The charismatic Artistic Director of the Town Hall Theater and Opera Company of Middlebury revealed himself as a world-class musical theater composer and lyricist with the world premiere of a ‘workshop production’ of his ‘Welcome to Paradise’ at the Middlebury Theater on Friday.
Douglas Anderson’s beautiful “I Still Want the Moon,” the series’ anthem, in which the protagonist sings of her hope and unwillingness to give up — or settle down — sums up the show. It is tearing at hearts with bittersweet delight and could easily stand on its own.
With a book by the late Patti McKenney and music and lyrics by Anderson, this sophisticated and intelligent yet emotionally rewarding full-length musical was delightfully directed by some of Vermont’s finest singers, actors and instrumentalists, directed by Anderson and supervised by the Music Director Ronnie Romano. The sold-out crowd couldn’t seem to get enough.
Loosely based on a true story, “Welcome to Paradise” is set in 1990’s New York City and follows Ellie as she searches for her missing husband Andrew and what he does for the good living he provides. Her feisty mother, with her quirky sense of humor and zest for life, keeps perspective as a sort of Greek chorus. Ellie’s 27-year-old daughter, Charlottes, shares her insights and struggles with all who will listen. Ellie’s Hispanic help, Maritza – much more than a maid – brings love and a conscience to the family.
When Kirchner, the US Treasury Department, interviews Ellie and is about to search Andrew’s papers, she begins to realize something is wrong. Andrew has been working in a third world African country where it is suspected he works for the mafia or the CIA – and has a mistress.
As detail after detail is revealed, Ellie is forced to search her marriage and inside for answers. Her conclusions – which she shared with her family – are not simple and trite, but deeply hopeful.
Doesn’t that sound like good musical theater fodder? In Anderson’s skillful hands, it worked brilliantly. The serious nature never spoils the score. Rather, Anderson’s mix of funny lyrics and music keeps the emotions moving throughout. I jokingly called this mixture “Sondheim on antidepressants”.
The high quality of the lyrics is no surprise given Anderson’s vast experience, including a stint as executive writer on the CBS soap opera The Guiding Light. It was the imaginative, sophisticated and deeply affecting music that surprised me a little. With an overall flair by Stephen Sondheim, it was actually a homage to the great musical theater styles of the 20th century. But it wasn’t just one style after another; rather, they morphed and blended seamlessly from one to the other.
And then there was the performance. The excellent soprano Suzanne Kantorski, who was last heard in the theater in the title role of Puccini’s “Tosca”, could be seen as Ellie. In fact, this was her first foray into musical theater, and she effectively brought her operatic colors to the more direct style of music. It seems to me that this woman has another career ahead of her.
Kantorski’s performances of “I Still Want the Moon,” both alone and in the final repeat with everyone, were perhaps the show’s most memorable moments. My tears testified to that.
Catherine Walsh was Ellie’s incredibly funny mother and a top notch singer to boot. Jillian Torres was also a good comedian and singer as the unsuspecting daughter Charlotte. Nessa Rabin was sensitive and touching as Maritza with her warm mezzo voice. Mindy Hinsdale Bickford proved a complex character and an expressive singer as Andrew’s secretary. Sarah Stone has theatrically and vocally created an unexpected Jenny – you have to see it to find out who she is.
The production benefited from beautiful and imaginative orchestration by Jerry Shedd, who emphasized the sophistication of the show with an emphasis on the strings. They were expertly performed by a string quintet, oboe and electric guitar, mostly members of the Vermont Symphony Orchestra – all of whom seemed to be having just as much fun as those on stage (and the audience).
What was meant by “workshop production” was the rudimentary – albeit attractive – staging and lighting. In fact, the show could use some streamlining here and there, including clarification on Ellie’s final discussion.
Doug Anderson’s “Welcome to Paradise” wasn’t just a revelation, it was a joy.