Jeffery Roberson – bravely shedding his longtime nom de théâtre, Varla Jean Merman -- plays it straight, if cross-dressed, as the title character of Gian Carlo Menotti's powerful one-hour chamber opera The Medium, a macabre gem well suited to the intimate The Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater at the West Side YMCA.
In this production, cleverly directed by Donna Drake, you'll wait in vain for any hint of Varla Jean's high-sopranic giggle and dainty post-debutante deportment (offset by a ferocious gross streak). In contrast, Madame Flora (aka "Baba") , the medium of the title, is one tough old broad -- a mean drunk and unrepentant charlatan who preys on bereaved parents.
Baba's young daughter Monica (lush-voiced Stefanie Izzo) provides the soundtrack for the juvenile departed; an adopted street urchin, Toby (Edmund Bagnell), is responsible for the poltergeist-like special effects (very effective in Michael Steer's off-kilter funhouse of a set). And in a twist unique to this production, Toby "speaks" with a violin, rather than acting out his emotions with puppets.
Bagnell not only resembles an incipient adolescent (all apple cheeks and developing delts), he plays his instrument exquisitely and is also a fine actor, adding immeasurably to the poignancy of Toby's plight.
As he and Monica approach sweetheart status (she has a lovely aria in which she declares his love on his behalf), he and Baba are locked in a sadistic danse macabre. You can see the monstrous old fraud, makeup smeared à la Baby Jane, struggling not to take out her frustrations on her all too accessible, literal whipping boy, and repeatedly losing the battle. "Who would have cared for you, poor little halfwit?" she taunts him. Like any abuser, she blames her victim: "You're making me angry again!"
Roberson's height advantage comes in handy: at one point Baba tosses Toby about like a rag doll. And the beatings are truly punishing: audiences will likely flinch in sympathy.
Holding his own in the company of a promising young soprano and three accomplished pros playing the supplicants (Shannon Carson, Peter Kendall Clark, Maria Elena Amijo, all moving), Roberson triumphs by dint of actorly conviction and some hard-won vocal technique.