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Treasure Island | Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold | Scene4 Magazine-November 2018 - www.scene4.com

  Introducing a New Generation to the Robert Louis Stevenson Classic

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold

To the swelling strains of the orchestra, punctuated by offstage claps of thunder, the stage bathed in cobalt blue light and the swirling haze of simulated gunpowder, thirty-six men cross swords, climb three-story high rigging, fire pistols and engage in acrobatic fight choreography that would make Errol Flynn envious.  The audience sits spellbound at the edge of the seats, completely invested in this high-stakes life or death drama. As Jim Hawkins hurls himself overboard and the curtain falls on act one, they rise to their feet in a storm of applause.

Over six hundred-strong, they, the fortunate spectators at the opening night of the Fulton Theatre’s world premiere of Treasure Island A Musical Adventure, the epic new musical by Marc Robin and Curt Dale Clark that creates the appropriate frisson for this milestone occasion – the confluence of three remarkable events. For not only does September 20, 2018, mark the opening of the thrilling and touching, stirring and spectacular Treasure Island and celebrate the 165th season of the venerable “Old Lady of Prince Street,” the oldest continuously operating theatre in America, but it also honors the tenth anniversary of the genius who has helmed the Lancaster theatre for a decade of growth, Executive Artistic Producer Marc Robin. For Robin and his co-creator and husband of twenty-eight years, Curt Dale Clark, the occasion and the production signify the adventure of a lifetime.

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Both Robin and Clark, who met in Chicago and spent years working in the theatre there as actors, singers, dancers, directors/choreographers, relocated to Lancaster in 2008 when Robin succeeded Michael Mitchell (who had passed away) as Artistic Director of the Fulton. The elegant theatre, whose first theatrical season occurred in 1853, has a storied past, with a veritable who’s who of theatre luminaries like Sarah Bernhardt, Ethel Barrymore, George M. Cohan, James O’Neill, Fannie Brice, and Lily Langtree treading its boards.  The house also served to present other entertainment such as Buffalo Bill Cody’s Wild West Show, the great violinist Ole Bull in concert, and ballet stars Pavlova, Ruth St. Denis, and Ted Shawn.  In the early years of the 20th century the house was used primarily as a movie theatre, but with its 100th anniversary, forces marshaled to restore the theatre to its rightful glory. The building was saved from demolition in the early 60s and from the 70s onward began to produce plays once again. In 1995 with restoration complete and landmark status attained, the Fulton re-launched as an Equity house itself with a gala production of Sondheim’s Company.

Today, the Fulton stands poised to enter a new phase of growth and development, having launched a major, three-phase Capital Campaign to modernize the studio and performance spaces and add housing for the company, all the while preserving the historic character of the 684-seat house and the city block it will occupy.

Moreover, under Robin’s leadership, the Fulton has gained a reputation as one of the nation’s leading regional theatres frequently producing pre-Broadway shows or regional premieres of newly released titles.  So what better way to to mark the occasion and tie all these historic threads together than by staging this new Treasure Island –a transformative work that seems destined for a long and lustrous voyage?

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Interviewed in Robin’s elegantly appointed office atop on the Fulton’s fourth floor the day after the opening, the creators explain the reasons they felt this was the time for their creation.  “One major reason is that I personally have reached a watershed in my own career, “ says Robin.  “I took the job at the Fulton as interim artistic director and progressed to Artistic Director and now Executive Artistic Producer, all the while asking myself ‘Is this a chapter in my life or is this my life?’  There is no question now that this is my life; the Fulton has become my home.  Ten years in the theatre business is a big deal, and I wanted to find a way to celebrate that.  I asked Curt, as Artistic Director of Maine State Music Theatre, how he would feel about using our work to celebrate this anniversary at the Fulton, and he thought it was a great idea as long as MSMT could be part of the event as well. In recent years the collaboration between our theatres has been very beneficial to both, so this made sense.”

“And it made sense to us personally,” Clark adds, ‘because our first Equity production in the developmental process for Treasure Island was here at the Fulton ten years ago.”

That show and the several other incarnations that preceded the current production were very different, all part of the long creative journey that has been a labor of love for the co-creators.  Robin and Clark initially conceived Treasure Island┬ş as a children’s show – part of the Theatre for Young Audiences Series for which they wrote and staged fifteen children’s works at Chicago’s Drury Lane Evergreen Park, where Robin was Artistic Director in the 1990s. The show met with such huge success that the Chicago critics urged Robin and Clark to consider transforming it into a full-length family musical.  And so that process began with try-out productions at the Eastlight Theatre in Peoria, the Fulton Theatre (2008) and Beef and Boards in Indianapolis (2009).  Then by virtue of both artists’ careers’ becoming increasingly busy, it lay dormant for a while until the decision to give a new life in a dazzling new form. Two developmental readings – October 2017 and May 2018 – helped Robin and Clark to rewrite, revise, and fully shape the vision they have now brought to life.

