In case you haven’t noticed, I do not review Tulane Summer Lyric. This is not from a distaste of musicals on my part. In fact, I attend all their productions as part of The Big Easy Awards’ Musical Theatre Committee. I believe the shows are an important part of our cultural fabric if only for the fact that they give audiences an opportunity to hear a full orchestra play some of Broadway’s great scores. However, I choose not to critically engage for three reasons: the shows only run a week, the built in nature of the audience makes the review an exercise in criticism rather than a cultural service, and given the brevity of the rehearsal period, it is my belief that there is an inescapable flaw inherently built into the process. It is that final reasons I am addressing today, and to do so, I must break my rule of not reviewing ever so slightly.
In a column two weeks ago, I addressed the insanity of the rehearsal window that commercial theatre deals with in New Orleans. In the case of Summer Lyric, those challenges are exponentially multiplied. Because of the cost of the orchestra and the large cast, the rehearsal schedule is not abbreviated; it is borders on a death march. The fact those shows happen at all is a miracle. Summer Lyric directors are forced into a Solomon’s Choice. Either focus on the overall flow of the evening by working on transitions and pace, or take the time to focus on individual, and in some cases beloved, moments within production to generate show stopping moments. There are unintended consequences for both actions. If the first road is taken, the show moves seamlessly but fails to really wow. But if a director exercises the second option, a production will produce thrilling individual triumphs but lurch in fits and starts of pacing and movement. Furthermore, the second option too often produces shows that are almost a half hour longer than they should be. This second condition was the case with Into the Woods.
I bring all this up, because director Diane Lala came as close to solving the problem with Man of La Mancha as a director can. A bit of an old hand at this method of working, Lala blocked the show so crisply that I was deriving actual pleasure from watching her move actors from scene to scene. Her agenda seemed to be not to let the audience breathe and get them out of the theatre as quickly as possible. But the real revelation was her casting Kyra Miller in the role of Aldonza. I mean that in two ways. First, Miller was arrestingly terrific in sea of pleasant, unoffensive performances. She did something you very rarely see in the Lyric time frame: she was acting while she was singing. It was not just hitting the right notes or striking the right poses. This was not a matter of showcasing while hitting notes. That is not acting; that is featuring the self. Nor was it that truly infuriating musical theatre quality of damn-the-stakes-I-want-to-be-liked. This was something different. She was doing beat work within the songs, listening for meaning from fellow performers, and adjusting her reactions even while singing. You were so involved in the performance that you only noticed her spectacular voice when she hit notes that amplified the emotional content. Second, her turn reminded me that casting ferociously trained performers, like not only Miller but also Kasey Marino from Company two years ago, can simply bring the force of their talent/preparation into the arena and raise all boats with their efforts.
Of course, there is a reason neither Lala nor those two actors live here.