IRVING There’s probably no way to satisfy purists when adapting an oft-produced stage masterwork for another theatrical format, despite the fact that several of Shakespeare’s plays became embraced as beloved operas or musicals — Rossini’s Otello and Bernstein’s West Side Story come to mind. Iconic American plays have a tougher time. Anyone seen a production of Andre Previn’s opera of Tennessee Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire or the musical Raisin, based on Lorraine Hansberry’s A Raisin in the Sun, lately?
It’s a good guess that Blue Roses, a musical version of another Williams masterpiece, The Glass Menagerie, will meet a similar apathetic fate from those not intimately familiar with the play. That’s too bad, because the show, with music by Nancy Ford and book and lyrics by Mimi Turque, and receiving a world premiere at Irving’s Lyric Stage, is worth pursuing. It’s not a big, splashy musical with jazz-hands moments — which lessens its likelihood of commercial success — but true to Williams’ intentions, it’s quietly powerful.
If the thought of musicalizing Menagerie causes the head-shakes, consider that it is the most unconventional of Williams’ major plays, and that it was his first big success. Williams’ original version experiments with stage convention in ways he wouldn’t revisit until his late-career period, and he goes to great lengths to hammer home that it’s anything but realistic.
It’s a memory play, using the character of Tom (a stand-in for the playwright) as a narrator to state this outright, lest there be any confusion. He also describes the importance of music as it pertains to the character of Laura, the disabled daughter of faded Southern belle Amanda, who desperately wants to marry Laura off.
In this musical version — the title comes from the words that Jim, the Gentleman Caller, heard from Laura in high school when she said she had pleurosis — the lyrics of the opening song paraphrase Tom’s first words in the play: “I have tricks in my pocket and surprises up my sleeve.” In the original form, Tom wants you to know the play is not realism; likewise, musical Tom implores that this show’s form is about as far from reality as it gets. The song’s title says it all: And Everybody Sings.
After that, the chamber musical follows the basic story of the play. The songs, accompanied by a three-person orchestra on violin, cello and piano/celesta with music direction by Jay Dias, play out like dialogue or soliloquies. They’re understated, with endings that don’t refrain but act as conversations that might be continued later. In some ways, they serve as the scene titles that Williams originally wrote but have been jettisoned in most productions.
Scenic designer Randel Wright has created large swaths of translucent fabric that at first cover the furniture, then lift to create a dreamy backdrop — in line with Williams’ fourth-wall device in his stage directions.
Amanda (Tony nominee Sally Mayes, who suffered a concussion a few days before opening night, prompting Lyric to cancel the dress rehearsal and preview) has the most prominent musical motive, echoing the dancehall music of the Paradise Ballroom on the other side of the alley from the Wingfields’ St. Louis home. Mayes was in fine voice Saturday and didn’t show any signs of not being on top of her game, and plays up the character’s desperation more than anything. It is curious that her second-act dress (costumes by Ryan Matthieu Smith) is not nearly as gaudy as Williams describes it.
Laura’s music, in keeping with Williams’ intentions, is delicate yet circuslike, and actor Laura Lites has one of the show’s best songs with Walking in the Park. She is appropriately fragile, both of voice and personality. Kyle Cotton as Jim has a booming bass voice that works beautifully for this outsider character; the Jim-Laura duet on the song The Glass Menagerie is another standout moment. One disappointment is the underdevelopment of Tom (Duke Anderson), whose character seems like an afterthought.
Directed by Shelley Butler, the musical doesn’t have as much room for emotions to simmer, and suffers from the summarizing of Williams’ sparkling, poetic dialogue. Still, it captures the tone of the play and makes sense in the context of Williams’ idea that unconventional techniques shouldn’t try to escape the play’s “responsibility of dealing with reality.” Rather, it’s about finding “a more penetrating and vivid expression of things as they are.”