The stage is dark, but not quite dark enough. The translucent trees are lit with mottled green and blue and dusky rose; they descend from the sky and hang ethereally over the group of actors who float to their places, guided by the barest tint of blue on the otherwise black set. The lights come up, a wash of morning sun. Now you see them –
“Once in the Highlands, the Highlands of Scotland, deep in the night on a murky brae…”
– now you don’t. The lilting, choral music ends after a few lines, the stage fades to that not-quite-black that keeps the actors safe but places us, the audience, in limbo; a mesh-like scrim that ripples like water at the slightest touch separates us from the figures we just saw, divides their reality from ours. “This should be very, very dark and dreamlike,” advises director Charlie Richter as the cast of Brigadoon prepares to run the opening of the show again, making minor tweaks in the lineup and the lighting. The stage is a picture in the process of painting, poetry just before the right word is found. In just a few days’ time, and after a few final touches, this artwork will be ready for all to see.
Brigadoon marks the second mainstage of the 2018/2019 Muhlenberg theatre season and will run from Oct. 26 to 28 and Nov. 1 to 4. Written by legendary duo Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe (who also composed and wrote My Fair Lady and Camelot) and originally run on Broadway in 1947, this show incorporates many of the classic musical elements of its time, according to Julian Mone ‘19, who plays leading man Tommy Albright.
“Brigadoon is a story about two men who find a mystical Scottish village in the Highlands, in that village they find love, but they soon come to learn that what makes the village so special is a secret of miracle sized proportions,” Mone said. “… They just don’t write shows like this anymore. [There are] ten-part ensemble harmonies, big ballet sequences, 21-piece orchestra and lots of big songs filled with larger than life romance. Overall this show is just beautiful, visually stimulating and lets us indulge in the literal magic of love.”
This beauty was evident to me from even the small snippet I was able to witness whilst observing a tech rehearsal – I sat in awe at even the slightest light change or microphone adjustment. For instance, making the trees blue or yellow completely changed the mood of the entire piece, and Richter had a clear vision of how he wanted the audience’s first interaction with the musical to go. By obscuring the Brigadoon residence’s entrance from the audience’s prying eyes until they have arrived on stage, arrested in motion, Richter allows the audience to come to know Brigadoon as both a mysterious place and a site of barely contained stasis, a site where people live and breathe and sing but are still confined to their marks, cleverly alluding to the town’s unfortunate fate. To find out just what that fate is, well, you’ll have to see the show for yourself.
From this spellbinding opening number, the show transitions into a much more casual, conversational tone with the introduction of the two American hunters who facilitate the audience’s entrance into Brigadoon: Tommy Albright (Mone) and Jeff Douglas (John Capocasale ‘22). The pair are lost in the middle of the Scottish wilderness, though one half is lost in more than one sense of the word. As Jeff teasingly points out, Tommy has everything he could ever want back home – a job, a home, a gorgeous fiancée – and yet, for him, something is missing. “You seem to be very satisfied,” Tommy says to Jeff, his eyebrows creased.
“I am,” Jeff replies, taking a swig from his ever-present flask. “Aren’t you?”
Tommy sighs. “No, I’m not.”
The two men eventually hear distant singing, similar choral tones that the audience recognizes from the beginning of the show, and the exploration of Brigadoon begins as the stage transforms into a lively market. A new song is introduced with the impressive bass tones of Zach Arencibia ‘22, contrasted with Candice Belina ‘19’s strong soprano and Rachel Horun ‘19’s melodic alto line, all singing in something akin to a round. As more and more actors join these three on the stage, the music rises and becomes a joyful, classic ensemble number. These variations in music are some of Cheyanne Leid ‘20’s favorite parts of the show as a whole.
“I play Fiona in the show,” said Leid. “I absolutely love to sing this part. It just feels amazing to let the notes of my upper register sort of float or soar into the space. Singing in Empie is also a treat because it gives me freedom to really fill the room with sound when the emotional intensity builds … The score has some of the most beautiful choral arrangements for the musical theatre stage, as well as many songs the audience will recognize as theatre standards. Towards the end of the show, the music blooms into the most compelling almost operatic ballads. The show is known for its plentiful dance numbers. The ballets are so beautiful! I get teary eyed every time I watch them.”
This dancing sets Brigadoon apart from many other theatrical mainstages ‘Berg has put on in the recent past, and I, too, found it was one of the most delightful aspects of the piece – watching the actors’ arms extend all the way out to their perfectly placed fingertips, seeing dancers of all genders simply float off of the stage with every jump and switch in footing, was absolutely enchanting. One such dancer, Meghan Coyle ’20, recalls the complex steps it took to achieve this level of apparent effortlessness and ease.
“From the beginning of the rehearsal process, we have been working on choreography with Karen [Dearborn],” Coyle said. “The dances were the first things we did! There’s a lot of dance in the show, even for roles outside of the dance ensemble. Many narratives in the scenes are told with dance. The original production of Brigadoon was actually performed by a professional ballet company … It’s a lot of ballet, which is challenging but also so rewarding and beautiful. I really love what Karen did — her choreography is gorgeous and really it complements the music of the show.”
Complements and supplements: in the moments where ballet takes center stage, I was truly transported by the magic of Brigadoon to my own little island in the middle of Empie where the show was just between me and those impeccably synchronized, melodic dance moves.
Around the intense, highly focused periods of Brigadoon rehearsal, though, there was built an apparent sense of mutual respect for all those involved with every aspect of the production, from direction to stage management to sound, as well as an all-important aura of lightness and fun. Despite running scenes multiple times, actors still found the energy to dance in place on stage whilst waiting for technical issues to be solved, voguing and doing the jig right where they stood on the mountainous crags of the Scottish Highlands. Perhaps this is what Brigadoon is all about – finding a way to bridge the gap between real and not, between somber and fanciful, without giving up that all-important spark of hope.
Brigadoon opens on Friday, Oct. 26. Get your tickets online, at the box office, or by calling 484-664-3333 – you definitely do not want to miss this time-honored adventure when it hits the Empie stage.