In the public mind, actor-singer Susannah Cibber got what she deserved. Her brutal rape became a cause célèbre in mid-18th-century London—the lone witness to the thing said the act was consensual, and everybody and his brother-in-law's cousin adopted that story as his own. Cibber's assault would cost her a chunk of her career, as producers proceeded to slam their unwieldy doors in her gorgeous face for the next three years.
That's where Joyful Noise, Tim Slover's piece about the creation of George Fredrick Handel's Messiah, picks up. The short account is that, with Cibber's help, Messiah would become one of the Western world's most beloved entries in the corpus of sacred music. But the back-story features the real fun. What a concept: a bioplay that trades sloppy religious sentiment for its central figure's flesh and blood, feting Handel as a lumbering, cantankerous ol' poopface with an ugly chronic cough. He out-assholes his detractors (at least one of whom was in his own ensemble) in getting this thing staged at all—and in Lamb's Players Theatre's hands, a very human story becomes a superior entry with its own proud history to boot.
A grubby Church, a ruthless political machine and an infighting public chased the piece out of the Germany-born Handel's adoptive London home. It premiered in Dublin in 1742, with the maverick Cibber (Colleen Kollar Smith) singing one of the final passages, to the chagrin of acclaimed ensemble member Kitty Clive (Teressa Byrne). With Cibber's addition, Handel stacked the deck against himself—but Messiah's overwhelming success bade its first London turn the following year. Pudding-faced King George II (Jim Chovick) would rise to his feet, his jaw dropping in abject awe; the rest was history, and the work's “Hallelujah Chorus” took its place as one for the ages.
Amid it all sat Handel, the immovable object who bested each and every irresistible force, including faulty vision, a series of lousy investments and the stroke from which he was recovering when he wrote Messiah. “I warn you,” he bellows at one point, “my feet hurt”—and as Robert Smyth plays it, the speech is a metaphor for Handel's own colossal ego. Not since 2003's The Boys Next Door has Smyth transformed himself so completely; his co-director and real-life wife Deborah Gilmour Smyth plays Mary Pendarves, Handel's sponsor, with a touch of ditziness that utterly defines the character. She also appears in a series of Jeanne Reith-designed costumes. Enough said.
Lamb's took its original Joyful Noise off-Broadway in 1999. New York audiences reportedly ate the show alive, pining for a glimpse of the humanness surrounding one of classical music's loftiest figures. That's what you'll get here, too, from a company whose penchant for anecdote rivals that of any in theatrical America today. And I mean that.
This review is based on the opening-night performance of Oct. 16. Joyful Noise runs through Nov. 22 at the Ione and Paul Harter Stage, 1142 Orange Ave. in Coronado. $22-$58. www.lambsplayers.org. Write to firstname.lastname@example.org and email@example.com.
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