Matador | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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Marriott's Lincolnshire Theatre

The appeal of the bullfight--for those who perceive it--lies in the contest between brains and brawn, between the grace and courage of a man and the brute force of an enraged beast. A similar conflict is played out in the new musical Matador, receiving its world premiere at Marriott's Lincolnshire Theatre. The show, full of both promise and flaws, is a study in contrast between exciting and original flourishes of music and dance and the brutal banality of ponderous cliche. If the creators of Matador can eliminate the enormous dead weight that drags the show down and reinforce the work's many fresh and beautiful qualities, they may very well have an international hit on their hands.

That certainly is their intention. The people behind Matador seem to believe that this can be the latest winner in the pop-opera sweepstakes already won by Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, and Les Miserables, among others. Like its predecessors, Matador began as a concept album--a 1987 CBS Records release, starring Tom Jones and Robert Powell, that produced one hit single, "A Boy From Nowhere," in the European market. The original record was a dramatization of the life of El Cordobes, the Spanish bullfighter whose reckless daring made him an international celebrity in the early 1960s. Making up for lack of technique with showmanship, courage, and charisma, the youthful, long-haired El Cordobes was in many ways the Elvis of bullfighting, the Cassius Clay of the corrida; he replaced formality and finesse with an irreverent bravado that infuriated older traditionalists but thrilled younger fans.

With their album on the market, Matador's creators--composer Mike Leander, lyricist Edward Seago, and producer Laurence Myers--set out to bring the show to the stage. (The three are veterans of the British pop-music industry. Leander, besides being a successful songwriter and arranger--he wrote the string quartet charts for "She's Leaving Home" on the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band--served as executive producer on the original Jesus Christ Superstar album.) Eventually they made contact with director David Bell, whose longtime affiliation with Marriott's Lincolnshire Theatre brought the project here.

In the course of fashioning a script, Bell, Seago, Leander, and Myers decided that El Cordobes's life lacked the necessary dramatic twists and turns so they developed a fictional story about a young torero named Domingo, a peasant kid whose parents were wiped out by the local oligarch in the aftermath of the Spanish Civil War. Domingo's pursuit of personal glory in the bullring is fueled in part by his obsession with keeping his parents' revoluton alive; by fighting the bulls Don Ramon breeds, Domingo is symbolically fighting Don Ramon himself.

The elements are familiar: a young, poor kid (Jesus, Evita, Jean Valjean) is driven by ferocious pride in a climate of political instability and social injustice. The difference is that it's harder to care about a kid who kills bulls for a living than to care about a religious messiah, a glamorous dictator, or a fugitive from the law. In order for us to care about Domingo's rebellion, we have to believe that the stakes he's playing for are indeed life or death.

This is where Matador presently fails. And frankly it's mostly a matter of style. Yes, the script is corny and cliche-ridden. The characters are the usual stock types: the innocent and faithful hometown girlfriend, her gruff but good-hearted papa, the cruel and arrogant oligarch, the bitchy American starlet who dazzles Domingo, and so on. At times the dialogue crosses the line from corn to camp: "Am I just a memory from a time and place so painful you chose to forget it?" asks Domingo's girlfriend, Margarita, when she walks in on him and the starlet. And the plot is a predictable rehash of myriad blood-and-sand melodramas.

But the real problem here is the production. Instead of fire and passion, we get white bread. Michael S. Lynch, as Domingo, projects an endearing youthful machismo but no sense of risk; he's not much of a dancer, and his pop baritone trivializes the music with its generic rock-video inflections. David Bell's staging is surprisingly slack and occasionally clumsy--for instance, Domingo's big song of self-expression, "A Boy From Nowhere," was delivered to only one portion of the in-the-round audience: the rest of us might as well have been listening to the radio.

Yet there are key moments in which Matador reveals great promise. To Bell's credit, it was his idea to stage the bullfights as stylized flamenco ballet, and he imported Spanish choreographer Rafael Aguilar. The three numbers Aguilar is credited with--the extended bullfight sequences that end each act and a sizzling pas de deux that accompanies Margarita's big love song--are by far the best aspect of the show: formally beautiful, musically exciting, and sensually expressive. The dance sequences showcase Spanish dancers Manolo de Cordoba and Marcos Olivera, and their exciting solo turns provide a welcome authenticity compared to the other dancers' chorus-boy blandness.

Mike Leander's hybrid Spanish-pop composing style tends to be repetitive, but it has several genuinely strong songs ("A Boy From Nowhere," "I'll Dress You in Mourning," "To Be a Matador") and, especially in David Siegel's orchestrations, an appealing and listenable sound. Edward Seago's lyrics, extensively rewritten since the original record, are serviceable at best and laughable at worst; he should get away from self-conscious rhyming and write to reflect the characters. (As Evita's "Don't Cry for Me, Argentina" proved, you don't have to rhyme when you give the singer strong ideas and emotions to play.) Some rewriting would help Matador considerably. But the main thing that is eventually going to make this show a hit or a flop is its look. The taut compositions and compelling attitudes in Rafael Aguilar's choreography and his two Spanish dancers' performances should be the rule, not the fleeting exception.

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