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Chunky Becomes Cheryl, an Original Hollywood Opera

New York
The Sam Theater at The Flea
05/31/2019 -  & June 1, 2, 2019
Jason Cady, Paula Matthusen, Erin Rogers, Aaron Siegel, Shelley Washington, Matthew Welch: Chunky in Heat (World Premiere)
Sarah Daniels (Chunky), Rachel Doehring (Abigail, Shapeshifter), Emily Geller (Mother), Timothy Stoddard (Walter, Fiancee, Beekeeper), Joshua Jeremiah (Father)
Contemporaneous Orchestra, David Bloom (Conductor)
Kate Noll (Stage Design), Solomon Weisbard (Lighting Design), Elivia Boyenzi (Costume Designer), Nathaniel Butler (Sound Designer)

(© Reuben Radding)

Chunky in Heat, created by the adventuresome Experiments in Opera, has its smashing world premiere at The Flea in New York. If Richard Wagner is opera at its most distended, Chunky is opera at its most compact. The tightening of the noose on a Los Angeles family is expressed in music, in drama on the stage and by a chillingly talented ensemble of singers. Emotions are suppressed, but their effects run rampant in the music as sung and played by the gifted Contemporaneous Orchestra.

Hollywood is the perfect setting for the story by acclaimed novelist and screen writer, A.M. Homes. Commissioned to transform six of her short stories to the opera stage, Homes reports looked back at her characters and realized that they were all of one piece. Home then came up with a libretto in which one story flows seamlessly into another. The composers responded, each in his/her own voice, but creating a uniform beat over measures each written for a different time signature.

The set designer Kate Noll catches the central emotional absence by creating a doll’s house with a steeply sloping roof, one window and a door. Opened, the window and door are full of streaming tinsel. Perfect for Tinseltown. A big fake sun beams in the sky. Clouds are puffy like marshmallows. The talking palm tree is tucked onto stage left. The tree (Richard Powers would remind us), is the only ‘person’ Chunky can talk to. Around the base of the tree are scattered childhood games like ‘Operation,’ and Chunky candy bars, which Cheryl secretly replaced with Mr. Goodbars. Literary allusions abound and delight.

Sarah Daniels is superb as Chunky, barely reacting to surface encounters with her mother and sister, moving closer to her boyfriend Walter, a tall glass of water. (This expression was commonly used by haute Wasps a hundred years ago to mean a solid, decent man). Walter is sung with great beauty and variety by tenor Timothy Stoddard. We meet him as a pair of splayed fingers hanging over the backyard fence. He is the voice of reason, a Harvard man, who helps Cheryl withstand the crushing mania of her family.

As the mother, Emily Geller is busy warding off sorrow with botox, the plastic surgeon’s knife and starvation. Ms. Geller is a thrilling contralto, tripping off high and low notes as she tips around in her spikes. It is noted that in her life before motherhood, she was a producer. That after all is what Hollywood is about on the surface. Mother produced Christmas in July one year. She imported snow to LA. Everyone enjoyed snowballs and sledding. The thought of this extreme oddity points to the story’s emotional underpinning, frozen and numbed.

Joshua Jeremiah as the father delivers some sanity in his pleasing, often urgent baritone. Yet he too is dragged down by secret sorrow. Rachel Doehring plays a wacko sister, and also a coyote hanging out in the backyard. She is more fierce and less maternal than The Cunning Vixen, adding menace and also a light charm in her lovely light soprano and her animal gestures.

Librettist Homes finds families centered around unspoken traumas. In this family, the son/brother Billy has died. No one talks about it, but Chunky, now a trimmed down Cheryl, remarks that one good thing about his death is that no one calls her ‘Chunky’ any more.

English is a tough language to sing. Homes’ language sits well in the voice. We were offered titles, but they were not necessary in the clear delivery of comfortable lines. The opera ends with the words of Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon. They too bring some comfort to the endless night.

Contemporaneous Orchestra under David Bloom did an admirable job of showing us each composer and yet keeping the whole in mind. The beat kept up throughout, accompanying stage action. Solos by saxophone and trumpet were searing.

Experiments in Opera develops new works composed in a shorter time frame to capture an audience with music’s rhythms and compelling singing and stagecraft. They are wildly successful in Chunky in Heat.

Susan Hall



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