Melodrama may have gone out o 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.
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 ali 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.
Recalling vast, dark and densely populated Charles Dickens stories, “Coram Boy" depicts an unsavory fact of mid-1700s English life: Having an illegitimate baby was widely deemed unforgivable, so desperate women sought drastic remedies.
That distressing notion figures prominently in Helen Edmundson's stage adaptation of Jamila Gavin's novel, which weaves together infanticide, slave trading, broken families and - all a brighter, redemptive note - the music of Handel.
The music, which threads the nearly three-hour play, is an integral part of "Coram Boy."
Act I creeps - adagio. Act II gallops - allegro - in an almost unbridled race to the happy end. Both tempos prove frustrating in this intense but over-the-top production, which opened last night at the Imperial, following London runs at the National.
The story, which begins in 1742, follows a scoundrel hired by unwed mothers who pay him to deliver their newborns to the Coram Foundling Hospital. He covertly kills the babies, instead. The baddie's cohort works for an aristocratic family, whose teenage son rebels against his oppressive father to pursue music. After intermission, we leap to 1750 and the characters converge in a highly melodramatic way, as focus shifts to a doomed baby who slipped through the cracks and survived.
British director Melly Still is a unique talent, with an amazing imagination and uncanny ability to turn moments into grand, near-operatic spectacles. "Coram Boy" is filled with images that are both gorgeous and terrifying at the same time.
I saw "Coram Boyn last year in London and was quite taken. It is still beautiful, but has lost some power and magic. It may be that the American cast, while good, doesn't measure up to their English counterparts.
Restaging has also proved problematic. An onstage choir is a much stronger presence on Broadway. The singers, used to add emphasis to dramatic scenes, sometimes are overwhelming distractions. Boy, oh “Boy," that's a big mistake.
A sentimental and child like streak runs through English culture - it can produce an audience that could cry copiously at the death of Charles Dickens' Little Nell and succumb to J.M. Barrie's Tinkerbell plea to believe in fairies.
It must have been this streak that accounted for the London success of "Coram Boy," a play with music for young adults that opened last night at the Imperial Theatre.
There is a lot of stuff in "Coram Boy" - scenery, a church organ, Handel and Handelish music, 40 actors, 20 choristers, 7 musicians, 20 producers.
But as for a play ... that requires a search, for rarely has so much stuff - some of it grisly, even ghostly, and all of it dour - produced so little. "Coram Boy," set in 18th-century England, tells the tale of two orphans at the Coram Hospital for Deserted Children: Toby, saved from an African slave ship, and Aaron, the abandoned son of the heir to a great estate.
Alexander Ashbrook (Xanthe Elbrick - the actress returns in the second act as her own son), the heir of the enormously wealthy Lord Ashbrook (David Andrew Macdonald), apparently goes to the Coram Hospital because of its splendid music program.
But when Alexander's pubescent voice breaks (he's now acted by Wayne Wilcox), his rich father insists that he cease his musical studies and devote his time to running the family estate.
Alexander, broken in voice and spirit, cries out: "I swear I will go mad. I don't know what I am without music." There's much, much more to the first act than that - and also the second act, which brings in sex slavery, for that matter - but it gives the feel of both.
Absurdity chases absurdity in a not particularly well-acted melodrama. By no means an acceptable evening in the theater - but it ends happily ever after and you'll probably go out singing the "Hallelujah Chorus." Handel (Quentin Mare), by the way, is a character in the second act.
What the heck is a "Coram Boy"?
This question may not be whipping around the Internet at warp speed, but it is probably tickling the minds of theater lovers who have noted the curious title of the latest and perhaps least-heralded London-born show to hit the express lane to Broadway this season.
Put plainly a Coram boy is an orphan, and there are orphans aplenty in this rollicking melodrama that opened last night at the Imperial Theater, afloat on a surging tide of Handel music and swirling stagecraft.
Directed with a minimum of physical means and a fine measure of brisk invention by Melly Still, this huge production may stint on traditional scenery, but it is stuffed to the rafters with just about everything else.
