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Coram Boy

This sprawling adaptation of the award-winning children's book is far more chaotic than it was in London. logo
Uzo Aduba, Xanthe Elbrick, and company in Coram Boy
(© Joan Marcus)
The sprawling Coram Boy arrives in Manhattan with the kind of quality credentials an ambassador presents to a head of state. The drama has been adapted from Jamila Gavin's 2000 Whitbread Children's Book of the Year by the venerable Helen Edmundson, whose previous transformations of Anna Karenina and The Mill on the Floss have won numerous awards

Moreover, for the last two years the production has been the sold-out Christmas presentation in the National Theatre's vast Olivier auditorium -- which is where I previously saw it -- and was eventually cited by London's Time Out as the year's best play. So why does something that was so distinguished on the English stage now look and sound so chaotic?

Before we grapple fully with that question, let's consider the show itself. Coram Boy is the interweaving of a series of stories which take place in Gloucester and London during the years 1742 and 1750. Slow-witted but well-meaning Meshak Gardiner (Brad Fleischer) and talented, dedicated Alexander Ashbrook (Xanthe Elbrick when young, Wayne Wilcox when slightly older) both run afoul of their respective fathers, evil Otis Gardiner (Bill Camp) and repressive Lord Ashbrook (David Andrew MacDonald).

Gardiner is a con man who passes himself off as a representative of the (actual) Thomas Coram Foundling Hospital. Once he has money in hand from mothers unable to care for their infants, he buries his charges -- sometimes alive. For his part, Lord Ashbrook harms Alexander psychologically by denying him the opportunity to extend his music career beyond the age when he can sing in the local boys' choir, where he's been a leading light, and eventually disinheriting him altogether.

The convoluted plot follows Meshak saving Aaron, the son to whom Alexander's beloved Melissa (Ivy Vahanian) secretly gives birth, and bringing him to the real Coram Hospital. While a handful of decidedly Dickensian characters circulate around the proceedings -- including Alexander's cheery boyhood pal Thomas Ledbury (Dashiell Eaves) and scheming Ashbrook retainer and Gardiner cohort Mrs. Lynch (Jan Maxwell) -- the now eight-year-old Aaron (Elbrick again) becomes a second-generation chorister under mentor Edward Brook, the name which the self-exiled Alexander has assumed. A happy ending looks likely, until trouble once again intervenes.

The play is concerned, as are many 19th-century novels, with the widespread abuse of children not only in the lower classes but within the confines of upper-class homes. The plights of sons estranged from their fathers also recurs, as do instances of death and rebirth -- once by a drowning and two by near drownings.

Moreover, because Handel's music -- as arranged and supplemented by Adrian Sutton and conducted by Constantine Kitsopoulos (in an 18th-century wig) -- is played constantly, the multi-layered drama also emphasizes the importance of music and the arts to the nourishment of the soul. (A 20-person vocal chorus supplements the large cast.)

However, the music obliquely hints at the problems Coram Boy has had crossing an apparently stormy ocean. In London, director Melly Still -- not to mention her co-set and costumer designer Ti Green -- was able to present the themes Gavin and Edmundson blended as if for a theatrical symphony. Here, the off-stage and on-stage production members don't collectively achieve the same gratifying results. It's as if a metaphorical legato necessary to making the high-budget Coram Boy explode with hallelujah-chorus power hasn't nearly been realized.

One main reason for the lesser result is that a play developed for a thrust stage has been forced into the Imperial Theatre's proscenium's limits. More importantly, though, the difference is in the performances of the American cast. There's a disengaging obstreperousness to the playing, particularly among the actors appearing as children. While Elbrick, Camp, Wilcox, MacDonald, and the usually exemplary Maxwell, among others, give more-than-adequate performances, none of them reaches the level of gloriousness.

Sadly, nothing in Coram Boy -- with the exception of reiterated excerpts from Handel's always glorious Messiah -- does. As a result, this show is no longer the kind of must-see event it was across the pond.

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