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Melodrama Still Lives in `Coram Boy'

Melodrama Still Lives in `Coram Boy'

Melodrama may have gone out of fashion years ago, but director Melly Still brings it stirringly to life in "Coram Boy," an epic-sized tale that has received an epic-sized production at Broadway's Imperial Theatre.
Based on Still's acclaimed version done for two holiday seasons at London's National Theatre, this New York incarnation brims with an emotion-filled plot. Among its twists and turns: lost children, separated lovers, unrepentant villains, heinous crimes and the healing power of music, most prominently George Frederic Handel's "Messiah."
It's the theatrical equivalent of "a good read." Adapted by Helen Edmundson from the novel for young adults (meaning 12 and up) by Jamila Gavin, this sprawling, two-generational story is almost Dickensian in nature. There is a similarity to the Royal Shakespeare Company's legendary production of "The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby."
Yet "Coram Boy" is a journey all its own. Set in 18th century England, it grimly details the deeds of the evil Otis Gardiner, who deals in newborn, illegitimate children. For a fee, he takes them from their distraught, single mothers and promises to deliver them to the benevolent Coram Foundling Hospital. Instead, he and his mentally simple son, Meshak, bury them in the woods.
Act 1 sets up this gruesome, ghoulish venture. Still and Edmundson do not sugarcoat the more macabre aspects of their story, complete with shrieking mothers and the decaying remains of babies. This terrible tale alternates with the conflicts plaguing the aristocratic Ashbrook family and its eldest son, Alexander, disinherited because he wants to pursue a career in music and who also has a brief fling with the family's kindly governess before his banishment.
Of course, one child survives Gardiner's nefarious work and ends up at the hospital, where, in Act 2, he becomes a prize pupil of Handel's and is apprenticed to the outcast Alexander. You probably see where the plot is going, but then reconciliation, particularly of the family variety, is a major theme of "Coram Boy."
Heavenly choral music, by Handel and present-day composer Adrian Sutton, envelops the proceedings. Choir members are perched above the stage and look down on the turntable setting that suggests "Les Miserables" but without the barricades. There is some remarkable design work by Still and Ti Green. A drowning sequence near the end of the evening is stunning, with bodies seeming to float across the vast height of the Imperial stage.
"Coram Boy" is an ensemble piece, but several performances in the large cast stand out. Xanthe Elbrick does double duty, portraying young Alexander in the first act and then after intermission a Coram survivor of Gardiner's misdeeds. She has a sweet, pure voice _ the young male choir members are played by actresses _ that makes her portrayal of a boy whose singing voice has not yet cracked all the more credible.
Bill Camp is a fiercely unpleasant villain, yet he never descends into caricature, and Brad Fleischer brings a gentle quality to the man's doomed, damaged son, haunted by visions of a motherly angel, who sweeps into his dreams and onto the stage.
There is a dreamlike quality to Still's fluid, graceful staging. And like all potent dreams, her vision _ and that includes her overseeing of those celestial musical voices _ remains vivid long after the tumultuous events depicted in "Coram Boy" are over.


Updated : 2021-06-13 13:15 GMT+08:00