The cast numbers 40, a legion by the standards of Broadway plays these days. That includes a chorus of 20, itself larger than the singing crew on a standard musical, which "Coram Boy" is not, despite the presence of a seven-piece orchestra and a conductor in the pit. The assembled masses are deployed to enact twice as many roles (and the occasional tree), in a tale rich in sentimental unions and sinister deeds, heart-tugging partings and gobsmacking coincidences.
Over the course of a hefty two and three quarter hours, the story cuts sharply across the class divide in 18thcentury England, imperils little children by the cartload, makes room for celestial visits from a ministering angel, leaps from shore to ship as the snarling baddies take to the sea and finally comes to rest with a pacific ending that wraps everything up so neatly there's nary a leftover thread poking out of the sprawling tapestry. Or a leftover orphan for that matter.
Whew! All that and a final "Hallelujah" from the "Messiah" too. All those hardworking, Handel-hollering actors may not be the only ones left breathless by this ambitious enterprise.
If this description has left you panting with anticipation, no need to read further. Addicts of wigs-and-breeches television serials adapted from doorstop-size British novels may well delight in this production, in which the classic elements of story-theater are once again called upon to streamline a narrative that spans hundreds of pages of prose. (The model of course is the celebrated adaptation of Charles Dickens's "Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby," directed by Trevor Nunn and John Caird, and seen on Broadway in 1981 and again in 1986.)
But I have to confess that "Coram Boy," first produced at the National Theater in London in 2005, to much acclaim, inspired more dutiful appreciation than passionate excitement in this viewer. Big and broad, for sure, the play is anything but deep.
Perhaps that was to be expected. It is adapted, by Helen Edmundson, from a novel for young adults (or perhaps precocious children) by Jamila Gavin. And with its wonderfully gruesome story of babies snatched sobbing from mothers' arms and spirited away to gory ends, it should suit the naively lurid tastes of youngsters not yet seduced by the more spectacular mayhem to be had by pressing a thumb on a videogame clicker.
Adults, however, may miss the psychological depth found in more sophisticated entries in the "Masterpiece Theater"-for-the-stage genre. With a couple of minor exceptions - a cold heart finally melting is a staple of these narratives after all - the characters in "Coram Boy" can be easily and instantly categorized as good or evil. And they stick to their side of the moral fence for the duration, almost never suggesting any true human complexity.
On the side of the angels are the young boys whose contrasting fortunes are at the center of the first act. Although they are separated by the chasm of class, the high-born Alexander Ashbrook (Xanthe Elbrick) and the lowly Thomas Ledbury (Charlotte Parry) become fast friends while singing in the boys' chorus at Gloucester Cathedral. But when the 15-year-old Alexander's voice cracks during a home recital, his unfeeling father brutally puts an end to his hopes to pursue a career in music.
Thomas, who had been visiting the family, is quickly dispatched back to the cathedral, while Alexander is left to console himself in the arms of the comely Melissa (Ivy Vahanian), daughter of his sister's governess and a poor family relation. (The effect by which Wayne Wilcox replaces Ms. Elbrick in the role of Alexander is among Ms. Still's niftier bits of staging.)
Meanwhile Melissa has also captivated the scruffy, backward boy Meshak Gardiner (Brad Fleischer), who is forced by his father, Otis (Bill Camp), to join him in his evil trade, supplying abandoned children to the country's workhouses. Otis promises distraught young mothers he will bring the tykes straight to the Coram Foundling Hospital- a charitable institution named after its chief benefactor - but in truth the youngest often meet grisly instant deaths at his nefarious hands. Tortured by his role in this sad business, the tenderhearted Meshak escapes in ecstatic worship of Melissa as the embodiment of the angelic on earth, with consequences that move the story to the hospital grounds in Act II.
There unbeknownst to the Ashbrooks ... oh, never mind. Since the pleasures of "Coram Boy" primarily reside in the coiled intricacies of its narrative, it would be a shame to spoil anyone's fun through further elaboration of the plot. Let's just say there is an ample amount, delivered cleanly and expansively by Ms. Still in the first act, and at a rather more headlong clip in the second.
