REVIEW: Tamar of the River - Original Cast Recording
Frequently, “new musical theatre” conjures up images of a pop/rock-influenced score, or a pastiche show emulating the music of an earlier, perhaps more prosperous time on Broadway. Adventurous and risk-taking scores are more rare. Tamar of the River is one of those unique scores that successfully goes beyond the boundaries of Times Square -- and beyond the boundaries of Western cultures -- for its influences. Marisa Michelson and Joshua H. Cohen have written a beautiful score that pulls from a wealth of different traditions. The 2014 world premiere recording gives us the opportunity to experience this short-lived off-Broadway show. It is challenging yet accessible; unified and whole, but with clear elements. The final effort shows off a fresh approach to musical theatre, inspiring to listeners even after several listens.
Tamar of the River is an allegorical tale loosely based on the biblical texts of Tamar and Judah. This story was influenced by Michelson’s visit to Neve Shalom, an Israeli-Palestinian village that was founded to show the two peoples could coexist peacefully. Tamar (superbly sung by Margo Seibert) sets out to bring peace to a land divided both by war and by a river that runs red with blood. There’s a love story, of course (would it be a musical without one?), and Tamar has to juggle the challenges of love and family with her calling, not unlike the myriad of choices we have in our contemporary society. We’re not left with a complete sense of resolution at the end of the story, another reflection of today’s culture.
Tamar of the River, which had its world premiere in 2013 in a Prospect Theatre Company production, frequently sounds like it would be more at home north of the Theatre District, on the stages of Carnegie Hall. (In fact, there was an abbreviated oratorio version that was performed before premiering on stage.) Michelson’s adventuresome music avoids most trappings and clichés of musical theatre, to great success. She draws from contemporary influences as deep as the river central to Tamar’s story, at times evoking Meredith Monk or Caroline Shaw, other times writing a song suitable for performance by Yo-Yo Ma’s Silk Road Ensemble or Sweet Honey In the Rock. Michelson’s writing can be seductive and illuminating. She has the ability to pull out moments of aching beauty from the simplest of dissonances. Her music is at home among contemporaries of the theatre world such as Joshua Schmidt, Adam Guettel, and Michael John LaChiusa. Joshua H. Cohen’s lyrics sometimes try to be more sophisticated than they are, but are a well-blended mix of storytelling and metaphor. His words give insight into the intense passions at hand and propel the characters along their journeys.
Margo Seibert’s Drama Desk-nominated performance demonstrates her vocal abilities in a way not possible in Rocky, her 2014 Broadway debut. Seibert has the musical maturity and ability to navigate Michelson’s treacherous melodic lines, such as the melismatic lamentations that fall from a great height in the finale, and her duet with Ako near the beginning of the show ("Go"). The other named characters -- among them a gentle but passionate Mike Longo (who shines in his through-composed song “It Was You”) and a brooding Erik Lochtefeld -- join an ensemble of eight to form The River. Reminiscent of vocal ensemble Roomful of Teeth, the ensemble pulses and undulates throughout the score, particularly on “Prayer Reprise.” They perform using extended vocal techniques, singing non-verbal pitches and complex harmonies. The River not only serves as Tamar’s guide throughout the show; musically, they augment the small instrumental ensemble, adding percussive elements, giving the music depth, and giving it in an other worldly aura. As there is no clear setting for the musical, there is no clear setting for the music. The score suits the postmodern musical world we live in, where composers have a wealth of musics from which to pull to help form an original whole.
The biggest nod to musical theatre comes in the finale, “It Will Come.” After an a cappella recitative from Seibert, the ensemble joins in with her. Cohen’s lyrics offer up a summary with metaphors that we frequently find in a musical's final song. Now this sounds like the contemporary musical theatre we’re used to, with ensemble writing turning into a soft-rock groove with long string lines and pulsating piano and hammer dulcimer support. This nod to a Next to Normal-like finale is perhaps given as a reprieve for the listener. The efforts of listening to the challenging but rewarding score are met with a tune that can be hummed while cooking dinner, and we are left feeling good about ourselves for making it to the end. But that segment is just a quick dip in the stream of musical theatre, an acknowledgement perhaps that Michelson can write in that style if she chooses to, and then we’re back in the dense beauty of the vocal ensemble. Tamar has been on an journey, ultimately inconclusive, to bring worlds together. The score for Tamar of the River also takes the listener on a journey, bridging the worlds of the concert and theatre stages. We cannot yet judge if that journey was successful, but we should take comfort knowing that we have as strong a guide as Marisa Michelson to lead us.
Tamar of the River might not be a perfect work, but it’s a thrilling example of new directions that musical theatre can - and should - move in. Sophisticated, challenging, tricky to navigate, but ultimately exciting and rewarding, this is a cast album that will continue to reveal things upon each listen. I’m looking forward to seeing and hearing more of Michelson’s and Cohen’s works on the stage.
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