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Dead Man Walking                  Union Avenue Opera, 2011

Chris Gibson Broadway World.com

The first thing that might strike you about the very concept of this show, Dead Man Walking is: why an opera? It’s already been made into a movie that treated the foreboding subject matter with respect. Well, songs typically allow for emotional content to be spilled forth in musical theatre, and there is enough drama here to more than fill that need, so it just makes a kind of warped, but logical sense. And, the music is pure dissonance for the most part, with Jake Heggie’s pounding, dark score laying a potent background for Terrence McNally’s straightforward libretto. What would the point of a strong melody be anyway, you’re not going to be humming these selections on the way home. Instead, you’ll be thinking about the case itself, and the sacrifice Sister Helen made to try and get a seemingly cold-blooded killer to accept his crime and bring Christ into his life. You might even debate the death penalty a little, although the brutality of the crime may scotch any attempt to do that.

To backtrack, it was in the 1980’s in Louisiana that the de Rocher brothers brutally slayed a young couple who were listening to music while they were making out. Brother Anthony shot the young male execution style, and because he had a better lawyer, was given a life sentence, while Joseph de Rocher raped and repeatedly stabbed the young female of the pair.  Sentenced to death by lethal injection and seeking a spiritual adviser, he began to correspond with Sister Helen Prejean, who, working with inner city youth, took his case on since she felt qualified to do so. But, the reality was much harsher than she could have imagined, and her journey inside Angola prison was nightmarish at times. They did form a bond over time, but it was a rocky road, and not one easily navigated. While Joseph may have eventually conquered his fear and let the truth set him free, it was not an easy path for him to take.

Elise Quagliata (mezzo-soprano) and Jordan Shanahan (baritone) do exceptional work as Sr. Helen and Joseph, respectively. This is not an easy score or story to tell or enact, and both are absolutely riveting and brave in their performances. Success depends on their both understanding the gravity of this situation presented, and both bear the somber seriousness that makes this brooding piece come to unbearable life. Shanahan’s confession aria is worth the price of admission alone.

A number of supporting characters are also strong, including: Marlissa Hudson (Sister Rose), RoBert Reed (George Benton, the prison warden), Clark Sturdevant (Father Grenville), Debra Hillebrand (Joseph’s mother), David Dillard and Stephanie Tennill (Owen and Kitty Hart), and Cecelia Stearman and Jon Garrett (Jade and Howard Boucher), while Phillip Touchette adds some much needed relief as a motorcycle cop.

Tim Ocel’s direction finds the heart at the center of this terrible happening, and Scott Schoonover conducts the orchestra, drawing all he can dramatically from their expert playing. Patrick Huber’s chain link scenic design is brilliantly conceived and executed, while Kaitlyn Breen lights it all with the proper atmosphere. Teresa Doggett’s costumes have an everyday normalcy that belies the care taken with their choices.

The Union Avenue Opera’s production of Dead Man Walking is a must-see event, heavy and searing, but well worth the humanity and the pain of forgiveness, for the sheer joy of seeing masterful performers at work. This is, after all, what modern opera is all about, and it continues through August 27, 2011.

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