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Music man
Strange bedfellows bring Bel Canto to life
BY SALLY CRAGIN

Collaboration is a mysterious by-product of artistic endeavor, yet some alliances defy easy explanation. Take a new play called Bel Canto, which is being co-produced by the Theater Offensive, "New Englandís leading stage for multicultural gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender theater," and Wheelock Family Theater, whose name is self-explanatory. What possible middle ground could the feisty Theater Offensive find with a company serving the kinder market?

Plenty, according to Theater Offensive artistic director Abe Rybeck, who oversaw the development of Daniel Alexander Jonesís Bel Canto when the playwright was artist-in-residence at the TO in 2000. Lead character Benjamin is a gay, bi-racial high-school student and a gifted singer newly arrived in Springfield, Massachusetts, from Berkeley, California. He and mother Bessie struggle to come to terms with their relationship and locale. Along the way, "he falls in love and discovers the power of creativity of performance," Rybeck explains, adding, "I thought this was a much better match than anyone would imagine for our two theater companies."

Bel Canto is a family drama with fantasy elements ó African-American diva Marian Anderson makes occasional cameos. But unlike, say, Woody Allenís Play It Again, Sam, in which another star, Humphrey Bogart, dispenses wisecracks and advice, Anderson merely "appears as an astral projection and does cast a long shadow," says playwright Jones, who responded to questions by e-mail. "Iím always drawn to people ó in daily life and in history ó who practice freedom. She understood the divinity of artistic practice. She understood the pernicious hold of racism over America. But she wasnít cowed by it." Area favorite Merle Perkins plays the role, which she notes is a "huge undertaking. Sheís a guiding force for him and the other characters."

Another guiding force for Benjamin is a sharp-eared singing teacher named Barbara. She takes no nonsense from this brash young man and insists he provide her with a list of his opera-record collection: "the singers, the conductors, the date of issue. Then we will decide what is appropriate," she declares. "Everything isnít appropriate for an impressionable voice."

Bel Canto is written in a quasi-operatic motif, with numerous short scenes, some no longer than a page. "You could call it episodic," says director Robbie McCauley, whoís been involved with the piece from the beginning and worked on it at the Sundance Institute Summer Play Lab with Jones last summer. "Here the content and the form are so interwoven, and because itís operatic, it has tragic aspects."

"I drew from my own experiences and the experiences of several friends who have studied singing, and then this unusual, multi-leveled story began to emerge," Jones concludes. "While in residence at the Theater Offensive, I immersed myself in opera ó a form with which I was not very familiar ó and found that the emerging dramatic structure drew both from that classical music form and from jazz." He also credits a number of teachers who "took me under their wings and went out of their way to cultivate my intellect, my artistic explorations, and my spirit. They demanded that I find my own voice. And they did their best to brace me for the impact of racism on the creative mind."

Bel Canto is presented by the Theater Offensive and Wheelock Family Theatre at Wheelock Family Theatre, 180 the Riverway, June 5 through 22. Tickets are $12 to $28; call (617) 734-4760.

Issue Date: May 30 - June 5, 2003

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