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A Brigadoon for modern times

The Goodman Theatre's 21st-century revival retrieves a postwar classic from the misty past.



In 1943, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Oklahoma! stirred audiences with its youthful optimism, glorifying a hero who was willing to fight for the woman and the land he loved. "Oh, what a beautiful morning," the singing cowboy crooned—just what Americans needed to hear at the peak of World War II.

But after the war—as people began to comprehend the horrors of the Holocaust, the devastation of Europe's great cities, and the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki—earthy hopefulness gave way to anxious uncertainty about the meaning of life and the precariousness of human existence, prompting a vogue for tales in which magic and miracles provided a sense of hope. In the 1946 film It's a Wonderful Life, a man is saved from suicide by a guardian angel. And the despairing protagonist of Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1945 Carousel actually does commit suicide; a heavenly Starkeeper gives him a chance to return to earth to set things right for the family he left behind.

In the 1947 hit Brigadoon, a world-weary war veteran, Tommy Albright, stumbles across an enchanted 18th-century village in the Scottish highlands, called Brigadoon, that appears on earth only one day every 100 years before vanishing into the highland mists. Tommy falls in love with a village lass, Fiona, and chooses to remain in the miraculous world where time has stopped in 1746. Like Carousel, Brigadoon invites its audience to believe in love as a spiritual force so powerful it can transcend time and space.

In the original Brigadoon, written by librettist Alan Jay Lerner and composer Frederick Loewe, the village is supernaturally protected from witches. (The name "Brigadoon" seems to be drawn from Robert Burns's 1791 poem "Tam o' Shanter," about a farmer who escapes from a witch by fleeing across the river Doon via a bridge—the Brig o' Doon.) But Brigadoon wasn't really about witchcraft; the witches were a metaphor for the evils of the world.

In Goodman Theatre's excellent new version of Brigadoon, for which Lerner's original script has been revised by Brian Hill, the witch metaphor is discarded entirely. Here, the evil that the village avoids is very real. It's war—specifically, the 1745-'46 uprising of Scottish highlanders against the British monarchy. Hill's libretto underscores a thematic connection between the 18th-century conflict and the 20th-century world war from which Tommy has returned, disillusioned and emotionally lost. Director-choreographer Rachel Rockwell and Hill seek to make Brigadoon resonant for audiences besieged by daily news of bloodshed around the world—Israel, Iraq, Syria, Ukraine, Nigeria, central Africa—and anxious about American involvement in the endless, ever-escalating violence.

Rockwell and musical director Roberta Duchak have gathered a first-rate cast, headed by soprano Jennie Sophia and baritone Kevin Earley as Fiona and Tommy. Their soaring voices are grounded in simple, honest characterizations. Their songs—the sweetly rustic "The Heather on the Hill," the bouncy "Almost Like Being in Love," the rapturous "There But for You Go I"—feel realistic and conversational even at their most lyrical. Goodman's Brigadoon also adds new depth to the character of the virtuous one-man woman Fiona by eliminating some of her more antiquated dialogue and reassigning to her the dramatically powerful farewell ballad "From This Day On" (sung by Tommy in the original version).

Brigadoon is a classic example of the golden age of American musical theater (1943-'64), characterized by shows that synthesized script, song, dance, and design in the service of story and character. A key figure in the development of this style was Agnes de Mille, whose choreography for Oklahoma!, Carousel, and Brigadoon established dance as an essential element in furthering dramatic narrative. For this production, Rockwell and associate choreographer Gordon Peirce Schmidt are clearly influenced by the pioneering choreographer in their blending of folk dance and classical ballet idioms. In the lilting "Come to Me, Bend to Me," Fiona's younger sister Jean dances a light and graceful pas de deux with the man she's about to marry—who's blindfolded because he's not allowed to see the bride on their wedding day. In sharp contrast is the fiercely thrilling "Sword Dance," performed at Jean's wedding by the powerful Rhett Guter as Jean's rejected suitor, Harry.

As Tommy's wisecracking, cynical sidekick Jeff, Rod Thomas delivers his sardonic quips with well-timed wryness worthy of a Jack Carson or an Eve Arden. Jordan Brown brings a bright tenor and eager energy to the role of Jean's fiance, Charlie. And Maggie Portman's edgy belt and irrepressible laugh bring a charming humanity to the stereotyped role of Fiona's boisterous, boy-chasing friend Meg.

Costume designer Mara Blumenfeld's richly patterned tartan costumes and the visual design of Kevin Depinet (set), Shawn Sagady (visual projections), and Aaron Spivey (lights) enhance the show's storybook atmosphere. And though the pit orchestra sounds a bit thin, the choral arrangements are glorious.

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