Review: “Brigadoon”

RECOMMENDED

Where: Goodman Theatre, Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.
When: through August 17
Tickets: $25-$97
Phone: 312-443-3800

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

When I was an adolescent, Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe’s “Brigadoon” was one of my favorite musicals.

I can’t remember exactly why.

Maybe it was because the idea of an 18th century town in the Scottish Highlands coming to life for only one day every 100 years is magical and defies the normal rules of time. Or because the story of the true love that blooms between local maiden Fiona MacLaren and Tommy Albright, one of the two lost 20th century Americans who arrive at a place that’s not on their map, is so incredibly romantic. Or because Agnes de Mille’s ballet sequences are captivating. Or simply because the songs — among them “Almost Like Being in Love,” “Come to Me, Bend to Me,” “The Heather on the Hill,” “From This Day On” and “There But For You Go I” —are marvelous.

But “Brigadoon,” which premiered on Broadway in 1947 and was made into a movie in 1954, hasn’t had a major revival since 1980, and that’s understandable. The show is impossibly corny by contemporary standards.

From the market scene of the townspeople gathering on MacConnachy Square through the finale of Tommy finding that anything is possible with enough love and faith, the plot is a series of set pieces: preparations for the wedding of Fiona’s younger sister “bonnie” Jean (Olivia Renteria, a lovely dancer) to Charlie Dalrymple (Jordan Brown, in fine voice); the wedding interrupted by Harry Beaton (Rhett Guter, another fine dancer), whose unrequited passion for Jean drives him to leave town which, if he (or anyone) does, will cause it to disappear forever; the chase to stop Harry; a funeral, etc. Most of the characters come close to being caricatures, even Tommy’s cynical, near-alcoholic buddy Jeff Douglas (Rod Thomas) and the promiscuous lassie, Meg Brockie (lively Maggie Portman), whose advances he tries to rebuff. The dialogue tends to be as forgettable as the songs are memorable.

Goodman Theatre’s production directed and choreographed by Rachel Rockwell tries to remedy the shortcomings while retaining the essential “Brigadoon.” It’s a tall order, but for the most part, Rockwell and her collaborators succeed.

With the permission of the Lerner and Loewe estates and support of Lerner’s daughter Liza, Brian Hill revised the book to bring it more in tune with our own times. The main change, as far as I can tell, is that Scottish history — specifically the disastrous Battle of Culloden in 1746 against the British, who’d imposed restrictions designed to wipe out the Highland culture — is used to explain why Pastor Forsythe asked for a miracle to protect Brigadoon from outside strife. (The original has him saving the village from witches, real or metaphorical). There’s a little narrative fuzziness about the townspeople not knowing the miracle worked until they meet the 20th-century intruders, but no matter: The parallels between the past and Tommy’s post World War II disillusionment, malaise, and reluctance to marry his fiance, Jane Ashton (Emily Rohm), are strengthened.

Other alterations include tweaking the Act II New York bar scene so it takes place during the rehearsal dinner for Tommy and Jane’s wedding. This potentially heightens the emotional power, but unfortunately, the encounter between them seems rushed, her reaction to his breaking up with her isn’t believable, and he comes across as a cad for waiting so long.

Musically, the song “There But For You Go I” has been moved to near the end of Act II, when Tommy returns to where Brigadoon was (even though he knows it’s not there) and wakes schoolmaster Mr. Lundie (Roger Mueller) from his sleep. This arguably makes a lot of sense. Musical director Roberta Duchak also has added some vocal and instrumental arrangements, drawing more on Scottish traditions. Except for a rather clumsy opening, the music sounds top-notch, thanks in no small part to the talented, if smallish, orchestra.

The singing and dancing are terrific, as is Rockwell’s choreography, from the storytelling ballets to the Scottish sword dance. Though she says in a program note that she’s never seen footage of de Mille’s Broadway choreography for the show, she’s clearly internalized the style from watching films like “Oklahoma” and “Carousel.”

Kevin Depinet’s inventive scenic design benefits enormously from Shawn Sagady’s amazing projections. With Aaron Spivey’s atmospheric lighting and Mara Blumenfeld’s delightful costumes (a little fairytale-ish but not too much), the show’s look is all that one could hope for.

In fact, except for a few issues with the script, my main problem with Goodman’s “Brigadoon” is the acting. It doesn’t bother me so much that it’s all over the place and sometimes extremely broad — Portman’s lascivious Meg, for example, though the opening night audience loved her. The Achilles’ heel is the lack of chemistry between Kevin Earley’s understated Tommy and Jennie Sophia’s Fiona. Individually and together, they’re splendid singers, and when they’re arguing at the beginning, it looks like some sparks might fly. But once they supposedly fall in love, there’s nothing there. Earley, especially, just seems to be going through the motions, making it impossible for Sophia to respond appropriately.

Overall, though, Goodman does “Brigadoon” justice and even improves some parts of it. If you love the music and dancing, don’t miss it.