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Love in the Middle Ages: Catherine LaValle and Joe Cassidy in Magna Carta.

Sing Along With History
By James Yeara

Magna Carta
Book by Ed. Lange, lyrics and music by Will Severin and George David Weiss, directed by Patricia Di Benedetto Snyder

New York Theatre Institute, Schacht Fine Arts Center, through May 1

The New York State Theatre Institute’s Magna Carta is like Camelot minus the magic, or The Lion in Winter set to music. This world-premiere musical is a fast-paced and marvelously produced, directed, acted, and sung show that traces the politics leading to the 1215 signing of the Magna Carta, the ur-text of the United States’ Bill of Rights. Moving rapidly through 40 years of intrigue in Britain, France, Ro

me and the Holy Land of the Crusades, Magna Carta presents the intrigues, motives, passions, jealousies, hopes, victories, defeats, joys and longings of 63 characters. In two hours and 30 minutes the audience is treated to 21 songs that engage and entertain. This is the most ambitious and smartly done musical NYSTI has produced since the excellent A Tale of Cinderella.

The stagecraft is the most magna (great) aspect of the production. Victor A. Becker’s set is one of the best in NYSTI’s long history of excellence: a faded-gold, bloodstained demi-globe; upstage arches disappearing above the stage; a raked dais mid-center; huge stone staircases downstage left and right. Becker’s set not only creates a sense of the immense infrastructure of the entitled royalty, but it also gives NYSTI’s actors a place to act—not something every set has done of late. Betsy Adams’ lighting design shifts the mood of the various castles, meads and deserts during winter, spring or summer, night or day, as needed. Nary a gobo or gel is wasted in her evocative design.

Also excellent is the costuming by regional maven Lloyd Waiwaiole—it’s above even his high standards. Opulent is too tame a word for the palette of colors and fabrics that sweep across the stage—always equal to the movement and change of time and place of Adams’ light plot. With 32 performers playing 63 characters over 40 years—and many of those characters being narcissistic royals with appetites for fashion difficult to satiate—Waiwaiole’s results are truly impressive. Magna Carta would be worth seeing just as a costume parade: King Henry II (the equally impressive Joel Aroeste) and his devious wife, Eleanor of Acquitaine (Lorraine Serabian, who gives Cruella de Ville a run as a comic villainess), were particular standouts. Magna Carta has all the hallmarks of NYSTI’s best.

Magna Carta overall, however, isn’t magna, just bene.

While the show has the sweep of an epic or an opera, it has the music and feel of a Disney show. The main problem is that Magna Carta tries to cover the insidious politics of the era through song—and the numbers are derivative, no matter how well sung and performed. The show is crafted perfectly for commerce, with big, lively group numbers bracketing solos (there are several brief but excellent ones, especially “John’s Soliloquy” in Act II, in which Robert Dalton uses his great voice to illuminate King John’s soul as fully as Waiwaiole costumes his body). There are ballads galore, and the love story between the middling Sir Peter (Joe Cassidy) and the prince’s nanny, Kathryn (Catherine LaValle), provides the superb duet “In the Night,” sung as a lament during the Crusades.

What is at stake is never made clear in this rollicking, bold venture. There’s much to applaud here, and NYSTI should be lauded for having the daring that is missing from other companies this season. Unfortunately, as one young lady said to a friend during intermission, “I’m sort of getting the idea—the guy on the left, in the yellow, wants to be king, I think.” The costs and consequences of the characters aren’t clear: For example, the Crusades were Richard the Lionheart’s curse, but in Magna Carta, they come across as comic; the bloody invasion of the Holy Land becomes a farcical march across the stage by two guards, one of whom complains of “three years, three years of watching you eat, sleep, and crap.” This leaves Magna Carta as an ambitious and well-produced—if glossy—history lecture. It looks great, but it means little.

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