Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
The drudgery and boredom of British February and a stage more black than not soon turn to the flower-and-sun-rich April of Italy's coast in this light-hearted romance by Richard B. Evans (music) and Charles Leipart (book and lyrics). The magic and music of the Mediterranean fills the air and soon uplifts the hearts and spirits of four unlikely female roomies who come to escape, at least for the month of April, their London lives to "the kind of place I can't find at home."
Best friends Rose and Lottie are the two middle-aged women in the rain, married but not particularly happy. Rose's pulp-fiction writing husband Frederick is overly enamored with his nom de plume, August St. Claire, and with probably more than a few of his adoring, female readers. Penny-pinching Mellresh, Lottie's lucky draw in life, sends her out to find "the catch of the day at the cheapest price" while hardly noticing her once he arrives home from helping his clients make money on their investments. Between London's drippy damp and their almost hubby-less homes, the two are perfect targets for an ad for a month's springtime rental on the Portofino Coast. Further ads locate two more lost souls: the elderly, recently widowed Mrs. Fisher and a society-page beauty who sings of "A Life Full of Nothing," (where I am) "drifting through life like a tired debutante." Their first meeting in their seaside home is not all roses, given their many and wide social, age, and morality-norm differences, as revealed in song in a funny "Quartet." However, Lottie and Rose are all gaga to be in Italy, especially, as Lottie notes dreamily in "So Much Beauty," since in this land of "rigatoni," "Tony, Tony, Tony ... Every fella's name is Tony, Angelo and Tony."
Like Shakespeare's forests, Italy's coast proves to be a place of enchantment where miracles can happen and love can blossom, in both rooted and newly planted relationships. After a number of twists and turns and, of course, mismatched intentions of love-making that must straighten themselves out, a grand finale of "Enchanted April" leaves us with the required "happily ever after" glow of Italy's sunshine.
The lyrics of this new endeavor are sometimes wordy and shallow, even for a romantic comedy, and the book's character transitions and resolutions of relationship make huge jumps abruptly out of the blue, even for a land of magic. But those kinds of things are to be expected in a premiere and can be fixed in later iterations. It is the cast and the singing voices most of them bring to the outing that score big in this production and make it worthwhile.
Among the four adventuring women, three actresses are particularly outstanding in many respects. As Lottie, Joy Sherratt has both the clear, pitch-strong soprano voice for her solo moments and the fun exuberance of personality to be a magnetic force for full attention each time she is on the stage.
Likewise, Rachel Powers as the upper-crust Lady Caroline, who first meets her rent-mates wearing a stunning flapper dress full of metallic glow and bangles, has a sparkling voice with touches of intrigue. Seeing the two housewives who will be her month-long companions, she joyfully sings, "Two ordinary women, exactly what I want." Later, she is not shy to show Lady Caroline's anger and frustration as she sings in "A Life Full of Nothing" about "a world full of grabbers, that's what I have"a world of hangers-on she now seeks to escape under her newly assumed name, Scrap.
One of the real joys is to watch the progression of the character of Mrs. Fisher, so well enacted by Ellen Brooks. Of all the changes that occur in this mystical paradise, hers is the most believable and visceral, both due to script and especially to the slowly shifting distinctions made by the actress as she moves from a cantankerous, gotta-have-it-my-way old lady to a charming, loving, almost girlish grand dame. With a complex, somewhat gravelly and altogether suitable singing voice, Ellen Brooks is just the right person to lead the cast in its finale praise of "Enchanted April."
The one disappointment among the four women is Amy Franklin Leonards' Rose, mostly because of a singing voice that is time and again featured in solos, duets, and ensembles and usually ends up going slightly-to-a-lot flat or out of key. Part of the issue seems to be a tendency either to over-sing or not support in enough breath the high notes (as in her opening duet with her husband "August St. Claire," in her solo "So Long Ago," or in the four ladies' "Quartet" where her voice hampers a good blend). Whether this is a case of miscasting or just a bad outing the matinee I happened to see, it is an unfortunate blemish among an otherwise strong set of voices.
The men of the show match the first three women with good performances in song and with acting that underlines their often pompously silly dispositions. David Bryant as Rose's Frederick, Christopher Vettel as Lottie's Mellresh, and David Judson as the chateau's owner and would-be wooer of more than one of the renters all have their moments successfully to prove their mettle. Christopher Vettel is particularly funny in act two's shower scene as he strips and sings away in "One Wealthy Lady" (with astonished, singing servants listening on the other side of the curtain). His dimpled smiles send just the right messages as he later sings "Really Very Nice" to Lottie.
There is an upstairs/downstairs aspect to the musical, and it is when the servants come to the forefront that the show often has the most energy and electricityas well as the best singing. Ryan Henry (Domenico), Maria Mikheyenko (Francesca), Josselyn O'Neill (Angela), and Andrew Mondello (Beppo) often bring an Italian opera feeling to the music they so well blend in delivering, "Pericoloso!" and "There's Something in San Salvatore," being two prime examples.
An opening stage of black curtains and a dingy London apartment turns into a magnificent, two-story chateau on the coast of the sea, with flowers by the dozens draping every corner, all due to the excellent set design by Patrick Brandon. Servants, stylish debutante, wealthy old lady, banker, flamboyant author, and young would-be lover are all decked in the colors and styles of the 1920s thanks to the art of Margaret daSilva. Michael Oesch's lighting zeroes in on small, bedroom scenes and expands to give the full feeling of the Mediterranean's warm sun. Pat Parr directs the small but fully adequate orchestra in their perch above the stage. Lois Grandi directs the comings and goings and particularly shines in staging some of the funnier moments, like a lovemaking, in-bed duet of Lottie and Mellresh ("Really Very Nice").
Enchanted April has New York intentions but may need a few more tryouts on the road before hitting the Big Apple. In the meantime, its first staging at Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre makes for a charming afternoon or evening with a few good laughs and some fully satisfying, musical moments guaranteed.
Pacific Coast Repertory Theatre's Enchanted April continues its world premiere through May 8, 2016 at the Firehouse Arts Center, 4444 Railroad Avenue, Pleasanton, CA. Tickets are available at pcrtproductions.org.