By Ted Hoover
Pittsburgh Current Theater Critic
It began life as a children’s book written in 2000 by Jamila Gavin. A few years later Helen Edmundson adapted it into an enthusiastically received production in the U.K. which, unfortunately, met with less interest when it transferred, briefly, to Broadway in 2007. And now Coram Boy comes to Pittsburgh directed by Tomé Cousin for the Conservatory Theatre Company at Point Park University and only the second show to be staged in the new Pittsburgh Playhouse.
I think they had to wait for the new space to be ready because an evening of this volcanic power might have blown down the walls of the old Oakland site.
Coram Boy continues through December 2 at the Pittsburgh Playhouse. 305 Forbes Avenue, Downtown. 412/392-8200. www.pittsburghplayhouse.com
I’m gonna tell you the plot, but don’t get too hung up on it because it’s really not important.
There was (and still is) in London an orphanage called the Foundling Hospital established by Thomas Coram in 1739. The (fictional) play opens a few years later and we’re in the Gloucester district of merry olde England where a man roams the land who will – for a fee – place the children of unmarried women in the Foundling Hospital.
What he’s actually doing is pocketing the money and burying the babies alive. (This was a children’s book?)
Elsewhere Lord Ashbrook has forbidden his young son Alexander from his music studies so he will focus on helping Papa run the estate. Well, that plan doesn’t work out in a spectacular fashion with Alex disinherited and escaping to Europe … but not before he has a torrid affair with his cousin. She gets pregnant (Alex is gone before she finds out) and, alas, she has to give the newborn to the “Coram Man” and we know how that ends …
But wait!, the infant is saved and ends up at Coram’s, studying music, no less. Alex returns from Germany not knowing if his family will welcome him back nor that he has a son (called Aaron.) All too soon the situation goes from bad to worse to horrible with black and white slavery in the offing, lives imperiled and even George Frideric Handel showing up as a character.
Like I said, none of it matters. The plot is children’s theater fare with dastardly villains, thwarted young love, wacky coincidences, double-crosses, redemption and ultimately a cheesy, but highly effective, happy ending.
What does matter, very much, is this enormously powerful production showcasing direction by Cousin that – in the end – is a testament to and celebration of live theater. If anything, the simplicity of the story is an appropriately blank canvas on which Cousin and his team can ply their various trades; Britton Mauk, Karen Gilmer, Andrew David Ostrowski, Steve Shapiro (set, costumes, lights, sound) and music supervision by Douglas Levine.
This is a meta-theatrical event; entrances, exits, costume changes, set reconfigurations … it happens out in the open highlighting the elasticity of reality which only theater can provide. Cousin bombards us with non-stop stagecraft magic and we’re continually caught up in the swirl of the performance, music, movement, sound and sight he’s created.
It might be said that, at times, it’s maybe a little too much; the production never settles down and once or twice I did feel a need to, artistically speaking, cleanse the palette. But if it’s a question of too much, or a production not even attempting genius, guess which one I pick.
And how, dear reader, do I even begin to talk about this cast? 35. Think about that – 35 performers! For a non-musical! And every single one of them is doing the exact, razor-sharp work they should be doing. I’m going to talk about a few, but only with the understanding that each deserves praise.
Sophie Aknin plays both Alexander as a young boy and, in the second act, Aaron and the intensity and utter commitment of her performance is astonishing. Mei Lu Barnum brings such a huge, brimming heart to her role it’s impossible not grinning ear to ear when she’s onstage. Zetra Goodlow does a great job playing the childish humor of her character which she expertly switches on a dime to scalding terror. Daniel Murphy’s manifestation of his character’s physical torment is shattering and Mike Mekus and Blake Doyle are just about as nasty a pair of rogues as you’d never want to meet. Kyle Irish-Gorvin and Alysia Vastardis couldn’t be more endearing as the young lovers and … well, let’s just say that there’s another 25 performers providing big and small moments of electricity in an evening of extraordinary theater. Congratulations to everyone involved.