Jonathan Sheffer’s “Blood on the Dining Room Floor” received the 1999 Richard Rodgers Production Award, and deservedly so. Now in its world premiere production with the WPA Theater, it is the best musical of the current New York theater season. Based on the text by Gertrude Stein, Sheffer’s music and libretto take her undramatic premise and turn it into a powerful meditation on the writer’s creative process.
Yes, this is a musical about writer’s block. And if that’s not enough to make you want to avoid it, “Blood” is actually more opera than musical. Blessedly, Sheffer has a wonderful ear for melody and his text never fails to divert as it careens from murder mystery to murder mystery, all set during that weird, pivotal summer of 1933 when Stein and her longtime companion, Alice B. Toklas, took a cottage in Bilignin, France. Toklas cooked carp and Stein could not write anything until she was finally inspired to do so by the two remarkable deaths. The biggest mystery, of course, remains why those messier mysteries unblocked Stein’s writer’s block.
What exactly happens onstage? Stein’s car and phone are sabotaged. A lesbian friend reportedly commits suicide — though there are two bullet wounds. An innkeeper jumps to her death from a window. Lizzie Borden also makes a cameo appearance. And Toklas cooks carp and pigeons.
Sheffer couldn’t get away with such material if not for his sizable powers as a composer. Musically, “Blood on the Dining Room Floor” most resembles the John Adams operas “Nixon in China” and “The Death of Klinghoffer,” and curiously enough, both men make references in their respective works to Alfred Hitchcock’s favorite scorer, Bernard Herrmann. Adams lifts directly from “North by Northwest” in “Nixon in China.” Sheffer is more subtle, but there are glimpses here of Herrmann’s shimmering strings from “Vertigo,” especially in the innkeeper’s leap to her death (“Everybody said that she walked in her sleep”). Sheffer may have written an opera, but he reveals a real populist bent.
When the text demands, he can also write big arias that deliver. “It has not happened,” about writer’s block, and Stein’s final song, “I am I because my little dog knows me,” are gorgeous. “Crime, think of it,” which begins as a trio and grows into an ensemble for six voices, is chilling. There hasn’t been a chorus that so effectively grabs the spine since Stephen Sondheim’s “City on Fire” in “Sweeney Todd.” This is definitely not one of those rinky-tinky pseudo-operatic scores in which the big numbers never take flight from the recitative.
“Blood on the Dining Room Floor” is destined for the repertory, but it’s doubtful there’ll be any productions more dead-on than the one director Jeremy Dobrish has given it. Admirers of his work at the Adobe Theater Co., where he is artistic director, will not be disappointed. Dobrish is up to his usual anarchic tricks: Someone sings about dogs, so suddenly a half dozen stuffed puppies come flying over the flats. Car trouble is signaled by a broken hand-held miniature model. His directorial segues between the libretto’s many vignettes are seamless and, on occasion, downright inspired. For instance, the six balls of wadded-up paper that signal Stein’s writer’s block are gathered up mournfully by Toklas who, a minute later, is laying them out as six white pigeons to be cooked for the evening’s supper.
Carolann Page is visually the ideal Gertrude Stein, and with a tough-sounding mezzo to match. Wendy Hill offers a rather tall Alice B. Toklas, but her vocal skirmishes in front of the stove always delight. As the loony innkeeper, Anna Bergman is also a standout. The entire cast is blessed with terrific voices, and what a joy to hear actors sing without the interference of Broadway’s dreaded amplification! And unlike most recalcitrant operas singers, everyone here appears perfectly comfortable with Dobrish’s stylish, playful approach to caricature.
At first glance, Steven Capone’s unit set looks very unexceptional. But together with Michael Gottlieb’s imaginative lighting, those varnished, stuccoed flats never stop taking new, intriguing shape. A back screen also provides many clever, colorful tableaux.
There are a few quibbles. “Blood on the Dining Room Floor” begins with a prologue in which Toklas brings flowers to Stein’s grave and quickly gives us an overview of what happened in the summer of ’33. It is unnecessary and a little treacly, although there’s a lovely epilogue in which Toklas sings a few bars of “On the Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” her and Stein’s favorite tune.
At times, Sheffer’s orchestration seems more accessible than his vocal line, an inconsistency that diminishes as the evening progresses. Perhaps it takes the ear a while to adjust to his unusual harmonies. Then again, although he’s done some ingenuous tinkering with Stein’s text, completely original lyrics might have provided a better fit for his ravishing music.