I go to musicals to take an emotional journey with the characters. So how wonderful it was for me to end the New York Musical Festival 2018 with such a powerfully emotional work as Sonata 1962. It brought the entire audience immediately to its feet, and here’s why.
The year is 1962. A talented young pianist, Laura (utterly loveable Christina Maxwell), has been away at college on a music scholarship. The show opens with her tightly wound and deeply loving mother, Margaret (astonishingly good Erin Leigh Peck) singing joyously about Laura having come home. But when we see Laura for the first time, we realize that something is terribly wrong about her. She has lost much of her memory, including that of ever having gone to college. She also can no longer remember how to play the piano.
Behind this terrible tragedy is the story of a forbidden first love between Laura and the first friend she made at school, played by charming, African American actress Anneliza Canning-Skinner. Although the color blind casting may leave you asking some questions about what is not in the play about race at that time, it is immaterial to the evening. The issue in the story is not race, but homosexuality, which the medical community of the time saw as a mental illness which might be cured with some drastic measures. It would be a spoiler to say more. But Margaret does have to make a painful choice, hoping to save her family, which in fact tears it, and Laura’s life, apart.
The generally insightful lyrics and fine music by Thomas Hedges, beautifully orchestrated by him, are exquisitely played by a small ensemble of violin, cello, guitar and piano under the superb musical direction of James Dobinson.
The show beautifully illuminates both Laura’s relationship with Sarah, and her mother Margaret’s deep personal challenges. It made me think, in a good way, of Adam Guettel’s Light in the Piazza. So did the music, and his lyrics, with contributions by book writer Patricia Loughrey. Like Guettel’s lyrics for that show, theirs are very conversational feeling and open ended. The lyric hooks which focus the ideas of the songs are similarly pushed back as not to be dominant. That is a very hard style to write this well.
There are only a couple songs which fell flat for me. The two girls have a big love song in which they declare they would run to each other, which I wished had been more articulate than that. Also, their ever present next door neighbor, Lorraine (equally funny and moving Romelda Teron Benjamin) doesn’t get a song until the very end, and what she has to say when she does get to sing also doesn’t seem quite enough for the moment.
There’s no faulting the fine dialogue and careful unfolding of the story in Patricia Loughrey’s book. But I would like to have learned more about the different backgrounds of the two girls. I also would have liked to see more of their coming to terms with their own sexual identities in addition to seeing them as a cute couple. All the trouble they encounter with their sexuality is external and societal. That’s very different from, and not nearly as deep, as the inner struggles with gender and identity the characters experienced in Interstate, a very fine show about gender identity earlier in the Festival.
Also, casting an African American woman as the long time neighbor in what I would presume was a very white California suburb in 1962 was confusing. Until she finally was called “neighbor”, I thought she was the live-in housekeeper. As a character, Lorraine doesn’t get to do much besides being a sounding board for Margaret, and deserves to play a bigger role. It would have been very powerful if she had been able to compare what was not allowed for Laura personally with what was not allowed to her as a “colored” woman at that time.
When performers are given material this juicy to bite into, you should expect to be moved, and we were. As Laura, Ms. Maxwell is achingly beautiful and deeply touching. Ms. Canning-Skiinner’s Sarah is so open, easy and unencumbered you can see why Laura is immediately drawn to her. They get fine support from Romelda Teron Benjaimin as Lorraine, along with Aaron Ramey and Lauren Yen Solito in various supporting roles. They all sing beautifully, individually and together, under Mr. Dobinson’s musical direction.
Director Katherine M. Carter paces the show very well, and handles the gradual reveal of clues about the story through the performances of the actors nicely.
Saving the best for last, it’s hard to say enough about the heart wrenching performance of Erin Leigh Peck. When the show opens, we have no idea what pain hides behind that relentlessly chipper attitude. Seeing it slowly erode, together with her happiness, is devastating. Ms. Peck sings her heart out as well. She has won the outstanding performance award at NYMF in the past. At this writing, I don’t know if she did or did not this year. But she gets my vote.