Controversy simmered behind the writing and performance of one of the best-known musical works of the classical period, “Messiah.” At least, that’s the premise of Tim Slover’s play, starring Jim Gall as the composer.
Controversy simmered behind the writing and performance of one of the best-known musical works of the classical period, George Frederick Handel’s oratorio “Messiah.” At least, that’s the premise of Tim Slover’s tidy piece of historical fiction “Joyful Noise,” equally engaging and ingratiating in its approach to reframing history.
Handel’s “Messiah” is a Christmas season stalwart (though at least one scholar claims the “Hallelujah” chorus actually celebrates the destruction of Jerusalem, not the birth of Christ — now there’s a controversial backstory!) and “Joyful Noise” is designed to fill a similar feel-good role.
That’s not to say there aren’t thorny issues on display here — the play examines the sexual mores of 18th-century Britain, the question of whether religious texts can be art and the precarious intersection of the church and the throne — but by the time those familiar “Hallelujahs” ring out, all has been smoothed out for the purpose of narrative neatness.
by Tim Slover. Through Oct. 22 at Taproot Theatre, 204 North 85th St., Seattle; $25-$46 (206-781-9707 or taproottheatre.org).
None of that especially diminishes the pleasures of Taproot Theatre Company’s production, stocked with delightful performances and directed with a sure hand by producing artistic director Scott Nolte.
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Jim Gall stars as Handel, nearly despondent over the commercial failure of his latest opera and in danger of losing funding thanks to the whims of King George II (Frank Lawler). Positioned as his analog is Susannah Cibber (Allison Standley), an actress whose personal life and career have been derailed by a very public adultery trial.
“Messiah” represents an opportunity for both of them to get their respective careers back on track, but the path is fraught with difficulty.
If Susannah is cast, there might be public outcry over allowing an adulteress to sing a sacred text. The king might not be so keen to the fact that the librettist Charles Jennens (Kevin Pitman) is a “non-juror” who thinks of George II as an illegitimate ruler. And then there are the protestations of Bishop Henry Egerton (William Kumma), who thinks theaters are the province of “gin-drinking louts and infamous women” — certainly no place for a religious work to be performed.
All of these plot threads effectively generate enough narrative motion to carry “Joyful Noise” to its conclusion, but Slover’s script doesn’t delve much past their surface.
Taproot’s production can’t do much about that, but it does lend a sparkling comic sheen that isn’t necessarily obvious in Slover’s labored repartee. Gall’s endearingly grumpy performance leads the way in this regard; we don’t necessarily believe he’s despairing about his artistic prospects, but we can certainly believe he’s annoyed with those around him.
Nowhere is that annoyance more acute — and more entertaining — than in his interactions with Kitty Clive (Molli Corcoran), Susannah’s rival and a ham of an actress who can’t quite tell when Handel is making fun of her. Kitty and Handel’s aggravated banter makes for the play’s most fruitful relationship; Standley’s noble portrayal of a wronged woman is excellent, but the parallels between Susannah and Handel often feel forced.
Elsewhere, Chris Shea is consistently amusing as Handel’s exasperated assistant John Christopher Smith, and Pam Nolte is a welcome presence as prominent patron Mary Pendarves.
Don Yanik’s set, dominated by an enormous piece of sheet music, emphasizes Handel’s score more than the play itself, which only includes a few snippets here and there. Corcoran and Standley’s voices are lovely, if only briefly heard.
Another highlight: Nanette Acosta’s lushly detailed costumes — the kind that just might wrest your attention away from a not-so-substantial play.