Theater review by Adam Feldman
The playwright Lynn Nottage and the composer Ricky Ian Gordon have been keeping busy. Nottage is represented on Broadway this season by two different shows, the comedy Clyde’s and the jukebox musical MJ; Gordon’s adaptation of The Garden of the Finzi-Continis is currently at the Museum of Jewish Heritage. And now their chamber opera Intimate Apparel, adapted from her 2003 drama and originally scheduled to open in 2020, has finally arrived at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater in a handsome production directed by Bartlett Sher. It is a serious and often impressive effort, yet it left me unmoved. When all is sung and done, should a show about underclothes be quite so respectable?
Kearstin Piper Brown stars as Esther, a Black seamstress in 1905 New York whose talent allows her to span otherwise distant social worlds. (Chabrelle Williams plays the role on Wednesday and Saturday matinees.) Esther specializes in the kind of silken, sexy garments that are popular with both louche demimondaines like Mayme (Krysty Swann) and high-class white ladies, like Mrs. Van Buren (Naomi Louisa O’Connell), who want to feel modernly risqué. Thanks to her hard work, Esther has saved up a considerable sum that she hopes to put toward opening her own business, but she’s lonely and undersexed, and at 35 she is well on her way to spinsterhood. With help from the friendly Mrs. Van Buren, however, the illiterate Esther strikes up a correspondence with George Armstrong (Justin Austin), a handsome West Indian at work on the Panama Canal, who romances her by mail and who, she hopes, may come north to marry her.
In its 2004 Off Broadway production of Intimate Apparel was a bittersweet and very affecting piece of theater: a cross of sorts between The Color Purple and The Heiress, with a powerful performance by Viola Davis at its core. The addition of music, in theory, should heighten the story’s emotion—and perhaps, to those who know the idiom of modern opera very well, Nottage and Gordon’s version will do just that. To those of us who are used to the more straightforward approach of musical theater, though, the result seems a little dry. Nottage has pared her play to its bones, and Gordon has set it to music that takes pains to incorporate suggestions of genres including ragtime. (I thought I caught a strain of Harold Arlen–style blues in the mix.) But there’s a formal quality to the score; the play’s punch gets absorbed by the arioso flow, and deflected by the busy dueling-piano orchestration. And the storytelling itself seems off-balance. I wish that Esther’s feelings came through more forcefully earlier, and that the show invested us more deeply in the initial fantasy of her romance with George; this Intimate Apparel’s most beautiful and moving scenes, from the start, are instead the ones that Esther shares with Mr. Marks (Arnold Livingston Geis), a Jewish fabric merchant with whom she shares a deep connection.
But the pleasures of this production are real. The singing is often gorgeous, and the cast—which also includes Adrienne Danrich as the matron of Esther’s boarding house—acts convincingly; Sher’s elegant staging features lovely work by designers Michael Yeargan (set), Catherine Zuber (costumes) and Jennifer Tipton (lighting). And opera neophytes need not be scared away: The music is pleasant to the ear, and the lyrics are all projected as supertitles on the back wall. That makes intimate Apparel easy to follow. What’s harder is getting swept away.
Intimate Apparel. Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater (Off Broadway). Music by Ricky Ian Gordon. Libretto by Lynn Nottage. Directed by Bartlett Sher. With Kearstin Piper Brown, Justin Austin, Arnold Livingston Geis, Adrienne Danrich, Naomi Louisa O’Connell, Krysty Swann. Running time: 2hrs 20mins. One intermission.