Deborah Gilmour Smyth in A Joyful Noise (Photo by Ken Jacques)
The swath of I-84 that snakes through rural Northern Oregon is as far removed from New York City as 1742 is from 1999—but actor Deborah Gilmour Smyth doesn't lose a bunch of sleep over the distinctions. All the world's a stage, y'know, and, anyway, the theater is designed to suspend time itself. For Smyth, recently on her way to Alaska for some R&R, one setting's as good as another.
That's to say that a noisy Oregon truck stop is as decent a place as any from which to talk about something a little less nondescript—Lamb's Players Theatre's restaging of A Joyful Noise, which the Coronado company world-premiered in 1999 and subsequently took Off-Broadway for an extended, successful run. It's writer Tim Slover's character study behind one of history's most popular pieces of music, George Frederick Handel's Messiah—where, after all, would Messiah be without a sexy secular tale of oversize egos, poor health, politics and a bumbling church to color it?
In fact, Smyth, the group's associate artistic director, said the music's sacred nature lends the story its irony. “You see Handel's struggle,” she explained, “as sort of an over-middle-aged man trying to fight City Hall, in a sense—fighting the critics and all of that. He got so much flak, and I think you see the process that he goes through mentally and emotionally as the work begins to inform itself.”
Indeed. Before the work's premiere in 1742, the Prussia-born Handel had suffered a stroke, complained of trouble with his sight and lost a fortune in operatic management. As French biographer Romain Rolland wrote, Handel “was surrounded by a crowd of bulldogs with terrible fangs, by unmusical men of letters who were likewise able to bite, by jealous colleagues, arrogant virtuosos, cannibalistic theatrical companies, fashionable cliques, feminine plots and nationalistic leagues.... Twice he was bankrupt, and once he was stricken by apoplexy amid the ruin of his company.”
“And [his esteemed protégé] Susannah Cibber was not thought of well in the world,” Smyth said. “Everybody thinks she was a unique interpreter of music. She did music hall; that was one of her claims to fame.” Not only that—she later left her husband and had a daughter by somebody else.
But even vultures die eventually. Until then, the God-fearing Handel and his socialite champion Mary Pendarves (Smyth) never give in. Today, Messiah's “Hallelujah Chorus” is as big news as many of Handel's more than 200 operas, cantatas and organ pieces. Casehardened New Yorkers figured this out a mere nine years ago as the show hit 'em where they live.
“The audiences in New York,” Smyth explained, “were such a surprise. We got such bravos and standing ovations; we were thinking, ‘Hey, we're a little San Diego company that did good.' That was such a fun experience, in the dead of a very cold winter, by the way.”
The reaction isn't hard to figure. We're hopelessly wired for sound, or at least the math that governs it. The rest is a matter of musical taste, for which there's no accounting. A joyful noise awaits inside it all, from Harding to Hendrix to Handel—once you get past the wake of the behemoth tanker that recently farted its way into an innocent conversation along the Oregon plains.
A Joyful Noise runs Oct. 9 through Nov. 22 at the Ione and Paul Harter Stage, 1142 Orange Ave. in Coronado. Tickets are $22 to $58. www.lambsplayers.org.
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