EmptyImperial Theatre, New York
The new play "Coram Boy" is based on an award-winning novel by Jamila Gavin, but audience members can be forgiven if they think they're watching a Dickens adaptation. This sprawling 18th century tale revolving around the adventures of a pair of orphans, one white and one black, at the Coram Foundling Hospital has enough heroes, villains and dramatic incidents to fuel a dozen melodramas.
Unfortunately, despite a spectacular staging, this National Theatre production imported from London sits uneasily on Broadway. Despite many laudable qualities, it inevitably has an ersatz feel that makes it seem like a poor man's "Nicholas Nickleby." Too confusing for children (and admittedly, at times, for me) and not truly dramatically engaging enough for adults, it is best appreciated for such physical elements as the onstage choir that provides haunting musical accompaniment throughout, including a rendition of Handel's "Hallelujah Chorus."
Helen Edmundson's adaptation fails to make the convoluted narrative fully coherent. The first half, set in 1742, deals with aristocratic young boys Alexander and Thomas; both are musically gifted, but the former finds his artistic leanings dampened by his father. Meanwhile, in the city, the villainous Otis Gardiner (Bill Camp), claiming to be a representative of the Coram Hospital, persuades pregnant women to hand over their illegitimate babies, pretending that they'll be safely cared for but actually murdering them.
In the second half, we are introduced to the two orphans: Aaron (Xanthe Elbrick), Alexander's now-grown illegitimate son who was abandoned by his mother, and Toby (Uzo Aduba), rescued from an African slave ship. Among the nefarious doings depicted is a sex trafficking operation conducted by the evil society figure (Camp again) for whom Toby works as a servant.
By the time the sprawling scenario has reached its conclusion, villains will be hanged, boys will be thrown overboard, and Handel's (who shows up as a character in the play) "Messiah" will be sung at Coram Hospital.
Director Melly Still, handling the massive cast and profusion of onstage incidents with great skill, has staged the action in often stirring fashion and keeps everything moving at a fortunately brisk pace. But her fine efforts, and the superb technical qualities of nearly every aspect of the production, ultimately are unable to overcome the sheer artificiality of the proceedings. Despite all the powerful emotions being conveyed onstage, we are left strangely unmoved.
A National Theatre of Great Britain production
presented by Boyett Ostar Prods., the Shubert Organization, Roy Furman, Lawrence Horowitz, Stephanie McClelland, Debra Black/Daryl Roth, Erick Falkenstein/Ralph Guild and Elan McAllister/Allan S. Gordon in association with Jamie deRoy, Jam Theatricals/CPI, Harriet Leve/Ron Nicynski/Laurence Braun and Bill Rollnick/Nancy Ellison Rollnick
Adaptation: Helen Edmundson
Based on the novel by: Jamila Gavin
Director: Melly Still
Music: Adrian Sutton
Set and costume designer: Ti Green, Melly Still
Original lighting designer: Paule Constable
Original sound designer: Christopher Shutt
Lighting design re-ceation: Ed McCarthy
Sound design re-creation: Acme Sound Partners
Molly: Jolly Abraham
Toby: Uzo Aduba
Mrs. Hendry: Jacqueline Antaramian
Otis Gardiner: Bill Camp
Adult Thomas Ledbury: Dashiell Eaves
Young Alexander Ashbrook/Aaron: Xanthe Elbrick
Mr. Claymore: Tom Riis Farrell
Meshak Gardiner: Brad Fleischer
Isobel Ashbrook: Karron Graves
Edward Ashbrook: Laura Heisler
Miss Price: Angela Lin
Lord Ashbrook: David Andrew Macdonald
Dr. Smith/Frederic Handel: Quentin Mare
Mrs. Lynch: Jan Maxwell
Mrs. Milcote: Kathleen McNenny
Alice Ashbrook: Cristin Milioti
Young Thomas Ledbury: Charlotte Parry
Lady Ashbrook: Christina Rouner
Melissa/Angel: Ivy Vahanian
Adult Alexander Ashbrook: Wayne Wilcox