It’s calm waters this summer in New York City as the theater scene rejuvenates for openings this fall. But head west to the Tony Award-winning Goodman Theatre in Chicago you’ll be witness to an emotionally charged production of Lerner & Loewe’s Brigadoon.
The original production opened on Broadway in 1947, choreographed by the iconic Agnes de Mille, and was made into a movie musical starring Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse in 1954. Admittedly, it’s never been a favorite of mine. The clunky story of two Americans wandering off into the Scottish Highlands to discover a town that only appears once every 100 years seemed saccharine and far-fetched. Enter director/choreographer Rachel Rockwell, who was granted permission from the Lerner and Loewe estates to reexamine the work to make it more palatable for 21st century audiences.
Rockwell has made her mark in the Chicago theater scene with critically acclaimed productions of Ragtime, Sweeney Todd, In the Heights, Miss Saigon and countless others. Collaborating with Brian Hill (revised book) and Roberta Duchak (additional vocal and instrumental arrangements), the trio has crafted a palpable production that honors the glorious musical tradition while tapping into the darker history that serves as the show’s inspiration.
The show follows Tommy (Kevin Earley) and Jeff (Rod Thomas) as they lose their way on a bachelor expedition through the Scottish Highland. They discover the bucolic town of Brigadoon, which has spell cast over it, allowing the village to only appear once every 100 years as a means of protecting it from brutal civil war. “Entire clans were evicted from their ancestral lands, and such traditions as the wearing of tartans were made illegal,” notes the Goodman’s artistic director Robert Falls. “Against this political backdrop, the choice of the villagers of Brigadoon to preserve their way of life by seceding form their embattled land becomes not so much a whimsical dream but a passionate act of courage.”
Tommy falls for Fiona (Jennie Sophia), a villager who is helping to prepare her younger sister Jean (Olivia Renteria) for marriage. Meanwhile, brooding Harry (Rhett Guter) continues to pine for Jean though her love is bestowed on her future husband Charlie (Jordan Brown). You always want what you can’t have, and Brigadoon is no different. Harry has his own crush, Maggie (Katie Spelman), but is too entranced in Jean to notice. If that seems like a lot of Cupid’s arrows to keep track of, fear not, Rockwell is a great storyteller and all is revealed in due time.
Hill’s revised book keeps the plot moving at a quick pace and removes many of the clunkers from the original script, but it is the characters’ storytelling through movement—both pedestrian and choreographed—that revitalizes Brigadoon for a new generation. Two sequences in particular capture the breathtaking journeys of young love and heartbreak. The first is Jean’s dance solo as she prepares for her wedding day. Bestowed with her deceased mother’s veil, the young lass transforms before the audience’s eyes from girl to bride, embodying the whimsical emotion, sensuality and joy of a young woman about to be married.
In stark contrast yet with parallel themes, the second act showcases Maggie in a funeral dance. She grieves Harry, who has been killed in an attempt to escape Brigadoon and break the centuries-old spell. In lieu of a veil, she dances with Harry’s tartan sash in a guttural yet exquisite expression of pain, loss and love. Rockwell’s vocabulary of movement, which draws from musical theater, Scottish Country dancing, Highland dances and classical ballet, is a character unto itself.
As one might expect, the plot cleans up tidily in Act II with a somewhat anticlimactic ending as Tommy returns from New York City to Brigadoon to reunite with his ethereal love. But who could blame him? In a world imagined by Rockwell and her collaborators, it’s a glorious place to be.
170 North Dearborn
Through August 17
Matthew Wexler is the Broadway Blog’s editor. He has written for Passport, Hamptons Magazine, Sherman’s Travel, Gothamist, Travel Weekly, Private Islands, among others, and is the national style and travel editor for EDGE Media Network. Follow him on Twitter at @roodeloo.