Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings
Theatre @ Boston Court
The advent of the Theatre @ Boston Court’s newest and most monumental triumph to date, Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings, cult-a-licious composer Eric Whitacre’s epic fusion of musical theatre, opera, martial arts and even world-class anime, may easily herald the most remarkable use of a 99-seat stage in… well… ever.
Let’s start by admitting that the first given to explain the startling success of this world premiere is the facility itself, simply the most stunning example of state-of-the-art theatrical technology ever to be created for a Waiver-sized playing space. Thanks to the gracious and too rare artistic sponsorship of Z. Clark Branson, who generously gave [email protected]’s executive director Eileen T’Kaye enough deep-pocketed financial support to buy a parking lot next to Pasadena’s Ice House, dig a big ol’ hole there and literally invent the two-theatre complex from the ground up, we Angelenos have a resource unlike any other anywhere in America.
As someone who had the great fortune of appearing at [email protected] in 2004’s west coast premiere of Chuck Mee’s Summertime (a production which, now considering the subsequent acceptance of Boston Court as a place where new things are tried without concern for commercial viability, was about two years ahead of its time to be appreciated fully), let me state without hesitation from my unique perspective as both an actor and a passionate theatre writer that this is the coolest place to work in a town so notorious for often taking its vast and willing pool of theatre artists completely for granted.
The acoustics at [email protected] are amazing, the stage (as well as the adjacent smaller Branson concert space) was designed to be incredibly versatile regardless of the need, the grid for lighting designers to hang their instruments is hydraulically controlled, and the light booth is, in the words of Pasadena Playhouse artistic director Sheldon Epps, “bigger than some theatres where I’ve worked.”
Add into the mix that the green room seems to have a continuous source for magically apparating cheese plates and other Trader Joe-y munchables and that the sparkling new dressing rooms have friggin’ showers in them, and it’s not hard to see why every actor who’s worked there during [email protected]’s meteoric four year history wants to just plain move in—or at least chain oneself to the riggings until the people who run the place create a repertory company there. For me, I’d gladly take a big towel and my own bowl placed on the floor in the corner of Michetti’s office and share the space with the theatre’s beloved mascot canine Ginger. Yup. I’d be fine with that.
Of all the artistic and technical achievements offered at the Boston Court to date, Paradise Lost, Whitacre’s first attempt at writing for the musical theatre (he’s also the bookwriter), is the most ambitious yet. With the financial collaboration of Peter Schneider to augment all the wonders [email protected] comes up with on a regular basis, this Paradise features a dynamic and unstoppably youthful cast of 20, spirited choreography by Bubba Carr, incredibly complex musical direction by Greg Chun leading cellist (Fang Fang Xu) and the On Ensemble troupe of Taiko drummers playing live from the elevated grids above either side of the stage, as well as incredibly professional-grade gigantic projected anime sequences worthy of InuYasha, expertly produced by Kirk Hanson and created by Lyn Garza and Michael Manning.
Now include some of LA’s finest designers, including a sweeping set by Tom Buderwitz, gloriously atmospheric lighting by Steven Young, appropriately decibel-shattering sound by Martin Carrillo, knockout costuming right out of Mad Max by Soojin Lee, and incredible tribal tattoos and hair concoctions by Becca Coffman, and this one’s a totally win-win situation, something akin to Cirque du Soleil meets Amadeus in a Jackie Chan movie played on Adult Swim.
At the directorial helm of all this is the Boston Court’s mega-talented co-artistic director Michael Michetti, whose visualizations of armoires opening to unveil enchanted wonders and other theatrical delights helped make Summertime so brilliant—and made my experience appearing in his arresting re-envisioning of Brecht’s Edward II for Circle X at the former Actors Gang Theatre one of my fondest memories as a performer. Here in Paradise Michetti is at his finest, obviously adoring the work and the incredibly haunting score by Whitacre.
And therein lies the underlying wonder of this E-ride trip to Paradise—the music. The work of Whitacre, who in person looks more like a rock star than a composer of classical music, has already afforded this guy a fervent worldwide following for his gossamer, almost surreal electronically augmented compositions, his eclectic signature style rich with excitingly dense choral structures bravely infused with electronic lows and ethereal modernistic touches.