Ah, the English. For the past two Christmases, the National Theatre's popular family offering has been “Coram Boy," a costume drama that includes a screaming infant buried alive, the realistic hanging of a man in a hood, the unearthing of dead newborns, teenagers copulating on an organ bench, children sold into slavery, a graphic birth and a violent drowning.
For spiritual uplift, the disturbing adventure is wrapped and tied with a bow of greatest hits from Handel's "Messiah." Now a zillion Broadway producers, high off last season's astonishing success of "The History Boys," have banded together to bring this even more unlikely and ambitious import from the National. "Coram Boy," which opened last night at the Imperial Theatre, is full of honorable intentions but muddled with "Masterpiece Theatre" grandiosity. Based on an award winning, bestselling English novel by Jamila Gavin, this young-adult epic resists translation for the dark child in us all. The drama-with-music, which travels from Gloucester in 1742 to London in 1750, has 20 actors playing a variety of roles, surrounded by 20 choristers in red robes. A handsome cathedral organ looms above the tall, stark stage. In the pit is a small baroque orchestra, its players dressed in britches and wigs.
Marketed for audiences over 12, Melly Still's production seems too moody and complicated for teenagers, and too dull for the rest of us. Its overlapping stories involve the tribulations of destitute foundlings and the trials of a gifted young musician whose rich father wants him to go into the family business. Part of the problem is that these crises are not nearly equal in importance.
Taking its name from the Thomas Coram orphanage, Britain's oldest charity to benefit children, the drama attempts to be as picaresque as "Nicholas Nickleby" and as sentimental as "Annie" while, in a grasp at "Amadeus," trying to elevate melodramatics through the transcendent power of music.
Designers Still and Ti Green dress everyone in rich-boy/ poor-boy baroque. Their sets change locations with stately minimalism, while lighting designer Paule Constable keeps everything a bit too literally in the dark.
The first act flips between the estate of the wealthy Ashbrook family and the privileged boys' school where Alexander (Xanthe Elbrick), 15, is desperately trying to keep his soprano voice from cracking. Although his kindly mother (Christina Rouner) is sympathetic to his artistic ambitions, his father (David Andrew MacDonald) removes all the harpsichords from the house.
Meanwhile, an evil man (Bill Camp) is in cahoots with the housekeeper (Jan Maxwell) in a scheme to extort unmarried mothers by pretending to rescue their babies and take them to the orphanage. Also meanwhile, Alexander has befriended a talented but poor young man (Charlotte Parry) and has fallen in love with the daughter (Ivy Vahanian) of his mother's needy friend.
Skulking in the shadows is the bad man's mentally challenged son (Brad Fleischer), a Nature Boy who has a thing for angels - especially the one that floats above the stage. And that's just the first act. Handel (Quentin Mare) and the abandoned African boy (Uzo Aduba) don't even appear until the second.
The boy sopranos are played by women,which means they sing with the hooty vibratorless sound of the period style. The music of Handel, who really did conduct his "Messiah" to benefit the Coram boys, is supplemented by Handelian music by Adrian Sutton.
It is all too much, yet somehow, not enough - even if we are sent home humming the "Hallelujah" chorus.
Like last season's runaway success, "The History Boys," Brit designer-turned-director Melly Still's staging of "Coram Boy" arrives on Broadway with the stamp of quality and inflated expectations of a hit original run and return season at London's National Theater. Its pedigree is further pumped by the massive production's much vaunted dimensions, with a cast of 40, including a 20-member choir and an additional eight musicians. In these days of modest two-character, single-set dramas, that scope is undeniably impressive. Pity there's not a more persuasive play attached. Instead, this adaptation by Helen Edmundson of Jamila Gavin's novel is self-important staged literature.
Any story that covers elements of infanticide, abandoned children, sexual abuse and juvenile slave trading is bound to have affecting passages. And any production that flings this many theatrical flourishes on the stage (most of them derivative), not to mention stirringly sung excerpts from Handel's "Messiah," inevitably will conjure some soaring moments. But the curious effect of "Coram Boy" is that despite an inordinate amount of weeping and wailing, this stodgy 18th century Dickensian soap offers little emotional connection.
