Medicine Show Theater, New York City, June 19
Spoiled theatergoers accustomed to well-funded spectacle might arch an eyebrow whenever they hear that a production is foregoing distractions like costumes and props so that "the focus is on the material." Just like real-estate-speak heralding an undesirable location as mere "minutes away" from a destination, black-box theatrical readings — typically script-in-hand, half-baked recitations to interest investors — have a way of driving home the feeling that you're not where you want to be, but you can almost see it from there.
Thanks to powerful singing and credible emoting, the Metropolis Opera Project's development reading of "Billy Blythe," by now short-handed by most Arkansans as the Bill Clinton opera, emerged as a destination rather than a way-station when the fledgling company brought it to life in Manhattan earlier this week (after billing it as — that's right — a developmental reading where "the focus is on the material."). If the 11-member cast did not meticulously summon Hope and Hot Springs as the towns awaited their share of America's postwar boom cycle and the agitation of the Civil Rights movement, the performers at least executed a quick and vivid sepia-tinged sketch, the most that can be asked of a one-act play — which the work, crafted by onetime Ouachita Baptist University classmates Bonnie Montgomery and Britt Barber, essentially is.
Imagining the sort of southwest Arkansas heat that might simmer a doughy, self-doubting preteen boy toward rage sufficient to stand up to a loutish abusive stepfather, which represents the young Clinton's crucible in "Billy Blythe," was not difficult. Audience members overrepresenting the tattooed-and-pierced contingent — at least among regular opera-goers — filed up three flights of stairs to the airless Medicine Show Theater, on the far edges of Hell's Kitchen. (An address which makes things sound grittier than they were: David Letterman's and Jon Stewart's theaters are nearby.) An endearingly addled matron with a sweat-dampened pageboy hooted "wooo!" to quiet the crowd for pre-show announcements. She did not mean to mimic a hog call, but might as well have; taking note of the handheld fans fluttering throughout the theater, she observed, "this looks like a funeral in the South."
Despite the material's somber tone the performance was anything but a dirge. Jessica Bowers, the mezzo soprano who sang the role of Clinton's beloved mother Virginia, moved cleverly from the role of coquette with her husband Roger to confidante with her young son Billy, as the two traded memories of William Blythe, Billy's late father and the husband against whom Virginia will clearly measure all others.
A current of wistful desperation lies beneath the surface of the mother-son relationship as captured by Montgomery, the composer, and Barber, the librettist. (The two women drew most of their inspiration from "My Life," Clinton's memoir.) In teasing out these nuances, Bowers' creamy charisma and blemish-free lilt compensated for the lack of seasoning in the characterization of Alex Krasser, as Billy, although he ably located Clinton's future commander-in-chief swagger with "High Noon," a rousing song that imagines Billy leaving Hot Springs' Malco Theater after a viewing of what he would one day cite as his favorite film. “Billy Blythe,” a specimen of the genus “folk opera,” ebbs and flows on an Americana score by turns plaintive and rollicking, and the full ensemble finds a cheering, ragtime esprit de corps in a scene in which Virginia celebrates an afternoon spent cashing in at the racetrack, touching off resentments in a scotch-swilling Roger.
Montgomery has said she constructed "Billy Blythe" on the cornerstone of "Virginia's Aria," the mise-en-scene that came to her first, and the care and attention to detail shows. In the piece's New York staging, Bowers performed the lyrics — a paean to a woman's fading beauty, and the love of the man it once enchanted — while pantomiming with near-religiosity the makeup application the real Virginia Kelley maintained throughout her life. Bowers gazed into the audience as if it were the mirror reflecting back a self she'd trade even her son's future greatness to regain, and the moment was transfixing, if not transportive all the way back to a place called Hope.
Incidentally, the same night that Montgomery arrived in New York to supervise final rehearsals for the show, Bill Clinton went to a place called the Foxwoods Theater, for the opening night of “Spiderman: Turn Off the Dark.” He likely would have been better served holding out for a hero's coming-of-age saga hitting a little closer to home. In both productions, you can spot the wires, but it's a good bet only one featured material worth focusing on.