Unlike any previous review I’ve written over the past 21 years, beyond me telling you how evocative and innovative is the work of Whitacre, I can suggest a link to listen to at least one of Paradise Lost’s songs for yourselves by logging onto www.ericwhitacre.com . Click on the face of Hila Plitmann and then on “Butterflies,” which she performs live nightly onstage in this very presentation.
Plitmann has a vocal instrument that is simply unreal in its beauty, a high lyrical soprano that cuts through Whitacre’s electronic augmentation like a knife. But as Paradise’s plucky heroine Exstasis, anyone cast must be more than ready for the stage of LA Opera: the person playing this rigorous role must be a gifted actor as well and be able to tumble her way through Caleb Terray’s spectacular fight choreography as though she’d trained with the ghost of Bruce Lee himself.
Since Plitmann also has a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, simply being Mrs. Eric Whitacre on the side is no reason to assume nepotism was a factor in casting her here; to the contrary, maybe instead the crafty guy married her to assure she’s play this role. But then I assume Whitacre didn’t propose to all other 19 outrageously talented participants in this production, making me wonder if Michetti and casting director Julia Flores deserve some kind of special achievement award at the end of the year just for compiling this eye-popping troupe of young twentysomethings who obviously know no limits vocally, artistically or physically.
Michetti told me the casting process, though obviously quite exciting, was grueling, making the weary conspirators humorously wonder at one point if Whitacre and David Norona’s lyrics about the gang of young wing-challenged angels should, rather than having them sing about their 17-year exile in their Paradise, instead be changed to reflect they’d been stranded there for 42 years.
Whatever it took to bring this cast together, the effort was worth every minute, as this uniformly showstopping ensemble of players proves themselves to be simply golden through and through. Granted, everyone on this stage has that familiar look to me: an entire troupe of performers completely into and mesmerized by the sheer genius of working with a mind like Michael Michetti’s, here enhanced about a zillion times by getting also to perform the music of Whitacre, surely a man primed to become one of the most notable composers of our time.
Even more serendipitously, Whitacre was there himself as a hands-on collaborator for the entire rehearsal process, except when he had to leave for a week to attend the annual Eric Whitacre Wind Symphony Festival, which began in 2004 in Sydney and this year was held in Florence and Venice. I told you this guy was the real deal, didn’t I? Mark my word, though I am hardly the first to predict his potential stardom.
But I digress from the deserved lionization of this Paradise of a cast. Where the most revered of musical theatre gypsies are talked about as being “triple threat performers,” meaning adept as singers, dancers and as actors, the folks chosen to bring Whitacre’s tale to proper fruition had to also be able to perform martial arts and physical stunts it would usually takes years to acquire—and if any of them are over 30, I’ll eat my moisturizer.
The magnificently-piped Dan Callaway, looking like a fugitive from an Abercrombie & Fitch ad, is suitably imposing as Exstasis’ ruling brother Logos, particularly memorable in his “Forgotten” duet with Plitmann and his heartfelt solo “Eldest of All.” Kevin Odekirk, so memorable in the Rubicon Theatre’s Songs for a New World two seasons ago (and a fellow devotee of Ventura Beach’s homey Marriott), is once again a spirited standout as Paradise’s antagonist Ignis, poignantly showing his strident character’s hidden soft side in his ballad “Little One,” tenderly sung to his treasured pet butterfly.
As Exstasis’ stalwart band of rebels, the resonantly baritone Rodolfo Nieto is wonderful as the enclave’s resident lummox Gravitas, especially endearing in his scenes with Daniel Tatar as the wheeling-dealing Fervio (who then comes into his own with a solo “All Alone”), and Juli Robbins and Marie M. Wallace are perfect choices to harmonize with Plitmann in the glorious “Sleep, My Child” and a couple of other equally unforgettable numbers.
But for everything Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings has going for it, the real celebration is the music of Eric Whitacre, surely soon to be recognized as one of the most daringly prominent contemporary classical composers of the millennium. Hang tight and move over, misters Beethoven, Mozart, Satie, Weill and Glass; there’s definitely a new kid on the block.
Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings plays through Sept. 2 at the Theatre @ Boston Court, 70 N. Mentor Av., Pasadena; for tickets, call 626.683.6883.