New York stages have not been kind to Federico Garcia Lorca this season. First he was summoned from the grave to figure as a spiritual guide in Nilo Cruz’s soporific play “Beauty of the Father.” Now his simmering drama “The House of Bernarda Alba” has been subjected to an unnecessary musicalization by the ubiquitous Michael John LaChiusa. However, there’s less in this stubbornly uninvolving treatment to suggest the hand of the much in-demand musical theater composer than that of a first-year women’s studies student, boldfacing the play’s themes of female oppression with all the delicacy of flamenco heels pounding a wooden floor.
From the opening setup of director-choreographer Graciela Daniele’s regimented staging — straight-backed chairs lined up against a stark white wall with a heavy, central wooden door — it’s clear that flamenco, so often incorporated in Lorca interpretations, is the musical idiom of choice.
The proud, muscular rhythms of the form — punctuated by claps, clicks and stomps — together with the jagged, modernist sounds more characteristic of the prolific LaChiusa, make “Bernarda Alba” a dark and intriguing musical score. But the droning, atonal songs, with their ponderously literal lyrics, are too fragmented to define character or to build emotion or dramatic momentum.
As a narrative, the adaptation connects the dots of Lorca’s plot efficiently enough. But rather than lending fresh resonance to the tragic tale of a tyrannical widowed mother and her five unwed daughters, the musical interpretation chills and dilutes the fiery passions, bristling tensions and caged sexuality so essential to the play.
That’s not to say there’s anything anemic about the performances, starting with Phylicia Rashad as the iron-fisted title character, who declares following her unfaithful husband’s death, “Not a breath of outside air is going to enter this house. Not for as long as we’re in mourning.” While Rashad’s occasional flashes of empowered contemporary attitude tend to jar in the context of a village in 1930s rural Spain, she’s a formidable matriarch, fiercely conflicted by her imprisoning fear of disrepute and her anger at being forced to live and struggle like a man.
But while an effective presentation of Lorca’s play can generate searing dramatic potency and trenchant political metaphor in this hothouse of women, here there’s something distancing and obvious about all the overwrought resentment being spat out onstage.
“You took what you wanted/And then you took more/You took my love, my love, my love/And made me your whore,” sings Bernarda to her dead husband, Antonio, repeating the word “whore” several times in case anyone missed the cancerous, consuming nature of her disgust. This seems understated, however, next to a later song about an escaped stallion mounting a mare, with all the girls bellowing, “Open the door! And let me in!”
Bernarda’s daughters are reduced largely to character types defined by gossiping housekeeper Poncia (an abrasive Candy Buckley) in the prologue song; Angustias (Saundra Santiago), the first daughter and, tradition dictates, the first to marry; lazy Magdalena (Judith Blazer); timid Amelia (Sally Murphy); Martirio (Daphne Rubin-Vega), too ugly to marry; and Adela (Nikki M. James), the youngest and prettiest.
Under Daniele’s bludgeoning directorial hand, there’s much urgent stomping about on the weathered wooden boards of designer Christopher Barreca’s stage. But the only performers given something substantial to chew on, aside from Rashad, are Rubin-Vega and James. Martirio seethes with envy, exclusion and covetousness, while Adela is too spirited and passionate to deny her desires, even if it means stealing her sister’s intended husband.
But none of the characters are given three-dimensional rendering by LaChiusa, so the cast claws, sweats and snarls its way through the show’s stolid 90 minutes with meager dramatic dividends. Even the play’s shattering conclusion, when violent death touches the family, has little impact.
In the end, it’s the textured shapes of Michael Starobin’s brooding orchestrations and the expressive, shadowy patterns of Stephen Strawbridge’s lighting that command the most admiration and attention.
LaChiusa’s many supporters like to point out that he continues to explore difficult material in challenging forms that refuse to pander to audiences accustomed to easy emotional and melodic hooks. But when that cerebral disconnect pushes the aud away from a drama rather than pulling them in, the wisdom has to be questioned. Here, he does Lorca no favors.