Chelsea Playhouse, NY -- Feb. 2000
Review by John Kenrick

At a time when Broadway is offering a sad diet of theme park shows masquerading as musicals, one must turn to off-Broadway to find the few new book musicals being produced in New York City. The new non-profit Ilyria Theatre is offering an expanded staging of Splendora, a musical they premiered last autumn. Those who are seriously interested in the musical theatre are advised to hop down to Chelsea to see that increasingly rare creature -- a literate, melodic new musical with a new point of view. Fresh and highly entertaining, it offers more than any number of shows currently running uptown.

The small town of Splendora, Texas is all a-flutter over the arrival of Jessica, the new book mobile librarian who seems to embody the lost graces of another time. The locals take to her, not realizing that she is really Timothy, a local boy whose unhappy childhood drove him into exile years before. He has returned disguised in drag to tend to unfinished business for the late aunt who raised him. What he does not count on is the relationship that springs up between his Jessica persona and a young minister. In time, Timothy finds himself in love with the clergyman and realizes he must end the charade. In a sometimes confusing stage conceit, Jessica and Timothy are always seen together by the audience, yet Timothy remains invisible to the other characters -- until the crucial moment when he reclaims his identity.

Peter Webb's book is always interesting, even when the plot occasionally threatens to get off track. The characters are sympathetic and believable -- a refreshing change from the usual Southern-fried stereotypes.

A superlative cast and fascinating score keep Splendora one of the freshest musicals to come to New York in some time. Teri Dale Hansen is sensational as Jessica, with the voice and presence of a genuine star in the making -- and her silences are as powerful as her dialogue. Mark Cortale sings beautifully as Timothy, as does Tod Mason as the vulnerable minister. Kristine Zbornick gives a show-stealing performance as the inquisitive but warmhearted neighbor who figures out Jessica's secret, and the small chorus handles the almost operatic ensemble numbers with aplomb. Susan Roberts, Carol Tammen, Culver Casson, and Shannon Carson all deserve kudos.

Composer Stephen Hoffman's melodies are rich and highly theatrical, and Mark Campbell's lyrics are nicely crafted. The score varies moods, with plenty of humor to offset the ballads -- when was the last time you could say THAT about a musical? My only complaint is that the ravishing "All the Time in the World" is far too short -- it cries out for another verse so the audience can really savor it.

A Chorus Line alumni Donna Drake may have done a tad too much to prolong the play's central mystery, but her staging adds energy to the material and shows real flair. Jim Boutin's set makes excellent use of the tiny space, and Caroline Birks' costumes (especially the period gown for Jessica) strike just the right note. Susan Hamburger's evocative lighting is one of the production's strongest assets.

I genuinely enjoyed Splendora, but I don't know what kind of future it can hope for. Critics numbed by the soulless shows of recent seasons may not know what to make of it, but serious musical buffs will find much to like here. My advice is to get adventurous and catch this one before it gets away. At half the price of a Broadway ticket, it is one of the most affordable (and promising) experiments you'll make this season.

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