Winner of the Whitbread Children's Book Award, Gavin's 2000 novel is a ripping multi-strand yarn that covers the decade of 1741-1750 and is packed with narrative incident, social injustice and uplifting salvation. Its colorful characters span the class spectrum, ranging from heartless villain to simpleminded saint.
The book was acquired in February as a film property for Miramax and has the raw ingredients to yield rich screen drama. Even more so, it suggests the kind of fine-grained period piece best explored in upscale TV miniseries like last year's "Bleak House."
Onstage, this over-produced epic seems burdened by the shadow of the RSC's legendary "The Life and (Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby," which it desperately wants to be, adding spiritual heft to its gritty plot with an ethereal dash of "Angels in America."
Cutting between scenes like a fidgety fihn editor with an assist from a central turntable, the director (also codesigner with Ti Green) and writer cover a lot of episodic ground.
Sinister Otis (Bill Camp) and his compassionate halfwit son Meshak (Brad Fleischer) pull a wagon around Gloucestershire, running a lucrative business delivering unwanted children to the Coram Foundling Hospital in London. Middleman is Mrs. Lynch (Jan Maxwell), the morally untroubled housekeeper on the Ashbrook estate, who steers illegitimate children to Otis. While promising the infants' care and education, Otis murders the babies and continues to extort payment from their mothers for his silence and the children's welfare. Running parallel is the story of two gifted 14-year-old music students in the Gloucester Cathedral choir, aristocratic Alexander Ashbrook (Xanthe Elbrick) and his lower-class pal Thomas (Charlotte Parry) -- both are played by girls able to grapple with the boys' unbroken sopranos. Set on having an heir to his estate, Alexander's stern father (David Andrew Macdonald) crushes his son's ambition to continue studying music after his voice breaks, causing him to run off, unaware he has gotten the family governess' daughter, Melissa (Ivy Vahanian), pregnant.
Other-worldly elements are introduced via ghost babies or banshee-like bereaved mothers haunting the woods where the children are buried. There's also motherless Meshak's fixation with the statue of an angel in the cathedral, manifested in a commanding vision that descends from the flies. Meshak becomes convinced Melissa is that statue made flesh, prompting his fierce attachment to her baby, whom Otis instructs him to bury. Act one climaxes in an operatic sequence as the living and dead converge to uncover the mass graves and Otis is sent to the gallows.
Act two advances eight years to find two young Coram orphans being sent out into the world. Golden-voiced Aaron (Elbrick again) catches the ear of Handel (Quentin Mare), who organizes his apprenticeship to a musician that turns out to be the adult Alexander (Wayne Wilcox).
Aaron's friend Toby (Uzo Aduba), who was rescued from a slave ship, is not so lucky and is put into service for a cruel master whose true identity provides a surprise.
After rattling along without an identifiable emotional center for much of the action, the play acquires more immediacy with Alex's return, his reunion with multiple characters bringing a series of manipulative but often moving moments. Also in the breathless climactic stretch, Aaron and Toby kick into boy's-own-adventure mode, uncovering slave trafficking and other dastardly deeds.
A visual director stronger on spectacle than on characterization or plotting, Still approaches the vast-canvas drama like a musical, with her mostly unexceptional cast straining to give life to archetypal characters that might be more at home in song.
Musical passages such as "O death where is thy sting" and "For unto us a child is born," in addition to Adrian Sutton's passionate original compositions certainty have an impact even if their employment is less than subtle. More than Handel, however, the staging seems to call for blustery Boublil and Schonberg ballads. And when the choir cuts in during the high-drama junctions with archly portentous vocal outbursts, one half expects them to start chanting "Damien" in homage to "The Omen."
Atmospherically bathed in Paule Constable's celestial lighting (recreated for Broadway by Ed McCarthy), the set is a network of lofty beams dominated by a central pipe organ elevated on an upper platform that houses the choir for most of the action. But imposing as the stage pictures often are, Still's mix of broad-strokes, elementary "Masterpiece Theatre" storytelling with stylized tricks feels lumpy and disharmonious. Commendable as it is for its ambition, "Coram Boy" is overwrought melodrama steeped in sentimentality.