New York City Theater
What a scandal! The early closing of “Coram Boy” deprived theatergoers of an enthralling, moving, stunning evening, beautifully written, directed and acted.
Based on a novel that won Britain’s prestigious Whitbread award, this Dickensian tale of orphans in 19th-century England was, like the notable production of “Nicholas Nickleby” a while back, told with consummate theatricality. Yet some critics branded it as soap opera-ish and over-stuffed with coincidences.
So? It was like curling up with a good long book. Why not wallow in a story of sons and fathers, villains and heroes, murder and class consciousness? (In fact, the Whitbread award is specifically designed to honor works that are not only of exceptional literary merit but ones that are enjoyable to read.)
Besides, the evening was punctuated and underlined with the glorious music of Handel, including excerpts from “Messiah.” Indeed, when one character said, “There is nothing higher than music,” you not only believed him but re-evaluated your own reaction to that art form and the role of the arts in both educating and enlightening children.
That character was Alexander Ashbrook, the 14-year-old son of Lord Ashbrook, a businessman who insists his music-loving son follow him into the family trade. But Alexander just as forcefully insists on following his musical bent. Growing up, he impregnates his cousin Melissa and runs away from home, leading to his name being struck from the family Bible.
On a parallel track is another youngster, Meshak, the slow-witted but sweet-natured son of the villainous Otis Gardiner. The latter pretends to be an agent for the Coram Foundling Hospital which takes in unwanted children. Otis, with the connivance of Mrs. Lynch (who also happens to be a servant in the Ashbrook household), actually buries the infants, dead or alive, after taking money from their mothers.
And that’s just the first few scenes. What follows are acts both dastardly and compassionate, all ladled over with joyous, stirring music. Escapes, sex slavery, reunions, a realistic hanging and drowning and an angel that flies in from heaven-knows-where, guaranteed to keep theatergoers’ attention glued to the stage.
That stage was awash with sweep and grandeur, helped by a revolve that didn’t let the action flag. One scene overlapped another and a story of complexity (though not necessarily depth) flowed with breathless speed, even though the evening lasted a good two-and-a-half hours.
Although the characters are archetypes, they were portrayed by a cast fully-invested in particularizing the unfolding events. Because of the singing requirements, women played the boys’ roles, none more superbly than Xanthe Elbrick as Alexander and Charlotte Parry as his friend Thomas. When the characters matured, the actors also changed genders.
The adults were equally vivid: the indispensable Jan Maxwell as Mrs. Lynch, Bill Camp camping it up as Otis, the regal Christina Rouner as Lady Ashbrook and David Andrew MacDonald as her husband. Of special mention was the excellent Brad Fleischer who invested Meshak with a combination of nobility and subservience which dominated all that happened.
As adapted by Helen Edmundson from Jamila Gavin’s novel, with lighting by Paule Constable and set and costume design by Ti Green and Melly Still, “Coram Boy” was a big hit at London’s National Theater with a different cast. Under Still’s ingenious direction, it maintained its power. Gone too soon, its memory lingers.
David A. Rosenberg
May 6, 2007