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Sondheim proves daunting for Burning Coal; Shakespeare & Originals dares to tackle Eliot

Judging by the unfortunate production of Company at Kennedy Theater, Jerome Davis and his Burning Coal Theatre colleagues have now learned how not to stage a Broadway musical.

It's information as useful for a theater group to have as it is expensive to come by, and not all companies survive the experience. Burning Coal's audiences have weathered similar one-show disasters, so it's a safe bet they'll live through this one. But since everyone doing musicals has to learn these lessons sometime, here are some I wish they'd learned before opening night.

First, musicals are harder to do. They require the skills a regular play needs and then a few more. As in conventional drama, the characters must work; then the music and dancing must work for the scenes to work as well. Each is a separate element that takes time to develop. Confidence in each cannot be rushed.

On opening night, actors still preoccupied with Sondheim's difficult score focused more on it than on their characters. When characters aren't developed, their relationships can't be; without viable relationships, you can't have a show based on them. For want of a note, the musical's lost: With Sondheim, inadequate vocal preparation fundamentally sabotages everything else.

So it's resolved--Sondheim's not for beginners. His scores are notoriously challenging. After mastering their technique, you have to figure how to act the damn things, and synch the choreography. The theatrical house of cards rests on being completely comfortable with the music in the first place--a very rare occurrence in this production. So cast carefully, with people who can sing difficult music as well as act. Without them, you don't have a show. If an actor cannot physically sing a role, it doesn't matter how well they act--their time on stage will be an excruciating experience for all. With Sondheim, schedule music first, and rehearse it until it's second nature. Build characters, scenes, and show upon it. Devote more than enough time to do so.

I still suspect director Jay O'Berski turned to T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets in part because The Waste Land had already been done in recent professional stage adaptations. Though Shakespeare & Originals' latest production takes its title and central character from Eliot's early work, the focus keeps returning to the author's famous last four poems. Prufrock seems intent first on drawing and then literally quartering the title character into separate emissaries to the quartets' separate domains. In this radical splicing of texts, Derrick Ivey, Jeffrey Detwiler, Tom Marriott and Rick Lonon take on separate aspects of Prufrock and his author. Informed by Eliot's relationships with women, particularly a tumultuous marriage with first wife Vivien, the men play out relationships with the play's four women, Cynthia de Miranda, Meredith Sause, Elizabeth Haydn-Jones and Lissa Brennan.

Following an enviably choreographed opening ensemble sequence, the quartet splinters into individual sections. A suave, tuxedoed Ivey challenges the dramatically flat de Miranda with the opening, "Let us go then, you and I" in a section devoted to attraction, devastation and the passage of time. Ivey croons the Cole Porter song "Easy to Love" in ironic counterpoint before a raucous staging of the pub scene from The Waste Land. So much for young love; hurry up please, it's time.

In the second section, Sause memorably embodies the unstable Vivien, as Detwiler hides in the pages of a miniature book, scribbling sometimes, quoting at others. While Sause's body writhes with an unrequited sensuality all but totally unmoored, Detwiler stays neurotically chained to dry words, small pencil, little page. As a choir sings "Balm in Gilead" in negative hymnody, Sause repeatedly collapses against Detwiler.

Marriott makes the most satisfying of the four Prufrocks, an aging man recalling the glories of youth. But Rick Lonon is out of his depth as the final Prufrock. Lissa Brennan plays an intense priestess in the final sections, but one senses Lonan doesn't begin to understand the mysteries she's disclosing.

Perhaps that applies, at points, to the director as well. Eliot's mysticism is elusive; more than once, like him, we had the experience, but missed the meaning. When O'Berski knows the tale he tells, Prufrock is a rewarding intertextual experiment with an uneven cast. When we doubt he does, it quickly turns into word soup. EndBlock

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