in performance: “the promised land”

tpl-postcardPossibly the greatest everyman charm of Bruce Springsteen’s songs has been the ability, in wholly rock ‘n’ roll terms, to seize a moment in motion. During the ‘70s, it embraced a mix of youthful zeal and restlessness. In the ‘80s, darker realities and a sense of desperate nostalgia came into play as adulthood intruded. Since then, his compositional scope has grown worldly and more world weary, a celebration of dreams attained and shattered.

Last night’s “world premiere educational workshop presentation” at the Singletary Center for the Arts of “The Promised Land” by the University of Kentucky Opera Theatre strived to construct a narrative that links at least some of Springsteen’s songs and themes within a modern stage musical format. That’s a risky proposition, since Springsteen songs are so known and revered. Despite a bounty of youthful cheer and intent, little in this work-in-progress production illuminated its source material or conveyed a storyline that was even remotely in line with the exactness of Springsteen’s works.

There were numerous production issues – erratic singing voices and very unsteady acting that rendered a considerable portion of the first act unintelligible, as well as staging that seemed to dictate that, for maximum drama, actors must stand in stoic, chorus line fashion when singing. There were some nice exceptions – specifically, the female leads Ashley Jackson and Susanna White as well as some commanding second act singing from Darian Sanders that struck a character balance between acting and vocalizing largely lacking in the rest of the cast.

But the real problems with ‘The Promised Land’ were with design. The book by Adam Max and Alex Wyatt was a lightweight and, frankly, contrived vehicle full of sometimes astonishingly clichéd lines (“What are the neighbors going to say?”) that did little more than dumb down songs of scholarly completeness and detail. “Dancing in the Dark” muted and sung as a lullaby? “Tenth Avenue Freeze Out” as a fight song for firemen? “Born to Run” as a combination hissy fit and self-help exercise for a disgruntled writer?

The production got especially problematic when it incorporated 9/11 late into the second act in order to utilize some of Springsteen’s sobering and very specific works from “The Rising” (the closest the show came to modern entries as much of the music relied on ‘70s and ‘80s Springsteen songs). Granted, it is next to impossible not to be moved by the severity of the occasion and its lasting sense of loss and tragedy. But “The Promised Land” seemed to pump the setting for cheaply earned, sentimentally provoked response.

That, in essence, is the problem facing anyone attempting to shoehorn songs of such human detail into a conventional stage musical setting. Springsteen’s music possesses more genuine energy (something the entire show achingly lacked), purpose and depth than anything this very pedestrian storyline brought to it.

Someday, perhaps, a production will surface that can properly compliment such astounding music. For all its good intentions and youthful spirit, last night was not that day and “The Promised Land” was not that production.

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