Like last season’s runaway success, “The History Boys,” Brit designer-turned-director Melly Still’s staging of “Coram Boy” arrives on Broadway with the stamp of quality and inflated expectations of a hit original run and return season at London’s National Theater. Its pedigree is further pumped by the massive production’s much vaunted dimensions, with a cast of 40, including a 20-member choir and an additional eight musicians. In these days of modest two-character, single-set dramas, that scope is undeniably impressive. Pity there’s not a more persuasive play attached. Instead, this adaptation by Helen Edmundson of Jamila Gavin’s novel is self-important staged literature.
Any story that covers elements of infanticide, abandoned children, sexual abuse and juvenile slave trading is bound to have affecting passages. And any production that flings this many theatrical flourishes on the stage (most of them derivative), not to mention stirringly sung excerpts from Handel’s “Messiah,” inevitably will conjure some soaring moments. But the curious effect of “Coram Boy” is that despite an inordinate amount of weeping and wailing, this stodgy 18th century Dickensian soap offers little emotional connection.
Winner of the Whitbread Children’s Book Award, Gavin’s 2000 novel is a ripping multi-strand yarn that covers the decade of 1741-1750 and is packed with narrative incident, social injustice and uplifting salvation. Its colorful characters span the class spectrum, ranging from heartless villain to simpleminded saint.
The book was acquired in February as a film property for Miramax and has the raw ingredients to yield rich screen drama. Even more so, it suggests the kind of fine-grained period piece best explored in upscale TV miniseries like last year’s “Bleak House.”
Onstage, this over-produced epic seems burdened by the shadow of the RSC’s legendary “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby,” which it desperately wants to be, adding spiritual heft to its gritty plot with an ethereal dash of “Angels in America.”
Cutting between scenes like a fidgety film editor with an assist from a central turntable, the director (also co-designer with Ti Green) and writer cover a lot of episodic ground.
Sinister Otis (Bill Camp) and his compassionate halfwit son Meshak (Brad Fleischer) pull a wagon around Gloucestershire, running a lucrative business delivering unwanted children to the Coram Foundling Hospital in London. Middleman is Mrs. Lynch (Jan Maxwell), the morally untroubled housekeeper on the Ashbrook estate, who steers illegitimate children to Otis. While promising the infants’ care and education, Otis murders the babies and continues to extort payment from their mothers for his silence and the children’s welfare.
Running parallel is the story of two gifted 14-year-old music students in the Gloucester Cathedral choir, aristocratic Alexander Ashbrook (Xanthe Elbrick) and his lower-class pal Thomas (Charlotte Parry) — both are played by girls able to grapple with the boys’ unbroken sopranos. Set on having an heir to his estate, Alexander’s stern father (David Andrew Macdonald) crushes his son’s ambition to continue studying music after his voice breaks, causing him to run off, unaware he has gotten the family governess’ daughter, Melissa (Ivy Vahanian), pregnant.
Other-worldly elements are introduced via ghost babies or banshee-like bereaved mothers haunting the woods where the children are buried. There’s also motherless Meshak’s fixation with the statue of an angel in the cathedral, manifested in a commanding vision that descends from the flies. Meshak becomes convinced Melissa is that statue made flesh, prompting his fierce attachment to her baby, whom Otis instructs him to bury. Act one climaxes in an operatic sequence as the living and dead converge to uncover the mass graves and Otis is sent to the gallows.
Act two advances eight years to find two young Coram orphans being sent out into the world. Golden-voiced Aaron (Elbrick again) catches the ear of Handel (Quentin Mare), who organizes his apprenticeship to a musician that turns out to be the adult Alexander (Wayne Wilcox).
Aaron’s friend Toby (Uzo Aduba), who was rescued from a slave ship, is not so lucky and is put into service for a cruel master whose true identity provides a surprise.
After rattling along without an identifiable emotional center for much of the action, the play acquires more immediacy with Alex’s return, his reunion with multiple characters bringing a series of manipulative but often moving moments. Also in the breathless climactic stretch, Aaron and Toby kick into boy’s-own-adventure mode, uncovering slave trafficking and other dastardly deeds.
A visual director stronger on spectacle than on characterization or plotting, Still approaches the vast-canvas drama like a musical, with her mostly unexceptional cast straining to give life to archetypal characters that might be more at home in song.
Musical passages such as “O death where is thy sting” and “For unto us a child is born,” in addition to Adrian Sutton’s passionate original compositions certainly have an impact even if their employment is less than subtle. More than Handel, however, the staging seems to call for blustery Boublil and Schonberg ballads. And when the choir cuts in during the high-drama junctions with archly portentous vocal outbursts, one half expects them to start chanting “Damien” in homage to “The Omen.”
Atmospherically bathed in Paule Constable’s celestial lighting (recreated for Broadway by Ed McCarthy), the set is a network of lofty beams dominated by a central pipe organ elevated on an upper platform that houses the choir for most of the action. But imposing as the stage pictures often are, Still’s mix of broad-strokes, elementary “Masterpiece Theatre” storytelling with stylized tricks feels lumpy and disharmonious. Commendable as it is for its ambition, “Coram Boy” is overwrought melodrama steeped in sentimentality.