A Fine and Private Place

The York Theatre, NYC - April 2006

Reviewed by John Kenrick

An enjoyable musical set in a graveyard . . . sounds crazy, no? Well, that is exactly what the York Theatre is offering with A Fine and Private Place, which is as charming and quirky as the Peter S. Beagle novel that inspired it. Far from being morbid or spooky, this is metaphysical musical that gives audiences that increasingly rare thing -- intelligent, thought-provoking entertainment.

The story centers around Jonathan Rebeck, a middle-aged recluse who retreated from the world into the confines of a Bronx cemetery. Blessed with the ability to see and communicate with the death, Rebeck coaches the souls of the freshly buried into eternal rest with the assistance of a wisecracking raven and a secretive but kindly groundskeeper. As two of the newly deceased -- novelist Michael and shop clerk Laura -- cope with the impossible possibility of a post-life romance, Rebeck faces a potential earthly relationship with Gertrude Klapper, a warmhearted widow who meets Rebeck while visiting the grave of her late husband. As the lives of these lonely characters clash and intertwine, each is forced to consider the meanings of life, death and love, each of which involves risk. As one of the songs puts it, "No One Ever Knows" what the result of such risks will be.

Composer Richard Isen's sophisticated melodies blend well with Erik Haagensen's sensitive book and deftly crafted lyrics. Oh, how I wish that even one of the new musicals on Broadway this season was so literate and well constructed! Each of the four major characters does some serious soul searching -- indeed, as in the original novel, this show offers more contemplation than action. As a result, by the end of the show you feel that you've come to know and care about these characters; and its getting rather hard to find new musicals that can claim the same.

Tony nominee Gabriel Barre (Starmites) has appeared in several previous incarnations of A Fine and Private Place, and does a solid job of staging its New York debut. He also has a grand time as both the irreverent raven and the bemused groundskeeper. James Morgan's striking set uses a series of moveable green scrims to handsomely evoke the quiet Arcadian grace of a landmark cemetery. Jeff Croiter's lighting captures all the right moods, as do Scott DelaCruz's handsome but unobtrusive projections of facades and city skylines. Pamela Scofield's costumes capture the essence of each character, and the composer has provided luscious, intimate orchestrations that sound far larger thanks to musical director Milton Granger and his excellent five piece ensemble.

A quintet of Broadway musical veterans sings and acts this show with obvious relish. Aside from the aforementioned Barre, Joseph Kolinski (Titanic) makes the unlikely Rebeck both believable and likeable, and Evalyn Baron (Quilters, Big River) wins hearts and damn near steals the show with her heartfelt portrayal of the widow Klapper. She turns the aforementioned "No One Ever Knows" into a moving, bona fide showstopper. As a young ghost unwilling to accept his own death, Glenn Seven Allen (The Light in the Piazza) offers an impassioned, compelling performance. With his glorious tenor voice and dashing looks, one hopes we will hear and see far more of him in seasons to come.

Of course, it is never a surprise to find Christiane Noll (Jekyll & Hyde) looking and sounding so bloody wondrous that she single-handedly revives one's hopes for the future of musical theatre. While every word & note she utters is a joy, her rendition of "Close Your Eyes" is a heart-stopping example of what can happen when massive talent, flawless technique and genuine taste co-exist in a performer. Whatever stardom comes to Ms. Noll in the course of her career will only be a fraction of what she deserves.

Those who prefer their musicals loaded with glitz and played at a breakneck pace will find The York Theatre's production of A Fine and Private Place rather different. Frankly, I found it a damn good musical, rich in intelligence and emotion. Already seen in various regional productions, this show deserves to be seen, heard and applauded. After a season littered with Lestat, In My Life, Lennon, Woman in White and other bloated Broadway corpses, this ghostly Off-Broadway tuner is a much needed sign of intellectual life in New York's musical theatre world.

A Fine and Private Place ran through May 21, 2006.

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