'I Am Harvey Milk': Theater Review

Matthew Murphy
Kristin Chenoweth and Noah Marlowe with chorus in "I Am Harvey Milk"
This ambitious musical piece received a stirring New York performance featuring a 120-strong men's chorus

Kristin Chenoweth stars with Broadway composer Andrew Lippa in his twelve-song oratorio celebrating the life of the slain gay rights activist

Oratorios don't exactly come along every day, so the appearance of I Am Harvey Milk is something of an event. Celebrating the life of the gay rights pioneer who was assassinated in 1978, this work by Broadway composer Andrew Lippa (Big Fish, The Addams Family) is a deeply heartfelt and ambitious piece that strikes a resonant chord. Receiving its New York premiere Monday night in a gala performance at Lincoln Center's Avery Fisher Hall, the song cycle's intense emotionality was accentuated by the news of the Supreme Court ruling earlier that day, essentially allowing for gay marriage in five additional states.

The one-night concert was a lavishly produced event, starring the composer himself in the title role, Kristen Chenoweth as Milk's mother and Noah Marlowe as the young Harvey. It featured the Orchestra of St. Luke's and the magisterial All-Star Broadway Men's Chorus, assembled especially for this presentation and comprised of no less than 120 singers. Proceeds will be used to create the Harvey Milk Arts Fund at the Hetrick-Martin Institute, which provides services to lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, questioning and at-risk youth.

The work was introduced by an effusively received Whoopi Goldberg, who addressed the crowd with "Hello, family!" and proceeded to describe Milk as "a remarkable, funny, great cat." Particularly moving words followed from Cleve Jones, who worked for Milk as a student intern (he was played by Emile Hirsch in Gus Van Sant's 2008 biopic, Milk) and went on to found The NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.

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Composed of 12 songs, the one-hour piece incorporates various musical styles, ranging from operatic to pop, to deliver a nonchronological examination of its subject's life and social impact. It begins with the young Harvey imagining his life as "An Operatic Masterpiece," allowing the chorus to pull out all the stops.

Other numbers include "You Are Here," in which Lippa displayed his strong vocal chops in a triumphant solo; the stirring choral pieces "A Decent Society" and "San Francisco"; and the moving "Lavender Pen," in which Milk describes the passage of the city's gay rights bill.

The undeniable crowd-pleasing highlight is "Friday Night in the Castro," a disco-style number that had the choristers shaking their booties with classic '70s-era dance moves while a giant mirror ball turned the entire concert hall into a nightclub.

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The music is more effective than the often trite lyrics, with the most egregious number being "I Am the Bullet," sung from the perspective of one of the bullets used to kill Milk. And while the message of "Sticks and Stones," about the damage inflicted by words, is certainly relevant, its repeated use of sexual and racial epithets ultimately proves wearisome.

Besides Lippa's impressive vocalizing, there were strong performances by the young Marlowe, a veteran of such shows as Mary Poppins and Elf, and seasoned Broadway star Chenoweth, who showcases her glass-shattering soprano in such numbers as "Was I Wrong?" and "Leap."

Directed by Noah Himmelstein and conducted by Joel Fram, the brief work reached a stirring conclusion with the uplifting "Tired of the Silence," which movingly incorporates text from a speech given by Milk at a gay rights parade. The repeated soaring exhortations to "Come out!" gave the number an anthemlike quality that will no doubt make it a musical staple at many gay-themed events to come.

Cast: Andrew Lippa, Kristin Chenoweth, Noah Marlowe, The All-Star Broadway Men's Chorus, Orchestra of St. Luke's
Director: Noah Himmelstein
Words and Music: Andrew Lippa
Musical Director/conductor: Joel Fram
Choreographer: Michele Lynch
Projection designer: Andrew Lazarow
Sound designer: Scott Lehrer
Producers: Bruce Cohen, Robb Nanus, Jessica Leventhal, Bruce Robert Harris, Jack W. Batman
 

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