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Theatre Reviews Shaw Festival 2019: Brigadoon revival fails to deliver a convincing love story

Matt Nethersole as Charlie Dalrymple with the cast of Brigadoon.

David Cooper/Shaw Festival

  • Title: Brigadoon
  • Book and lyrics by: Alan Jay Lerner
  • Music by: Frederick Loewe
  • Revised book by: Brian Hill
  • Director: Glynis Leyshon
  • Actors: Alexis Gordon, George Krissa
  • Company: The Shaw Festival
  • Venue: Festival Theatre
  • City: Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
  • Year: Runs to Oct. 13, 2019

rating

Brigadoon has long had a reputation as one of the mouldier mid-century American musical comedies. Director Glynis Leyshon’s new production of the 1947 Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe fantasy at the Shaw Festival won’t help it escape that rap.

Lost in the Scotland Highlands, American tourists Tommy Albright (George Krissa), who is engaged, and Jeff (Mike Nadajewski), his wisecracking alcoholic pal, stumble upon a long-vanished 18th-century village called Brigadoon that reappears for one day every 100 years.

The auld lang syne lads and lassies they stumble upon are preparing for a wedding – and Tommy falls, at first sight, for the bride’s sister, Fiona MacLaren (Alexis Gordon). She falls for him, too, but in that reluctant way women so often do in musicals of the period.

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(“Hey, you don’t like me very much, do you?” Tommy says. “I like ye very much,” Fiona replies. “I jus’ dinna like anythin’ ye say.”)

Ultimately, it’s up to Tommy to decide by the end of the day whether or not to stay with Fiona in Brigadoon forever – because, if any Brigadooner tries to leave Brigadoon, it and all its people will cease to exist.

This revival’s major flaw is its inability to sell the underwritten love story the musical so heavily relies on. There is a lack of chemistry between the romantic leads: While Gordon does her best to set hearts a-fluttering as Fiona, Krissa’s charmless Tommy only really comes to life when melancholy and brooding.

Much of the problem, I believe, is the fault of the revised book by Brian Hill, originally written for a 2014 production at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago.

From left: David Ball, Travis Seetoo as Harry Beaton, Stewart Adam McKensy and the cast of Brigadoon.

Emily Cooper/Shaw Festival

Mr. Hill, a Canadian best known for his work with composer Neil Bartram, tries to deepen Brigadoon by bringing to the surface some of the postwar trauma of the era it premiered in. He turns the Americans into veterans of the Second World War – and Tommy explicitly tells us that what he has seen and done has left him unsure of what he believes in, including his love for his fiancée.

In this version, Brigadoon has likewise been traumatized by war, the violence of the Jacobite rising, leading the village’s minister to pray for a one-day-a-century existence to keep his community “safe from the world.”

In Mr. Lerner’s original script, by contrast, Brigadoon was put under this strange spell in order to protect it from “witches,” described as “horrible, destructive women” who were “takin’ the Scottish folk away from the teachin’s of God.” (“We still have them,” Jeff joked, then. “We pronounce it differently.”)

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I have mixed feelings about rewriting Brigadoon to erase this fear of feminism by the characters, however.

The 1947 original is an intriguing artifact that channels anxieties about newly empowered women who had entered the workforce during the war. At the same time, it seems semi-aware that America’s women would not be put back in their place in the present: Its “happy” ending requires its protagonist, so terrified of a fiancée with ideas of her own, to flee for an impossible world where 18th-century gender roles are intact but where he, also, only has to be married one day a century. (Mr. Lerner was in the second of what would eventually be eight marriages at the time he wrote this fantasy.)

The ending doesn’t really read as romantic now, but ironic. Mr. Hill’s rewrite doesn’t embrace that but instead, for some reason, doubles down on Tommy’s unlikeability. He’s now on his bachelor trip when he meets his ideal 18th-century woman and – I suppose I should add a spoiler alert here – only breaks up with his fiancée at his rehearsal dinner.

Matt Nethersole as Charlie Dalrymple and Madelyn Kriese as Jean MacLaren.

David Cooper/Shaw Festival

How are we to do anything but roll our eyes at the idea that he’s really in love come curtain?

In Brigadoon’s comic subplot, Mr. Nadajewski is the show’s main redeeming element, reliably getting smiles with his dry delivery of Jeff’s one-liners. But as the milkmaid Meg, Kristi Frank’s comic timing is off. Again, the material may be to blame: The only joke about Meg is that she has had many sexual partners. (She’s dressed, regressively, in red by designer Sue LePage, whose costumes overall lack subtlety.)

Ultimately, it’s the score by Mr. Lerner and Mr. Loewe, the team behind My Fair Lady and Camelot, that makes artists want to salvage this show – but pseudo-Scottish kitsch infuses everything including the music. The least the Shaw Festival could have done to atone would have been to give a bagpiper a job in the orchestra; instead, they pipe in a recording.

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Brigadoon only really features one great tune – Almost Like Being in Love, undercut here by busy choreography by Linda Garneau that often feels imposed upon the story. A blindfolded pas de deux between the two betrothed in Brigadoon (the very likeable Matt Nethersole and Madelyn Kriese) was beautifully done, but the long chase sequence that begins the second act came off as goofy. The creative team does not make the case that Brigadoon shouldn’t vanish permanently, the way it has from Broadway since 1981.

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