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Glenda Frank

The Great Nebula in Orion

"The Great Nebula in Orion" by Lanford Wilson
Music by Kenneth Fuchs
Musical direction by Michael Conley
Judson Memorial Church, 55 Washington Square South, NYC
Tickets: Fri. and Sat., Jan. 25, 26, Feb. 1, 2 at 8 PM; Sunday,
Jan. 27 at 4 PM. $15. Students and seniors, $10
For tickets and information:http://www.woodstockfringe.org/gettickets.htm or (845) 810-0123

Reviewed by Glenda Frank

The Judson Memorial Church is back in the theatre business. On Jan. 25, they launched their new JudsonArts series, dedicated to musical theatre, with ''The Great Nebula in Orion,'' based on a 1973 work by Lanford Wilson, set to music by Kenneth Fuchs by 1988. In the early 60s, the church became a seminal theatrical landmark when Al Carmines began welcoming the new experimental work that ushered in off-off Broadway. Lanford Wilson was one of the new stars, with shows at La MaMa and Café Cino also, two of the other historical venues.

The name Lanford Wilson evokes images of sudden passion ("Burn This,") troubled Vietnam vets ("The Fifth of July" and "Redwood Curtain,") and fringe characters ("The Madness of Lady Bright." ''The Great Nebula in Orion'' (1973) belongs the period when Wilson was still finding his voice. It depicts an afternoon visit of two college friends who meet by accident. Louise (Lynelle Johnson) has become an award-winning fashion designer who is still hiding her homosexuality. Carrie (Watson Heintz) is a wealthy, suburban housewife with two beautiful children but no sense of fulfillment. Both are highly successful, lonely and nostalgic for lost loves and dreams. Moving the action to the present in the program notes does not mask the feeling that these characters belong to the 1950s and 1960s.

''The Great Nebula in Orion'' is one of a trilogy by Wilson that composer Kenneth Fuchs scored. There are some exciting phrases and instalments, when sound becomes architectural and music, voices and mood achieve a rare beauty and complexity. But the musical whole does not consistently command attention and interest. The script itself is more an exercise for two actors than a developed short play. The women never achieve significant contact or conflict despite some genuine human moments of cattiness, jealousy and discomfort. The score serves as a thread instead of stepping into the gaps and offering more drama and deeper emotional context.

The singers, however, excel. Their voices tell the human story in many colors and tones, effortlessly and as a natural extension of their acting. They move well on the comfortable, elegant set with lighting by Richard Currie and direction by Wallace Norman, Artistic Director of Woodstock Fringe, the co-producer.

In the early 1960s Al Carmines accepted risk as he staged cutting-edge drama and musicals, but JudsonArts is taking a conservative path. The program this season is slatted to premiere composer Wallace Norman's "Oh Virgil!" about the life and music of the composer Virgil Thomson and a staged reading of "The Diner," books, lyrics and music by Michael Conley as well as concerts. Perhaps their mission is to showcase talent. Perhaps they are still finding their footing. The lovely chapel designed by architect Stanford White in 1890-92, the marvellous acoustics, high ceilings, and magnificent stained glass windows by John LaFarge will certainly enhance whatever shape the new series ultimately takes.


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