Mr. LaChiusa's ideal translator, giving emotional precision and centeredness to an intricate score that refuses to settle into one steady stream of style or sentiment.
Mr. LaChiusa is working from the disparate, clashing strands of American culture; Ms. McDonald, whose command of musical dialects here ranges from the operatic to gospel, turns that paradox into something intensely personal, finding conflicting impulses in a single breath. Like Maria Callas, who famously sang Cherubini's ''Medee,'' she can convey overwhelming fierceness and fragility at the same time. Neither Mr. LaChiusa's music nor Ms. McDonald's character can be confined by a simple equation.
Unfortunately Mr. LaChiusa's libretto for ''Marie Christine,'' a tale of doomed love between an arrogant young sea captain (played by Anthony Crivello) and its racially mixed heroine in late 19th-century New Orleans and Chicago, does not reflect this sense of the ineffable. There is often a baldly didactic quality to the show's book and lyrics, as it considers the socially oppressive climate of its time, and a melodramatic clunkiness that evokes the language of B-movies about bad women. And even Ms. McDonald's magic can't transform the tedium of much that surrounds her.
As a musical portrait of an individual, ''Marie Christine'' is stunning; as a compelling, complete production, it still feels oddly unfinished. Although the evening has a creditable leading man in Mr. Crivello, only Ms. McDonald gives the show the sharpness it demands. When she isn't singing, there's a diffusiveness to ''Marie Christine'' that pre-empts full emotional engagement.
Despite ravishing orchestrations by Jonathan Tunick, the score rarely achieves much momentum or intensity on its own, and its recurrent motifs don't haunt the imagination as they should. This is especially true in the grim second act, with its catalog of murders; this bizarrely deprives its heroine of the big soliloquy of an aria that is her due as well as her audience's.
Similarly, the stylish, shorthand choreography in which Ms. Daniele specializes (also on display at the moment in ''Ragtime'') only rarely seems more than a series of picturesque gestures. One tends to feel lost and lonely when Ms. McDonald isn't onstage, and I found myself wishing that ''Marie Christine'' had been presented as a musical monologue. As it is, the handsome production that has been lavished on the show overburdens it.
That the evening has grand ambitions is evident from the moment you take your seat. Christopher Barreca's set, which creates the feeling of a classical amphitheater cast in shades of black and which has been brilliantly lighted by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, glowers imposingly. No doubt about it, as Mr. LaChiusa's musical forebear Stephen Sondheim (whose influence is much felt here) might have put it, it's tragedy tonight at the Vivian Beaumont.
In a lovely departure from the traditional overture, before the house lights go down the orchestra begins to tune up, with different instruments sending their voices into the air. At the same time the ensemble, dressed in Toni-Leslie James's somber period costumes, files on the stage with seeming randomness.
An alphabet of sorts is established, the ingredients that will coalesce to tell a story. The nature of that story is made evident when the orchestra comes together in an ominous dissonant chord capped with the clash of symbols. A group of women, writhing like figures in a scene from ''The Snake Pit,'' trace the perimeter of the stage's central circle.
Ms. McDonald appears in silhouette, as she is interrogated by a trio of harpylike prisoners (Jennifer Leigh Warren, Andrea Frierson-Toney and Mary Bond Davis), who will act throughout the show as the heroine's personal Greek chorus, with a slight flavor of both the Andrews Sisters and the weird sisters of ''Macbeth.'' ''Before the morning I will be a witness,'' they intone.
What follows is a tale not so distant from that of Medea according to Euripides, one of seduction, betrayal and horrific vengeance. Mr. LaChiusa's variations on the classic archetype play nicely into his theories, set forth in recent interviews, of the eclectic nature of American culture and the musical theater best suited to interpret it.
Marie Christine L'Adrese (to be played by Sherry Boone at Wednesday and Saturday matinees) is herself a hybrid, the daughter of a rich French father and his mistress, a woman of color well versed in the ancient magic of Africa and Hispaniola, which her daughter has inherited.
This maternal legacy is given literal form by the spectral presences of Marie Christine's mother (the elegant Vivian Reed) and of a drummer (David Pleasant), who is seen through a scrim as he beats an insistent tattoo that keeps snaking its way into the score. The music is a subversive counterpoint of idioms that run up against and melt into one another, with a cumulative effect that is far less schematic than these descriptions might suggest.
Ms. McDonald sustains her character's contradictions beautifully as we follow her courtship by the show's Jason figure, Dante Keyes (Mr. Crivello), the self-serving young man from Chicago who stumbles upon Marie Christine in a park on Lake Pontchartrain.
A melange of shyness and slyness, uncertain girlishness and overweening pride, European decorum and earth-shaking passion, Ms. McDonald's Marie Christine conveys all these traits with quicksilver changes in vocal timber and facial nuance. She is a model of both extraordinary self-possession and self-destructiveness, and the battle waged between the two is heard in practically every phrase she sings.
