When one of Canada’s two major theater festivals puts its full resources behind the world premiere of a new musical, it indicates a considerable vote of confidence in the authors. “Maria Severa” marks the second time the Shaw Festival has gone to bat for the team of Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli, having launched their tuner “Tristan” in 2007 — and “Maria” marks a considerable advance over earlier works by the duo.
Sportelli has been the fest’s musical director for 12 seasons and Turvey, his partner in life as well as art, has been an actor there for 11 seasons. Their new show recounts a portion of the life story of the title character, a 19th century Portuguese prostitute who became the first major artist in the song form known as fado, the Iberian equivalent of the blues.
With an appropriate ethnic flavor throughout, the score is a considerable achievement — Turvey and Sportelli never stoop to mere pastiche or imitation, and their attempts to create fado songs for Maria to sing result in powerful numbers like “Between a Man and a Woman.”
There’s also a very effective octet ensemble number, “The Bullfighting Song,” during which the watchers at a bullfight share their individual and group perspectives, resulting in a marriage of Lerner and Loewe’s “Ascot Gavotte” and Sondheim’s “Someone in a Tree.” It works amazingly well.
Unfortunately, the book Turvey and Sportelli have concocted doesn’t have the weight or the originality of their songs. It’s a pretty predictable affair about an aristocratic bullfighter, Armando (Mark Uhre), who falls in love with the lowly Maria (Julie Martell) but loves her for her art as well as her physical charms.
Armando’s mother, Constance (Sharry Flett), is an impoverished battle-ax who wants her son to marry the mousy but rich Clara (Jacqueline Thair) to save her and her other son, the alcoholic Fernando (Jonathan Gould), from poverty.
At the other end of the spectrum, Maria has allies in hot-blooded Brazilian streetwalker Jasmine (Sacha Dennis), guitar-playing devotee Carlos (Jeff Irving) and her hearty, old-fashioned Mama (Jenny L. Wright).
It’s not hard to predict what will happen as these two social worlds collide. Although the show’s first act sustains interest as all the pieces are put into play, the second act falls apart at the seams, especially in one long sequence where three supporting characters are each given lengthy solos to sing while the leads vanish from view.
There’s a melodramatic but effective final scene that brings down the curtain on a moving combination of tragedy, heartbreak and passion, but the scenes leading up to it need serious work.
Shaw a.d. Jackie Maxwell’s direction is visually pleasing on a striking ramped set by Judith Bowden, lit by Kevin Lamotte with flashy costumes from Sue LePage. But both Maxwell and LePage let the musical’s poorer characters down by not making them dirty or gritty enough, both in behavior and apparel. There’s too much cute “happy peasant” acting going on.
Shaw veteran Martell brings the right combination of vulgarity and vulnerability to Maria. Her romantic opposite, Uhre, isn’t necessarily macho enough to be believable as a victorious bullfighter, but he has a stirring voice and captures the aristocratic nature of his character.
Irving also scores as the pathetically devoted Carlos. Flett has the necessary hard edge as Constance (although she’s denied a character-defining solo), and Neil Barclay delivers an empathetic Father Manuel. Wright, however, goes too far in the Broadway tradition as Mama, while Gould and Thair do their best with underwritten one-note parts.
The best part of “Maria Severa” remains the score, orchestrated by Sportelli for a tight four-piece combo and sung with acoustic gusto by the cast. With a better book, the show could have a life at the regionals and Off Broadway.