What do women want, at the end of the millennium? In Michael John LaChiusa’s Marie Christine, the apparent answer is that they want today’s challenges a century early. A version of the Medea story set in 1890s America, Marie Christine stays stubbornly stuck in its author- composer’s own time, offering neither a way back to the savage myth nor a reflection of our ’90s in the mirror of the 19th century’s. Proficient, skilled, and imaginative, LaChiusa marshals an enormous panoply of approaches to tell his tale, but it doesn’t hold together, even with the towering talent of Audra McDonald at its center, because the myth won’t supply what he needs from it; his constantly shifting strategies only diffuse it further. At times this last Broadway musical of the 20th century seems to contain every mode of music theater the century has tried, from the Stravinskyan fanfare that starts its prelude to the Schoenbergian (or maybe Boublil-Schonbergian) chorale that sends the heroine to death in a blaze of glory. In between, the ghosts of Puccini and Gershwin, Britten and Copland, Kern and Sondheim and Weill and Poulenc come and go in the gloom. LaChiusa’s never literal in his derivations; he just has an acute ear and a fin de siècle omnivore’s taste.
He falls into his sounds-like ways, in part, because his dramatic structure offers him nothing strong with which to resist them. Euripides cleverly concentrated everything his audience needed to know about Medea in five episodes, demarcating the last terrifying day of her life in Greece. Deconstructing his inexact analogy till it sprawls all over the stage (easy on Christopher Barreca’s appropriately unfocused set), LaChiusa begins at the end, flashes back to an approximate beginning point—and then flashes further back from there. Marie Christine’s in a Chicago jail, telling her story to the other women prisoners; then she’s a wealthy mixed-race Louisiana girl living with her brothers on the shores of Lake Pontchartrain; then she’s a child learning vodun from her mother. The story can’t take a step forward without taking two steps back, even after Marie Christine’s eloped to Chicago, where the political ambitions of her white lover, Dante Keyes, bring on the traumatic climax. LaChiusa’s breadth of source material is as strong as his technical range—”realized” folk songs and Caribbean chants, ’90s piano-rag numbers burlesqued à la Bock and Harnick or teased with dissonances in the manner of Blitzstein or Jerome Moross. It seems he can do anything—except, apparently, ask himself why he does it.
Some of Medea’s reasons, too, are mysteries, which is why Euripides’s play retains its power to chill and transfix. But the women who surround her, her old Nurse and the Chorus, are always precise in their response to her actions. She’s been brutally treated; no women, and few men, would fail to sympathize. But each scene of the tragedy offers her better alternatives than those she chooses, and the other women tell her so; looking for revenge on men and society, she victimizes those as powerless as herself: her own children and another woman. Far from a feminist, Medea’s scary because she demonstrates that cruelty—the viciousness of the abuse victim turned abuser—isn’t a male trait, but part of our common humanity: Push a woman too far and she’ll act just like a man.
Putting the story in Jim Crow America, and mixing it up with a welter of competing issues—women’s rights, civic corruption, class barriers, cultural imperialism—only blurs its conflicts. Medea’s a foreign princess; Jason and Creon are worthy opponents of equal status. In contrast, Marie Christine, illegitimate offspring of a plantation owner and his slave, is a person of no legal standing in her native Louisiana; her lover, Dante, a prostitute’s son, and the sleazy political boss who becomes his prospective father-in-law are if anything even lower on the social scale. This slippage in rank reduces the myth to a matter of politics: Not what tragic powers are inherent in women, but what rights they can justly claim becomes the point at issue—a point only peripheral to the myth. (Medea’s offered a series of varyingly just settlements, none of which appeases her wrath; Marie Christine’s never offered anything except “Do as you’re told” and “Get out of town.”) As a result, the violence in which the action’s suffused always seems to be out of place in the story LaChiusa’s telling. Medea escapes, unpunished, in a chariot drawn by dragons, a warning to us that violence, human and primordial, will be back; Marie Christine, unburdened of her story, has some vague kind of apotheosis about having loved “too much and more,” presumably on her way to the gallows. And all because she couldn’t own property in Louisiana or vote in Chicago.
Though LaChiusa’s blurry conception is often conveyed in equally blurry lyrics, his music, with its constant restless invention, probably deserves a fairer hearing than it gets here. More than any new score I’ve heard recently, it wants unplugging: Scott Stauffer’s smeary, dulling sound design should be done away with, and the piece moved into an opera company’s repertoire, where we could relish LaChiusa’s musicianly composing, and the niceties of Jonathan Tunick’s delicate scoring. Most of Graciela Daniele’s drifty, cluttered staging should be tossed out too, and its replacement supported by lighting that sculpts rather than flattens. And the piece should be sung no more than twice a week: Resourceful and centered even when the story isn’t, vivid even with the blandest words, Audra McDonald dives into the title role and carries it as easily as if Brünnhilde and Boris Godunov together would be a mere day’s work to her. But this can’t go on forever; she’s an artist, not a dray horse. If composers keep piling such demands on her, her simplest strategy will be to get out of the commercial racket and start her own opera company, where she can schedule an occasional rest for herself. She gets strong support from Darius de Haas as her wastrel brother, and from delicious Mary Testa, as the local dragon chariot. Anthony Crivello, as Dante, has vocal strength and sexy charm, but no more. And somebody might have told him that Chicagoans don’t say “Chicah-go.”