Review: In ‘Intimate Dresses,’ Let the Tailor Sing

We start with a good time, backup musical theater to tell Black stories of the early 20th century.

But the sound is muffled, distorted. The party takes place elsewhere in the inn where our heroine, Esther, a shy, 35-year-old woman, sits in her room sewing corsets and camisoles for social sites and people walking on the street. She’s too serious and too ambitious to come down to the living room and go for a walk with the revelers.

The same goes for “informal attire”. When the musical for Lynn Nottage’s play of the same name, Ricky Ian Gordon, working on a piece of Nottage’s own text, wanted Esther to be more than a quick dance and a smooth tune. A woman so eager to improve in an era it’s nearly impossible to deserve serious and ambitious treatment of existing music – and get it in a Chinese Theater knockout Lincoln Center, directed by Bartlett Sher, opens at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater on Monday.

The fact that the play is off to a good start is no guarantee of a viable libretto. But look back on it Roundabout Theater Company launched in 2004starring Viola Davis as Esther, you can see that “Intimate Apparel” already has the essentials for a powerful opera: spine, scope, and poetry.

The spine is still neatly articulated. The first scene quickly establishes that Esther (Kearstin Piper Brown) has the discipline and drive to forge her craft career; With the money she saves, she tucks into the lining of her frenzied comforter, which she plans to one day open a beauty salon. The scene also created her pride, as she turned down men the last chance to attend parties offered by her landlady, Mrs. Dickson.

“Pride will make you lonely,” warns Mrs. Dickson (Adrienne Danrich).

Next, we meet two of her clients, whose lives present themselves in contrasting ways from which constraints Esther hopes to break free. Mrs. Van Buren (Naomi Louisa O’Connell) has every luxuries a privileged white woman could want, including the crepe de chine pink silk corset that Esther brought her to wear. to fit. But Mrs. Van Buren, trained to be the wife of a rich man, had no choice when her husband lost interest.

Despite being poor and black, Mayme (Krysty Swann) is also very merciful to men for her luxuries – which interestingly includes a corset like Mrs. Van Buren’s. (“What she has, you want, / What you have, she wants,” commented Esther.) Instead of an absent husband, Mayme has friends who are often mean or violent, but she is close. closer to Mrs. Van Buren than one might like To think.

Esther’s friendships with women were not only professional but still limited by class and race. (She never entered Mrs. Van Buren’s house through the front door, and probably never entered the brothel.) Her third professional friendship was even more fragile. Brother Marks (Arnold Livingston Geis) sells fabric on Orchard Street, saving her the best coats. Though he was the only man to ever recognize and encourage her gift, he was truly untouchable: an Orthodox Jew.

But he wasn’t the only man flirting with her. Esther was surprised – and then, almost against her will, pleased – to receive a letter from a Barbadian laborer working on the Panama Canal. It seems like George Armstrong (Justin Austin) is looking for a pen pal to counter, given his rhetoric, the dirt and harshness of his work. Since Esther could neither read nor write, she depended on Mrs. Dickson to tell her what George was saying; and then Mrs. Van Buren and Mayme to generate appropriately Cyrano-like responses.

I won’t say more about the plot except that at the end of Act I, Armstrong arrives in New York to marry Esther, who wears a delicate dress made of fabric she bought from Mr. Marks. If she wasn’t what one might expect from their correspondence, she gradually realized, it was him. In Act II, we learn why.

Many plays are so tightly coupled that it is completely impossible to unravel as they drag towards their crisis. Not “Intimate Outfits”; With its eye on the big picture, it maintains both its integrity and its tension to the very end. Never minding the details – or obviously studying the period – Nottage forces audiences to be mindful of the larger pressures that push all of her characters into a situation where they have to eventually get out of the way. more explosive.

I focus on the story because it is often the case with opera, as with books with musicals. Nottage had perhaps cut its play in half to make room for Gordon’s music, and in doing so made a smart choice if the pain was to keep only what was most relevant to the plot but haunted. only most. What we call poetry in opera is not so much a verse (though Nottage’s libretto is lightly rhymed when necessary) but the rich texture of things that perform a dual function.

The same goes for Gordon’s high-but-complicated score, which soars into the timeless atmosphere of opera text (although he calls his hybrid works “operas”) while always revolving around us in the specifics of the period and character. In issues like “No One Does It for Us,” the repetitive choruses bring more than just lovely family tunes; they highlight the similarities between Esther and Mayme, who sings it. And it’s no wonder that George’s arias from Panama are often accompanied by a ghostly chorus of other men, as if to question their uncanny closeness.

None of these clever choices will matter if the performers can’t earn their grass, but Sher has assembled and tuned an unusually stellar ensemble of opera singers who truly have acting ability. Brown was especially heartbroken as Esther – and amazingly tireless in a big role. (Chabrelle Williams takes over Wednesday and Sunday.) Her scenes with Geis as Mr. Marks are so gentle and full of meaning that you don’t want them to end. But all six lead roles are fantastic, and the group of eight other singers perform dozens of roles, each of which is quickly and perfectly etched in.

Sher’s scene in the 299-seat Newhouse, on a simple Michael Yeargan turntable, is a feat of constant motion that never feels hectic, and Catherine Zuber’s costumes are exquisite right away. even simple. As always, it’s so much fun to hear an opera in an intimate space with the sound so clear and natural – the sound of Marc Salzberg – that subtitles are rarely needed on the walls of a set. And although the voices take precedence in Gordon’s orchestra for the two pianos, the presence of the instruments, on the pedestals above the stage, is no accident. As played Friday night by Nathaniel LaNasa and Brent Funderburk, they seem to have impressive roles of their own that don’t just represent women’s need for emotional independence, especially Black women. , but the whole world in 1905 forbade it.

In that sense “Intimate Costume” – even more like an opera than a play – is an act of rescue. When Esther told Mrs. Van Buren, when they wrote their first letter to George, “My life isn’t really worth the words,” she meant that she wasn’t special enough to be forever on the planet. paper. That’s not right; As Nottage and now Gordon has shown, she deserves even more. She deserves the music that finally deserves her.

Intimate attire
Through March 6 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes. Review: In ‘Intimate Dresses,’ Let the Tailor Sing

Fry Electronics Team

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