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Union Avenue Opera, 2016

Mark Bretz – Ladue News

Union Avenue Opera closes its 2016 season with a richly executed presentation led by internationally renowned soprano Christine Brewer in the pivotal role of Sister Aloysius. Tautly directed and wonderfully sung, Doubt is a rousing success that demonstrates Union Avenue Opera’s considerable depth and ability to take artistic risks under artistic director Scott Schoonover.

Douglas Cuomo’s operatic version of the play and film written by John Patrick Shanley made its world premiere in St. Paul in 2013, with Brewer starring as the authoritarian Sister Aloysius. Union Avenue Opera’s current production is the first presentation of the operatic version of Doubt since then.

Shanley adapted his 2004 play, which won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama as well as the Tony Award for Best Play, into a film in 2008 that garnered several Academy Award nominations. He later collaborated with Cuomo to provide the libretto for this operatic version.

Doubt is a superbly written story that fully lives up to its title. While Fr. Flynn specializes in presenting modern homilies in parable form to the working-class faithful of St. Nicholas, Shanley intricately sets up his tale in such a fashion that questions about Fr. Flynn’s guilt are substantial. Or are they? It’s up to the individual viewer to make that decision, which is especially difficult when the performers are as solid in their roles as in this presentation.

Stage director Tim Ocel, who previously directed UAO’s excellent rendition of Dead Man Walking, duplicates that triumph with this version of Doubt. Kyra Bishop’s dazzling scenic design is dominated by a massive cross leaning ominously over the stage, depicting a parish in crisis. It’s framed by the barren trees of late autumn, with the center stage representing a pulpit as well as Sr. Aloysius’ utilitarian office.

Lighting designed by Jeff Behm underscores the serious nature of the work, while Teresa Doggett’s costumes hearken back to the uncomfortable-looking habits worn by the Sisters of St. Ursula and other orders half a century ago, offset by the modest suit favored by Mrs. Miller. Laura Skroska’s props are faithful to the era with such touches as a transistor radio.

While Cuomo’s music is haunting and effectively interpreted by conductor Scott Schoonover and his orchestra, it’s not an especially noteworthy or memorable score. As with the play and film, it’s Shanley’s story that drives the production.

As with the movie, the play has been opened up, allowing for scenes with a classroom full of kids, e.g., or a Sunday Mass with pews of parishioners in attendance. The ensembles enlarge the look of Doubt, and make visual reference to Fr. Flynn’s coaching of a basketball session in the gym, say, that is only mentioned in the play. Whether those scenes are really necessary, though, can be debated.

Brewer’s crystalline clear voice is present throughout the work’s two acts and is as powerful as always. What’s equally impressive is her acting and that of her colleagues, which Ocel hones to a fine edge. Emotions such as anger, sorrow, happiness and stubbornness come to the fore under Ocel’s guidance.

Wes Mason is a formidable foe for Brewer’s Sr. Aloysius as the popular Fr. Flynn. He can be gregarious and fun-loving but can turn testy when he feels he’s under the unforgiving microscope of the autocratic principal. Mason’s baritone is put to good use with Cuomo’s score and he handles his arias smoothly.

That’s also the case with Elise Quagliata and Melody Wilson as Sister James and Mrs. Miller, respectively. Each proves adept at handling the musical aspects of their roles as well as the dramatic acting required.

Doubt resonates most likely with those of us who grew up in the Roman Catholic Church and educational system in the era of the nation’s first Catholic president, John F. Kennedy, and the aftermath of his assassination. It’s so well written, though, that there’s little doubt of its effectiveness.

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