Reviewed by Gail M. Burns, August 2005
I have a soft spot in my heart for Brigadoon for two reasons. First, I am married to Robert Burns and therefore required to enjoy all things Scottish, and secondly it was the first musical I ever saw on Broadway. I had just turned six and my parents took me to see the short-lived 1963 revival at City Center. Fearing that I might not be able to sit through the whole show, they had prudently purchased cheap seats in the uppermost balcony, from which the stage resembled a very large TV screen. But I knew that it was not a TV, that what I was seeing was live and real, and all I wanted to know was how they got an entire town to appear out of nowhere. The rest all seemed to me to be a bunch of grown-ups singing about love, but it was worth watching the whole thing to try to figure out how they did that amazing trick. My memory of that moment when Brigadoon first appeared before my eyes is as clear as if it happened yesterday.
I knew that at the Mac-Haydn it would be impossible to replicate that miracle, but I am considerably older than six and able to enjoy now what bored me then – the love stories and the interesting historical position the show occupies in American musical theatre.
Brigadoon originally opened in March of 1947. It was the third collaboration and first bona fide hit for the team of composer Frederick Loewe (1901-1988) and lyricist/librettist Alan Jay Lerner (1918-1986), who went on to pen the mega-hits My Fair Lady and Camelot, as well as the film and stage versions of Gigi, in long and illustrious careers. The plot resembles that of the 19th century German story Germelshausen by Friedrich Gerstacker, although Lerner always claimed that the similarities were sheer coincidence. The real Brig O’Doon, a 13th century stone bridge over the River Doon in Alloway, Scotland, was immortalized by Robert Burns (the Bard of Scotland who lived from 1759-1786, not my husband) in his poem Tam O’Shanter as the bridge over which the legendary Tam fled on his horse Meg in order to escape from the three witches who were chasing him.
In Lerner’s story, the Scottish town of Brigadoon comes to life for only one day every one hundred years* so that it never exists long enough in any one time to absorb that era’s evils. For us, now, 1947 seems like the good old days. The war was over, Hitler was dead, and Osama bin Laden wouldn’t even be born for another nine years. The babies were booming and an unparalleled period of security and prosperity was underway in America. So a show which tells us that the world then was so wicked that people would want to escape from it to a simpler time may seem foolish. But stop and think. In 1945 Hiroshima was bombed and the atrocities of the holocaust began to come to light. Humanity was faced not only with its own hideous capacity for inhumanity, but with its new-found ability to destroy itself completely. Sounds like a good time to take a trip to a bonnie musical version of a Scotland that never was.
In Brigadoon two American hunters Tommy Albright (Grant Golson) and Jeff Douglas (Stephen Bolte) become lost in the Scottish highlands and stumble upon Brigadoon which is merrily proceeding with another average day in the year 1748. None of the inhabitants of Brigadoon can leave or the village and everyone in it perishes. People from the outside can stay in Brigadoon only if they love one of the inhabitants. Needless to say, Tommy falls in love with a Brigadoon lassie Fiona MacLaren (Karla Shook) but an engagement to another woman (Trisha Stever) back in New York, and his fear of giving up everything he knows for a life in Brigadoon prevent him from staying, at first…
On this day in Brigadoon, Fiona’s sister Jean MacLaren (Kelly L. Shook) is about to marry Charlie Dalrymple (Felix Hess). Everyone is happy as can be except the guy Jean jilted, Harry Beaton (Gavin Waters). In an interesting state of affairs, all these young people have fathers – Andrew MacLaren (Michael Shiles), Stuart Dalrymple (Byron DeMent), and Archie Beaton (Jered Fournier) – but no mothers. It seems that all the women in Brigadoon are young, beautiful, and available! Meanwhile the perpetually soused Jeff is vigorously pursued by the lusty Meg Brockie (Erin Spears).
It has taken me a while to warm up to Golson as a leading man, and I am not sure why. He is a good singer, tall and handsome with a disarming way of peeking out at you through his eyelashes like Princess Diana. His ingenuousness and youth worked well for him as Tommy, and he and Karla Shook made a lovely couple. Of course, I am on record as a Karla Shook fan, and was very happy to see her in an ingénue role, which she played winningly.
But even Karla couldn’t outshine her sister Kelly L. Shook, who was just breathtakingly beautiful as the young bride, Jean. At the end of her ballet, when she placed that wreath of flowers on her head and turned, she was the essence of youth, beauty, and love. No wonder all the boys in Brigadoon wanted to marry her!
Hess is an interesting combination as a performer. He is a spectacular and athletic dancer, and he can make you laugh. He and Kelly L. Shook were beautifully paired as dance partners, and he brought bounce and vitality to Charlie’s comic number I’ll Go Home With Bonnie Jean. I would love to see Hess come back to the Mac and tackle some larger roles next year.
I believe Brigadoon is unique in having a leading role, Jeff Douglas, which requires no singing at all. While it was a pity to waste Bolte’s fine singing voice, he does a good comic drunk and was a nice foil for Golson’s gee-whiz enthusiasm as Tommy. He was also nicely paired with Spears, whose portrayal of the lusty-without-limits Meg was a hoot.
Waters once again showed his strong dance skills and also some decent acting chops as the spurned lover Harry. It has been interesting watching this young performer progress over his two seasons at the Mac-Haydn as he has taken on different and more demanding roles.
Doug Hodge has done a fine job of directing and choreographing the show. I am no expert on Highland dancing (haven’t even watched Riverdance all the way through on PBS) but what Hodge has come up with worked for me. Likewise Cathleen Perry’s faux Scottish, faux 18th century costumes. You know they aren’t the real thing, but they look grand, and what’s not to like about a chorus line of well-turned male calves in kilts? I did think the family tartans might be authentic, but according to my books (and let me tell you, when you marry Robert Burns you acquire books on Scottish clans and tartans) they aren’t. Who cares!
This is the last show of the 2005 Mac-Haydn season. We all feel the summer drawing to a close. Already some members of the company have left, probably to return to college, and area teens have been brought in to fill out the chorus – a wonderful performing experience for them. To me, this production of Brigadoon had an intimate family feel to it – a last chance for this team of performers to appear together at the Mac. It was fun to see the Shook sisters playing sisters and Shiles playing their dad. It was great to see the talented Hess and Bolte given more to do. My heart soared as Waters leapt over the crossed swords. The small turns Fournier, Stever, Byron DeMent, Amanda Taraska, Paul Colarusso, Lauren Elizabeth Loss, and others had reminded me of earlier shows when they had made me laugh or cry. I found the scene where the company paraded the tartans, led by bagpiper Neil A. Roberts (his kilt is authentic!), to be a very nice farewell review. A final trouping of the colors, if you will. And I liked it.
Brigadoon runs through September 4 at the Mac-Haydn Theatre on Route 203 just north of the center of Chatham, NY. The show runs two hours and twenty minutes with one intermission and is suitable for the whole family. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-392-9292.
* Listening to Charlie Dalrymple crow about founding another clan on his wedding night made me get out my calculator and do the math. An average pregnancy lasts 40 weeks or 280 days. If every Brigadoon day lasts 100 years, it would take the lassies of Brigadoon 28,000 years to bring a child to term. YIKES!! No wonder none of the girls are married and all of the mothers are dead!
copyright Gail M. Burns, 2005