A Family Reunion at the In Series is a world premier 20 years in the making by DC Librettist William Moses and Composer Chris Patton. Moses also directed this touching piece about the universal value of family. In Series Artistic Director Carla Hübner acknowledges that this is by far their most ambitious project to date – a large cast, a string quintet in addition to piano, and one of the most challenging musical pieces they’ve ever attempted.
Moses and Patton began writing this show about a family coming home for a reunion in the early 90s and the In Series actually hosted a reading many years ago, but Patton passed away in 2006 before it was ever completed. Fortunately, it was almost done and Moses spent the intervening years collecting the rest of the score and bringing on George Fulginiti-Shakar to complete what wasn’t finished. Music Director Paul Leavitt took on the final major work of orchestrating it for a string quintet and crafting the music into its final form, in addition to playing piano and conducting.
The opera is so very challenging due in part to the many recitative songs like “Hurry Home Now” as the entire cast on planes, trains, and automobiles are trying to make it home and sing their conversations. Meters change constantly and musical phrases take innovative intervals that don’t seem to resolve. Patton plays with harmony and disharmony and syncopation in an almost a spot-on picture of family itself, pulling in all directions at once. It’s both disorientating and addictive.
Moses says he is pleased that this production comes very, very close to the vision in his head, which must be the goal for most creators. The set by Osbel Susman-Peña is multi-platform simplicity with the hint of woods and forest behind and Grandma’s all-important lounge chair reigning over all, enhanced by lighting by Klyph Stanford, especially during Alma’s songs exploring her inner world. The costumes by Donna Breslin don’t seem to be costumes at all; they fit the characters so perfectly.
Laura Lewis (Alma) has some of the most challenging and moving songs of the piece as an aging grandmother. She is the matriarch of the family and of the cast, returning to the stage after a long absence. In fact, she played Ruth, the part of the oldest daughter in that first staged reading many years ago. “Night Prayer” and “What’s Going On” are both discordant pieces as she cries, “When will it end?” I have never seen a more perfect glimpse into the world of dementia. But it is not all doom and gloom, and she also has some of the best zingers of the evening as her children come home and she still knows them well.
Moses has created a very clever libretto, with an ensemble of very well-drawn characters with deep history and deep love for each other. He has a knack for pitch- perfect interactions between sisters, brothers, aunts, and uncles.
Three actors make their In Series debut in this production. Andrew Adelsberger and Brian Shaw (Al and Milo) are two great additions and hopefully they will be onstage again soon. Adelsberger thrives as the son-in-law, the only non-relative onstage with an earnestness and intelligence that most never manage to balance. Shaw has a wonderful voice, almost at odds with his scruffy character from the moment he opens his mouth on, “Need a Way Home.” The third is Alessandro Topa (Jason), who makes his stage debut at the age of 9 in this opera. Adelsberger and Topa sing a duet “Father for A Weekend” which is a delight.
Anastasia Robinson, Patricia Portillo, and Alexandra Linn (Ruth, Elizabeth, and Ursula) play three sisters. They too thrive in this opera that requires comedic chops, heavy drama, and serious singing from all of its actors. Their playful reunion in “Sisters” is very entertaining.
The men of the family are Ollie Junior, and Senior. Ollie Sr. (Nephi Sanchez) is dead, but comes to life in Alma’s confusion, a benevolent presence for the heartbreaking duet “I am with you.” Ollie Jr. (Sean Pflueger) has a challenging part as the prodigal son who stayed away because he’s gay. It becomes obvious he is the only child who is available to stay with mother, but their fractured history makes that painful. From his first lines singing, “Let me know I belong here,” to his final solo “Lament,” he takes us on a universal journey between parents and children.
This is an opera with rare insight into humanity; a true ensemble piece with layers of family history to be explored – sometimes hilarious, sometimes tragic, all set to beautiful music. I almost wish this wasn’t a premier and that there is a cast recording that I can listen to again and again especially for the final ensemble pieces “Holding On, Letting Go” and the beautiful “New Grace,” which the cast sings in cadence, “May the love in my heart pass from my hand to your hand.” May the love in this production pass from these performers to all of you.
A Family Reunion is a gift of a show.
Running Time: Two hours and 15 minutes, with one 15-minute intermission.
A Family Reunion plays through December 8, 2013 at GALA Hispanic Theatre – 3333 14th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For tickets, call the box office at (202) 204-7763, or purchase them online.