Composer Andrew Lippa’s pulsating music shoots like a jolt of adrenaline throughout the super-charged heightened music of the World Premiere Concept Opera I Am Anne Hutchinson/I Am Harvey Milk. Premièring at the Music Center at Strathmore, this ambitious and audacious operatic concert was, very obviously, practically a fully-realized production with the magnificent lush playing of the National Philharmonic, the 118 magnificent singers comprising the Alexandria Harmonizers singing difficult four –part harmony, an intricately choreographed group of sixteen male featured artists, and strong orchestrations by August Eriksmoen. This was an evening that transcended all conventional boundaries and swept the audience into a state of near-frenzy.
This conceptual opera was originally composed and commissioned for composer Lippa with only the Harvey Milk component but Lippa had the inspirational idea to link the stories of the 17th Century Puritan activist Anne Hutchinson and the 20th Century Gay Rights activist Harvey Milk. The interesting idea to bridge these two historical figures whose lives were separated by over 350 years shines here as a brilliant concept.
Composer Lippa links Hutchinson and Milk’s status as rebels and outsiders with finely-etched writing that portrays Anne Hutchinson as a woman who was many years ahead of her time as she held regular religious meetings with women in her own home, espoused the “Covenant of Grace” and as she sparked the Antinomian Controversy. The glorious Broadway star Kristen Chenoweth portrays Hutchinson with sheer steely conviction. Chenoweth’s stellar soprano cascades enthrallingly through several stirring musical numbers. Chenoweth is the consummate professional and moves like a dream throughout the evening, and she also doubles as the Woman in Act Two.
Composer Lippa sings in a controlled yet robust tenor voice as both Hutchinson’s nemesis Governor John Winthrop and as the lead Harvey Milk.
The young fifth grader, Colin Wheeler, who doubles as the young Samuel Hutchinson and the young Harvey Milk, has an astounding future ahead of him. Energetic and spunky, the young Mr. Wheeler captivated the crowd with every number.
Chenoweth appeared in appropriate drab garb as Anne Hutchinson singing the stirring “Who is Anne Hutchinson?” with a thrilling soprano. The thrilling “Sunday Morning” moves the action forward with a vibrant urgency.
The standout is “These People” which shows the frustration of the outcast against a regimented, authoritarian society. Chenoweth showed all of her seething, thwarted cries of frustration with aplomb.
The song “Guilty, Not Guilty” was very well done. Its legalistic, repressive tone had shades of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible around the edges. As the superb ensemble of featured artists leaned forward and pointed and accused it was chilling as Chenoweth sang “You cannot harm me, my life belongs to God.”
Throughout the evening a linkage was developed between the more overtly religious Hutchinson and the morality of Milk in honoring the authenticity of each human being God has made.
Act Two opened with Colin Wheeler singing the impressive “An Operatic Masterpiece.”
The striking and hard-hitting song “I am the Bullet” showed all the bigotry that could be inherent in people.
The song “Friday Night In the Castro” was a raucous, exuberant extravaganza replete with a mirrored disco ball hanging from the rafters and joyous, sensual choreography.
The addition of the large ensemble of the Alexandria Harmonizers (dressed in blue shirts –under the direction of Joe Cerutti) added immeasurably to the zest and vigor of the whole Second Act—as they sang and swayed vigorously with each number.
“Was I Wrong?” pursues the point that people hurt themselves so –do we force them away? Or –do we force them to pay?
“A Decent Society” espouses the thought that “Do your leaders believe in me?” and the hopeful idealistic thought that a “Decent Society says I Can.”
“Sticks and Stones” is a scatological catalogue of the derisive names thrown at the gay individual with a larger all-encompassing arc of all the derisive, pejorative terms that are attached to all the other groups that are victims of discrimination.
“San Francisco” was an affectionate ode to “the City by the Bay” as a place to heal and express yourself.
“Tired of the Silence” was a moving finale to the 2nd Act with immersive, stimulating images presented on the walls of the Hall. These images portrayed seminal moments from the Gay Rights movement. As Chenoweth appeared again in her Anne Hutchinson garb to join voices and hands with Lippa as Milk, the hundreds of years that separated both historical figures disappeared and a spiritual unity was achieved. The repeated refrain to “Come Out” was reiterated to achieve a cumulative effect of power and resonance.
Commendations must be given to Joel Fram (Music Director and Conductor), Noah Himmelstein (Stage Director), Larry Keigwin (Choreographer), Andrew Lazarow (Projection Designer), Clint Ramos (Costume Designer), David Lander (Lighting Designer), and Walter Trarbach (Sound Designer).
I Am Anne Hutchinson/I Am Harvey Milk’s is a major milestone that can anticipate many future productions.
Running Time: One hour and 50 minutes, with a 20 minute intermission.
I am Anne Hutchinson/I am Harvey Milk played its last performance on April 24, 2016 at The Music Center at Strathmore – 5301 Tuckerman Lane, in North Bethesda, MD. For information on future performances at Strathmore, visit their calendar of events.
An Interview with Andrew Lippa on ‘I Am Anne Hutchinson’/’I Am Harvey Milk’ at Strathmore on 4/23 & 24, 2016 by Joel Markowitz.