The Scottish village of Brigadoon and its humble peasant inhabitants materialize out of the mist and into the grassy Highlands exactly once every hundred years. The romantic, folksy, moral-heavy and dance-heavy 1947 Lerner and Loewe musical Brigadoon does not materialize all that often nowadays, which makes its week-long production at City Center such a welcome treat and a must-not-miss occasion for golden-age musical theater devotees. As it happens, City Center (in its early days) presented short runs of Brigadoon in 1950 and 1963 (with Sally Ann Howes playing Fiona).
The last major production of Brigadoon to play New York was a flop 1980 revival (David Merrick apparently had a hand in forcing its closure so he could transfer 42nd Street to the Majestic Theatre). A new Broadway revival (to be directed and choreographed by Rob Ashford, with a revised book by John Guare) was in the works a decade ago but never came to pass. Chicago’s Goodman Theater revived the musical four years ago, but it failed to merit a transfer. NYU’s Steinhardt School produced the musical in September in an unusual, intermission-less production that removed virtually all the dancing.
The reasons Brigadoon is so rarely seen nowadays have to do both with its logistic challenges (big dance sequences, big evocative set requirements, large chorus, lush orchestrations, lavish period costumes, Scottish accents) and its uneven structure and dated postwar mentality (with the village of Brigadoon celebrating tradition, family, tightly-knit community, faith and religion and rejecting modern, fast-paced urban life). It’s also not as revered as the Rodgers & Hammerstein classics of the same period.
The new Brigadoon at City Center is not technically part of this season’s Encores! series. Rather, it is a gala/benefit “concert” presentation (like last season’s Sunday in the Park with George with Jake Gyllenhaal) followed by additional performances through Sunday where the tickets are less expensive and the show is not followed by a fancy dinner.
But for all intents and purposes, this is an excellent and unusually elaborate Encores! production, with a big cast and orchestra (including bagpipe), nary a single script in sight, new staging by director-choreographer Christopher Wheeldon (An American in Paris), animated visual projections (to evoke the earthy, rustic atmosphere of Brigadoon and contrast it with big-city glitz), and accomplished leading players well suited to such a piece of traditional musical theater including Tony winner Kelli O’Hara, Patrick Wilson, Stephanie J. Block, Robert Fairchild and Assif Mandvi (who played Ali Hakim in Trevor Nunn’s Oklahoma! revival before winning fame on The Daily Show).
For those unfamiliar with the plot, it’s 1946 and jaded New Yorkers Tommy (Wilson) and Jeff (Mandvi), on a spontaneously arranged hunting trip to Scotland, discover a pleasant little town that is not on the map, where Tommy encounters a stunning, self-assured, single lassie (O’Hara) and Jeff is singled out by a sexed-up Ado Annie type female (Block). But it turns out that the town has some serious issues and mysteries. Its religious leader recently made a pact with god that (in order to prevent corruption and contamination) Brigadoon will cease contact with the rest of the world, reappearing only once every hundred years. Also, Tommy and Jeff just happen to have stumbled upon the wedding day of Fiona’s younger sister Jean (Sara Esty) to happy-go-lucky Charlie (Dakin Matthews), which the brooding Harry (Fairchild) is less than thrilled about, leading to an act-one climax where Harry threatens the town’s future existence by leaving it.
The terms of the contract with god are that in order for Brigadoon to return once every hundred years, none of its inhabitants can leave it. Let’s say that Harry did escape Brigadoon. Could all the other town folk leave too and just set up a new town next door? And if Brigadoon is going to disappear, does that necessarily mean the town folk will disappear with it? Anyway…
Although this is certainly not a concert-style production, if time permitted, it could have benefited from further development, including making the storytelling and characterizations in Wheeldon’s new dance choreography more clear, finding new staging concepts for some visually cluttered moments (such as the town square market fair), and experimenting a bit more with the book, and maybe even adding back some lines that have been deleted, including Fiona’s corny but charming “there’s a difference between making love and being sentimental because you’re tired” and Jeff’s comments about Russia’s growing power.
For purposes of comparison, a decent bootleg video recording of the 1980 Broadway revival (which used the original dance choreography of Agnes de Mille) can easily be found on YouTube. There is also a 1991 studio recording helmed by conductor John McGlinn (with Rebecca Luker and Brent Barrett) that runs 79 minutes and contains dance music and some dialogue. The 1954 MGM film version with Gene Kelly (directed by Vincente Minnelli) is faithful to the plot but not the score (with about half the songs omitted).
O’Hara is an unusually mature Fiona (who is supposed to be in her early 20s), but that hardly matters. As you would expect, she sings beautifully and fully acts out the fear and longing expressed in “Waitin’ for My Dearie.” There is a reason she is considered the best actress for revivals of golden-age musicals. Wilson (who was Curly in Nunn’s Oklahoma!) makes for an appropriately strapping, straight-laced leading man for a golden-age musical (and one hopes he will return again to musical theater sooner rather than later). Mandvi and Block are similarly well suited as the musical’s comic secondary couple. That being said, even Block has a hard time selling her character’s two high-spirited but utterly irrelevant songs (“The Love of My Life,” “My Mother’s Weddin’ Day”).
I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing Brigadoon transferring to Broadway – but I wouldn’t hold my breath. If that actually happened this season, it would be competing against revivals of Carousel (another 1940s musical theater classic, also with original choreography by Agnes de Mille) and My Fair Lady (Lerner and Loewe’s best-known musical). I also suspect that Brigadoon does not have the legs to sustain a commercial run (as seen in its rare appearances over the past three decades). It is also too big to be revived on Broadway by the Roundabout – which makes the current production at City Center all the more valuable. How about instead making a video recording (which can be produced by BroadwayHD and/or PBS) or a cast album? Let’s grab a keepsake before Brigadoon disappears into the mist once again.