"Sheer magic...brilliant, absolutely brilliant" | WHRO's M.D. Ridge Reviews I Sing the Rising Sea

I SING THE RISING SEA Virginia Stage Company  

M.D. Ridge
September 16, 2106

Listen here or read below.

Virginia Stage Company’s opening production for the new season, I Sing the Rising Sea, is the world premiere of a new musical with book, lyrics and music by Eric Schorr. It’s an ambitious work, moving freely between the recent past—Ocean View in its heyday, New York City and Washington D.C., postwar Japan—to the near future of the “dry valleys” of Antarctica 50 years from now. Running through the overall theme of the rising waters and the importance of earth’s oceans and its creatures are the lives of Granby Collins and his descendants, from the Ocean View boy to the mature Granby to his scientist great-grandson Granby Collins Jr., in Antarctica. Their Asian counterparts are a village fisherman, his daughter, and great-granddaughter, the scientist Misaki. And their lives are intertwined by encounters with a flagpole sitter who becomes an architect; the poet Langston Hughes; and the Emperor Hirohito.

The production’s timeline whips back and forth from the brief present to the remembered past and the possible hope of the future.  The performers are very, very good, especially Rona Figueroa, who plays Misaki, the Japanese scientist in Antarctica. She’s spunky, fearless, tender, all with that resolute jaw and dazzling smile—you can’t take your eyes off her. She also plays, with enchanting sweetness, her great-grandmother, a young girl during the American Occupation of Japan who fell in love with a Navy steward—but would not marry him. 

Maurice Murphy plays Granby Collins, who leaves his beloved but segregated Ocean View and Chesapeake Bay to study marine science in college in New York—enlisting in the Navy after Pearl Harbor. (He could only serve as a steward; all other jobs were closed to Negroes.) Murphy embodies an excellent balance between amazement and joy at the breadth of the world and a solid sense of rootedness even in upheaval.

As Ruth, the Ocean View flagpole sitter who makes a pact with young Granby to continue his education, Betsy DeLellio has great energy and intensity and a big, very Broadway voice that carries her songs up into the rafters. Ruth is not a completely sympathetic role; as an architect in New York, she is angry at Granby for abandoning his education to join the Navy, but he will not let his mentor design his life any further. It’s a great scene for both, and the best song in the show.

Alan Ariano is outstanding as the demoted Emperor Hirohito, who pursues his avocation of marine biology in Sagami Bay, where he meets the sailor—Granby—who shares his interests. Their encounter across cultural lines is fascinating and hilarious, but it does strain disbelief for the two to be doing a song and dance about whales and limpets, vaguely reminiscent of the traditional Japanese Coal Miner’s Dance. Ariano also plays the simple village fisherman as well as the ominous questioner at the House Un-American Activities Committee, disappearing smoothly into each character in turn.

As Granby Jr., the scientist in the Antarctic, Charles Browning brings a big voice and steady presence to his character, who falls in love with Misaki. Well, heck, they’re the only two people around for miles and miles and miles, but Browning and Figueroa make their relationship believable without cloying. 

Governors School student Tavon Olds-Sample plays the lankily coltish 13-year-old Granby with engaging charm and earnestness.

The poet Langston Hughes, whom Granby meets in New York, nurtures the poetry in the younger man’s soul; he is played with grace and passion by Anthony Mark Stockard, director of Norfolk State University’s Division of Drama.

The mostly effective book, music and lyrics are by Eric Schorr, ably presented by music director Barton Kuebler on keyboard and Jim Lambie on bass.

Chris Hanna, the director, has a huge, near-indigestible amount of exposition to get through, which is why this production seems more of a work-in-progress than a finished play. The pleasant 30s-style Ocean View number, with the performers spinning striped umbrellas, might have had more impact had the African-American characters been relegated to the sidelines, visibly excluded—as they had been in Ocean View at that time. Don’t tell me—show me! That’s theatre. 

Full marks, however, to the ensemble cast for their clear, superb diction! Particularly in a musical like this, when the audience has never heard the songs before and, at first hearing, must understand the complicated lyrics, full of technical language, diction is crucial—and they nailed it. 

I flinched when I saw the body mics (does no one learn to project anymore?) but Martha Goode’s sound design was well executed—nothing unpleasantly loud, just very clear. 

Scenic designer Blair Mielnik, projections designer Shaw Duan and lighting designer Victor En Yu Tan made sheer magic of a single set that seamlessly created the beach at Ocean View, Hirohito’s abdication speech, the HUAC hearings, the skyscrapers of New York, Antarctica—brilliant, absolutely brilliant. Jeni Schaefer’s costumes were well done.
Elbert Watson’s choreography was pretty pedestrian; I really expected more from him.

Chris Hanna, who has been Virginia Stage Company’s artistic director for a dozen years, will be returning to Old Dominion University while remaining as artistic director emeritus. On opening night, Hanna introduced the Stage Company’s new producing artistic director, Tom Quaintance, who has been artistic director of North Carolina’s Cape Fear Regional Theatre. 

From the Other Side of the Footlights, I’m M.D. Ridge.