Mr. Crivello's Dante is less complicated, a handsome opportunist of cheap charm and sexual magnetism who never quite acquires the heroic stature needed to balance Ms. McDonald's sorceress. He has several exquisite moments, particularly in the second-act number in which he sings a fable to his young sons by Marie Christine. That he occasionally brings to mind Robert Taylor's wooden Armand playing opposite Greta Garbo's transcendent Camille isn't inappropriate.
Marie Christine's passions, like those of immortal heroines ranging from Medea herself to Anna Karenina, are not meant to find a worthy object. How could they? It's the process of those passions working through their own internal course, one destined to end in annihilation, that fascinates.
That doesn't account, however, for Mr. LaChiusa's forays into the scenes designed to evoke the social orders of Creole New Orleans and in the second act the back-room political world of Chicago. The attendant numbers, which range from a grand ball that ends in murder to the humiliation of Marie Christine by a squalid ward boss (Shawn Elliott) and his flunkies, have curiously little impact. Much of the second act, which like many Greek tragedies relies on accounts of horrible things happening offstage, is a bit of a sleeping pill.
Nor have deeply gifted performers like Mary Testa, as a hard-bitten Chicago saloonkeeper, and Darius de Haas, as Marie Christine's foppish younger brother, found a way of meeting the taxing demands of Mr. LaChiusa's music on their own terms. No one, in fact, feels like a fully fleshed character with the exception of Marie Christine.
But what an exception she is. If this production fails to make a persuasive case for Mr. LaChiusa's ability to shape a complete, satisfying musical, it definitely points to new possibilities for defining character within the genre. Ms. McDonald makes the most of those possibilities and then some. The commitment, conviction and full-strength talent she brings to the evening becomes its own argument for the endurance of the American musical.
Medea, the enchantress of Greek myth who kills her children as revenge against her faithless husband, is no stranger to Broadway, but only now does she sing. What kind of a voice could this monstrous archetype possibly have?
Far removed from the husky tones of Maria Callas, heard in the Cherubini opera Medea, the more mellifluous Audra McDonald is at the center of the new Michael John LaChiusa musical Marie Christine. The retelling, which opened Thursday at Lincoln Center, suggests why this may be the defining myth of our time.
Sadly, several key elements falter in this ambitious musical, but its skeleton is sturdy. Indisputably brilliant is the decision to reset it in turn-of-the-century New Orleans, allowing Medea to be a Creole woman of means - and resources, with her knowledge of voodoo – who falls in love with a white ship captain but is later rejected for racial reasons once his political career heats up.
While one often associates Greek tragedy with much agonized yowling, the overriding tone here is realistic understatement. Librettist/lyricist/composer LaChiusa (who has authored numerous musical theater adventures such as Hello, Again) has Marie Christine smilingly acquiesce to the demands of those around her. Of course, she'll do exactly the opposite, but with the unbridled extremity too common in our times, when human life and blood ties are regarded as increasingly cheap.
Musically, LaChiusa ventures far to make this approach work. Early in Act I, Marie sings Way Back to Paradise (also the title song of McDonald's acclaimed recent CD), encapsulating the stifling plight that even a moneyed Creole woman faces in this milieu - and Marie's defiance of it. The one way out is physical allure, and the melodic motif expressing that idea is repeated elsewhere to great effect.
But nearly everything else that should bolster the narrative - even the spare set, which covers the orchestra so as to muffle this highly sophisticated score - does not. When you probe the inner lives of the characters, the cast provides more brick walls than insights.
Though a charismatic physical and vocal presence, McDonald, the owner of three Tony Awards, never really shows you Marie's inner transitions, from her willingness to marry beneath her station to the decision to kill her children. Even more wanting is Anthony Crivello (Marie's lover), whose chameleon-like qualities border on multiple personalities, none very interesting.
This is not what you'd expect from director Graciela Daniele. It's puzzling - no, baffling - that the pace of this show is often leaden, undercutting any hope of the simmering tension so important in malting LaChiusa's understatement work. The staging also fails to make sense in important moments: If your sister stabbed you to death with a kitchen knife, would you come to her in a dream and give her a nice, warm hug?
Even in the Broadway tradition of illogical showmanship – remember when choruses used to appear out of nowhere? - such moments mar a show otherwise blessed with daring and smarts. And those are qualities to be grateful for when things like Saturday Night Fever are taking the theatrical intelligence curve to a new low.
Just in time for the holiday season, another dark and ambitious new musical lumbers onto the stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Same time last year, Lincoln Center Theater brought us "Parade," and the company now presents Michael John LaChiusa's "Marie Christine," a turn-of-the-century retelling of the Medea story set in Creole New Orleans and Chicago. The first of the young composer's two new musicals to be produced on Broadway this season, with "The Wild Party" to follow in the spring, "Marie Christine" must be categorized as a misfire, a fatally dispassionate musical about passion run amok. Perhaps most dismayingly, this lifeless production doesn't even succeed as a showcase for the ample talents of three-time Tony winner Audra McDonald, here essaying a starring role on Broadway for the first time.
