Fifteen years ago, Alleyway Theatre impresario Neal Radice produced "Columbus," a play by Robert Kornhiser, a work of historical fiction that, remembers Radice, "was perfect to be someday told musically." The tirelessly creative Radice has thought about the possibilities ever since.
It's taken a few years -- a little matter of restoring and renovating his Art Deco Alleyway facility has occupied any spare time -- but "Columbus" has indeed resurfaced not only as a musical but an opera, complete with a new book and music, lyrics, orchestrations, sets -- ship rigging on a simulated caravel, planking, primitive living quarters on land -- and lighting by Radice. Oh, yes, he directs the show as well. It's true; the man never sleeps.
The story is that of famed Italian-born explorer Christopher Columbus who made four voyages under the flag of Spain to the New World some 500 years ago. A superb sailor -- a student of currents and an early meteorologist -- Columbus groveled for gold and sought souls for his Catholic faith. He also helped pave the way for European colonization, unwittingly leaving behind the "Columbian Exchange," the interchange of plants, animals, cultures, ideas and unfortunately, disease and forced labor, resulting in the deaths of millions of indigenous Caribbean people -- "Indians," Columbus mistakenly named them.
In song, all of the above is told, much by the ill and sometimes crazed Columbus, nearly as much by Historia, a sassy, sarcastic and cynical narrator who fills in some timeline holes, accurately except for one silly instance, but not above embellishment. Columbus has his hands full with the natives and his mutinous crew, particularly the oily Francisco Roldan -- an opportunist snake that ship logs say perished in a hurricane around the year 1500 -- and restive islanders Margarit and Hojeda. The population plots, Columbus rules by the book -- his crew, for example, "drinks too much, toils too little" -- and tension sweeps over Hispaniola like surf.
Baritone John Study, not long ago a community theater regular in Niagara Falls, is Columbus, and he sings with confidence the complex melodies given him by composer Radice. And since this is an opera, there is much introspection and anguish, and Columbus is very often the last to know that things are in "public disarray," as a visiting Spanish dignitary found. Study conveys well the multiple dilemmas: "Gold" is hopeful, "Footwork and Flattery" a political primer, the pulsating "Don't Look to Me for Pardon" a rare admission of decisions gone bad and "A Man of Victory" a premature wish for vindication.
Kim Piazza wanders in and out of scenes, never fully answering the question, "Who are you?" Piazza doesn't get many chances to show off her fine mezzo soprano voice, but she is very good, except when explaining that the murdered Indian girl Esperanza never really existed. "Touch Her" may be comic relief, but it creates awkward audience moments.
Tom Owen, after a career of playing sniffing sophisticates, oozes evil as the cackling Roldan, his bass baritone wonderfully treacherous on "Some Men Reach Too Far" and "Do You Feel It?" and then joyfully romping though a Gilbert and Sullivan-style parody, "Who Spits the Admiral's Name More Than Me?" with his accomplices. Terrific work.
The cast also includes Harold Lewter, Noland McFarland, Roger Van Dette, Matthew LaChiusa and Gina Serra.
"Columbus" is an ambitious undertaking, and it showcases Neal Radice's evolvement as a composer. Gone are simple, repetitive tunes; the music is challenging, the lyrics clever and full of new economic wordsmithing. The show is not a "work in progress"; it's not perfect, some vocal moments go awry, but it has a look of completeness about it.
Shows what 15 years of thinking about a concept can do.
Review: 3 stars (Out of 4)