Péter Eötvös and Mari Mezei's 2004 opera Angels in America, based on the seminal play by Tony Kushner, is finally receiving its New York premiere, courtesy of New York City Opera. Overall, the work, running through June 16 at Rose Hall, does a yeoman's job of making the source material sing. Along the way, however, this two-and-a-half hour adaptation of the nearly eight-hour play loses much of the majesty and influence that made it one of the most important pieces of theater in the 20th century.
Kushner's Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes has essentially been rendered as Angels: A Gay Fantasia. Mezei has pared Kushner's script down to two major storylines, removing nearly all the instances of political discourse in favor of the melodramatic tale of two overlapping failing relationships. Prior Walter (Andrew Garland) is a 30-year-old New Yorker recently diagnosed with AIDS. Prior's neurotic partner Louis Ironson (Aaron Blake) shacks up with the closeted Mormon lawyer Joe Pitt (Michael Weyandt), and Joe, in turn, leaves his Valium-addicted wife Harper (Sarah Beckham-Turner).
Mezei does keep the assorted familiar faces we associate with Kushner's masterpiece, namely Belize (Matthew Reese), Prior's flamboyant black nurse, Joe's Mormon mother Hannah (Sarah Castle), his maniacal boss Roy Cohn (Wayne Tigges), the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg (Beckham-Turner), who gleefully haunts Roy on his deathbed, and the majestic angel (Kirsten Chambers) who convinces Prior that he's a prophet. At times, Mezei's adaptation is structurally cohesive; she expertly reduces the first third of the three-act Millennium Approaches to its most important moments, joining scenes together by theme and giving it a cinematic feel. But the rest is mostly incoherent, losing characters and creating gaping plot holes along the way. Meanwhile, Perestroika, which in certain productions of the original text runs upwards of four hours, is reduced to 45-minutes of bullet points that would likely be hard to follow if you are unfamiliar with the play or the subsequent HBO miniseries adaptation of it.
This wouldn't matter so much if Mezei and Eötvös had crafted their own piece out of Angels, but they haven't. Instead, they've taken elements of Kushner's text and set them to music. The result never proves why Angels in America should sing, and, thanks to the dissonant, inharmonious score, it rarely ever does. (The orchestra, conducted by Pacien Mazzagatti, does its best to bring this strangely textured underscoring to life.) It's the physical production that takes center stage here. Under the direction of Sam Helfrich, the visual scenarios would function rather well in a straight dramatic production of the play itself. They are set more or less in a sterile hospital room (scenic design by John Farrell), with Derek Van Heel providing the otherworldly lighting that makes the Angel's arrival, as always, so exciting. More importantly, Helfrich has guided the cast to some lovely performances. Garland expertly sings and acts the role of Prior, simultaneously bringing out the character's vulnerability and swagger. Beckham-Turner makes for a magnificently conflicted Harper, especially in Kaye Voyce's hausfrau costume, and an amusing Ethel Rosenberg. Chambers radiates sexiness and confidence as the Angel herself.
The old adage of "if it's not broke, don't fix it" seems to apply here; rather than walking out singing its praises, it's hard not to wish Eötvös and Mezei had created a wholly new organism from the source material. Angels in America, the opera, remains disappointingly earthbound when what it really needs is to take flight.
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