In the engrossing debut production at the newly renovated NoHo Arts Center, Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” has been transferred from 19th century London to contemporary New Orleans. Director James J. Mellon, who also wrote the book (with Duane Poole) and music and lyrics (with Scott DeTurk), cleverly juggles every complex element, altering story points while retaining the basic ingredients that made Wilde’s novel so marvelously macabre. To perfect this picture, what’s needed are second-act trims and clearer plot transitions.
Max Von Essen is physically ideal casting for Dorian, Wilde’s example of “exquisite” beauty, and the story takes off quickly when artist Henry Lord (Kevin Bailey) paints his portrait and makes persistent sexual advances. As in the book, Lord destroys Dorian’s innocence, smashes his love affair with the beautiful Celia (Nikki Renee Daniels) and pushes him down the path of decadence.
In Mellon and Poole’s version, rather than requesting eternal youth, Dorian makes a wish not to feel anything again after learning from Lord about his mother’s tragic suicide. But in both scenarios, his portrait ages and shows increasing evidence of debauchery while he remains obscenely young.
Dorian is a tricky part to play, and Von Essen has a sweetness that makes his early naivete believable. He also sings superbly, with an actor’s instinctive understanding of lyric interpretation.
Von Essen is, in fact, so pure that it takes time to adjust to him as a vice-addicted, unfeeling monster. He’s a little too nice, even when the script tells us, “Nothing was too sick and grotesque for Dorian”; the story’s horror would be heightened if his callousness showed a darker edge.
Bailey’s Lord is given the production’s wittiest lines, and he tosses them off with assurance. He also captures the character’s insinuating evil and scores heavily in such numbers as “Be Careful What You Wish For” and “New Orleans Society.”
Craig Siebels’ ominous attic set and his elaborate framework for a Mardi Gras sequence contribute a richly atmospheric flavor. As Mama, owner of a seedy brothel, Armelia McQueen has the soulful charisma that Queen Latifah demonstrated in “Chicago,” and her rocking renditions of “Getting Old” and “Mr. Rooster” are calculated crowd-pleasers that squarely hit the mark. Among Scott A. Lane’s sumptuous costumes, his rooster outfit for Mama is a standout.
Daniels, portraying Dorian’s discarded lover, delicately exemplifies the agony of rejection. She has a lovely voice but doesn’t always project strongly enough.
One of Mellon’s inspired notions is using an actor (Adam Simmons) as the portrait that gradually disintegrates into torn, shattered ugliness. Simmons demonstrates a remarkable ability to stand still for long periods, until he erupts into song. Aided by Jeremy Pivnick’s chiaroscuro lighting, he lends the picture a mesmerizing soul.
Toward the end of the evening, musical interludes delay the resolution too long. But the final, catastrophic clash between portrait and subject is a spellbinding one and shows the potential of “Dorian” to travel and enjoy enduring popularity.