Marital Malaise

Review of Trouble in Tahiti at Yale Cabaret

Leonard Bernstein’s Trouble in Tahiti, an Opera in Seven Scenes, directed by Lynda Paul with a fine cast at Yale Cabaret, manages to treat the familiar world of the Man in the Gray Flannel Suit and his immaculately coiffed and tailored wife in their happy paradise in 1950s suburbia with deft charm and surprising depth. Sam (Luke Scott) is all about “the law about men”—some are winners (like him) and some aren’t—while Dinah (Kelly Hill) looks for something that might matter, as when she recounts her thrilling dreams to her psychoanalyst, and instead only finds an insipid Hollywood musical melodrama, Trouble in Tahiti, to occupy her.

 Kelly Hill (Dinah), Luke Scott (Sam)

Kelly Hill (Dinah), Luke Scott (Sam)

We could easily say this is all pretty well-trodden ground: the gaps in trust and/or shared interests that don’t tear apart a happy couple so much as wear down the “happy” part. Both are mostly going through the motions and wondering if this is all they can expect from life. The stuff of quiet desperation, these lives, in Bernstein’s lyrics, are both mocked and imagined as the spiritual dead-end they are. Meanwhile a jazz trio of singers—Kate Berman, Adam Frank, Kate Marvin, in white face-paint, stylish pompadours, and lounge lizard jackets—emerge from time to time as a snappy, unnervingly serene Chorus serenading the couple.

 the jazz trio: Kate Marvin, Kate Berman, Adam Frank

the jazz trio: Kate Marvin, Kate Berman, Adam Frank

A tune name-dropping the bastions of suburban luxury—Ozone Park, Delaware Pines, Scarsdale—sets our scene, then recurs, blithely indifferent to the frowns and silences between the couple. We see Sam at work—a “marvelous man” in handling his boss, a “big-hearted man” in lending to a co-worker, and a tempted boss trying decently to avoid hitting on his flirtatious secretary. And we see the Mrs. getting caught up, with considerable musical and vocal lyricism, in a fantasy of a garden—an Eden of sorts—where the couple could find utopia.

Adding to the cardboard cut-out nature of these lives is a wonderfully cartoonish cut-out set by Rae Powell (who is, amazingly, working outside discipline), while the costumes by Haydee Antunano and Asa Benally are tasteful and apropos (an anachronistic use of Ralph Lauren for Sam’s sportswear might make us reflect that “the 50s” aren’t really over for some of us). Much visual interest is provided by an elaborate range of projections by Rasean Davonte Johnson that transform the planes of the backdrop into secondary characters, animation, Tahitian kitsch and, at one point, a stunning arrangement of expressionist fields of color.

The score, played with skill by Jill Brunelle (piano), Christopher Ross-Ewart (bass, cello—the sonority of the latter is used to great effect), and André Redwood (drums), never overwhelms the action but supports some brilliant changes in register—as for instance the ersatz “luau” vibe of “Island Magic,” Hill’s virtuoso mocking evocation of the allure of Hollywood’s version of Tahiti (she refers to the film as “twaddle”). Indeed, Hill’s expressive eyes and riveting voice do much to impress on us the heart of this piece. A small but telling scene features the couple meeting by accident on the street and lying to each other about their destinations, even as both actor-singers convey the sadness behind the pretense.

For all the jibes at mindless popular culture and the tensions of domestic life—“this coffee’s burnt,” he says; “make it yourself,” she says—and the all-too-real use of “the super silver screen” to provide collective fantasy as well as the glue to repair the cracks in romance, Bernstein is benign.  He knows that his ideal audience, even if happily ensconced a mere cab ride from the theater district and happy to laugh at the empty promises of suburbia, are just as likely to suffer from the same midlife crisis marital slump, and that makes Trouble in Tahiti compassionate toward those who have lost the passion.

Trouble in Tahiti, like last year’s The Medium, is a perfect match for the Cab’s space, letting this small gem shine with astute direction from Lynda Paul, also working outside discipline but clearly in full grasp of the show’s nuances.

Trouble in Tahiti
Music and Libretto by Leonard Bernstein
Directed by Lynda Paul

Music Director: Jill Brunelle; Dramaturg: Taylor Barfield; Scenic Designer: Rae Powell; Costume Designers: Haydee Antunano, Asa Benally; Lighting Designer: Carolina Ortiz; Movement Consultant: Gretchen Wright; Projections Designer: Rasean Davonte Johnson; Technical Director: Tannis Boyajian; Stage Managers: Jennifer Schmidt, Avery Trunko; Producer: Steven Koernig; Build Crew: Kelly Fayton

Cast: Dinah: Kelly Hill; Sam: Luke Scott; Jazz Trio, Alto: Kate Berman; Jazz Trio, Tenor: Adam Frank; Jazz Trio, Soprano: Kate Marvin; Band: Jill Brunelle, piano; Christopher Ross-Ewart, bass, cello; André Redwood, drums

Yale Cabaret
November 19-21, 2016