by David Koteles · August 15, 2014
The Boston Tea Party Opera is the brainchild of M. Zachary Johnson, a young, enormously talented composer who has written a delightful string of vignettes about the famous historical event. Using clever rhymes more typically heard in a Sondheim score than opera, his libretto is well-researched, refreshingly smart and articulate. His music is nothing less than beautiful; sometimes sweet and other times exhilarating. Let it be known, Johnson is a composer to watch.
However, the success of a show often lies in the hands of a visionary director. Here, a director is not only curiously missing from the program’s credits, but sorely missing from the stage. While the cast is unquestionably gifted and the score rich, this is definitely an opera in search of a vision. It is because this piece is so charming, so witty, so moving, and so completely ready to go to the next level that it was frustrating to watch it lay flat on stage in this production.
In a mishmash of styles, each cast member seemed to act in his or her own play. However talented they may be—and there are some exquisite voices in the cast; indeed with credits at some of our country’s leading opera houses—no one comes off looking especially good in this unfocused production. I couldn’t help but wonder if a strong director might shape the story, give the production a look and feel, help the actors discover their character arcs, create unity, and simply get people on and off the stage without so much visible effort.
While Johnson’s music is winsome, his story structure is disjointed and there’s not a throughline. Plots are started and then left at the wayside. Cuts are needed while other moments could use some fleshing out. Most problematically, I think, there’s no clear protagonist—although billing would suggest it is Sam Adams and maybe his wife Elizabeth, played in fine voice by Chad Cygan and Kerry Gotschall, respectively. I think the show would benefit from knowing if it’s his (their) journey and following him (them) throughout the piece, with every scene moving us closer to the all-important Boston harbor tea dumping.
Johnson does deliver a vivid antagonist, however, in loyalist Governor Thomas Hutchinson, played with ferocious appetite by Ras Dia. As mentioned, there are several talented people involved in this production; to name a few: Colette Bourdeaux as Molly Pitcher has tremendous sparkle and light, Scott Joiner as Captain Scott works his scruffy charm successfully, the handsome swagger of Michael Bragger brought notable life to his characters, and Robert Balonek made an appealing and surprisingly gentle Paul Revere. The second act opens with an outstanding choral piece (“Sweet Remembrance”) that leaves you with goose bumps as led by Melvinna Johnson.
Clocking in at 2 hours and 20 minutes, I hope this full-length opera finds its strong storyline and protagonist. I truly hope to see it return to New York with some outstanding direction and design that makes those 2 hours and 20 minutes every bit as dynamic as the music. “We must all hang together, or assuredly we shall all hang separately,” said our Founding Father Ben Franklin. Frustratingly, this production is left hanging.