There is an old beer commercial in which a bunch of dudes sit around a campfire drinking brews. One raises his bottle to the group and says, “Guys, this is a good as it gets.”
For anyone who enjoys classical music and dance as much as a campfire in the wilderness, Friday night’s two-act staging of “Acis & Galatea” by the Mark Morris Dance Group deserves a similar toast.
The show, part of the Harriman-Jewell Series’ 50th anniversary celebration, was glorious stuff: a mix of movement and music that’s on par with any show anywhere in the world.
We got evocative choreography from Morris. We got gorgeous costumes by Isaac Mizrahi. We got lighting by Michael Chybowski that advanced the narrative without being intrusive. We got a soaring soprano, two supple tenors and a booming baritone.
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And we got a full choir in the pit, mostly made up of students from William Jewell College. We heard Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s arrangement brought to life by conductor Colin Fowler, a Kansas City, Kan., native and graduate of the Juilliard School.
The plot is taken from Ovid’s “Metamorphoses.” Spoiler alert (in case you aren’t familiar with a 2,000-year-old story) Acis is a river spirit who falls for the sea nymph Galatea. She returns his love, but a jealous rival, the evil cyclops Polyphemus, kills Acis with a boulder. Galatea, heartbroken, uses her magic powers to change Acis into a river, meaning his soul will live forever. That, in Greek myth, is what passes for a happy ending.
Mark Morris is about dance first, and his choreography was wild and wide-ranging. He set the love story within a landscape of 18 dancers who represent, in turn, woodland lovers and the wood itself.
The movement was a melange of styles. We saw bits of ballet, modern and contemporary, and lifts reminiscent of Broadway. There were touches of the can-can, too, and a few moves appropriated from hip-hop. A twice-repeated gesture, which elicited giggles from the two-thirds full theater, was evocative of Martin Short on the prowl.
In an unusual casting touch, many of the male dancers had beards and abundant body hair. Perhaps Morris made that choice to emphasize the primeval nature of his pastoral setting. Maybe it merely reflects his personal aesthetic, but the hirsute casting choices made a refreshing change from the unnaturally waxed, clean boyishness usually found in dance troupes.
Once or twice the movement was tied too closely to the libretto. When Galatea sang about a laurel wreath, for instance, the dancers traced circles around their skulls. The words “stabb’d me to the heart” were practically pantomimed. It felt far too on the nose — virtually like charades.
Such sour notes were rare, however. On the whole, Morris’ choreography was fresh and fluid, energetic and powerful, but never so flashy that the athleticism distracted from the story.
The singing was just as strong. Tenor Isaiah Bell as Damon showed confident diction, so necessary for his scene-setting role. Thomas Cooley may be a bit more portly than one would imagine the young lover Acis, but his voice was sure and strong. Baritone Douglas Williams brought pomp and sass to Polyphemus; his character an odd but compelling mix of terrifying and silly. At one point, the monster did push-ups while nymphs pranced and vamped.
Yulia Van Doren as Galatea, however, was the star of this show. Her ringing soprano was present and fluid, every note warm and well-rounded. Watching such a performance, it can seem odd that we idolize pop and R&B divas for their “amazing” voices, when none has near the power and range of even an average opera soprano. And Van Doren is far above average.
If anything felt less than exquisite, it was Adrianne Lobel’s underwhelming sets. Abstract landscapes painted on Textilene, they were simply a pattern echoing the dancers’ costumes: big brush strokes somewhere between Jackson Pollock and Marc Chagall. Pedestrian as it may sound, a more realistic representation of the forest might have (literally) better set the scene.
Floating through that abstract scenery, Mizrahi’s costumes were elegant in their simplicity. The designer may be known for his work in the fashion industry, but he also has created costumes for performance companies including the Metropolitan Opera and San Francisco Ballet.
For Morris, Mizrahi had female dancers in sleeveless long dresses of diaphanous silk, mottled green with orange splashes, and cinched at the waist. The men were bare-chested in skirts to match the women’s dresses, challenging gender roles while leaving little to the imagination.
The singers, in contrast, were anachronistically costumed in an approximation of contemporary street clothes; plain dress shirts and pants for the men; a simple, modern, buttoned blue dress for Van Doren. For the final scene only, Acis added a Christlike white robe.
“Acis & Galatea” is world-class work, beautifully conceived as a satisfying mix of serious and silly, expertly cast and executed to near perfection. Even someone who prefers a campfire to the Kauffman Center would have to acknowledge that this show is as good as it gets.