Last night I got the opportunity to attend the dress rehearsal for Fresno Grand Opera’s “Our Town” at the Fresno Memorial Auditorium. Normally I’d wait until opening night to see a production and respond with a review, but my vacation schedule – I’m leaving town Saturday – doesn’t allow for that.
So this isn’t a review of “Our Town.” But I couldn’t go to a beautiful show like this and keep my keyboard silent. Just in time for Saturday’s opening performance, I wanted to leave you with some general thoughts about this spare, moving show. It’s yet another example of the company reaching out to its audience with exciting and relevant productions. Here are five things I like:
The adaptation. Composer Ned Rorem and librettist J. D. McClatchy capture the essence of Thornton Wilder’s famed play, giving the material a carefully etched, lovingly rendered feel. The music isn’t ostentatious, which would be out of character in Grover’s Corners, but still manages to find the emotional through line in Wilder’s poignant musings on the fleeting nature of human existence. I was a little hesitant going into the production, wondering if the play’s defiant spareness would be somehow revved up into something glossier. But the bare essence of “Our Town” is still there, and the music only makes it seem more heartrending.
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Director Alison Moritz’s staging. It’s precise without feeling stilted, lively without being overwrought. Watch for the town choir, led by the drunkard Simon Stimson (an electric Robert Norman), rotate completely around on stage to change the audience’s perspective, a move that seems so natural that it feels like a cinematic moment. From bright moments of humor (a gardening pail becomes a rainstorm) to deep sadness (a funeral procession unfolds with a wrenching solemnity), Moritz keeps the production spare without it feeling empty.
The acting. I don’t want to judge any of the singing because I know that voice-conscious performers often hold back at a dress rehearsal. But I loved the quiet intensity of the acting. Sarah Shafer (as Emily) and Jonas Hacker (as George) have a gorgeous rapport on stage, capturing both the bloom of teenage romance and the maturity of lifelong commitment. And I was especially entranced with the chemistry between Eric Downs and Danielle Bond (Dr. and Mrs. Gibbs, George’s parents), who bring both a playful touch and civic solidity to the roles.
The light bulbs. When you see the show, you’ll see what I mean. With the brightest bulb in the cemetery hanging over the head over the most newly deceased, the tableaux is breathtaking. Lighting designer Erik Vose swings from brightness to darkness in this production as a way to distinguish between the pert realism of Wilder’s “ordinary” moments and the gauzy, otherworldly side trips of memory and metaphysics on which the playwright takes the audience. I felt immersed in “Our Town” not just in terms of setting but also emotional energy. That’s an accomplishment.
The relevance. One of Wilder’s lines hit me hard last night, when Emily says, in a moment of intense reflection: “It goes so fast. We don’t have time to look at one another.” Just before going to the rehearsal I’d been subjected to a TV commercial for a broadband provider in which the leading character (a dashing, wealthy, obviously together man) spends his entire commute looking down at his cell phone. And this fact is celebrated! We’re stuck looking at our screens all day, people. Wilder would be aghast. The very least you can do is carve out two and a half hours this weekend to see “Our Town.”