Plain Sarah: DTC work in progress

Sarah, Plain and Tall makes a powerful visual impression. It’s a family friendly musical based on Patricia MacLachlan 1986 Newberry Award-winning novella. Dallas Theater Center Artistic Director Kevin Moriarty chose to mount it as the company’s final production at the Kalita Humphreys venue, before the huge move to the new Dallas Performing Arts Center. The eye-catching set consists of a giant collage of weathered wooden siding that flies in and out, up and down, with dreamlike ease. Some of it defines exterior barn doors and windows; some opens to reveal country interior kitchen and pantry elements. Behind it floats ocean fog, or sky over prairie grasses, rolling on forever. The set immediately conveys a sense of the utilitarian power and dignity found in massive 19th century barns and helps to define the character of a play where the outdoors, a Maine seashore and a Kansas prairie, matters as much as any human character in the script. Elegant, simple and impressive, it’s softly lit to reflect the natural lighting of overwhelming seaside or prairie expanses. Kudos to scenic designer Anna Louizos and lighting designer Chris Lee.

Herndon Lackey, Becca Ayers, Max Ary, Kate Wetherhead

Herndon Lackey, Becca Ayers, Max Ary, Kate Wetherhead

This show has evolved over the years from the book to a memorable 1991 television movie featuring Glenn Close and Christopher Walken to a 2002 children’s musical produced by New York City’s nationally recognized TheatreWorks USA, with book, lyrics and music by the same creative team who developed the current version (Julia Jordan, Nell Benjamin and Laurence O’Keefe). DTC bills the current expanded two-act incarnation as a world premiere. It features a prominent national cast, with one local youth actor, and is directed by the prolific, award-winning New York based Joe Calarco. It feels like a way, way Off Broadway trial run that’s more of a work in progress than a finished production.

Music: For many years musicals featured meager, fluffy plots as thinly disguised excuses to parade a string of show-stopping chorus numbers and virtuoso solos. Singers, with operatic vocal power and training, were usually un-miked. Social issues, when presented, played second fiddle to catchy tunes and sustained vocal lines. The pendulum has now swung. With certain notable exceptions, today’s typical “musical” emphasizes current social and/or political issues. It exhibits sterling special lighting and sound effects that require high-grade professional talents and equipment to execute, mikes its lead singers cleverly so they don’t need to “strain” or practice precise diction. The music folds into the show as downplayed afterthought, an accessory, almost an embarrassment. Why can’t there be balance? Not one memorable song emerges from this show.

Consider the vibrant array of 19th century Americana music and folk tunes, from sea chanties to mournful cowboy laments to rousing tent revival gospel tunes to lyrical love songs with Celtic influence. None of the music in Sarah, Plain and Tall reflects or draws recognizable inspiration from any worthy Americana tradition. Seems that would be a no-brainer for a quintessentially Americana musical. Given the roles they’ve played prior, DTC’s cast members are quite capable of outstanding performance. Not one has a genuine opportunity to showcase a trained, high caliber voice or advance the show’s plot, energy or emotional tension through musical exploration. Herndon Lackey portrays the male lead, widower Jacob seeking a bride. His voice hints at power and intensity, rich masculinity capable of expressing a full range of human emotion. He has portrayed Inspector Javert in Les Miserables. Aha. Watching him in Sarah, Plain and Tall, I wished I were seeing him in the former show. The only attention-getting number comes mid Act I – the comic duet “Let’s Never Do That”, interpreted enthusiastically by secondary leads Matthew and Maggie (Colin Hanlon and Cristen Paige). Interesting as it may be, it feels “tacked on”, exhibiting a different style, tempo and energy from anything else in the score. Curiously, the Song List in my press packet doesn’t list the duet, while the show program does….

Character and Plot: There is plenty of opportunity to reveal the thoughts and emotions of the play’s characters at adult levels. This version keeps everything fast-paced and superficial, as if it is still envisioned as playing to an under age 17 crowd with limited attention span. How does widower Jacob feel about the loss of his wife? There’s a marvelous solo opportunity. He grouches, growls and mopes. We get no sense of a loving relationship or a man longing for reconnection. He forbids his almost adult daughter to sing a lullaby his deceased wife would croon to her two children. Conflict! The lullaby could haunt the show, revealed a cappella in short phrases at first, woven in with increasing accompaniment later as Jacob grows beyond his loss and his daughter establishes her independence. Resolution? Lead character Sarah’s Act I expository solo “The Captain’s Daughter” hints at the reasons why Sarah is “peculiar”, a “loner”, but falls short of lasting dramatic impact. How interesting it could be if the song re-emerged in Act II, with additional verses allowing Sarah to show emotional depth. Instead, Sarah goes through a quick “Eliza Doolittle” type of superficial transformation, and Jacob and his reluctant daughter are completely won over by her change of clothing and a swimming lesson at the farm pond. It’s not convincing or inspiring. I can’t imagine too many regional theatre companies leaping at the chance to produce this show, as it exists, in an economy where people spend discretionary funds carefully. My guess is Sarah Plain and Tall will go through extensive revamping when it moves on. I’m sorry the Dallas production did not live up to its stunning set’s promise.

The Dallas Theater Center presents Sarah Plain and Tall through May 24 at the Kalita Humphreys Theater 3636 Turtle Creek Boulevard. Tickets: 214-522-8499

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