'Another Brick in the Wall': Theater Review

Philip Groshong
'Another Brick in the Wall'
'The Wall' comes tumbling down

Pink Floyd's classic rock opera of rebellion and chaos gets the symphonic treatment in its U.S. premiere at Cincinnati's Music Hall.

While touring with his band Pink Floyd in the late 1970s, Roger Waters suffered a breakdown that inspired the rock opera The Wall, about Pink, a delusional rock star whose personal misfortunes trigger a slide into fascism. A successful world tour followed, and a 1982 movie directed by Alan Parker grossed just over $22 million at the domestic box office, while a landmark concert was staged in Berlin after that city's dividing wall came down in 1990.

In March of 2017 in Montreal, Quebecois composer Julien Bilodeau premiered Another Brick in the Wall, a new opera based on the classic album. The U.S. premiere in Cincinnati, Ohio, offers arresting visuals and superlative singers, but the uninspired minimalist score affords them too limited room to take flight.

The curtain rises on a chaotic rock concert. Performers move in slow motion as fans charge the stage and spotlights rake the scene around Pink (Nathan Keoughan), who in a climactic moment spits water in a fan’s face. It’s difficult to tell, but the notes inform us this moment precipitates a mental breakdown, which lands the singer in a restorative health clinic. There, Pink ponders the people and events in his life that led to his current sorry state; the loss of his father (Jean-Michel Richer) in the war, an overbearing mother (France Bellemare), a neglected wife (Caroline Bleau) and a domineering schoolteacher (Brandon Scott Russell).

As in the movie, the album's classic single, “Another Brick in the Wall (Part 2),” is heard in a riotous schoolroom. It’s a moment of high anticipation for Pink Floyd fans that will leave them disappointed, Keoughan sings the lyrics in a crisp operatic tenor underscored by music that lacks the original’s anarchic sense of rebellion, forsaking much of what made the scene so memorable.

It’s a problem that haunts the entire production. The lyrics are the same, but the music doesn’t match. It’s a bit like singing “Happy Birthday” to an improvised tune separate from the one we all know. The results continuously thwart audience expectations, an obstacle composer Bilodeau must have anticipated. It’s incumbent upon audiences to put aside their memory of the album and listen with an open mind. The problem is that doing so grants few rewards. Bilodeau’s score wanders arbitrarily from note to note like his compositions for Canadian documentaries La belle visite and Premieres Armie. His score fills the hall like background music, affording few arias for his gifted cast and scarce compositional dynamism for the orchestra.

To compensate, he relies heavily on his chorus in the same way director Dominic Champagne (his work restaged here by Suzanne Crocker) leans on Johnny Ranger’s surreal and expressionistic projections beamed onto scenic designer Stephane Roy’s bifurcated wall, which comes together and apart as needed. In a style matching the music, the very basic direction results mainly in an amped-up stand-and-sing show.

Pink essentially narrates his story, seldom interacting with other characters but watching passively while scenes play out. Doing so undercuts dramatic tension and narrative cohesion, resulting in an expressionistic fantasia. Consequently, Pink’s retreat behind a metaphorical wall to block out the world exists more in the lyrics than in the staging. Likewise, his metamorphosis into a race-baiting neo-Nazi lacks dramatic foundation.

Another Brick in the Wall is partially redeemed by its second act, which offers a more coherent narrative line. Bilodeau adds a misplaced rendition of the Vera Lynn classic, “We’ll Meet Again,” followed by Pink’s debut of his new persona, a fascist pop singer whose concerts are more Nuremberg than Woodstock. The scene finally gives Keoughan material to bite into, belting out his immoral dictums while fans are taken at gunpoint from among the chorus and even the audience.

“This production is not intended to comment on the current political landscape,” said Cincinnati Opera creative director Evans Mirageas to a smattering of laughter before the performance. Some have compared the metaphorical wall to Trump’s proposed border wall, but the real parallels exist in Pink’s efforts to dispense with “the other” — homosexuals, African Americans, Jews and Reds.

The final scene, a trial incorporating Waters’ original symphonic score, takes place in the medical clinic and in Pink’s mind, with judge and barrister clad in vulture costumes, inadvertently upping the silliness quotient. The final coda is sung in the heavenly tones of the company’s magnificent chorus. Throughout, the group of 46 is given ample opportunity to shine in a way the principals are not. But unlike minimalist composer John Adams, whose choral compositions are among the best in the contemporary canon, Bilodeau employs little more than standard polyphonies.  

As Mother, mezzo soprano Bellemare has highlights early on and notably in the final scene, but unbalanced sound mixing sometimes left her drowned out by the orchestra. As Pink’s wife, soprano Bleau offers gorgeous renderings to match her incandescent stage presence with a fiery mane of red hair and dazzling crimson dress. The renowned Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, under the baton of guest conductor Alain Trudel, provides a tight, nuanced interpretation of Bilodeau’s score, but is only as good as the material.

Without a doubt symphonic interpretation of rock music is a proposition fraught with difficulty. One form seems to contradict the other, but with ingenuity and creative spark, nothing is unimaginable. Sure, The Wall can be an opera, it could even be a great one. But perhaps only if monochromatic music and vulture costumes remain behind the wall, and not in front of it.

Venue: Music Hall, Cincinnati
Cast: Nathan Keoughan, France Bellemare, Jean-Michel Richer, Brandon Scott Russell, Caroline Bleau, Reilly Nelson, Michael Young James Eder
Director: Suzanne Crocker after Dominic Champagne
Operatic composer: Julien Bilodeau
Music and lyrics: Roger Waters
Conductor: Alain Trudel
Set designer: Stephane Roy
Costume designer: Marie-Chantale Vaillancourt
Lighting designer: Anne-Catherine Simard-Deraspe after Etienne Boucher
Sound designer: Louis Dufort
Projection designer: Johnny Ranger
Choreographer: Ogulcan Borova
Presented by PNC, Anonymous, Ascent Private Capital Management of U.S. Bank, HORAN, The National Endowment for the Arts, Murray Sinclaire Jr., and Ross, Sinclaire & Associates, The Alpaugh Foundation, Edward Jay Wohlgemuth