Splendora” sounds like a sci-fi bauble, but it isn’t; it’s that rare thing, a new musical bristling with promise and intelligence and, rarer still, a terrific story, if one imperfectly told.
It comes out of none of the established musical-theater workshop programs, which says something, but instead from the east end of Long Island, where the Bay Street Theater has been developing new plays and musicals for several years. It won the 1995 Richard Rodgers Production Award for New Musicals.
Set in the sun-blanched plains of East Texas, “Splendora” is based on a 1978 novel of the same name by Edward Swift, and concerns the return of a young man Timothy (Michael Moore), 15 years after leaving town, his future at the time having been at best indeterminate.
He arrives in the form of Jessica Gatewood (Nancy Johnston), a lovely and ambitious librarian whose relations with the localMore legit reviews, pages 8, 17
power ladies rather hilariously echo those of Marian Paroo and the good women of River City in “The Music Man”– even if Jessie already is the sadder but wiser girl, as it were.
It takes awhile, but we soon realize that though we see both Timothy and Jessica, the Splendorans see only Jessie.
Much of “Splendora” parodies “The Music Man,” though in this case, of course, it’s the librarian who’s putting one over on the rest of the townsfolk. Jessica leads a movement to strip the Splendora County Courthouse back to its Texas Gothic magnificence, a move resisted by the town’s snarky banking baron; anyone who has spent time in those environs will know just how seriously East Texas folks take their Texas Gothic architecture.
But what “Splendora” equally recalls is the sad, psychosexual dislocation in William Goyen’s wonderful 1983 novel “Arcadio,” also set in the district and also concerning ruinous disjunctions of sexual identity.
Jessica carries on a flirtation with the uptight local minister (Ken Krugman) , but it’s Timothy, the prodigal young man, who falls in love with him.
Timothy is the grandson of Splendora’s most charismatic lady, now dead, and he has a special connection with Sue Ella Lightfoot (Evalyn Baron), the smart toughie and would-be sheriff who finally figures out what’s going on in a marvelous song, “What Is, Ain’t.”
Though a plaintive melancholy runs through it, plenty of “Splendora” is just silly. Considerable fun is had at the expense of characters who deserve it, notably the town floozie, played with delicious, dizzy abandon by KT Sullivan. And a lot of Mark Campbell’s lyrics are doggerel even when they may not be intended as such: “Her body was burnt/but our mem’ries weren’t” passes as deliberate, for example, but “strange gentle folk/streets lined with oak” and “infusing gloom through every room” are kind of desperate-sounding.
Still, Stephen Hoffman’s music insinuates, especially through Michael Gibson’s cello- and reed-colored orchestrations; the score ranges among heartfelt ballads, chirpy ensemble numbers and all-out spoof, and most of it is good fun.
Jack Hofsiss and Robert La Fosse — their work as director and musical stager is inseparable, as this really isn’t a dance show — lend a blessedly light touch to the proceedings. Some wonderful, unheralded musical theater voices are revealed, notably in the attractive central trio of Johnston, Moore and Krugman, even as Baron steals the show.
Though you probably won’t see “Splendora” on a Broadway stage anytime soon, it’s a good deal more enjoyable than much of what passes for musical theater these days. And you will certainly be hearing from these people again.