The basic elements of the Shaw Festival's new musical "Maria Severa," written by Paul Sportelli and Jay Turvey, might sound unpromising, even cornball.
Armando (Mark Uhre), a bullfighter from an aristocratic Portuguese family is slumming in Lisbon, meets the prostitute Maria (Julie Martell), and falls in love, based on her artistry in singing fado, a unique form of Portuguese folk song. But his mother, Constanca (Sharry Flett), resolutely plans for her son to marry the rich Clara (Jacqueline Thair) to rescue the family's dwindling finances.
There's not a chance in a million the Maria-Armando alliance can succeed, but Sportelli and Turvey have put together an appealing amalgam of text and music that has the audience rooting for the couple and manages to be plausible enough to hold one's attention for most of the 2 1/2 -hour journey. There are many subplots and subtleties that add depth and texture to the musical. The text, especially imaginative and lyrical, has a no-holds-barred expressiveness. It refers to Maria's clients as "stinking sailors and horny husbands" and even describes some of the teases with which she flatters male egos in her trade.
On a less lurid level there are songs about a true, yet despairing, connection such as Maria's touching "Between a Man and a Woman," which reveals the dark passion typical of the fado style. Later, the emotional distance between the bullfighter's skill and the singer's art is expressed in "I Can't Touch You With Words," with its very un-fado-like softness, spaciousness and beautifully arpeggiated connecting phrases. Martell and Uhre sing superbly throughout.
Maria's Mama is a loud-mouthed tavern owner whose obstreperousness provides a strong comic relief, but is occasionally overdone by Jenny L. Wright, while the role of Carlos, Maria's passive, love-from-afar guitarist is poignantly played by Jeff Irving.
Neil Barclay as a liberal but frustrated priest, Father Manuel, and Saccha Dennis as Jasmine, Maria's street-walking companion, fill out the secondary roles quite admirably.
But this musical is as much about fado (Portuguese for "fate") as it is about the emotional turmoil among Maria, Armando, Mama, Constanca and the others. Maria Severa (1820-1846) was a real person who popularized fado music. It's the sketchy detail of her life that is the basis of the musical.
Coming from the woes of the downtrodden, fado should find empathy in North America, where blues music emerged from a similarly oppressed culture in the early 20th century. But while the blues expresses mournful, soulful yearnings, fado is a far more passionate expression of sadness and despair.
Shaw's production is very keenly directed by Jackie Maxwell, with a deftly designed all-purpose set by Judith Bowden. The passionate aspects of fado come through clearly, but over the long pull there is some rhythmic and textural monotony in fado's embracing guitar sonorities that would play better in the Lisbon tavern ambience than in tying together the long narrative of this quite touching and tragic story.
WHAT: "Maria Severa"
Review: 3 stars (Out of 4 )
WHEN: Through Sept. 23
WHERE: Court House Theatre, Shaw Festival, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
INFO: 800 511-7429, www.shawfest.com