Even the most ardent musical theater lover can be put off by the idea of “opera,” where lyrics may sound unintelligible, dramatic depth is often sacrificed for musical grandiosity, and spectacle can overwhelm substance. Luckily, none of the above applies to the satisfying “new opera” version of Lynn Nottage’s “Intimate Apparel,” now at the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre at Lincoln Center.
This hybrid work preserves both the power and pathos of Nottage’s celebrated play about the struggle of an illiterate African American seamstress, Esther Mills, to survive and thrive in turn-of-the-20th-century New York, a painful reminder of how things have – and have not – changed for women in the past 100 years.
Whether the play needed to be transformed into an opera can easily be debated, both before and after viewing it. Ultimately, Ricky Ian Gordon’s two-piano score serves mostly as underscoring – don’t expect any grand arias here - and the few choral scenes that have been added don’t really add that much to the proceedings. Moreover, the use of “operatic” music passages also requires some unnecessarily repetitive dialogue and forces the removal of some of the work’s subtlety.
Fortunately, the brilliant director Bartlett Sher overcomes these shortcomings. He stages the work with marvelous fluidity on Michael Yeargan’s minimalist set. More importantly, Sher has found six central performers who sing as stunningly as they act to bring the show’s key characters to full-bodied life (aided in part by Catherine Zuber’s perfect period costumes).
First and foremost is the soprano Kearstin Piper Brown, who is simply outstanding in every way as Esther, whom we first meet as a headstrong unmarried 35-year-old whose extraordinary sewing talents allow her to cross racial and societal boundaries. Indeed, Esther has risen well beyond her circumstances – even amassing thousands of dollars in savings that she keeps sewn in her patchwork quilt.
But the still-virginal Esther longs for love, both spiritual and physical, making her all-too-susceptible to the beautifully written letters of George Armstrong (the charismatic Justin Austin), a stranger who works on the Panama Canal and woos her with words.
At first reluctant to engage with George -- and dissuaded to do so by her kindly, no-nonsense landlady Mrs. Dickson (an excellent Adrienne Danrich) -- Esther succumbs thanks to the encouragement of two of her clients: the unhappily married white society woman Evangeline Van Buren (a lovely Naomi Louisa O’Connell), who lives vicariously through the letters she writes pretending to be Esther, and the seemingly free-spirited prostitute Mayme (a vivid Krysty Swann), who harbors her own surprising notions on romance.
The one person Esther doesn’t confide in, however, is the person she trusts –and loves – most: Mr. Marks (a superb Arnold Livingston Geis), an Orthodox Jewish fabric dealer whom Esther relies on for her designs. Their mutual connection is unmistakable, but also forbidden by religious law and societal mores, making their interactions both beautiful and heartbreaking.
Ultimately, though, George arrives in America and weds Esther at the end of Act One, leaving viewers unfamiliar with the work to wonder whether “happily ever after” is in store for the couple – or some other, far unhappier fate – during its second half. But either way, we know by then that Nottage has created another yet formidable female character – someone who can conquer (or suffer) the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune and who can wear her battle scars with pride.
By Brian Scott Lipton
Visit the Site
Justin Austin, Errin Duane Brooks, Kearstin Piper Brown, Chanáe Curtis, Adrienne Danrich, Jesse Darden, Arnold Livingston Geis, Christian Mark Gibbs, Tesia Kwarteng, Anna Laurenzo, Barrington Lee, Jasmine Muhammad, Naomi Louisa O'Connell, Kimberli Render, Adam Richardson, Krysty Swann, Indra Thomas, Chabrelle Williams, Jorell Williams
Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater
150 West 65th Street
New York, NY 10023