Asked about the major changes they have made in their work, Robin replies, “ The most significant change in this long process has been to transform Treasure Island from a funny, slapstick kids’ show to an epic staging along the lines of Les Mis├ęrables.  We realized we had to make up our minds about what the style of the play should be. We had to determine if we were playing to four-year-olds or to a commercially viable, older audience.  We decided that Treasure Island is not really a children’s story.  It is accessible to children, but it has more danger and more bite. Even from the last developmental reading, we have made changes that commit to the darker elements and make it an adult show that is accessible to all ages.”

Explains Clark, “It’s weird because I love the children’s show and all its elements AND the main stage show.  I think they each exist beautifully on their own. But, of course, for now, we are focusing on the main stage production.”

Robin continues, “We spent so much time [over the years] trying to hold onto some of what we loved in the children’s version – our pirates were cartoonish and endearing – but we had to let that all go.  Now our characters are people facing life or death stakes in a universal coming of age story.”

And in slowly making these changes, as well as in the initial creative forging of Treasure Island, how do these two partners work? Robin replies: “The collaboration has worked really well. Lyrically, it flows pretty easily, and the story is based on something else, so it leads you.”

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While Robin is credited with the music and co-collaboration on the book and lyrics and Clark the book and lyrics, in fact the process has been more amorphous and free-flowing over the years, due in part to their shared talents – while Clark is not a musician, he is an accomplished singer and Robin has a keen bent for writing and rhyme and can assist Clark – as well as to their shared passion for the works they undertake.

 “We come at it from two different viewpoints – not competitive perspectives but complementary ones, Robin says.  “I am looking at the music, the melodies, themes, and harmonies and how they interact with the text, and Curt is looking at the text and, he may say that this music isn’t supporting what this scene should be – or vice versa, I to him.”

“Marc is amazing in understanding whether the music supports a section of the play,” Clark says, acknowledging that both of them have made some tough decisions on cuts to the final version. Clark remarks that they have an entire “archive” of unused songs and music that they will sometimes access to use in another context. “We keep recordings of what we’ve written, but Marc amazes me in that he can call out from his brain something we created a long time ago and go to the piano, work it into his fingers, and play it again.”

And when they disagree? Clark responds, “We usually allow some time to pass before we resolve it; we both think about what the cause for the disagreement is.”

Robin concurs, “We don’t fight really.  We are writing because we are passionate about what we have to say. The bottom line is we respect each other because I believe my partner is an intelligent, forward-thinking collaborative talent, and when I have the chance to create with my husband, who is actually in the same place with me at the same time, it is very exciting! There are moments that are hard because we both want it to be the best.”

“We don’t allow each other to be ‘just good enough,’” adds Clark. “We give each other the strength we need when one of us is tired and willing to accept ‘good enough,’ the other steps in and says ‘NOT good enough’ That helps push us toward the best we can possibly be as often as we possibly can.”

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The process appears to work remarkably well for the pair, as clearly Treasure Island A Musical Adventure is not only Robin and Clark at their very best, but, it is, I feel certain, a work of genius that would be at home on any Broadway stage. With a narrative that has been retold so many times with varying degrees of success, this musical version captures the intent and intensity of Stevenson’s action-packed tale, while adding a heightened psychological sensibility and a sweeping romantic aura that prove irresistible.

“It’s a story that needs to be told,” declares Clark.  “Wriitten a long time ago, people have stopped using it as a teaching tool today, when in reality it needs to be taught.  I think the musical version can help,” he opines, noting that the student matinees at the Fulton have already sold out. “If we can initiate a dialogue, we’ve done our job.” 

Speaking to the challenge of creating a musical book from Stevenson’s episodic, complicated tale, Clark continues, “The book is remarkably dense because it was written in an era when people relished the time they took reading.  But to untangle all that into a stage version that is digestible in two hours was no easy task.  It is easy to fall into a situation where we were talking about what is happening rather than actually letting the audience see what happens.”

“But we had a great advantage in that regard, “ Robin adds, “because having condensed the story to a children’s version, where we had to find the chief take-away point, that then became the driving point for this version. This is a coming of age story of a child who becomes a man.”

