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November 28 - December 5, 1997
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King makers

Masque's spirited Amahl and the Night Visitors

by Steve Vineberg

AMAHL AND THE NIGHT VISITORS >By Gian-Carlo Menotti. With Christine Brault/Karen Macdonald Ruymann, Jonathan Grenon, Laurence V. Brault/David Salovitz, James H. Lambert, Peter Aldrich, and Scott Harrison. With Gift of the Magi. By Brainerd Duffiel. Based on the story by O. Henry. With Lori Joachim Fredrics, David Salovitz, Sarah E. Buckley, and Ruth Markind. Directed by Sandra L. Buckley. Musical direction by Karen Hastie Wilson. Lighting designed by Mary Ellen Moravek. Costumes by Paula Moravek. At the Masque Theatre Company, Milford, through December 7.

[amahl] Gian-Carlo Menotti's hour-long one-act opera Amahl and the Night Visitors, about a crippled shepherd boy whose home is visited by the Magi on their way to see the Christchild, was commissioned for NBC-TV in 1951 and for many years was a Christmas perennial. (Rosemary Kuhlmann took the soprano role, Amahl's mother, through the '50s; when it was revived on television in the '70s, the part was passed onto Teresa Stratas.) It isn't performed much these days, more's the pity. The opera is a charmer -- it's modest but emotionally robust, and somehow it skirts sentimentality. Menotti may not have been a major composer, but it's hard not to respond to his lyricism and his dramatist's savvy, and several of his pieces seem tailor-made for small theater companies. (I'd love to see someone revive The Medium, which Menotti himself filmed, very effectively, in 1951.)

I have nothing but praise for Sandra L. Buckley's production of Amahl at the Masque Theatre Company. The hall of the Milford Performing Arts Center, where Buckley's spirited company is housed, is sufficiently constricted that the ensemble has to trek through the audience to get onto the stage, giving a kind of Christmas-pageant feel to the show; consequently, in terms of staging, the show could hardly be more basic. The instrumentation has been reduced to a single piano, played with brio by an unflappable young man of maybe 16 named Ryan Morin; the musical director, Karen Hastie Wilson, conducts him and the chorus -- in whatever corner of the hall they happen to be stationed at the moment. This is community theater at its most unadorned (that is, except for the lovely, fantastical costumes Paula Moravek has provided for the three Kings). And it's so heartfelt and so sweetly performed that I can't imagine anyone failing to respond to its appeal.

Christine Brault, whom I saw as the Mother (she alternates with Karen Macdonald Ruymann), both sings and acts the role beautifully. Menotti wrote the scenes between her and Amahl with sympathy and good humor, and Brault and Jonathan Grenon, the winning, utterly natural young singer who plays Amahl, convey their full emotional range. I also admired the musical performances of Laurence V. Brault (alternating with David Salovitz), James H. Lambert, and Peter Aldrich as the three Kings of the Orient. The highlight of the evening is the quartet by the Mother and the Magi -- it's also Menotti's finest moment -- where the Kings' quest for the baby Jesus brings forth the Mother's compassion for her own child, also born in poverty. (The link between Christ and the shepherd boy is the point of the opera.)

Amahl and the Night Visitors is preceded by a 40-minute curtain raiser, Brainerd Duffiel's dramatization of the O. Henry story Gift of the Magi, an ironic fable about a young couple so in love that they sacrifice their most precious possessions to buy Christmas gifts for each other. Brief as it is, Gift of the Magi feels a lot longer than Amahl, because it isn't conceived dramatically: we're miles ahead of the characters in arriving at the punch line -- and not just because the story is so well-known. Duffiel tries to pad out this trifle by adding a narrator (played energetically by Sarah E. Buckley), but it's hopeless, because she doesn't belong in the story. I don't think there's a way to make this piece work, but I do have a technical suggestion. When the wife sells her hair to the local wigmaker, she returns with a kerchief tied to the back of her head. But it's so obvious she's been shorn that when the husband walks in and doesn't notice immediately, it occurs to you that she should have bought him glasses rather than a watch chain. Couldn't she cover her head? In any case, it's Amahl and not Gift of the Magi that takes the centerpiece position in the double bill, and it's worth the trip.

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