Review: ‘Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein’ at Ensemble for the Romantic Century

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Robert Fairchild, a lead dancer with the New York City Ballet Company, burst upon the Broadway scene two years ago by playing the lead in the stage version of An American In Paris. He was immediately embraced by the press and the public, and that happened in London as well when he took the show to England. He remained there to further establish his reputation abroad by tackling the role of Will Parker in Oklahoma!. Clearly looking for a change of pace, in New York he agreed to star as the Monster in Eve Wolf’s very odd interpretation of Mary Shelley’s novel Frankenstein, which makes use of a dozen classical music pieces by Franz Liszt, Johann Bach, and Franz Schubert, not names usually associated with a Broadway musical. Wolf is the playwright who founded the Ensemble for the Romantic Century with the “mission of creating an innovative and dramatic concert format in which emotions revealed in memoirs, letters, diaries and literature are dramatically interwoven with music.” She and her company have enjoyed critical acclaim for several of the offerings she presented in the past 15 years. The Pershing Square Signature Center on West 42nd Street has now given her a home for this latest work, which is impressive, but seemingly misguided.

Richard Fairchild. Photograph courtesy of The Pershing Square Signature Center.

Granted it is a form of theater, and much of what is up on this stage is exquisite to look at and magical to listen to. But it didn’t much involve me viscerally or intellectually. There are stunning moments–Fairchild’s depiction of the birth of the Monster, agonizingly ripped from the lightning flashes of electricity that conceived him is one such. But the monologues and dialogue that are given to the star and to actors Paul Wesley and Mia Vallet force them to declaim rather than interact. Fairchild’s character has only one note to play–he is in misery throughout, loathing his appearance, tormented by loneliness. His incredible dexterity as a dancer is put to good use, but there is no variety available to him as the Monster.

Richard Fairchild and Mia Vallet. Photograph courtesy of The Pershing Square Signature Center.

An attempt is made in the text to let the Monster cry out for a companion, but as Wesley and Vallet also play Mary Shelley and her husband Percy, confusion reigns and whatever dramatic power there might have been is dissipated and ultimately lost. Peter Parker on organ and harpsichord, Kemp Jernigan on oboe, and particularly Steven Lin on piano all beautifully play the stirring preludes, concerti, chaconne, and variations from the classical masters, but the music was not composed with the intention of embellishing a play; and though Krysty Swann’s luscious mezzo soprano voice is literally music to our ears, the material remains separate and apart, outside the play itself.

The writing and the performance are ripe with good intentions, and they earn our respect. But I still haven’t figured out why Robert Fairchild, who has admitted that he enjoys working in musical theatre, would select something as esoteric as this Frankenstein in which to do so, both as performer and choreographer. The run is only projected to be from December 21 to January 6.

Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein played through January 6 at Pershing Square Signature Center — 480 W 42nd Street in New York City, NY.

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Richard Seff
RICHARD SEFF has been working in theatre since he made his acting debut in support of Claude Rains in the prize winning DARKNESS AT NOON, and he agreed to tour the next season in support of Edward G. Robinson, which took him across the nation and back for nine months. When it was over and he was immediately offered another national tour with THE SHRIKE with Van Heflin, he decided to explore other areas, and he spent the next 22 years representing artists in the theatre as an agent, where he worked at Liebling-Wood, MCA, eventually a partnership of his own called Hesseltine-Bookman and Seff, where he discovered and developed young talents like Chita Rivera, John Kander, Fred Ebb, Ron Field, Linda Lavin, Nancy Dussault and many others. He ultimately sold his interest to ICM. When he completed his contractual obligation to that international agency, he returned to his first love, acting and writing for the theatre. In that phase of his long and varied life, he wrote a comedy (PARIS IS OUT!) which brightened the 1970 season on Broadway for 107 performances. He became a successful supporting player in film, tv and onstage, and ultimately wrote a book about his journey, SUPPORTING PLAYER: MY LIFE UPON THE WICKED STAGE, still popular with older theatre lovers and youngsters who may not yet know exactly where they will most sensibly and profitably fit into the world of show business. The book chronicles a life of joyous work working in a favored profession in many areas, including leading roles in the regional theatres in his work in Lanford Wilson's ANGELS FALL. His last stage role was in THE COUNTESS in which he played Mr. Ruskin for 9 months off Broadway. Five seasons ago Joel Markowitz suggested he join him at DCTheatreScene. His accurate and readable reviews of the New York Scene led, when the time was right, for his joining DCMetroTheaterArts to continue bringing news of the Big Apple's productions just to keep you posted. He is delighted to be able to join DCMTA and work with Joel and hopes that you like what he has to say.