Saturday April 27, 2013
by Olivia Savage
I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised by the New Voices Opera premiere of "Intoxication: America's Love Affair With Oil" by Chappell Kingsland. As a recent graduate from the Jacobs School of Music myself, I am well-versed in how student composition projects can often turn out: disorganized, overly-intellectual walls of sound. Luckily, Kingsland seems to have a keen understanding of what makes music theater and opera entertaining, selling out the opening night performance at the Ivy Tech John Waldron Arts Center on Friday night, April 26th.
"Intoxication" is a factual story, chronicling the evolution of the oil industry from conception to modern day. The show is divided into two acts, and each scene represents a different time period within the 20th Century. It doesn't necessarily sound like a brilliant topic for an opera, does it? Well, don't be fooled. The story is fascinating and the structure of the show is quite clever indeed. The vignettes are short enough to not bore those with shorter attention spans, and each scene gives both historical background and an emotional taste of what Americans felt and experienced throughout the cultivation of the oil industry.
To me, the score is reminiscent of the operatic works of William Bolcom. Utilizing elements from a variety of genres and styles, Kingsland deftly blends operatic and musical theater vocalism with the many facets of "American" music, including folk, rock, blue grass, doo-wop, and jazz. Ben Allen-Kingsland's libretto is an exemplar of poetic craftsmanship. He draws from historical events, political figures, pop culture, and even mid-century advertising to show the evolution of American culture and it's relation to our growing dependence on oil. Without an obtuse agenda, Allen-Kingsland leaves the audience with a heavy message and a lingering sense of discomfort; we're all dependent on oil, no matter how much we wish to become more "sustainable" and "green".
The theater was a cozy venue, especially with a large pit orchestra and a sold-out audience. Steve Pollitt's set was minimalistic yet effective, employing a wooden oil rig structure, a few props, and a platform. The rest of the scenes were set with limited lighting and some projections, which were dynamic and well-designed. Elizabeth Toy's costumes were period-accurate and colorful, bringing the stage and characters to life while relying on donated resources. Carlos Andrés Botero kept the singers and pit musicians together under difficult circumstances, both relating to the space and the score. The music was incredibly challenging at times, with changing meters, syncopation, and odd tonalities. Impressively, there were no obvious train-wrecks on stage or in the pit, and Botero used clear and concise gestures in the face of obscurity.
Lee Cromwell's stage direction deserves particular merit, as he utilized minimal rehearsal time in crafting an effective, emotional, and entertaining musical theater experience. The singers' solo performances were riveting, ensemble scenes were well-constructed, and visual interest was always maintained. He adapted the material for a small venue extremely well, and there were no large sections of the show that lost my interest.
One of the most entertaining and visually-stimulating parts of the production was the choreography by Joe Musiel, which was most prominently featured in the numerous dance numbers scattered among the scenes. The dances physically represented a growing romantic relationship between the two characters "Oil" and "America", played by Ryan Galloway and Shannon Kazan (respectively). Galloway employed a very fluid technique, performing gravity-defying motions with intriguing liquidity. Kazan brought a more classical technique to the stage, with perfect lines, soundless landings, and a fabulous characterization of a young woman (or country) falling in love. When they danced in tandem, I was impressed with their use of space and versatility in style, being called upon by Musiel to seamlessly change from ballroom to tango to Charleston to swing and back again.
There were several standouts among the singing cast, and I appreciated how well the singers were able to employ classical vocal technique with the many popular music styles interspersed throughout the work. Zach Coates soared over the boisterous orchestra with sharp diction, a brassy timbre, and a larger-than-life stage presence. Conor Lidell gave a chilling rendition of an aria desperate dustbowl Americans during the Great Depression. The strongest scene came after Intermission when Vinéecia Buchanan, Sarah Ballman, Christine Buras, and Jacquelyn Matava sang about their lives as 50's housewives. When Buras expressed unease about the pressures of modern wifehood, the other ladies cutely reminded her that advertised items such as Colgate toothpaste, Jell-o, and lipstick make life better. Musically, stylistically, lyrically, and dramatically, this scene was terrifically entertaining and cohesive.
The rest of the second act was decidedly darker. A particularly disturbing scene portrayed four Presidential television press releases given by Carter, Ford, Reagan, and Nixon. All four discussed their views on the energy crisis and how to solve the everyday woes of the individual American. Reuben Walker was a terrific Nixon, assuming a revolting ego, singing decisively and seductively, and leaving a bitter taste in the onlookers' mouths. Charles Lyon Stewart gave a strong performance as Carl Sagan, although not without flaws. However, Stewart's intelligibility and vocal edge were among the strongest in the cast, hinting at tremendous talent and a solid technique about to merge in a capable young artist.
Smaller roles with memorable performances include Brayton Arvin, who crooned his way to a crowd's hearts as a linen-clad gas station attendant. Additionally, Ben Smith as President Taft asserted himself vocally and physically with great confidence. In an Andrews Sisters imitation, Sarah Ballman, Jacquelyn Metava, and Christine Buras made a lovely trio and found their way through complicated staging during one of the most challenging musical sections of the entire show.
Overall, this production has many elements of strong off-Broadway productions. There are a few blemishes yet to be healed, but for an amateur production and free general admission, it's quality entertainment at an unbeatable price, plus a chance to see some tremendous student work. Stay tuned for future productions given by New Voices Opera, and get in while you can...with performances this strong, the tickets won't be free for long!
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