The good news is there's much musical acumen and heapfuls of rhythmic vigor in LaChiusa's score. The composer recently put forth his artistic credo in a Sunday New York Times piece espousing an all-inclusive approach to the Broadway musical, and he's certainly as good as his word. "Marie Christine's" strikingly varied score reveals influences that range from Joni Mitchell to George Gershwin to the inevitable Stephen Sondheim, and LaChiusa has a terrifically keen ear for the jagged syncopation of African-American musical styles such as blues and ragtime. He's got rhythm to spare -- there's even a waltz to close the first act. Throughout the show, a drummer is given special emphasis, showcased on a platform above the stage while the rest of the orchestra is hidden beneath it.
What LaChiusa ain't got is a particular affection for the kind of melodic charm that most audiences expect from a Broadway musical. His lyrically dense, musically spare songs -- more than 30 of them are listed in the credits -- contain few memorable tunes and nary a hummable chorus. That in itself is hardly an insurmountable problem: If the music merely supplied potent underscoring for a cogent and involving drama, we wouldn't regret the lack of take-home musical nuggets.
But we do, we do. For "Marie Christine" is utterly artless in its storytelling, and is directed with an enervating lack of dramatic focus by Graciela Daniele, who also supplies the minimal choreography. A painfully static first act culminates in an awkward and preposterously melodramatic finale. Other turning points are brushed past too quickly ("You have left me," Marie Christine announces blandly to her betraying lover, who would presumably not need to be told this), while background incidents are given excessive emphasis. Too much is merely explained or portentously commented on by a chorus, too little is dramatized. Most crucially, the musical's effectiveness is muted by a central character whose driving passions remain frustratingly opaque.
Marie Christine L'Adrese (McDonald) is a Creole woman in 1894 New Orleans who dabbles in voodoo. The daughter of a French father raised by her black West Indian mother, whose ghost returns to haunt her at moments of crisis, Marie Christine is a well-dressed and well-spoken young woman who lives with her two upstanding brothers. She is, nevertheless, apparently very unhappy.
When she meets Dante Keyes (Anthony Crivello), a slick white sailor who seduces her in a park one day, she promptly invites him to stay awhile in the family home, angering her brothers and precipitating a crisis. By the end of act one, Marie Christine has robbed and murdered one brother for love of Dante and fled with him to Chicago. The musical ends, naturally, with Marie Christine's unnatural killing of her two children in revenge for Dante's betrayal.
Strong stuff this, but the Greeks got away with it. LaChiusa doesn't, for the simple reason that Marie Christine's overweening and destructive love is never convincingly communicated to the audience. The mesmerizing power that the Greek original can exert is absent here: We're never drawn into the vortex of feeling that should motivate Marie Christine, never made to feel her desires, her humiliations, her despair. She remains a cold and rather unappealing figure, with her voodoo hexes dwelt on at the expense of more sympathetic aspects of her character. In the end her ugly acts come across as the distasteful doings of a standard sociopath rather than a pitiable, deeply wounded woman.
The fault is not really McDonald's. She brings more than sufficient intensity and the expressive beauty of her marvelous soprano to bear on LaChiusa's score. But the songs don't have much emotional texture -- these are not melodies that work ineluctable magic on the heart or softly ravage the soul. And neither does LaChiusa's minimal, stiff dialogue, with which McDonald seems less comfortable. When Marie Christine announces, "New Orleans is my prison," and vows to do anything she can to get out, we wonder from what she's running.
In Toni-Leslie James' pretty Victorian gowns, with her genteel brothers to look after her, Marie Christine's life doesn't look so bad. (Though it does look dim: Christopher Barreca's gloomy and unevocative sets are lit with angular starkness by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.)
A 20th century sympathy with Marie Christine's 19th century oppression as a black woman is taken for granted, and sorely taxed. She sings of women's subservience in "Way Back to Paradise" (also the title track for McDonald's CD devoted to the songs of LaChiusa and other young theater composers), but this repression isn't vividly dramatized. And empathy for her plight isn't increased by the fact that Dante, in an able but not particularly charismatic performance by Crivello, is painted as a cad from the get-go, making Marie Christine's devotion to him risible.
A show is in big trouble when the estimable Mary Testa can neither steal it nor stop it, and such is the case here, although she tries hard with "Cincinnati," a bawdy honky-tonk number at the top of the second act. This act, set in Chicago, details Dante's somewhat implausible political rise, to which he regretfully sacrifices Marie Christine when the hand of a local bigwig's daughter is offered, along the lines of the Greek original. Testa plays a madam and saloon keeper who mediates between Marie Christine and Dante, and bears witness to Marie Christine's terrible vengeance.
It is Testa's Magdalena who gapes in mute horror as Marie Christine returns from committing the fatal act, but the audience is likely to feel more relief than revulsion -- hardly pity and terror, and perhaps not a little sadness, for McDonald primarily, a bright young performer whose faith in a new generation of Broadway composers is not happily rewarded here. He may have a powerful muse and ally in McDonald, but what LaChiusa needs most is a collaborator with a dramatic vision that can more artfully harness his musical gifts. That, above all, is the voodoo missing from "Marie Christine."