When I saw Coram Boy on Saturday afternoon, I didn't know it was closing on Sunday. So that makes this review more of a post-mortem. But I won't let that stop me!
In 2001, when I was studying in London, I bought myself a ticket to see an acclaimed adaptation of George Eliot's The Mill on the Floss that was temporarily installed in the West End. I went by myself, so I had nobody to elbow when Helena Bonham Carter sat down a few rows in front of me, and, worse, no one to process the experience with on the way home. And this was a show that begged to be discussed. When I think now of my favorite theatrical experiences, that show is always near the top of the list; it left me completely in awe of the power of theatre, and also made me anxious to reread the novel.
I recalled that experience as I watched the first act of Coram Boy -- not because this show was an unqualified thrill, which it wasn't, and not because it made me want to read the novel, which it didn't. But it had a similarly adventurous approach to the source material, with occasionally stirring results. As I've said before, I can't get too excited when a book I love is adapted as a film. But adapting a novel for the stage is a different animal. A film adaptation is necessarily literal and earthbound; it can show us the events of a novel, but it can rarely capture the experience of reading it, the literary qualities that make it worth reading in the first place. But a stage adaptation has more room for invention. It can get away with focusing narrowly on one aspect of the story, and leaving out other plot elements entirely. It can be figurative, it can use metaphor and imagery to get across a little of what the author accomplishes with language on the page. Coram Boy takes advantage of the possibilities of the stage, although not quite enough; it isn't quite great, but it is intermittently exciting. And so I wasn't surprised to discover, as I read my Playbill at intermission, that Helen Edmundson, who adapted The Mill on the Floss in that production I saw in London, adapted Coram Boy as well. (Even if I hadn't studied her bio, I guess the underwater scene in Act Two would have clued me in -- although, for the record, the underwater stuff in Mill was more spectacular, and far more organic.)
I haven't read Jamila Gavin's young adult novel, but I presume most of my problems with the show come directly from its pages. The adaptation might have benefited from a little less fidelity to its source, but when you're dealing with a text beloved of young people, you risk alienating your audience if you leave anything out. (Sample Amazon.com customer review quote, from "a 12-year-old reader": "I think this is an unbelievably awesome book.") Still, the show is heavy on plot and light on substance; all those characters and all those "twists" don't add up to anything much.
The story holds up pretty well through the first act, thanks to strong acting and efficient traffic-directing, but it can't bear the weight of all the new characters and plot twists introduced in the second. And things get progressively cheesier, though without any increase in the show's sense of humor -- I didn't care for Handel's cameo, and I grew tired of all the coincidences and "surprise" revelations (methinks "You thought so-and-so was dead, but he's actually alive!" should occur a maximum of one time per story). I wanted the plot to stand still long enough for me to get to know any of the characters I was supposed to care about, especially the lumbering simpleton Meshak. He should be the throughline that guide us through the thicket of plot, but his supposedly rich inner world never has a chance to fully manifest itself; he and his visions are always being crowded off the stage by the next plot point, and when he's onstage he always seems like a distraction rather than a focal point. With no clear idea of who Meshak is or what motivates him, it's difficult to care about, or even understand, what he does to move the story along, or to be moved by his fate.
Adding to the confusion: the cast of Coram Boy is enormous, even for a musical (and this is not a musical), but the cast of characters is greater still, and so there is much doubling. Which creates a problem when the second-act plot is full of secret-identity revelations, e.g., "This new character is actually a previously established character in disguise." In other words, sometimes it's significant that we're seeing a familiar actor in a new role, and sometimes it's not. Sometimes you're supposed to notice, and sometimes you're not.
Still, I am not ready to dismiss Coram Boy as pointless, empty stagecraft, because it seems important, to me, that it is stagecraft -- as opposed to, say, imitation filmcraft. The story could hardly be called original, or nourishing, but the staging of that story is something to see, because it embraces the unique opportunities afforded by live theatre far more boldly than most big-budget shows dare. I was impressed by the gleeful theatricality of it: the locations not literally rendered, like the dungeon beneath the second-act villain's house, leaving room for the actors to provoke our imaginations. The events graphically staged -- the slinging about of dead babies, the smothering of not-quite-dead babies, the hanging of the villain, the frantic copulating of a pair of teenagers -- that kept taking me by surprise, as I would have expected such things to occur safely offstage, not just in a show for young people, but in any show. The decision to do all of that in full view of the audience was provocative, and a bold choice considering that it limited the potential audience (for the curious, the creators discuss their decision here). And then there's the casting of women as little boys, which works surprisingly well. If the stage were full of actual children, even extremely talented ones, the show would likely have been overwhelmed by the Star Search effect that performing children often have, where a small part of your brain is always thinking, "Wow, look at that kid up there, acting/singing/dancing, I wonder how old he is," etc. Knowing the actors are not really children leaves us to focus on the characters they're playing (at least once we get past the initial curiosity of knowing that they're women).
That casting trick would not be successful, of course, without strong performers, and this show has them in spades. I went in ready to examine the show in light of its Tony nominations, and I found both Xanthe Elbrick and Jan Maxwell very deserving of their "Featured Actress" nods (although, if Xanthe Elbrick isn't the lead in this show, who is?). I don't think a "Featured Actor" nod for Bill Camp would have been amiss, either; he made the sinister villain figure seem fresh while remaining faithful to the type. And many other ensemble members -- in particular Charlotte Parry, Cristin Milioti and Laura Heisler -- managed to create vivid characters who stood out from the visual confusion on the stage.
But there's only so much the actors can do in a rush, and they couldn't make me care about the second-act friendship between Aaron and Toby, or Toby's quest for his mother, or Melissa and Alexander's ostensibly passionate bond. Nothing could make me believe that Melissa managed to carry a baby to term without anyone realizing she was pregnant. The Ashbrook family reunion, which ought to have been an emotional high point of Act Two, was hurried past to get to the big action, and the slave-ship setting of the play's final scenes was barely justified.
As for the music that runs throughout this non-musical, too little creativity went into its use, and too little attention is paid to its religious themes and motivations. I thought my eyes would roll out of my head when the onstage chorus launched into an ominous, minor-key rendition of "For unto us a child is born..." as Melissa labored (on her knees, for some reason) to produce her poor bastard puppet-baby. As ludicrous as it would have been to suggest that this child was some sort of Christ figure, it seemed even more ridiculous to me that the creators wouldn't realize, acknowledge or care that the "child" mentioned in that piece of music is Christ.
As has been said before, Coram Boy was a great big expensive mess. But it was at times a fascinating mess. The few who had a chance to see it may have left perplexed and/or unmoved by the story, but I'm sure they also left discussing the staging, and I'm sorry more people won't have the chance to take it in.