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by Margaret Croyden

Photo of Margaret Croyden
Margaret Croyden is a theater reviewer and essayist for the New York Theatre Wire.

La Boheme-- The First Big Hit of the Season
Music: Giacomo Puccini
Directed by Baz Luhrmann
The Broadway Theater at 53rd Street
opened December 8, 2002
Reviewed December 10, 2002 by Margaret Croyden

At last we have a big, glorious hit on Broadway and it's Giacomo Puccini's "La Boheme." It is not an avant garde revisionist makeover of the opera, but the entire gorgeous music and libretto of Giacosa & Illica, sung in the original Italian with supertitles translated to English. O.K. so the director Baz Luhrmann upgraded the opera to 1957 --that hardly made a difference--for it is completely faithful to the original music, albeeit performed in a large Broadway house with all that this implies: it is a large, colorful, and spectacular work and, in the end, very Broadway.

Not that there is anything wrong with that. The difference between this Boheme and the typical opera house production is that the actors-singers here are young, graceful, and believable. True you will not find the voice of a Placido Domingo nor Luciano Pavorotti, but the singers on the whole are good enough to fill that large theater and what is lacking sometimes in tone and quality is made up by the believability of the lovers--the central characters in the narrative.

David Miller and Ekaterina Solovyeva in "La Boheme" (Sue Adler photo)

The night I saw the production (there are three alternating singers in the main roles) the most compelling moments were in the last act. The performances of Ekaterina Solovyeva in the role of Mimi, and David Miller, as her lover Rudolpho were, for me, the highpoint of the show. It was simply staged, and believably performed so that the poignancy of the tale was brought out full force. And therefore the glorious music was brought to our attention full force as well--there was no diversion from that; the music was the thing and the acting complimented that perfectly. The central narrative came to life vividly: the famous lovers, poor, starving, and desperate; the vulnerable Mimi who loves not too wisely, dying of TB, and the band of Bohemians--artists, writers and philosophers forced to face death amidst their carousing and fun-loving natures. All beautifully staged and acted with real feeling: it surely brought tears to the eyes of many, and a compassionate, hushed silence from the audience.

This was in stark contrast to the elaborate and sensational second act--the Christmas Eve street scene where Mr. Luhrman seemed to be reinventing his famous "Moulin"Rouge" film. Of course the Left Bank street is a perfect opportunity to stage whatever comes to mind: kids on roller skates, midgets, policeman, strollers, a half naked women (though it is presumably freezing weather) and a variety of bizarre, surreal types reminiscent of a Toulouse Lautrec painting. Add confetti, a flashy arrangement of red, green, orange lights; taverns, cafes, jazz clubs, neon signs of every imaginable color, the Sacre Coeur in the background, a parade winding down the street, and on the sides of the stage two stories of balconies lit up with people some embracing, others looking on the scene --all of them bizarre types, Bohemians of every sort mingling, dancing, parading on a crowded Paris street on Christmas eve.

Does this work? You bet. The audience gasped when the lights went on: it was truly sensational. There was plenty to look at, so much so that often the main characters dialogue was diverted by the street scene. But most of the time, the director cleverly "froze" everyone when the leads, who had come to celebrate at the famous Cafe Momus, sang, so this common device suggested a mime show, so popular in Paris at the time.

The director, Baz Luhrmann and his wife, Catherine Martin, who designed the production, wanted to "appeal ...to the younger audiences who may never have seen an opera before. It's our job as storytellers to re-enliven that story," Mr. Luhrmann said. And he did. He cast a lively group of singers who could act, all of whom contributed to his concept. But I was not impressed by the use of American slang in the translation from the Italian. And I was somewhat put off by some of the silly antics of the young men in the first scene; they overplayed their hand in trying to be very American. In addition the stage set--the garret--was too cramped; they got in each others's way. That said, the rest of the scenes in the garret were played out beautifully; it was a credit to Mr. Luhrman who just let the last act be simple, so that the lovers would dominate the stage--and not the scenery, lights, or tacky embellishments. Maybe he was trying to contrast the reality of life in the crummy attic of the Bohemians and the seemingly dazzling life in the streets of Paris.

Finally the wonderment of the production is that it is entirely a visual treat even thought the visuals are overpowering and can be an obstacle at times--often more is too much. But one thing for sure, you will not be bored; the production is fast moving, full of youthful energy, and fascinating theatrical devices.

By all means see the show. It is no wonder that "La Boheme" is so famous. It should be. The music is glorious. [Croyden]

Margaret Croyden is the author of a memoir "In the Shadow of the Flame: Three Journeys." He new book, "Conversations with Peter Brook: 1970-2000" will be published in May by Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

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