I won’t bore you with the history of Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner’s first hit, 1947’s Brigadoon, and its ranking in the Golden Age of Goofy Musicals; you either grew up with Vincente Minnelli’s 1954 film (Gene Kelly, Van Johnson, Cyd Charisse) and the cast albums of the original and the many revivals, or you didn’t. You either know “The Heather on the Hill” is as beloved of jazz musicians as it is of Broadway fanatics, or you don’t. You either dismiss it as a second-tier riff on the themes Lerner & Loewe’s competitors Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein had established with Oklahoma! and Carousel, or you don’t care because the Brigadoon score is simply so beautiful.
What’s important about Brigadoon right now is that it’s being given a ravishing revival by City Center’s Encores! that will only be around through this weekend. Thus it’s as ephemeral as the story it tells, and as essential a ray of light as one could hope for today, thanks to a luminous performance by Kelli O’Hara and the thrilling staging by director/choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, improving on his previous Broadway venture, An American In Paris.
This is the story of two jaded Manhattanites, slightly stolid Tommy Albright (Patrick Wilson) and frequently tanked Jeff Douglas (Aasif Mandvi) who take a hike in the Scottish highlands and stumble on the twee village of Brigadoon. They soon learn the place charmed to live outside of time, as each dawn for its agreeable townsfolk is a century’s leap for the rest of the world. Let revolutions unfold, world wars ravage, rock music corrupt – for Brigadoonians, it’s always the cozy, bagpipe-serenaded 1700s.
The casting is pitch-perfect across the board, giving life to cut-out figures. Tommy falls in love with Fiona (O’Hara). Jeff finds his comic foil in man-hungry Meg (Stephanie J. Block). Fiona’s sister Jean (Sara Esty) is set to marry Charlie (Ross Lekites) to the consternation of Harry (Robert Fairchild), driven mad with the hopelessness of it all.
Kelli O’Hara herself seems refreshed with each new conquest of our musicals, as if time has not passed for her, from classics – South Pacific, The King and I – to which she returns next spring in London – and the upcoming Met production of Cosi fan tutte – to new works, notably The Light in the Piazza and The Bridges of Madison County.
There are several fine, versatile sopranos working in the theater today, but I don’t know of any whose voice has only grown richer, fuller at both the top and bottom, as O’Hara’s. Whether the achingly tender “Heather on the Hill” or the anthemic “Almost like Being in Love” or the sad reverie of “From This Day On” – all duets with the redoubtable Wilson – O’Hara is impossibly beautiful, vocally and in conveying Fiona’s romantic determination and heartbreak.
Brigadoon is a dance musical, and Lerner and Loewe drafted Rodgers and Hammerstein’s trail blazing choreographer Agnes de Mille to lend her Martha-Graham-meets-show-biz psychological layers to the show. Wheeldon is true to that mandate and, as with Paris, he’s recruited superb dancers (notably his Paris star, Robert Fairchild) to bring the big dance numbers to life.
This is the annual Encores! gala, when the actors are off book and the settings and costumes go beyond the usual concert-version constraints. So there are extraordinary projections by 59 productions, burnished lighting by Ken Billington and lovely, subtle clothes by Emily Rebholz. Rob Berman conducts the Encores! orchestra with his usual command.
So Brigadoon isn’t Camelot and surely not My Fair Lady. But as Brooks Atkinson wrote of the original production at the Ziegfeld Theatre (as distant a memory as Brigadoon itself): it’s “impossible to say where the music and dancing leave off and the story begins in this beautifully orchestrated Scotch idyll…an orchestration of the theater’s myriad arts like a singing story-book for an idealized country fair long ago.” True as ever.