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“It is the story of a young boy who has lost the father he only knew in short intervals between seas voyages,” Clark narrates, “and now he must find his own way to manhood. Four other men serve as guardians – Dr. Livesey who has chosen the role and whom Jim’s mother has designated; Squire Trelawney who acts as an adjunct guardian and benefactor; Captain Smollett who serves as a role model; and Long John Silver who has a darker side.  From each of these Jim takes something, and by the last scene he has become a man who chooses to do something he knows others may not like. But he is willing to give Long John Silver one more chance because Long John has saved his life. The ending has a kind of redemption as Jim realizes all human beings have both good and bad in them.”

“The best plays start at the base of the tree and go straight up, and with something this complicated, we made sure to come back to the trunk each time,” Robin adds.  “We made sure to make each scene faithful to the core story.”

“Something happens to Jim in each scene making him become who he does, and that is why he appears in virtually every scene.  It is a remarkable performance,” Clark adds appreciatively of Michael William Nigro’s Jim. 

The twenty-year-old Nigro, for whom this show proves to be a star turn and hopefully a career launching vehicle, concurs, “Jim is looking for answers to so many questions; he is trying to find someone who will guide him and help him discover what is the right journey. He is navigating through life listening to the people he thinks will lead him in that direction, but he is tricked by Long John Silver. [So despite the bond that does develop between the two], at the end Jim realizes it is Dr. Livesey who has always been looking out for his safety and well being, and when Long John Silver asks Jim to go on an adventure, he turns Silver down.’

Jeremiah James, who plays Long John Silver, and James Patterson, who is Dr. Livesey, concur with this interpretation. James acknowledges the complexity of Silver’s character – an anti-hero “who would do anything to get what he wants, kill anyone he needs to to get the treasure, but yet, at the end of the day, proves to be a bad guy with a heart because he truly does care for Jim Hawkins.”

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Patterson adds that his character is “probably the only one who selflessly has Jim’s interest at heart. He is out to protect him and help him become the best man he can be.  My favorite moment is the one where Dr. Livesey acknowledges Jim’s triumphs and finally sees him no longer as a boy, but as an adult and an equal.”

Other elements enhance the appeal of the book, among them the thread of humor which runs throughout, embodied primarily in the foppish squire and the crazed castaway Benn Gunn. Michael Ianucci, who plays Trelawney, comments that he and the directors Robin and Clark tried very hard to “keep my character real. The Squire has an element of a stock character, but we humanized him in the way in which he truly loves the kid.”

James Michael Reilly, who dominates act two as the hilariously quirky marooned pirate Ben Gunn, sees the humor in the piece “as a coping mechanism for Ben Gunn.  He might laugh about being shipwrecked for so long, but then turn that over into tears.” Reilly says Robin’s instructions were to open the second act on a lighter tone and to convey the spirit of excitement in seeing Jim.”

James thinks that by musicalizing the characters and the story, the actors can tread that “fine line between fantasy and reality. You get to go to a place where things become so heightened that you have to sing a song to help tell the story. For Long John Silver especially, music is an inroad to his psyche in the way that the novel and film versions don’t offer.  The beautiful lush score and songs open up his soul so the audience gets to see he is not just a horrible cutthroat. The music adds the multiple levels of soul and heart.”

Robin says this is exactly what he and Clark intended. “I was passionate about wanting this to feel like old, classic, big, in-your-face music. The musical underscoring helps dictate mood and effect.  It sounds through-composed, but this is not recitative.”

In fact, it is music under and motif. Clark gives an example of Long John Silver’s entrance, “when the Captain asks ‘Where is this Long John Silver?’ And Silver says, ‘I am right here,’ and we hear this motif [he hums] which makes you know immediately that this is the entrance of the villain.”

“And then he is nice, and you are confused, and that is as it should be,” Robin adds.

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Robin talks about his own musical influences, citing musical theatre composers Maury Yeston, Alan Menken, and Stephen Schwartz among his favorites and notes that “My favorite classical composer is Prokofiev. There is so much emotion in their music. I wanted to create melodies that people would go away humming, because if you have a tune stuck in your head, that means the music is doing more than just informing you; it has gotten into your soul.”

Clark and Robin talk about the glee club feel to some of the music. (One can hear overtones of Benjamin Britten, particularly in the magnificently concerted chorales for male voices.) Robin says, “Curt and I both sang in choirs when we were young, and the music has that classic old school harmony in thirds, using all different timbres of the male voice. We also needed music that would support the epic nature of the show “ so hence the thirty-six man-cast and seventeen-piece orchestra.

