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(l-r) Tod Mason,
Teri Dale Hansen and
Mark Cortale in
One can't read or hear a name or title like Splendora and not quickly focus on the multiplicity of potential cultural references entombed in the name. Endora: Agnes Moorehead on television's "Bewitched," all frowzy elegance and moxie. Splendor: In the grass; the sumptuousness of anything. Splendora: A sumptuous, frowzy musical with much mouthy moxie.

Chortle if you wish over this queer dissection of the title, but save enough for the show itself, currently Off-Broadway in an open run at the Chelsea Playhouse. The name of the show--and the 1978 cult novel by Edward Swift upon which it is based--is the name of the fictional Texas town, population 745, where the show takes place, and where Timothy John Coleridge (Mark Cortale), an effeminate young man, was run out of town long ago.

Coleridge's aunt--perhaps the pseudo-sexual source of Timothy John's effeminateness--was an example of Splendora's finest citizenry as well as the victim of a terrible fire. We learn this at rise from the dotty, cartoony townspeople, including Maga Dell Spivy (Susan Roberts), Zeda Earl Goodrich (Carol Tammen), Lucille Monroe (Shannon Carson), Agnes Pullen (Culver Casson), and Sue Ella Lightfoot (Kristine Zbornik), the new sheriff-elect. In a performance that clearly deserves an Obie Award and hosannahs from left, right, and center, Zbornik, the actress, is the spitfire comic relief of the show, and her character, better still, the emotional motor of the play. This veteran of Forbidden Broadway and countless cabaret venues, with her uncanny Merman-esque voice, turns what might have been a one-dimensional Sue Ella into a thrilling, two-dimensional performance.

Now enter Miss Jessica Gatewood (Teri Dale Hansen), a beautiful and intelligent young woman contracted to run the county bookmobile (and all comparisons to The Music Man from here on are entirely intentional). From the moment of Jessica's arrival, her refined ways, plaintive drawl, and easy adoption of Splendora civic pride captivates the town--so much so that the town pastor, Brother Leggett (Tod Mason), soon finds himself having to choose between his needs as a cleric and his needs as a man.

Meanwhile, Sue Ella quickly grows suspicious of Jessica, and we know why: Timothy John has been on stage with her since the start of the play, and yet is invisible to the Splendorans.

In one critically lauded, tongue-twisting number, "What Is, Ain't," Sue Ella ultimately figures out that Timothy John is Jessica--but that isn't what makes the discovery so exciting. It's really the completion of the journey that the characters take, in particular that of the troubled, sexually-damaged boy who left home, came to terms with his sexuality, and returned to reclaim his roots and rights and reason.
(l-r) Kristine Zbornik and
Teri Dale Hansen in Splendora
What's so utterly magical about Splendora is the masterful exploration and re-imagination of the old ego/alter-ego, visible/invisible conceit, something once familiarly exploited by Mary Chase in Harvey and even on early television by the sitcom "Topper." Reaching back even further, the dramaturgical antecedents for this might arguably be O'Neill's Strange Interlude or, even before that, The Great God Brown. Still, all of those are plays; what makes Splendora different is how its authors deftly employ and very often mutate the conventions, techniques and modalities of musical theater language to tell the story, investigate character, entertain the audience, and achieve catharsis.

Naturally the story and score must be seamlessly blended--and after more than half a decade in development, they are. Peter Webb's libretto is a cavalcade of economical but relentless snappy dialogue that often shimmers with hidden sleight-of-hand phrases that may elude at first but are virtually guaranteed to percolate to the top of one's consciousness long after the curtain call.

Together with an eccentric, facile, and whipper-snapper score by Stephen Hoffman (music) and Mark Campbell (lyrics), it's no wonder that Splendora first rose to prominence when it won the 1995 Richard Rodgers Award, a coveted prize that comes in the form of a $100,000 check. Under the proviso that the award must be put toward a production at a not-for-profit theater, Sag Harbor's Bay Street Theater happily provided such a venue that same year.

Since then, Splendora has enjoyed one of the most remarkable journeys of any musical in the last 10 years, surfacing again and again--from the American Place Theatre, where the show garnered two Drama Desk nominations, to its newest pair of lives, both courtesy of The Illyria Theatre. Described as "a new, not-for-profit repertory company dedicated to staging revivals of musicals that have pushed the traditional boundaries of the genre and the development of new works," the group first revived Splendora at Off-Off-Broadway's Pantheon Theatre before moving the show to its current Off-Broadway run (the fourth production in five years), which features carefully calibrated staging by Donna Drake.

No review of Splendora would be complete without a citation of favorite lyrics. Mine is: "Her body was burnt/But our memories weren't." And may our memories of Splendora always burn ever brighter.

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