Say goodbye to the proverbial fat lady. The singers cast as the lovers in Baz Luhrmann's sensational new "La Boheme" are young, sleek and heart-meltingly alive. If you still pine for hotblooded romance in the footlights, the Broadway Theatre is now the quintessential place to seek it out.
Luhrmann, the audacious Australian film director behind last year's "Moulin Rouge," his frenzied, Oscar-nominated homage to singing and dancing on the big screen, set out to conquer Broadway with, of all things, a Puccini opera. And wouldn't you know, he's done it.
With an invaluable assist from his wife, Catherine Martin -- whose effervescent, exquisitely detailed re-creations of Parisian sidewalk cafes and writers' garrets will doubtless rekindle your fantasies of strolling arm-in-arm down Boulevard St. Germain -- Luhrmann does not so much reinvent "La Boheme" as repackage it. He makes a powerful case for wresting it out of the exclusive control of highbrow culture and into the realm of mainstream musical theater. Who knows, it might even hook a younger generation of theatergoers, familiar with the basic story thanks to "Rent," the rock-opera adaptation of "Boheme."
In concept, this new "Boheme," which opened last night, is not an entirely radical departure from modernized versions mounted by major opera houses. Updating is a tried-and-true opera tool; here Luhrmann moves the story up about 100 years to Paris in 1957, the Paris of Dior, Gauloises, Bardot and Truffaut. It's still sung in Italian, with subtitles. And even after taking some wild and witty liberties with the text, his retelling remains absolutely faithful to the original, with its poignant focus on the love between Rodolfo, the impetuous poet, and Mimi, his tragic next-door neighbor, dying of consumption.
What sets this incarnation apart are the extraordinary measures that Luhrmann has effected to make our hearts beat faster: His "Boheme" has both a quicksilver sexual pulse and a sophisticated core of emotional realism. The production is no static exercise for opera's heavyweight division. Luhrmann's gifted singers -- some of whom look as if they're barely out of the conservatory -- can act, and the attention to the characters' interior lives gives the opera a sense of completeness it lacks when vocal technique alone is expected to carry the production. You don't experience these singers as highly trained sound machines. They seem as interesting when they've wandered off into the wings as when their arias waft into the mezzanine.
With "Moulin Rouge," set in a hedonistic Paris nightclub and evoking the same bohemian aesthetic as Puccini's opera, Luhrmann reinvigorated the movie musical in his editing room. Borrowing hit songs from sources as varied as Elton John, Madonna and Rodgers and Hammerstein, he found a new, unbridled way to tell a story with pop music. Though the movie divided audiences deeply, admirers (myself included) were captivated by the world of feeling it aroused. It was as if Luhrmann were at once acknowledging the silliness of having actors burst into song on celluloid, and reminding us how fundamental was the human need to have experience channeled into rhythm and melody.
If his "Moulin Rouge" was obsessed with the technology of film -- the frantic cross-cutting gave some moviegoers vertigo -- his "Boheme" is a valentine to manual labor, celebrating the elbow grease it takes to put on a live show. (It also, by the way, proceeds with less deliberate speed, so fans of "Moulin Rouge" should not expect hyperactive opera.) Stagehands, in period costumes, are visible to the audience at all times, moving virtually all of Martin's rolling sets by hand. No stage effect eludes demystification. When Rodolfo and his friend, the painter Marcello, burn Rodolfo's play for heat, their hands are warmed by a prop man with a pair of flashlights, and when snow swirls into the garret through a door, the fan blowing the flakes sits right there onstage.
This all comes across not as arch theatrics but as love of the theater, and the conceit is most magically realized in the transformation of the stage for the Cafe Momus. So intoxicating is the Paris that Luhrmann and Martin conjure for us that you could devote an entire review to this one scene. It's the setting for the night out on the town for Rodolfo and his friends, as well as for the opera's most famous music, "Musetta's Waltz."
The scene begins in shades of gray and white. The international cast of 30, costumed as the denizens of Parisian nightlife -- hawkers and hookers, kids and gendarmes, transvestites and dandies -- slowly gathers on the stage as scenery is wheeled into place. In smoke and shadow, a dreary streetscape is taking shape. Then suddenly, the shape changes. The stage manager gives a final cue, and the lights come on, shocking the eye, for the panorama goes in an instant from drab to technicolor.
How often do lighting effects send chills up the spine? This one truly does, in a masterly collaboration of Martin and the lighting designer, Nigel Levings. Levings works other wonders: In one scene Mimi's face is framed in half light, giving her the air of a noir-ish mystery woman. The cafe scene, too, unfolds cinematically; your eye pans the ceaseless action occurring all around Rodolfo and Mimi until the bravura entrance of Musetta, the coquettish fascinator who entrances poor, overmatched Marcello. (The show's resourceful costume designers, Martin and Angus Strathie, have devised for Musetta a drop-dead scarlet gown.)
Two singers, Jessica Comeau and Chloe Wright, alternate in the role of Musetta, one of several parts in this "Boheme" that has been multiply cast because of the toll eight performances a week would take on a voice. There are also two Marcellos (Ben Davis and Eugene Brancoveanu) and, more prominently, three each of Rodolfo (Jesus Garcia, David Miller and Alfred Boe) and Mimi (Lisa Hopkins, Ekaterina Solovyeva and Wei Huang). In the two performances I attended, I saw all of the Musettas and Marcellos and two of the three sets of Rodolfos and Mimis, missing only the pairing of Boe and Huang. There was not a weak link among them.
Solovyeva, a Russian, and Hopkins, an American, make for vastly different Mimis. Blond and porcelain-skinned, Solovyeva evokes Catherine Deneuve; Hopkins, raven-haired and saucer-eyed, has a quality reminiscent of Gene Tierney. They are matched respectively with Miller and Garcia, both Americans. Of the pairs, Garcia and Hopkins are a more touching and volatile couple, though Solovyeva's ethereal soprano is the most compelling instrument. Comeau's firecracker of a Musetta all but steals the cafe scene, and Brancoveanu invests Marcello with the brooding appeal of the young Belmondo.
The terrific Daniel Webb and Daniel Okulitch, playing Rodolfo's friends Colline and Schaunard, fill out the Parisian brat pack with just the right playful verve, and the Broadway actor Adam Grupper brings expert clowning to the role of Benoit, Rodolfo's buffoonish landlord.
It must be noted, though, that the star wattage here is supplied primarily by Luhrmann, who, with "La Boheme," immediately earns a place among Broadway's artistic elite. Only a handful of auteurs, such as Julie Taymor ("The Lion King") or Twyla Tharp ("Movin' Out"), work in the playhouses of the theater district; one can only hope that Luhrmann and Martin's excellent Broadway adventure does not end in Rodolfo's cold-water flat.
La Boheme, by Giacomo Puccini; libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa and Luigi Illica. Directed by Baz Luhrmann. Production designed by Catherine Martin; musical direction, Constantine Kitsopoulos. Costumes, Martin and Angus Strathie; lighting, Nigel Levings; sound, Acme Sound Partners. With Dan Entriken and William Youmans. Approximately 2 hours 20 minutes. At the Broadway Theatre. Call 800-432-7250 or visit www.bohemeonbroadway.com.
who shares the role with Chloe Wright --
nearly steals the cafe scene in Baz Luhrmann's Broadway version of "La Boheme."