Clark observes that the vocal score is especially demanding.  “It is a tough show to survive eight times [or more] a week. But there is nothing more satisfying as a performer than to rise to that challenge and give that to the audience.”

Nigro supports that view: “The challenge to meet head on in terms of vocals is endurance.  Now that we have opened, I am getting used to how much it takes to get through the entire show.” He talks of pacing himself, getting enough rest, and drinking lots of water – all sensible precautions – and concludes, “But I love having to take that challenge.”

 

Robin and Clark also comment on their use of the overture as a “gateway” to the work. Says Robin, “Today overtures tend to go away because people are so concerned about getting the first act done before the clock runs out, but the overture establishes the entire play.  It is the underscore to start the play.”

“We are committed to both overture and entr’acte,” continues Clark. “In the old days after the overture had played and the audience heard the song within the show, they felt as if they already knew it, and they liked it even better the second time. I have listened to Marc put this music into existence and one of the most thrilling things for me still is to listen to this overture [in David Siegel’s stunning orchestration] and hear the melodies unfold in snippets, one favorite after another, and then build.”

Treasure Island has a number of other qualities which add to the impact of the book, music, and lyrics.  One such serendipitously happy factor is the diversity of the characters and the casting.  Clark says, “Diversity was very important for us especially because Robert Louis Stevenson’s novel was diverse [in its characters]. In his day this was seen as exotic and a selling point for the book; nowadays diversity is important for other reasons.  So the diversity part was an easy transition for us and a plus; the characters in the show are of every ethnicity.  Having no women in the show, however,” Clark notes, “was a hard transition, and I know there will be some people who will have a major problem with that.”

Asked to elaborate and to address candidly the “elephant in the room” in this “Me Too” age, Clark continues, “ The bottom line is that in our source material there is only one woman in the story, and from a business perspective, no producer is going to stage a play where the female character appears only in the first scene, never speaks, and is never heard from again, so we chose to have Jim’s mother be in Bristol settling her affairs.  This is not a political statement in any way or a slight to the feminist movement.  It is simply a matter of source material.”

Robin supports this view, “Furthermore, we are truly trying to honor the author.  In doing our historical research, we learn from Stevenson that the Hispaniola is an English sailing vessel, and women were only allowed on an English ship as passengers. So why not make some of the pirates women? Because that also would not have happened; even female pirates would not have been allowed to set sail on this ship. So to cast women just because a faction of people is upset is something we chose not to do. Moreover, we didn’t start working on this show a year ago.  We have been working on it for twenty years using the same source material. The fact that the focus has shifted doesn’t mean we should arbitrarily start changing art to shift with it.”

Clark sums up saying he would be “sorry if someone chose not to see Robert Louis Stevenson’s work come to life simply for this reason.”

Indeed, if they did, they would be missing a great deal–not only the work itself, but also because of the Fulton’s dazzling production in which they have pulled out all the stops and used all the resources of the theatre to their fullest. Scenic designer Thomas M. Ryan comments on his mandate to create a decor that rose to the epic scale of the work,.  “We use every bit of the height, width, and depth of the stage to create the illusion [of four different views of the ship, the dock in Bristol, and the lush tropical Skeleton Island.]” Ryan also notes that this production is the first to use the theatre’s new automated fly system, which replaced the 165-year-old hemp rigging.

Costume designer Ryan Moller says “Everything is a little heightened. We wanted sexy pirates and something more romantic for the non-pirates. I created something individual for each character because each one has a name and a given personality, and they come from different parts of the world, so they should each have his own look,” Moller says of the over sixty-five garments he built.

Adding to this elaborately scaled production are the swashbuckling, cinematically staged fight sequences by Broadway fight choreographer Joseph Travers.

 

“We put all our resources into this production to create the scale we envisioned,” Robin explains. Whether the show ever sees the light of day after this, we can still be proud that we did it the way we always dreamed with a cast, crew, and creative team we are so incredibly proud of, with musicians and orchestrations I weep at. I am so humbled that we have even been a part of it,” he says choking up a little.

Yet, it seemed apparent from the critical and audience acclaim for Marc Robin and Curt Dale Clark’s creation, (and from my own observation at four performances) that Treasure Island is most assuredly something extraordinary.  I described the experience in my review, struggling to find the vocabulary eloquent enough to rise to the challenge:

This musical reimagining of Robert Louis Stevenson’s tale boasts a swashbuckling plot, a compelling, tautly spun narrative, a lushly sweeping romantic score filled with memorable take away melodies and well-turned lyrics, and a dazzling production that would be at home on any Broadway stage.

