This elegant adaptation by Marsha Norman (“‘night, Mother”) of a sweeping multi-decade novel, “The Master Butchers Singing Club,” puts forth impressive contributions all around. Norman’s script captures the essential delicate nature of Midwestern author Louise Erdrich’s prose, and spreads just enough narration among characters to keep things moving without making it feel like you’re being read to. And Francesca Zambello, the driving force behind the production, directs with a flair for simple theatricality and with a tone that stays likably light even while it depicts believably wrenching events.
The story takes place in between the two world wars, and after a necessarily sprawling start, the characters, and the play, settle into Argus, North Dakota, a small Midwestern town where German immigrant Fidelis Waldvogel (an ideal Lee Mark Nelson, stern but always sympathetic) decides to set up his butcher shop and raise his two sons with wife Eva (Katie Guentzel, emanating glowing goodness), whom he married as a final request of a dying soldier-comrade.
Meanwhile, Argus native Delphine Watzka (Emily Gunyou Halaas) returns to her hometown after years of exploration, including teaming up with Cyprian Lazarre (Charlie Brady) on a carnival act in which he climbed to the top of many chairs, which all rested on Delphine’s stomach, a sequence that Zambello suggests gracefully, and with a very smart quickness.
Delphine and Cyprian would be the perfect couple, except for the fact that he’s homosexual – she catches him one evening, but stays with him anyway. Delphine goes to work for the Waldvogels, where she becomes Eva’s best friend, and where she suppresses her sexual passion for Fidelis.
People die, tragedies are averted but still retain the scars of the fears they evoke, and mysteries within the town – dead bodies found in the cellar of Delphine’s alcoholic father’s home – gradually come to light.
The peripheral characters provide humor – particularly Terry Hempleman as Delphine’s dad and Bill McCallum as the town’s sheriff, competent in his job but slimy in his efforts to court the town’s gorgeous flapper-style undertaker (Tracey Maloney). And as the Native American Step and a Half, Sheila Tousey takes a small character in the novel and makes her an affecting central figure and primary narrator.
It’s a compelling yarn, rife with excellent, refined performances, and focused on simple, unpretentious truths about love and endurance. Imagine the progeny of a quirky art-house film like “Amelie” or “Chocolat” and “Little House on the Prairie,” which Zambello previously staged as a nationally touring musical.
The show is plenty good enough to deserve to live on, and maybe even too good not to. One can imagine enthusiastic word-of-mouth from the audiences even more than the critics. But it’s a dauntingly big show, even with the exceedingly intelligent, efficient design work that brings out unit pieces on wheels to capture the town’s various locations and helps the show maintain a steadily breezy pace.
And, in addition to a highly recognizable title, the show lacks a certain grand emotion that would make it more of a lasting experience. One of the most essential components of the narrative – the love between Delphine and Fidelis – is the least convincing currently. It’s something we’re told but don’t really feel.
But even this important flaw doesn’t diminish the winsome quality of this genuinely impressive work.