Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Two Tickets to Paradise

August 21, 2007

l-r Hila Plitmann, Marie M. Wallace and Juli Robbins
Photo: Ed Krieger/Theatre at Boston Court 2007

Ever sit in a dark theater and think, "What the hell am I watching?" Well I had one of those days on Sunday at Pasadena’s Theater at Boston Court where the world premiere musical Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings is currently running. This is the first musical theater work from composer Eric Whitacre who has developed quite a reputation for his choral compositions in recent years and received a Grammy nomination earlier this year for his excellent recording, Cloudburst. After years in development with co-lyricist David Norona including several concert and semi-staged performances of earlier incarnations, Paradise drops down now fully formed here in LA. Whitacre, who takes credit for both the music and book and shares credit for the lyrics, has put together a hugely ambitious production with two hours of largely electronic dance music with accompanying solo vocals and chorus. The score is catchy and Whitacre is quite adept in setting the rather introspective lyrics throughout even if his high-NRG brand of dance music feels about five to ten years out of date. The music is presented in the best possible light, however, due largely to the vocal talents of its star and Whitacre’s wife, soprano Hila Plitmann. Ms. Plitmann has proven herself a talented and adventurous performer in her many appearances with the LA Philharmonic and she is in excellent form exhibiting clarity and control that make everything else melt away when she is center stage. One must admire her for an overwhelming commitment to this role, especially considering the trade in overblown adolescent comic book fantasies going on around her.

Despite the wonderful music and excellent performance from Plitmann, Shadows is burdened with a wince-inducing scenario and book that obliterate everything in their paths. This “epic” concerns a group of young angels who are de-winged by their parents and indefinitely entombed in a self-contained community for their protection following their parents' impending defeat at the hands of evil-doers. In the intervening 17 years, waiting for their parents to return, the children have develop a Lord of the Flies-style society that involves tattoos, colorful hair extensions, and martial art battles for trinkets. Or, in short, it’s a gay disco version of Mad Max. Or maybe the anti-Spring Awakening. Things get progressively sillier and needlessly complicated in as plotless a manner as possible from there. Finally, the train crashes into the inevitable conclusion with seemingly pointless secrets revealed and hearts changed. It's all much ado about nothing even if it at times quite stylish ado. Oh, did I mention the anime? No stone was left unturned in the audio-visual department which had the strange effect of making me long for the meat and potatoes realism of Wicked.

Still, Whitacre and all do deserve an A for ambition. The choral and vocal writing here are quite good and there is no doubt that Whitacre continues to be a composer to watch. On this first outing, drama may not yet be his thing, but I suppose bigger successes have grown out of larger failures than this. Plus it's good to see where all those Elfquest fans ended up.

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I was at one of the concert premiers in Chicago and I have to agree that the story is unbearable. With a title like that, I wonder why Whitacre didn't just adapt Milton's plot. Now that would be epic.

It's the music for me that has the most potential. I don't know if techno opera has already been done, but if not Whitacre is on to something big.
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