This review of The Boston Tea Party Opera at The Loretto (Sheen Center) was written by Dr. Thomas Robert Stevens and published in Volume X, Issue 4 (2014) of the online edition of Applause! Applause!
The Boston Tea Party Opera
The Loretto (Sheen Center)
(18 Bleecker Street, NYC)
Matthew Zachary Johnson composed and produced The Boston Tea Party Opera, which is a part of this year's New York International Fringe Festival. It is a very well researched piece of theater featuring an extremely talented cast. It is also a cautionary tale that the same governmental abuses of excessive taxation, illegal search and seizures, and the lack of respect for the liberty and individual rights of the colonists exhibited by the British Crown may have parallels in some of the same challenges we are facing as a society today.
I am not certain which version of The Boston Tea Party Opera I saw. It was entered into The New York International Fringe Festival as a three and one half hour production. By opening night, it shrank to two hours and twenty minutes and by the time I saw the show, it had been cut to under two hours. Clearly, songs were being added and dropped right up to the last minute and it appeared more changes were being made every day. There were no sets to speak of and only half the cast members were in colonial outfits. The latter may have been intentional in order to drive the point home that there were analogies you were being invited to draw between then and now. In case you were completely dense, the British officials were outfitted in modern S.W.A.T. gear colored black, red and white.
The Boston Tea Party Opera covers the period of time from when King George III of England in 1763 sought to tax the American colonies as a way of recouping the war costs of obtaining victory in the French & Indian War through to the Boston Massacre in 1770 and eventually the Boston Tea Party in 1773. Well-known historical figures appearing in the opera include Sam Adams, John Hancock, Governor Thomas Hutchinson, James Otis, Richard Clarke, Crispus Attucks and Paul Revere. The libretto covers the tragedies, victories, acts of defiance, acts of patriotism, and even the romances that might have taken place during this period. The best description of the events contained in The Boston Tea Party Opera is in the Synopsis, printed in the program, which I will quote here in full: In the sweep of events leading up to the America Revolutionary war, loyalist Boston Governor Thomas Hutchinson seeks to clamp down on the increasingly rebellious Sons of Liberty. He seizes tea smuggler John Hancock's ship, the "Liberty." Orator James Otis gives a passionate courtroom speech against such arbitrary exercise of power, only to be attacked by British soldiers. Sam Adams leads the colonists in a boycott of British goods -- which the town's women support with their own efforts. Mrs. Adams is forced to house a threatening group of soldiers. In an incendiary outbreak of violence, colonists are fired upon by the soldiers in a horrific massacre. A great debate, with the leading agitator Sam Adams fervently defending the Rights of the Colonists, leads to an impasse. And finally in the inevitable climax of open rebellion, Paul Revere leads the epochal event that initiated the American Revolution -- the act which preferred the destruction of the tea cargo to the principle of colonial subjugation -- the act that no longer bore, but instead began to cast off the mounting injustice.
The entire cast was inspiring in light of the talent each possessed. My favorites were Kerry Gotschall, who was particularly strong as Elizabeth Adams, a role intended to encompass the two wives named Elizabeth that Sam Adams married. Colette Boudreaux tenderly played Molly Pitcher, who may not have been a real person but instead a composite image inspired by the actions of a number of women who carried water to men on the battlefield and who, occasionally, may have picked up a musket themselves. In this opera, Molly Pitcher is smitten with Captain James Scott, a smuggler charismatically portrayed by Scott Joiner. Ms. Boudreaux and Mr. Joiner sing a memorable duet together entitled Smuggling Men Can Be So Fine. Finally, Charles Armstrong did an amazingly good job portraying the very pressured Richard Clarke, consignee of the tea that was thrown into Boston Harbor. I am told his background lies in musical theater instead of opera but his presence on stage caught my eye because he gave complexity and depth to the historical character he played.
Matthew Zachary Johnson has said The Boston Tea Party Opera straddles the line between opera and musical theater. He has said he feels future productions will more likely be staged in an off-Broadway setting than in Opera Houses throughout the world. That may very well happen since this show should be able to obtain pro-liberty investors and has a core group of potential patriotic audience members eager to be supportive of the underlying message of the show. For me, however, The Boston Tea Party Opera doesn't work well in its current form as either opera or musical theater. The audience members I spoke to during intermission and after the show were not at all pleased with the production and shared with me criticisms and opinions with which I was in agreement. Having actors playing dual roles was confusing. The sets don't need to be elaborate but the show certainly needs more than a British flag, a desk, two milk cartons and some blue and red ribbons. The costumes need to be all colonial or all modern. I would favor all colonial but I would keep the British authority figures in their S.W.A.T. gear to make the point that the challenges faced by our colonial ancestors are universal in all times and countries.
I think the show needs to be re-imagined as Boston Tea Party: The Musical, a non-operatic piece of musical theater produced with a book or distinct vignettes. The opera singers need to go and the show needs a director to pull things together more tightly. The length of the production is not the issue. It can be two hours or three and a half hours as long as it's good. Only in this new format can the quality of the writing and composing be best evaluated. The underlying story is worth telling and I commend Matthew Zachary Johnson for attempting to tell it. The show portrays a part of history with relevance to the citizens of our country and suggests we need to be on guard against a government not fully respectful of our individual rights and liberties. That's a message everyone needs to hear.