Sadie Thompson, that naughty lady of Pago-Pago, has had the struggle over her soul dramatized innumerable times on stage and screen since Somerset Maugham created her in his 1921 short story “Rain.” It’s most surprising to see her treading the boards again in 2016, especially in such a serious musical drama as this “Rain,” a world premiere at the Old Globe Theater. Whereas “Giant,” the previous collaboration of librettist Sybille Pearson and composer-lyricist Michael John LaChiusa, wrestled a sprawling potboiler into an incisive indictment of U.S. race relations, “Rain” teases a sophisticated treatment of modern sexual politics out of an old warhorse.
Maugham’s general outline — Pacific missionary tries to bring the prostitute Sadie to Jesus and is himself overwhelmed by desire — remains, under Barry Edelstein’s direction. But the usual sin vs. salvation theme is pointedly sidelined in favor of exploring the accommodations men and women must make to each other.
Far from the traditional one-note martinet, crusading Rev. Alfred Davidson (compelling Jared Zirilli) is young and sexy, clearly already unhinged and beset by personal demons which stalwart wife Anna (a magnetic Elizabeth A. Davis), easily the stronger of the pair, attempts to check through the power of prayer.
Fascinating parallels to the Davidsons’ dynamic come from minor Maugham characters Pearson has built up. Louisa Macphail (Betsy Morgan) is game but helpless as doctor husband Alec (a haunted Tally Sessions) descends into alcoholism brought on by World War I horrors. Meanwhile, proprietor Jo Horn (a vigorous Jeremy Davis) and pregnant wife Noi Noi (Marie-France Arcilla, luminous) present a “golden mean” of a healthy relationship marked by mutual respect.
As the uneasy mood is deepened by distant tribal drums and torrents of rainwater (patrons sensitive to humidity, beware), song is shrewdly integrated with spoken dialogue to contrast each desperate couple’s efforts to achieve and maintain balance. Jo and Noi Noi’s flirtatious “The English Lesson” could be the most winning musical east-west melding since Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Happy Talk.” Yet when Morgan, a cast standout, has Louisa work the number’s magic on Alec (“Make me want to love you”), the Macphails’ rift is humiliatingly widened.
“Rain” is drenched with a sense of librettist and lyricist working hand in glove, such that no character sings unless and until the spoken word won’t suffice. LaChiusa’s gift for character-defining soliloquies is much in evidence here, while world-music interpolations — Pacific chants, Scottish folk ballads and those incessant drums — reinforce the notion of fissures in the human fabric constantly threatening to engulf and destroy. (Mark Wendland’s spinning, three-level set for the Horn Hotel gradually splits apart to set the stage for Alfred’s ultimate fate.)
Ironically, the character least altered from past Maugham incarnations, Sadie, comes across weakest. Fresh and clean-cut, Eden Espinosa isn’t convincing as a hard-bitten veteran of red light districts and client abuse; she rides on poses borrowed from Sally Bowles and gimcrackery borrowed from mom’s closet. (Katherine Roth’s costumes are otherwise impeccable, but from a gaudy frock Sadie would never wear aboard ship to the final red dress, Roth seems to have shopped in an Amsterdam thrift store’s Hooker Dept.)
Extravagant melodrama teeters between the intense and the risible, and though Edelstein and his actors generally go for broke, there’s a certain tenuousness of tone which may right itself over time. Edelstein and orchestrator Bruce Coughlin also need to tighten up the musical buttons cuing us to applaud.
“Rain” impresses as a stirring story of grownup passions, maturely told. Its ultimate message — that honesty with oneself and one’s partner is the best policy — may not seem particularly novel. But as anyone in a relationship knows, the wages of dishonesty are far more deadly than those of sin, a fact the characters of “Rain” play out with chilling conviction.