Bon Appétit! , (produced in conjunction with Diamond Opera Theater and the Hudson Opera House) conceived and directed by Benedicta Bertau: Act One based on excerpts from "My Life in France" by Julia Child wit Alex Prud’homme including the song cycle "La Bonne Cuisine" by Leonard Bernstein; Act Two the opera by Lee Hoiby, lyrics based on two cooking shows by Julia Child, adapted by Mark Shulgasser.
Johnna Murray, Gili Melamed-Lev, Mary Deyerly Hack, Nina Fine; photo: Daniel Region
"Not even the humble scrambled egg!"
This is not so much an evening of theater, or opera; it is an evening of theatrical excess. For an hour we have Mrs. Julia Child regaling us with her excessive passion about France, about her marriage, about her life and about her great discovery: the love of cooking, French cooking. In the second half of the evening Child shows us how to bake a very light, excessively perfect chocolate cake, a gateau. Then, at the end of the evening there is actual chocolate cake served up by local pastry chefs, confectioners and cooking teachers (a different chef for each performance). An evening of excess.
Not that there is so much about excess that is wrong. No, no. In fact, a bit of excess can be a good thing. It relieves tension, opens the pores and allows the richness that exudes from a life without turmoil into the system. This is good. And when the woman who might be known as Mrs. Tarzan of the Apses ( you have to see the show to get the reference - sorry) is at the center of things then things get textually raucous.
This is the chef who drank wine on television, dropped chickens and dusted them off and generally amused and entertained all the while she informed and challenged her viewers. In this show she is portrayed first by Johnna Murray and later by Mary Deyerle Hack.
Murray has the challenge of bringing us into the woman’s life and soul. She exposes the fear and joy of being Julia. She devotes gestures and smiles, frowns and pouts to the creation of a character who bears the name of Julia Child but isn’t an imitation of that real live person. Instead, using Child’s own words from her memoir, Murray manages to bring to life the woman as she might have been had she not been the woman she was. Not six feet two inches tall, Murray gives her character height through stature and character. Not high-pitched and oddly guttural Murray manages to create a voice that is equally unique and becomes a recognizable trait of her Child-character. Not the least bit awkward and without any tendency to stoop, Murray brings a fine concept of Child onto the stage and makes us believe in it.
In the middle of her character’s learning curve, on to the stage trots mezzo-soprano Nina Fine to sing four recipes musically created by Leonard Bernstein. Murray listens attentively and makes notes in her school book. It is a difficult thing that happens here. We hear Fine singing, but her words are indistinct (Bernstein’s score is a tongue-twister and Ms. Fine, who has a fine voice, isn’t capable of enunciating this piece as it needs to be done) and we wish that Ms. Murray had sung the piece instead. It would have been interesting to hear the voice she would have used here. It would not have been her own, pleasant singing voice, and it certainly wouldn’t have been an imitation of Julia Child. Her not having that opportunity is the one major mistake of this evening’s presentation.
Mary Deyerle Hack replaces Murray in the second half of the evening to sing and perform Lee Hoiby’s Child opera, Bon Appétit. This mezzo-soprano is cursed with a classical singer’s body and her entrance is awkward for her with her butt facing the audience as she lumbers up the three platforms. Once there, however, she sings beautifully and even gets a few laughs from the libretto’s internal jokes. Sadly a joke has been played on her in this piece: her mise-en-place, those little cups with the prepared ingredients for a recipe, are empty and her cooking is a fake. How much better the opera would have been with real egg whites and yokes, real corn-starch in the sifter, real ingredients from beginning to end to match the real quality of the musical setting.
Even so, Hack does a wonderful job, amusing and teasing us with her triumphant recipe. Bertau keeps her hopping, moving from one thing to another, one part of the kitchen to another really. Throughout the evening, in fact, Bertau moves her women about in just the right ways, never leaving either Julia too long in one place. Like the creation of a scrambled egg, an idea fostered in Murray’s act, there is a brightness to the action of the work, a fluid movement that becomes firm and fluffy when whipped into proper shape and form.
Katie-Jean Wall has done a nice job with the multi-level set and the costumes feel just about right. Deena Pewtherer’s area lighting should work well, but something went wrong a few times in Act One, leaving Murray in the dark. Jan Jurchak’s soundscape was very good, but even so the Hudson Station trains made a lot more noise than Gili Melamed-Lev’s piano at times.
An unusual evening, a tribute to an American superstar who battled the odds to be who she was best at being, this may not be the most probable destination of your week, but at the end of the evening is the chocolate cake and I’d say that this ultimate act is the perfect culmination of all that has preceded it. Bravi! Bon Appétit!
Johnna Murray as Julia Child; photo: Daniel Region
Mary Deyerle Hack as Julia Child; photo: Daniel Region
Bon Appétit! Plays at the Basilica Industria on Front Street in Hudson, NY through September 24. For tickets and information call the box office at 518-610-0909.