Trouble in Tahiti
Leonard Bernstein, music and libretto
Jay Turvey, director
Paul Sportelli, musical direction
Linda Garneau, choreography
Michael Gianfrancesco, designer
Andrew Smith, lighting
Starring: Elodie Gillett (Dinah), Mark Uhre (Sam)
Reviewed in preview. Play opens officially on July 4.
In 1952, when clusters of Americans were fleeing cities for the supposedly ideal life in the suburbs, Leonard Bernstein wrote the mordant and beautiful Trouble in Tahiti. Calling this one-act opera prescient is understating the case. Bernstein could see the shallowness of suburbia and the perfect family just as it was starting, in the Eisenhower-Nixon Republican Fifties.
The Shaw Festival has a grand tradition of presenting innovative noon-hour “miniatures,” one-act plays—or, in this case, an opera. Jay Turvey, the actor who plays Tateh in Ragtime, directs this two-hander, which dramatizes the dilemmas of Sam and Dinah, nice people who don’t understand why they don’t love each other anymore.
Trapped in the suburbs, stuck with the never-seen Junior, Dinah has to be psychoanalyzed in the city every week. Big, blustery Sam doesn’t suffer from Dinah’s anxieties; he’s a handball champ and is still very attractive to the women around him, including his secretary. Bernstein has no solutions for this lovely, sad couple—only questions.
He has created a terrific score, which fully uses a jazz-style quartet of keyboards—played by musical director Paul Sportelli—drums, bass and woodwinds (clarinet and flute). The cool, jazzy stylings that set up the couple’s “little white house” in the suburbs also cleverly illustrates Sam’s rich Mad Men working day in the metropolis. In contrast are beautiful ballads that express the duo’s desire to connect with their past—and themselves.
Trouble in Tahiti is a little gem. Bernstein fans will notice that certain musical pieces are reminiscent of On the Town or are “sketches” for Wonderful Town and West Side Story. While that’s true, the music has integrity and can stand up to anything written by Bernstein. This production is, well, wonderful, from its choreography to its music to its lighting. So too is Mark Uhre as Sam, who is suitably big and blustery. In previews—which is what I saw—Elodie Gillett is still struggling to make her voice felt in duets with Uhre. On her own, she’s fine. Time will tell whether she will become a memorable Dinah. In any case, this is a piece that should be seen—and heard.