Just in time for the holiday season, another dark and ambitious new musical lumbers onto the stage of the Vivian Beaumont Theater. Same time last year, Lincoln Center Theater brought us “Parade,” and the company now presents Michael John LaChiusa’s “Marie Christine,” a turn-of-the-century retelling of the Medea story set in Creole New Orleans and Chicago. The first of the young composer’s two new musicals to be produced on Broadway this season, with “The Wild Party” to follow in the spring, “Marie Christine” must be categorized as a misfire, a fatally dispassionate musical about passion run amok. Perhaps most dismayingly, this lifeless production doesn’t even succeed as a showcase for the ample talents of three-time Tony winner Audra McDonald, here essaying a starring role on Broadway for the first time.
The good news is there’s much musical acumen and heapfuls of rhythmic vigor in LaChiusa’s score. The composer recently put forth his artistic credo in a Sunday New York Times piece espousing an all-inclusive approach to the Broadway musical, and he’s certainly as good as his word. “Marie Christine’s” strikingly varied score reveals influences that range from Joni Mitchell to George Gershwin to the inevitable Stephen Sondheim, and LaChiusa has a terrifically keen ear for the jagged syncopation of African-American musical styles such as blues and ragtime. He’s got rhythm to spare — there’s even a waltz to close the first act. Throughout the show, a drummer is given special emphasis, showcased on a platform above the stage while the rest of the orchestra is hidden beneath it.
What LaChiusa ain’t got is a particular affection for the kind of melodic charm that most audiences expect from a Broadway musical. His lyrically dense, musically spare songs — more than 30 of them are listed in the credits — contain few memorable tunes and nary a hummable chorus. That in itself is hardly an insurmountable problem: If the music merely supplied potent underscoring for a cogent and involving drama, we wouldn’t regret the lack of take-home musical nuggets.
But we do, we do. For “Marie Christine” is utterly artless in its storytelling, and is directed with an enervating lack of dramatic focus by Graciela Daniele, who also supplies the minimal choreography. A painfully static first act culminates in an awkward and preposterously melodramatic finale. Other turning points are brushed past too quickly (“You have left me,” Marie Christine announces blandly to her betraying lover, who would presumably not need to be told this), while background incidents are given excessive emphasis. Too much is merely explained or portentously commented on by a chorus, too little is dramatized. Most crucially, the musical’s effectiveness is muted by a central character whose driving passions remain frustratingly opaque.
Marie Christine L’Adrese (McDonald) is a Creole woman in 1894 New Orleans who dabbles in voodoo. The daughter of a French father raised by her black West Indian mother, whose ghost returns to haunt her at moments of crisis, Marie Christine is a well-dressed and well-spoken young woman who lives with her two upstanding brothers. She is, nevertheless, apparently very unhappy.
When she meets Dante Keyes (Anthony Crivello), a slick white sailor who seduces her in a park one day, she promptly invites him to stay awhile in the family home, angering her brothers and precipitating a crisis. By the end of act one, Marie Christine has robbed and murdered one brother for love of Dante and fled with him to Chicago. The musical ends, naturally, with Marie Christine’s unnatural killing of her two children in revenge for Dante’s betrayal.
Strong stuff this, but the Greeks got away with it. LaChiusa doesn’t, for the simple reason that Marie Christine’s overweening and destructive love is never convincingly communicated to the audience. The mesmerizing power that the Greek original can exert is absent here: We’re never drawn into the vortex of feeling that should motivate Marie Christine, never made to feel her desires, her humiliations, her despair. She remains a cold and rather unappealing figure, with her voodoo hexes dwelt on at the expense of more sympathetic aspects of her character. In the end her ugly acts come across as the distasteful doings of a standard sociopath rather than a pitiable, deeply wounded woman.
The fault is not really McDonald’s. She brings more than sufficient intensity and the expressive beauty of her marvelous soprano to bear on LaChiusa’s score. But the songs don’t have much emotional texture — these are not melodies that work ineluctable magic on the heart or softly ravage the soul. And neither does LaChiusa’s minimal, stiff dialogue, with which McDonald seems less comfortable. When Marie Christine announces, “New Orleans is my prison,” and vows to do anything she can to get out, we wonder from what she’s running.
In Toni-Leslie James’ pretty Victorian gowns, with her genteel brothers to look after her, Marie Christine’s life doesn’t look so bad. (Though it does look dim: Christopher Barreca’s gloomy and unevocative sets are lit with angular starkness by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer.)
A 20th century sympathy with Marie Christine’s 19th century oppression as a black woman is taken for granted, and sorely taxed. She sings of women’s subservience in “Way Back to Paradise” (also the title track for McDonald’s CD devoted to the songs of LaChiusa and other young theater composers), but this repression isn’t vividly dramatized. And empathy for her plight isn’t increased by the fact that Dante, in an able but not particularly charismatic performance by Crivello, is painted as a cad from the get-go, making Marie Christine’s devotion to him risible.
A show is in big trouble when the estimable Mary Testa can neither steal it nor stop it, and such is the case here, although she tries hard with “Cincinnati ,” a bawdy honky-tonk number at the top of the second act. This act, set in Chicago, details Dante’s somewhat implausible political rise, to which he regretfully sacrifices Marie Christine when the hand of a local bigwig’s daughter is offered, along the lines of the Greek original. Testa plays a madam and saloon keeper who mediates between Marie Christine and Dante, and bears witness to Marie Christine’s terrible vengeance.
It is Testa’s Magdalena who gapes in mute horror as Marie Christine returns from committing the fatal act, but the audience is likely to feel more relief than revulsion — hardly pity and terror, and perhaps not a little sadness, for McDonald primarily, a bright young performer whose faith in a new generation of Broadway composers is not happily rewarded here. He may have a powerful muse and ally in McDonald, but what LaChiusa needs most is a collaborator with a dramatic vision that can more artfully harness his musical gifts. That, above all, is the voodoo missing from “Marie Christine.”