November 5, 2012 5:35 pm

The Medium, Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater, New York

In the lead role, Jeffery Roberson stalks and stumbles through this shamelessly tawdry melodrama with dauntless savoir-faire
Jeffery Roberson, centre, in ‘The Medium’

Jeffery Roberson, centre, in ‘The Medium’

The Marjorie S. Deane Little Theater is one of the better kept secrets of cultural New York. An intimate showcase built in 1929 as part of the West Side YMCA, it was lovingly restored in 2004. Now, according to official blurb, it “creates and launches new and innovative works that inspire, entertain and reflect our diverse community”.

The current vehicle (until November 11) is The Medium, an unabashedly theatrical, shamelessly tawdry melodrama written by Gian Carlo Menotti in 1946. Despite lofty pretensions, it remains little more than a schlocky horror show. Still, it is carefully crafted and, by the composer’s standards, gratifyingly concise.

The central character, Madame Flora, aka Baba, makes her boozy living running trick séances for innocents desperate to communicate with their dearly departed. Eventually, however, she is reduced to a not-so-Grand Guignol hysteric, undone by her own illusions and delusions.

Over the decades the role has proved a rewarding vehicle for extrovert singing-actresses such as Claramae Turner, who created it, Marie Powers, who played it on Broadway and on film, and Regina Resnik, who scored a personal triumph with it in Washington. Now it is Jeffery Roberson’s unique turn.

Sometimes known as Varla Jean Merman, he happens to be a female impersonator equipped with a solid, natural sounding mezzo-soprano. He stalked and stumbled through Michael Steers’ moody stage-set with dauntless savoir-faire, avoiding camp pitfalls and arch grotesquerie in the process. One had to admire him, even when one didn’t quite believe him.

As his narrative accomplices in a strong ensemble, Stefanie Izzo exerted lyric innocence as Monica and Edmund Bagnell mimed the agonies of the mute child Toby sympathetically. One had to question the validity, however, of making him a sophisticated fiddler, vibrato master in excelsis, rather than Menotti’s tambourine-toying primitive. Otherwise, Donna Drake’s staging was resourceful. Elizabeth Hastings served the score appreciatively from a piano at shadowy stage-right.

The audience, all male, made up in enthusiasm for what it lacked in numbers.

4 stars

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