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Theater Review

This Musical 'Mirette' Really Is a High-Wire Act

May 19, 2000|LYNNE HEFFLEY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A new family musical from the creators of "The Fantasticks" and "I Do, I Do," about a gutsy little girl in 1890s Paris and a mysterious high-wire walker . . . based on a Caldecott Award-winning children's book . . . set in a boarding house for circus performers, complete with real wire-walking and circus acts? How can you go wrong?

Alas. Fullerton Civic Light Opera's one-dimensional West Coast premiere of "Mirette," by Harvey Schmidt and Tom Jones, written by Elizabeth Diggs from Emily Arnold McCully's children's book, is a surprisingly long two hours.

*

Pleasant, yes, and handsome-looking, with Dwight Richard Odle's charming, 19th century-inspired costumes and his multilayered rose and violet storybook set. The production boasts a confident, sweet-voiced child star in Alyson Fainbarg as Mirette, and Schmidt and Jones' expertly tuneful songs fare well with musical director Diane King Vann and live orchestra. A.J. Gonzalez's sound and lighting by Donna Ruzika add to the solid technical design.

But with few subtleties in tone and an anticlimactic finale, it plays and sounds like an easy-reader version of what should be dynamic and deeply affecting: a child's transcendent discovery of her passion--wire-walking--and its redemptive effect on her teacher, a psychically wounded master of the art.

And Schmidt and Jones' score, with its accents of circus and nostalgia, and expected ebbs and swells, doesn't dig deep. A late Kurt Weill-ish shift with the circus artists' lament about their hard lot is abrupt and short-lived.

Nor is there the excitement there should be in the juggling, tumbling and clowning interludes woven into the story; they're far too tame.

The wire-walking is real, though, and no small feat for Fainbarg and James Mellon, playing her mentor. One wire is low, the second is at least five feet off the ground; much higher is the stretch of platform that serves as the "high-wire" strung across the rooftops of Paris.

Still, a vital spark is missing, as though the cast and director Sha Newman were simply skimming through the book to avoid emotional complexities. Leslie Tinnaro's portrayal of Mirette's mother's resolute practicality, born of disillusionment with the actor husband who abandoned her, is crisp and bloodless. Worse still is a regrettable lack of connection between Fainbarg and Mellon, who reprises the role he played in a 1998 Goodspeed Opera House production, as the tormented Bellini, trying to escape the ghosts of his past.

Fainbarg is a gifted performer, with a beautiful, disciplined singing voice, who walks the wire with aplomb. The maturity of her voice and physical presence, however, aren't yet matched by an ability to convey emotional resonance, and Mellon's one-note performance doesn't bridge the gap. Angry loner Bellini's decision to teach Mirette to walk the wire, and his growing place in her life as a father substitute, seems to happen only because it's in the script.

The 11th-hour entrance of a Father Christmas-type impresario (Jack Ritschel) has a similar feel and a misplaced emphasis that leaches excitement from what the musical has built toward: Mirette and Bellini's high-wire triumph.

*

* "Mirette," Plummer Auditorium, at Lemon and Chapman, Fullerton, Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 2 p.m., except this Sunday, 2 and 7 p.m. Ends May 28. $15-$36. (714) 879-1732, (714) 526-3832. Running time: 2 hours.

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