‘Brave New World’ now a musical at NC Stage Co.

Jim CavenerCitizen Times

The idea of creating musical theater based on Aldoux Huxley’s famed novel of 85 years ago, “Brave New World,” is preposterous — much less putting into musical form something of a spoof of this scary prophecy of an age yet to come. Huxley’s visionary imagination went all out in creating what appears high on all lists of finest English-language fiction of the 20th century. But no one this writer has spoken with expected it to work as a musical. Not a good idea, they say.

Perhaps that’s why it has taken 30 years to get it onstage. (The Huxley estate retains U.S. rights until 2034.)

It was worth the wait. The creative team concocting this new vehicle, in its world premiere here at North Carolina Stage Co., has a major crowd-pleasing hit on its hands. If this four-week run is not extended, and if the show does not “get legs,” grow and develop into a major commercial and critical success, the opening night packed house will be greatly surprised. Here is very good theater, based on the judicious adaptation and distillation of Huxley’s work into a highly entertaining property that melds the message, music, movement and meaning into a cohesive whole. 

Huxley’s “Brave New World” rates with the best works of George Orwell, Jules Verne and H.G. Wells in terms of high drama and dark developments in imagining the human journey into the 21st century and beyond. This tale is not a pleasant prophecy, and the ending of both the novel and the musical is downright depressing. A comedy, not.

But then, much of the best of American musical theater has been heavy-themed with dismal denouement. Think: “West Side Story,” “Porgy and Bess” and “Show Boat,” for starters. Good company for a risky new musical.

Those who know the tale with its complex social engineering, dictatorial ethics and frightening prognosis for the year 2540 will marvel at how effective is playwright Ben Andron’s adaptation. The comedic take-offs from Huxley’s concepts are an unexpected and welcome twist. The music by John McDaniel and Jonnie Rockwell, and lyrics by Bill Russell, are all inspired. Very clever wordsmithing in some of the libretto. The ensemble of eight dancer-singers are capably choreographed by Ryan Kasprzak, with overall deft direction by Thomas Caruso.

The five leads were cast in New York with first-rate professionals. Each is outstanding, but Robin Skye as Linda and Jason Edward Cook as Bernard are simply superb. Skye’s secure grasp of the material is marvelous. Cook is so convincing as the dweeb that when he comes fully around in the second act we know the lad was not typecast in the first. Intense and athletic performance of note. Justin Matthew Sargent gives a menacing Mond, Robby Haltiwanger is a winsome and endearing John, and Marissa O’Donnell a compelling, big-voiced Linina.

The rest of the cast is composed of eight ensemble members, a mix of mostly locals and an import from Broadway. Tyler McKenzie is the dance captain and disciplines this crew with the creative choreography. Other dancer-singers are Marthaluz Velez, Blake Logan, Kaylor Otwell, Billy Steeves, Alice Eacho, Sean Michael Jaenicke and Maria Buchanan. This tribe is masterfully costumed by George Martinat, with dazzling platinum wigs and imaginative, futuristic, science-fiction drag.

In addition to costuming, the rest of the visuals are a treat. The scenic design and lighting are exemplary. An elegant back wall with a smooth-working sliding door coupled with movable cubes are the major elements of visuals. The wall incorporates two back projection screens and effective lighting in the columns. Andrew Mannion is credited with this masterpiece, and probably closely collaborated with C.J. Barnwell, who conceived the intense and masterful lighting that almost becomes a leading character in the script. Stunning lighting effects are frequent.

The show’s tunes are somewhat formulaic, but the formula works, so why change it. Brad Simmons is music director and has previous Asheville connections, though he came with the production from New York City. Local musicians Mike Morel, Paul Leech, Matt Kinne and Aaron Price augment Simmons’ keyboard, all playing from an adjacent room, through the marvels of modern technology. It’s a brave new world.

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