Robin and Clark’s book probes Stevenson’s characters and conflicts with wit, wisdom, psychological insight and a daring embrace of the light and dark elements of human behavior. Robin’s score is harmonically complex, underscored for emotion, virtually through-composed, melodically rich and dramatically nuanced; heard in David Siegel’s stunning orchestrations with a seventeen-piece orchestra under the baton of Ray Fellman and sung by a thirty-six-man cast of powerful tenors, baritones, and basses, the soundscape is beyond electrifying.

Michael William Nigro is an incandescent Jim Hawkins, delivering one show stopping moment after the next, culminating in his bring-the-house-down eleventh-hour ‘Calm Before the Storm’ and conveying the vulnerability, innocence, and ultimate courage and resolve of the character. Jeremiah James is a brilliant Long John Silver - charming and evil, machiavellian and ingratiating, capable of cruelty and kindness, and he shines in his big ballads, ‘Someday’ and ‘Miracles.’ James Patterson (Dr. Livesey), Michael Ianucci (Squire Trelawney) and David Girolmo (Captain Smollett) each serves as a surrogate father figure for Jim and together, they create a trio of well-differentiated characters, all of whom have shining vocal and dramatic moments. James Michael Reilly gives a funny, clever, quirky performance as the crazed Ben Gunn, and the other thirty actors each carefully individualizes and nuances a persona of sailors and pirates, all of whom coalesce into a colorful, diverse, energetic ensemble.

Directed by Marc Robin and co-directed by Curt Dale Clark, the production flows cinematically from overture to finale. From the zoom-in projections to the shifting scenery to the hair-raising fight choreography by Joe Travers, the Fulton’s Treasure Island conveys the feeling of a Golden Age Hollywood movie.  The creative team rises to the magnitude of the work and its challenges with Thomas M. Ryan’s imposing sets that include four iterations of a huge rigged schooner as well as lush tropical island topography. Ryan J. Moller’s romantically heightened, elegantly crafted costumes, complemented by the dazzlingly dramatic sound (Jacob Mischler) and lighting (Paul Black) designs complete the exotic picture.

By the finale when the cast sings ‘Miracles’ – an anthem to discovery and to life itself in all its myriad forms – I cannot help but feel that Robin and Clark’s Treasure Island is its own kind of theatre miracle. Not only does it recreate for an entire new multi-generational audience Robert Louis Stevenson’s timeless story, but it also manages to endow the tale with both refreshing modernity and a classic grandeur. Watching the audience rise to its feet, cheering, smiling, and weeping at the close, I sensed that I was witnessing a watershed moment in the contemporary musical theatre landscape – a rarely seen combination of spectacle and heart, tradition and surprise, intimacy and awe-inspiring exhilaration.  The Fulton Theatre’s production of Robin and Clark’s Treasure Island A Musical Adventure gifts its audience with a magical, live theatrical voyage that deserves a Broadway birth as well as a permanent home in the American musical canon.

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Both Marc Robin and Curt Dale Clark react humbly to these comments, but there is a palpable glow of joy that surrounds them.  “We wrote it because we were passionate about it.  It has been a labor of love,” says Clark softly.  “And here’s how I know I am truly happy. I said to Marc that I didn’t care what the reviews said. They can be all bad, and I will still feel that it is awesome. Rarely in my life do I feel truly satisfied [with my work], but with Treasure Island I am incredibly satisfied!”

Robin continues the thought,” I feel pride for what we have collectively done for this community and what this will be for MSMT.  During the last four minutes of the play I just literally wept with pride for the creation, for what we were watching happen to the audience. I saw the forward energy of people starting to stand before the show was even over. And I thought, ‘We did this!’ How many times in your life do you get to have that joy, and how humbling it has been that there are people who believed enough in us to give us that opportunity.”

He and Clark agree that “Of course, we are hoping it will end in New York, but even if it never does, no one can take this experience away from us.”


Treasure Island A Musical Adventure had its world premiere on September 20 and ran at the Fulton Theatre until October 21, 2018. It will receive its East Coast premiere at Maine State Music Theatre from June 26-July 13, 2019.  www.msmt.org

Photographs courtesy the Fulton Theatre and the author
Audio & video clips used by permission of
Marc Robin & Curt Dale Clark and the Fulton Theatre

 

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Scene4 Magazine - Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold | www.scene4.com

Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold is a writer and journalist.
Her latest book is Return Trip - Ten Stories
She is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of her commentary and articles, check the Archives.
 

©2018 Carla Maria Verdino-S├╝llwold
 ©2018 Publication Scene4 Magazine

 

 

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November 2018

Volume 19 Issue 6

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