Oberlin Alums Pen Enchanting New Musical


Photo courtesy of Daniel R. James

Student actors staged a dramatic reading of The Enchanted, a work in progress by John Kander, OC ’51, and Greg Pierce, OC ’00.

Julia Peterson, Arts & Culture Editor

A staged reading of The Enchanted, a new musical comedy in progress by John Kander, OC ’51 — who previously wrote music for Cabaret and Chicago — and prolific playwright and fiction writer Greg Pierce, OC ’00, was performed by a cast of student actors last weekend in the Birenbaum Innovation and Performance Space, marking the first theatrical production in the venue.

The musical, based on a French play of the same name by Jean Giraudoux, is set in the provincial French town of Aubergine where strange occurrences are disturbing the townspeople’s day-to-day lives. From the Mayor’s first song, which describes the situation with lines such as, “The eggs are turning pink, and the baguettes are turning corners,” and “The goats are spurting wisdom, and the fountain’s spurting cheese,” the audience is introduced to a strange, comedic and supernatural world where anything is possible.

While Aubergine is being thrown into chaos by a bitter, moody, Byronic ghost, the town’s schoolteacher, Isabel, romanticizes the Ghost and wants to understand the spirit world. Isabel flirts with life and death as she navigates a love triangle with the Ghost and the town’s Supervisor of weights and measures. As she tries to understand the mysteries of what happens after death, the Supervisor tries to convince her that life is worth being fascinated with because it is full of surprises.

“[Isabel] has been really dying to communicate with this ghost,” said Associate Professor of Theater Chris Flaharty, who directed the production. “She’s eager to learn about what happens after death. Her particular … reason for this is that she feels that life is a muddle for humans on a day-to-day basis because they don’t live imaginatively because of their fear of death. She feels that the spirit world is much freer of the cares of this life [and] that maybe [the spirits] could teach us something about living more fully.”

Kander and Pierce had intended to come to Oberlin for the staged reading, as they did last year for the production of their play The Landing at the Apollo Theatre, but unfortunately were unable to attend this year.

“In the past, when [Kander and Pierce have come to Oberlin], they’ve helped students understand stylistically what they were supposed to be doing,” said double-degree senior Amy Weintraub, who played Isabel. “We couldn’t tell if this [play] was melodrama, or if it was naturalism — probably not — but it wanted to be several different shows at once. … In all of the choices that [many of us] made, we interpreted our characters in the way that we’ve been trained to here, which is mostly from a realistic point of view. Maybe in an actual stage version, they might want to ham up all these characters so that they’re more ridiculous and caricatures of themselves.”

The authors play with these ideas through many styles of music. There is a technical, goofy patter song, a chorus of “eight young girls” who sing a repeating tune, sweet ballads, dramatic duets, and modern comic cabaret-style songs. Weintraub described the effect that showcasing all these different styles in one production had on the cast.

“We kind of renamed [the show] ‘The Sound of Phantom Urine,’ like The Sound of Music, The Phantom of the Opera and Urinetown, just because it combines so many styles,” she said.

Flaharty also noted the variety of musical influences in the composition and lyrics.

“I hear various styles of musical theater history reflected in the ways that certain songs are played out,” he said. “John [Kander] is a … huge opera buff, and I think he evokes those styles in the play in subtle, humorous ways. … The music goes from tender sweetness to small-club-feeling comic music. I feel that’s really important for this play because the characters are varied, and the idea of life as having a variety of interesting things in it is very subtly reinforced by the music and the lyrics. I think that Greg [Pierce] stretched himself with some really fun comic lyrics for this piece.”

Some of the most wonderfully over-the-top comedy in the piece comes from the character of the Inspector from Paris, a rigid, rules-driven bureaucrat who breaks out into a bilingual song about the joys of paper. “Je believe in paper — Tout le monde loves paper!” he sings.

The in-progress script blends language and regional expressions with mixed success; the Inspector’s song is an unmitigated delight, but describing a provincial French town as being “in the boonies” only sounds strange.

The two executioners — both of whom believe that they are the sole official executioner of France and that the other is an impostor — also sing a wonderful duet about their job. Although that duet is a clear example of a moment where the play is still unfinished, as it is entirely unclear what or who the executioners are referring to when they sing about Marquisa, it still drew great laughs from the audience.

For College senior Jourdan Lewanda, who played one of Isabel’s eight students, working with a new play that didn’t have a performance history was a rewarding experience.

“Since it hasn’t been totally fleshed out yet, the distinctions between [the characters] are really fun to find within the script,” she said. “With other shows, it’s tempting for everybody on board to refer to past productions to understand the show itself. With a new show, you really have to go from the text itself. Nobody is there to guide you, whether it be past performers or videos of other productions.”

“Working on a brand new piece [is] very exciting!” College senior Hank Miller wrote in an email to the Review. “Normally, musicals already have cast recordings and you know how the songs are ‘supposed to sound.’ If it’s brand new — well, you get to decide that.”

College senior Amara Granderson, who also played one of the students, enjoyed exploring all of the different aspects of enchantment reflected in the piece.

“You can make many inferences as to what exactly the enchantment [on the town] is, because there are a lot of literal, figurative and metaphorical examples of the motif of the enchanted throughout the show,” she said. “You have the literal enchanting by the Ghost, but then you have the emotional enchantment of Miss Isabel being enchanted by the Ghost, the Supervisor being enchanted by Miss Isabel. It’s about the different types of enchantment and the different ways that one can be enchanted, whether it be romantically … or in the way that the eight young girls are enchanted by Miss Isabel — they look up to her with admiration and reverence.”