KPBS AIRDATE: OCTOBER 22, 1999
If religious fanatics had their way, some of the world’s great works of art never would have seen the light of day. Someone’s always brandishing a metaphorical fig-leaf, whether their sensibilities are offended by theater, music, books or visual art. Even today, vile forces conspire against genius and creativity, whenever it doesn’t match their own doctrinaire agenda. Things were no better or worse 250 years ago, when George Frederich Handel was working on his timeless masterpiece, “Messiah.”
In 1741, the German-born composer was going through one of those dreaded artist’s ‘lean times.’ In his adopted home in England, Handel’s Italian operas were no longer attracting an audience. Then the king withdrew his financial support. The librettist for the new oratorio hated the music Handel had created. The mezzo soprano was involved in a sex scandal. And the Bishops were railing against the composer for his use of sacred texts in a profane place — namely, a theater.
This is the setting for “Joyful Noise,” by Utah-based Tim Slover, whose play gets its first professional airing courtesy of Lamb’s Players Theatre. This highly theatricalized period piece is not unlike the newly revived Peter Shaffer play about Mozart. “Amadeus” also may be less than wholly accurate, but in both plays, we get a titillating peek at the creative process and the battle against conformity, but genius triumphs in the end.
This is the kind of material the Lambs love to sink their teeth into, full of spiritual undertones. The simple, evocative set and Jeanne Reith’s glorious costumes place the story center-stage. Robert Smyth directs with wit, intelligence and imagination, and he puts in a marvelously droll performance as the Austrian-born King George II, There’s humor here, but also drama and melodrama, especially in the subplot of the singer led astray, a woman accused of adultery, publicly vilified and ostracized, while her male counterpart received merely a fine of one pound sterling. A smidgen of history here, a hint of gender injustice there, an excellent ensemble and a bar or two of beautiful music: It all adds up to a rather joyful noise.
Smyth opens the piece with a magically theatrical recap of the whole awful story of the poor mezzo. Her ultimate supporter is colorfully played by Rosina Reynolds. But Handel is really the centerpiece here, and Tom Stephenson, gruff and compassionate, witty and wounded, puts in the performance of his career.
There’s an extra bonus, too: the low-born soprano and the genteel mezzo, outstandingly portrayed by Deborah Gilmour Smyth and Mary Miller, even get to sing… which they do superbly, assisted by the rest of the cast, treating us to the tear-jerking magnificence of the Hallelujah chorus at the end of the show. If you love music, or history, sex scandals or creativity, you’re bound to find something here to bring you joy.
©1999 Patté Productions Inc.