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Seance on a Wet Afternoon

Lauren Flanigan gives an impressive performance in New York City Opera's production of Stephen Schwartz's new work about a medium's descent into madness.

Boyd Schalefer, Pamela Jones, Lauren Flanigan, Jane Shaulis
and Doug Purcell in Seance on a Wet Afternoon
(© Carol Rosegg)
The medium Myra Foster isn't pleased with the recognition she's getting for her polite sessions attended by anxious believers, so she concocts a kidnapping scheme to call attention to herself. That's the chilling arc of Seance on a Wet Afternoon, the respectable if short of genuinely enthralling opera Stephen Schwartz has adapted from Mark McShane's 1961 novel and the 1964 Bryan Forbes film, now debuting at New York City Opera.

After cajoling meek husband Billy (Kim Josephson) into helping her, Myra (Lauren Flanigan) reckons that she can grab publicity by supposedly channeling the whereabouts of the missing girl, Adriana (Bailey Grey) -- who she's keeping sedated in an upstairs bedroom -- through her control Arthur (Michael Kepler Meo), who's actually a manifestation of her long-dead son.

Myra then makes a bold point of contacting the girls well-heeled parents, Rita (Melody Moore) and Charles (Todd Wilander), thereby arousing the suspicion of Inspector Watts (Philip Boykin). The more Myra finagles -- succumbing to what she maintains are Arthur's homicidal demands -- the more she sinks into tragic madness.

It's a bleak tale, which may be one reason designers Heidi Ettinger (sets) and Alejo Vietti (costumes) have given the work a predominantly black, white, and gray atmosphere, with Ettinger's curtains of beaded chains (meant to represent constant precipitation) particularly noteworthy.

Schwartz's score -- conducted by George Manahan with full understanding and featuring generous opportunities for harp, oboe and even saxophone -- is easily accessible, probably because it's relatively safe. The most successful sequence occurs just before curtain when the composer-librettist unwraps a septet contrapuntally evoking the cross-purposes at which Myra, Billy, all three Claytons, Watts and Arthur have tragically strived.

However, Schwartz -- who has thrown himself into this foray with unquestionable sincerity -- hasn't successfully fought all of his Great-White-Way-tuner impulses. He can't stop veering toward "Defying Gravity" power-balladism, and too often gives in to rhymed lyrics dripping with emotional cliches.

Moreover, he does appear to underestimate the musical possibilities suggested by the relationship between the manipulative Myra and the acquiescing, slow-to-boil Billy (which were fleshed out with such subtlety in the film by Kim Stanley and Richard Attenborough). He also changes the opera's conclusion drastically.

Since Schwartz wrote the role of Myra for Flanigan, there's nothing surprising about the extent to which she fits it vocally and physically. There are times when she's more flailingly histrionic than she needs to be to illustrate Myra's losing grip on sanity, but she makes every sung note count -- and the few spoken lines land as well.

The rest of the cast members also give conscientious director Scott Schwartz (the author's son) reason to be proud, with special mention going to young Grey and Meo for their unusually precocious accomplishments.