I thought an opera, Seance on a Wet Afternoon, would likely be an exciting stretch for a talented musical theater composer and lyricist like Stephen Schwartz, author of Godspell, Pippin and Wicked, but that’s not how it turns out. The singing and acting, especially that of Lauren Flanigan as the medium and Melody Moore as Rita Clayton, is on a high level and the two children, Bailey Grey as Adriana and Michael Kepler Meo as Arthur, are impressive, but everybody could use a better opera.
The medium, Myra Foster, with the aid of her husband, Bill, kidnaps a young girl, Adriana Clayton, with the idea of ultimately leading the authorities and parents, as if by spiritual intuition, to where she will deposit the still alive girl and garner a big ransom and recognition of her spiritual “gift.” But kidnappings have a way of going awry, the Fosters keep Adriana quiescent with liberal doses of chloroform and eventually Myra suffocates her with a pillow.
That’s not the only dead child in Seance: Myra takes directions from Arthur, her poltergeist son of about 8 years in a white space-travel type of suit whom, we eventually learn, was stillborn “without a face.” Seance is very hard on children. The young couple sitting next to me, with the wife pregnant, had the wits to leave at the end of the first Act and I’m glad they never heard, in Act II, that Arthur was born faceless.
Perhaps on some level anything can be transformed into significant art if some requisites are in play, as when emotions and motivations of the characters are expressed with depth, and the issues have a universal dimension but … Do we really need an opera about the abduction, chloroforming and murder of a child? Many dramas hinge on the effect of a dead child on survivors, but that’s very different from a drama in which the focus is on a child’s abduction and murder. Are there any other operas or plays focused on a fictional child murder in this way? (I suppose Adriana is murdered in the screenplay by Brian Forbes based on the novel by Mark McShane, on both of which the opera Seance on a Wet Afternoon is based.)
The music is hybrid of operatic and show music but the mix tends to weaken each. It’s surprising that, given the significant recognition Schwartz has achieved for his lyrics, the libretto of Seance is notably flat. “Tell me you love me,” Myra says to Bill. “Do you still love me?” And Bill answers: “Yes.” And, “I still love you.” There are also a lot of astonishingly tepid rhymes of the croon/moon variety, often as triplets.
Also — and how easily this could have been avoided — the plot movement is sloppy. A frantic Mrs. Clayton persuades her resisting husband to come with her to ask Myra whether she has any spiritual intuitions about Adriana’s whereabouts, at which point the police Insector, who’s been standing in his “time is of the essence” posture sits down and Mrs. Clayton embarks on a lengthy aria. Once the Inspector has Myra under arrest, instead of taking her off in a squad car, he takes her for a promenade, during which he leaves the stage so she can engage with a batch of paparazzi — and meet up with Arthur.
Seance on a Wet Afternoon plays at the Koch Theater at NYC’s Lincoln Center through May 1.