Firstly, I must thank Gregory Hancock for his flexibility in allowing me to cover this show; additionally, my sincerest thanks go to my friend Ian Cruz in helping to facilitate this so I could enjoy his brief but sparkling performance as Julien Levy.
What Gregory Hancock has created here is a work to be savored by future generations; I honestly hope this piece doesn’t fade away with the masses of other bits of musical theatre—La Casa Azul merits being performed by theatrical troupes for years to come. Hancock describes his composition as a “musical.” I must disagree: this story told in song is an operetta at the very least and one could make a very good argument that it is a full on opera told with a Latin-American flourish. This fact actually anneals what little criticism I have against this production—and I only do so because what I saw at the Tarkington Theater was tantamount to what one could see at Clowes Hall or the Murat (or the Whatever-The-Hell-Company-Owns-It-Now) in that it was big budget, professional grade theatre, so I’m going to nit pick.
I’m afraid that the lyrics sometimes ran into the all too common territory of the banal and obvious, or, as I affectionately refer to it, the “I’m Sancho Effect.” The mariachis obviously portrayed by women in fake mustaches at the onset of the show were entirely unnecessary. Some of the costumes left anachronistic details unattended to such as contemporary fedoras with brims the width of two fingers (the kinds douchebags wear to make people think they have character) instead of period appropriate brims wide enough to do some good, cargo pants which appeared to have walked right out of Old Navy, and clip-on suspenders (this being a frequent mistake when costumers want things to look “old-timey” without realizing how modern the things actually are, in addition to being infinitely less reliable than good old fashioned button-on braces). Some elements of the work were somewhat uneven, such as the second act’s lack of the brilliant death dancers to signify tragedy after they had been so prevalent through the first act. Some of the songs/arias which were heavy with refrains or dwelt on rather trivial details could have also been trimmed to have allowed more time to develop other themes throughout the staccato-like blasts of narrative (and perhaps less singing about cooking). The musical development of Diego Rivera also seemed a bit underdone, in addition to Bernie Hirsch’s performance which always remained stagnant.
Still, when a work is so deeply rooted in well-crafted music, triviality is washed away. Which is more, the lyrical work was sometimes less banal than brilliant; and occasionally, this was combined for some really enjoyable comedic moments such as the insipidly glitzy fanfare for New York City, full of sound a fury yet signifying nothing to Kahlo. I must also point out that the dazzling Tijuana folk dresses used in the production were spectacular. The thing is, aside from all the little faults a grumpy snob like me can find, the whole of this show was beyond excellent. Through the combined efforts of Hancock, Kate Ayers (who assisted with lyrics), Nicholas Cline’s orchestrations, and vocal direction by Terry Woods, the score was lush and sweeping without being saccharine—my word, what a great sounding show it was—which is more, the tragedy of the piece was deftly counterbalance with moments of real humor. All the soloists sounded wonderful, particularly Denise A. Fort as the sorrowful widow Natalia Trotsky, in a performance which justifiably elicited fervent applause. The blocking was slick, the scene transitions effortless, and Ryan Koharchik’s lighting was nothing less than pure kick-ass level drool worthy. Of course, Mr. Hancock’s choreography was sometimes lively, sometimes mournful, but always expressive; and in the case of Rivera’s rhythmic brush strokes, totally amusing. Antithetically, Hancock’s choreography was executed with twisted beauty by Abbie Lessaris as Death, Kahlo’s only truly constant companion. Through Hancock and Lassaris, Death eventually became a loving, embracing figure though her presence was almost constant and ominous—and her dealings with natal tragedies were interpreted with remarkable creativity and sensitivity. Strangely, it sounded like Death was always referred to with masculine pronouns; yet it seems so very appropriate embodying it as a female, particularly by the her penultimate scene in which she is not to be feared, but almost a maternal healer. Ultimately, Jessica Crum Hawkins deserves heaps of praise for her performance as the famous inhabitant of the Blue House, Frida Kahlo. Hawkins never once faltered in spite of being the pack horse on which the majority of this beast of a show was placed; her voice was golden and soaring while her interpretation dead on and moving throughout almost three hours of run time (take that, Wagner). Even the expository character of young Kahlo was expertly performed by Sasha Kuznetsov, who returned by the ending to form a lovely, gut-wrenching bookend. It was beautiful. If the world were fair, the Tarkington would allow an extended run for this gem.
Finally, let me take a moment to remind the twenty-first century that live theatre is not an inanimate screen but a living thing made up of individuals who have worked very hard to enable an auditorium full of people to suspend their disbelief so as to divert themselves away from the disappointments of reality and enjoy the almost paranormal experience of performance art—remember that. I was encompassed in the existence of the moment at the finale, reveling in the haunting strains of La Casa Azul’s recurring theme which so aptly transformed Frida Kahlo’s life of color and pain into a heartfelt melody when the boor in the front row started flashing away again with her camera phone. That is appropriate behavior for your child’s Thanksgiving pageant, not an evening of theatre. To quote the philosopher Bobcat Goldthwait, use your “mind cameras”, otherwise what’s the point of watching live theatre? Not to mention the fact that you’re pissing off the very large critic behind you.