Sometimes you see a stage production and feel like you’ve gotten in on the bottom floor of a pyramid scheme. In other words, you are among the first to witness what is sure to become a mainstay of modern theater.
So it goes with the world premiere of Lover, Beloved, currently at the Alley Theatre.
Lover, Beloved basically unrolls as a one-woman show, with singer Suzanne Vega playing novelist, poet and playwright Carson McCullers. Vega collaborated with fellow singer-songwriter Duncan Sheik on the show. The folk-pop singer has won two Grammy Awards, and Sheik has won both a Tony and a Grammy.
In Lover, Beloved, a play in which Vega not only accurately portrays the lithe McCullers, Vega sings original songs inspired by the conflicted writer in her “My Name is Luka” inimitable manner. It’s hard to imagine anybody duplicating such a performance.
Case in point: Vincent Price did a one-man show, titled Diversions and Delights, on Broadway in 1978 depicting Oscar Wilde. Nobody has even had the temerity to match Price’s dedication to that celebrated performance.
It’s easy to predict that Lover, Beloved will evolve into an international tour that will encompass both the best stages available and be made into a movie or cable series.
In the production, Vega commands the stage with a backing band in the background. A common theme of subjugation and loss brackets the play.
Lover, Beloved has McCullers emoting to the audience in the early 1940s, after the publication of her first novel, The Heart in a Lonely Hunter, and after a quick blackout and costume change at the end of her life in 1967, weeks before the movie premiere of her 1941-published second novel, Reflections In A Golden Eye.
A current that runs between the two acts (the play runs just under two hours without an intermission) concerns a group of black Southerners who are tortured by binding their feet with ropes and stringing them up until one of them dies and the others lose said feet. At the end of her life, bound to a cane and wheelchair, McCullers mourns as her cancer has advanced to the stage where she will have to have one of her legs amputated.
When Vega sings it’s a sight to behold. She spins with joy at some lyrics and dryly delivers other lines from the libretto with little movement. Vega always seems on the verge of exuberance, but by the end of the play has been reduced to the honest realization of her mortality.
The backing band, never in the shadows yet in the background, consists of Jason Hart (piano, conductor, backing vocals), Michael Shanks (guitar, mandolin), Mila Neal (violin), Steve Estes (cello), and Scott Plugge (flutes and various saxophones).
Lover, Beloved is a journey into the mind of a creative individual who influenced movies through her literature as well as attitudes between the have and have-nots for the better half of the mid-20th century. Vega previously released her latest album with songs from this production of the same name, although the play features songs not on that recording. One song in particular, “A Recipe Anthem,” relates how McCullers cooks her various meals.