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MSM Presents Great Thomson-Stein “Mother” Revival
by Bruce-Michael Gelbert     |      Bookmark and Share
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photo by Carol Rosegg
Noragh Devlin (left), Gina Perregrino, Scott Russell & Alexander Frankel (on platform), Margaret Newcomb & Addison Hamilton (right)
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The Manhattan School of Music (MSM) Opera Theater’s admirably ambitious ‘undertaking’ this month, from December 11 to 15, to add to such recent past accomplishments as “The Ghosts of Versailles” and “Aufstieg und Fall der Stadt Mahagonny,” was an aptly charming and whimsically earnest revival of Virgil Thomson and Gertrude Stein’s “The Mother of Us All,” concerning Susan B. Anthony’s fight for the right of women to vote, set in the midst of an American history pageant, involving figures famous and not, actual and fictional, and of different periods, who interact and weigh in with their personal and political views. Conductor Steven Osgood and director Dona D. Vaughn, MSM Opera Theater’s Artistic Director, guided the enthusiastic young cast through the libretto’s maze of Steinese—the unconventional syntax, puns and other clever wordplay—set to Thomson’s tapestry of Americana—hymns, marches, waltzes, and “London Bridge Is Falling Down.”
The issues that “Mother” (1947) grapples with are such familiar feminist ones, beside the frustration of securing the vote for women from an obstinate Establishment, as friction between women and men, unequal under the law and in society; putting muscle behind others’ worthy causes that is not necessarily reciprocated; and marriage and whether or not to change one’s surname to one’s spouse’s. The opera’s action covers Anthony’s zeal for her work and positions; her disenchantment and temporary retirement from the struggle; her return to public life; and the passage, at last, of the law she strove tirelessly for, 14 years after her death, when, enshrined as a statue in the Halls of Congress, she looks back on her “long life of effort and strife.”
Outstanding here were Noragh Devlin, who, as Susan B. Anthony, did not fully convince, however, that this soprano role is right for a mezzo; Megan Samarin as Anne, her faithful partner and greatest champion, who survives her, as Alice B. Toklas did Gertrude Stein; Alexander Frankel as Jo the Loiterer, Gina Perregrino as Indiana Elliott, and Amelia Berry as Jenny Reefer, Anthony’s fervent followers; Scott Russell as Daniel Webster, Thomas Mulder as Andrew Johnson, James Ludlum as Thaddeus Stevens, Kim Johansen as Ulysses S. Grant, and Nicholas Smith as Anthony Comstock, representing the sort of male bastion of power that Anthony was up against; Carlton Moe as John Adams and Addison Hamilton as Constance Fletcher, their love defying the two centuries that separated their lifetimes; Kasia Borowiec as Angel More, Webster’s ghostly sweetheart; Margaret Newcomb as flashy entertainer Lillian Russell, joining the cause; and Megan Gillis and Chad Sonka as Stein and Thomson’s onstage personae.
In Erhard Rom’s effective production, imposing columns, a couple of huge American flags, and Pablo Picasso’s “Portrait of Gertrude Stein” (1906) dominated. Tracy Dorman was responsible for the evocative period costumes; Dave Bova, the hair and makeup; Christopher Akerlind, the lighting; and Francis Patrelle, the choreography.




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