Review: ‘The Juliet Letters’ by UrbanArias

UrbanArias delivers a physical, aural, and emotional journey in their brilliant interpretation of Elvis Costello and the Brodsky Quartet’s The Juliet Letters. Based upon imagined love letters written to an archetypical Juliet, the song cycle moves through the various emotions evoked by love. Director Cara Gabriel and Conductor Robert Wood have created a wholly original interpretation of Costello’s quixotic exploration of love in all its facets: raw, wanting, hurting, grasping, embracing, soaring, sorrowing.

Melissa Wimbish, Aryssa Leigh Burrs, and Robert Wesley Mason in 'The Juliet Letters.' Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Melissa Wimbish, Aryssa Leigh Burrs, and Robert Wesley Mason in ‘The Juliet Letters.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

Musically delightful and demanding, the cast and orchestra unite soul deep to provide a non-stop web of sound and phrasing that arch, catlike, around the sinews of the heart.  The songs as written do not tell a linear story, rather they explore the kaleidoscope face of love and lovers and the Janus of romantic and familial love-hate. In the opening numbers, the ensemble of three gifted singer-actor-dancers joins with the four-piece orchestra in a blending of voice and instrument that lifts the audience out of their world and encloses them in the body of the tale to come.

The immersion into this world begins upon entering the ARK within Signature Theatre. The black-box room is filled with small cocktail tables (bring in your drinks if you wish) and seats are close-packed, ensuring intimacy with your coterie and those around you. The stage is spare – three chairs of differing appeal, a stool, a modest yet hopeful dining room chair, and a wooden office rolling chair from the middle of the last century. The orchestra is stage right, off the main sightlines yet very much engaged in the presentation. The back wall of the set grips hard with its own story – a shattering of geometric pieces of various shades of red loosely defining a heart. Anyone who has been crushed by love knows that heart.

Aryssa Leigh Burrs, Robert Wesley Mason, and Melissa Wimbish are the triumvirate of artists on stage who weave the song cycle into the stories of the night. They bring operatic voices, graceful physicality, and intensely connected acting and interacting to each of the songs. Their voices and movement expressed through their characters’ engagement and with the props provided (the chairs, a knife, tarot cards, letters dropping from heaven, and even the triangular guide piece from an Ouija Board) enchant as they each weave into and out of various personae and one another’s lives on stage.

Burrs brings a clear, welcoming, and well-enunciated voice to this production. As she soars into the highlights of each song, she loses none of the clarity needed to keep the poetry and wordplay in play through the storyline. Mason roars and growls and introspects in bold baritone bravado and tosses out the occasional bit of tenor rock and roll to keep the ghost of Elvis alive. Wimbish is a constant heavenly voice, soaring and diving and filling the space and our hearts with the purity of song. Her intimacy and immediacy enrich the characters of enchantress, sorceress, and mystic she creates onstage. At times the music overcomes the pronunciation, and the context fills in the story being told.

All three bring strong acting and dancing to define their characters or the moment. Synchronized movement, balletic in its control and strength, is a hallmark of this ensemble. Scrabbling about the stage in one sketch, helter-skelter physical cacophony ripens in a later sketch to lover’s embracing, and further on into a stillness marking the final loss of love, chillingly and heartbreakingly illustrated by the folding of a cloak as a flag to mark the ultimate passing.

Aryssa Leigh Burrs, Robert Wesley Mason, and Melissa Wimbish in 'The Juliet Letters.' Photo by C. Stanley Photography.
Aryssa Leigh Burrs, Robert Wesley Mason, and Melissa Wimbish in ‘The Juliet Letters.’ Photo by C. Stanley Photography.

The orchestra, led by Wood, was perfectly twined with the ensemble. Creating mood and counterpoint, leading and following, the entire cast of three actors and four instrumentalists stayed as one throughout the night. This was a critical part of the elation of the evening, the full UrbanArias team’s complete surrender and commitment to that relationship, the force holding, perhaps, the shattered heart together.

Running Time: 75 minutes, without intermission.

The Juliet Letters, presented by UrbanArias, plays July 11 to 14, 2019, at the ARK in the Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave, Arlington, VA 22206. Purchase tickets online.

Jason Arnold, Scenic and Lighting Design; Nephelie Adonyadis, Costume Design

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Jim Pearson
Jim Pearson is a supply chain professional, writer, and actor. He recently published a book of poetry and has been seen on stage over the last five years in Northern Virginia, notably as John Bingham in the world premiere of 'The Judicial Murder of Mrs. Surratt' with Aldersgate. Jim started his theater career with the La Jolla Playhouse, appearing as Banjo in Eric Christmas’s production of 'The Man Who Came to Dinner'. His favorite memory of that production was the night Fred Ebb flew in to see the show. Jim currently divides his time between his job with the City of Alexandria, supporting theater in the area, and writing plays and poems.