Tuesday, April 10, 2018

University of Central Florida Presents a Sacreligious Mess with Bernstein's Mass

The Book of Hosea in the KJV of the Holy Bible asserts that—much like the Jane Austen adage that “Too many cooks spoil the broth”—the number of priests in Israel directly correlated with the amount of sins perpetrated against God. Based on this, it is no wonder that the University of Central Florida’s production of Bernstein’s MASS sins on so many levels.

Written by Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Schwartz in 1971, MASS is a theatrical and musical representation of a liturgical mass. The ceremony is performed by a Celebrant accompanied by a formal choir, a boys' choir, acolytes, and musicians. His congregation of disaffected youth (the "Street Chorus") sings the tropes that challenge the formal ecclesiastic dogma of the Church. As the tension grows and the Celebrant becomes more and more vested, the cynical congregants turn to him as the healer of all their ills with—hopefully—explosive results. However, with seven directors and one assistant director credited in the program, the show is less explosive and more muck-laden.

UCF’s production has moved the ceremony out of the Vietnam era and into a contemporary context where the War on Terror, school shootings, and Trump’s America casts a grim shadow on the possibility of religious peace. MASS is an enormous and ambitious piece, with more than 250 musicians, vocalists, and dancers on stage. The further the mass progresses into the liturgy, the more and more the rebellious youth push back and ask questions for which the Celebrant, and religion as a whole, have no concrete answers. The intertext of contemporary student-led protests across the country screams loudly and colors the perception of the events unfolding on the stage. Unfortunately for UCF, the intertext is much more powerful than their production.

Part of the beauty and challenge of Bernstein’s music is his copious use of minor seconds and major sevenths in his harmonies, a dissonance that only works if intonation is impeccable. Far too frequently in the performance, issues with tuning—particularly with high reeds and low strings—turned what should have been grinding and powerful musical moments into unfortunate mistakes. Near universal problems with diction prevented vocalists from being heard or understood over the dozens of orchestra members. The choreography by Alaric Frinzi, though attractive, appeared under-rehearsed and—at times—dangerous, particularly in a moment when one dancer almost dropped another. Amidst the rubble exists several performances that provide a glimmer of hope. Shonn McCloud’s Gospel-Sermon “God Said” was a highlight of the evening, giving a needed respite from the humdrum proceedings to that point. Watching McCloud perform brings questions about why he serves the show in such a small capacity (he only appears once) instead of being allowed to shine in a larger context. Several of the student performers did lovely work with their solo pieces, particularly Ethan Rich’s soaring rock vocals and Jose-Manuel Lopez’s angry young man questioning of the nature of God. The street chorus made up of UCF students were mostly lackluster as a group, save for a raucous and biting rendition of the “Agnus Dei” that transformed the chorus from a group of young people into an angry mob reminiscent of Spring Awakening. The very best of the performances belonged to the Children’s Choir under the direction of Robin Jensen, particularly soloist Jahdai Figueroa. Figueroa’s crystal-clear boy soprano cut through the cacophony providing a needed respite from a muddy production.

Of all of the sins present in this production, the most severe fall at the feet of Dr. Jeremy Hunt as the Celebrant. From the jump, Hunt fails to meet the vocal needs of such an important role, singing flat and scooping into higher notes far too early in the show for an excuse of vocal fatigue to prove relevant. That does not mean that Hunt lacks vocal skill altogether. He has moments where his voice is serviceable enough for his role, but they cannot overcome the lackluster tone present through most of the evening. As if the vocals weren’t enough, his acting of the role fails to inspire. In the final moments of the show, the Celebrant must snap to the extent that we fear him and what he might do. In the hands of Hunt, the climactic moment for the Celebrant is less raging lunatic and more petulant child, pitching a fit until he finally gets his way.

If the failings in the performances weren’t egregious enough, the technical elements completed dragging the show to hell. For some reason, Hunt’s microphone was on the entirety of the pre-show, so the audience was able to hear all about faculty votes on campus issues, student lethargy with school work, and the inability of the oboe’s to “play that B-natural”. The stage was filled with more smoke and haze than Woodstock. Costumes were inconsistent across the production in a way that did little to contribute to the overall theme of the piece. The one bright spot of the technical elements was the lighting design by George Jackson. His use of intelligent lighting instruments, general washes, and flashes of chaos provided the excitement that should have come from performances. This one element wasn’t enough to save the slapdash construction of a show that seemed more of a collage than a singular work. What can one expect, however, with a show piloted by seven different directors (one for each circle of hell)?

Peter Brook warns against this kind of theatrical presentation that in his seminal work The Empty Space. A presentation far more masturbatory than engaging, MASS fails on almost every level. But what can we do? Throughout the show, the Celebrant repeats one single phrase over and again: “Let us pray.” I agree: let us pray we never have to sit through this production again.

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