Friday, October 07, 2016

Halleluyah - we find out "Handel's Messiah" was a scandal

Cast of Joyful Noise (Erik Stuhaug)
Joyful Noise
Taproot Theatre
Through October 22, 2016

Nowadays, “Handel’s Messiah” is the kind of phrase that no one thinks twice about, especially at Christmas time. It’s a piece of choral singing that you might even take for granted. But at one point in time, back when Georg Handel wrote the piece, it was actually a scandal that almost ruined his composing career!

The back story can be seen on stage at Taproot Theatre, as researched and created by Tim Slover, and produced with a wonderful cast, directed by Scott Nolte. It begins about 1741-3, as Handel’s career seems to be going into the toilet. His oratorios are said to be boring and people are not flocking to his current compositions.

Played masterfully by Jim Gall, we see him deep in debt and at the mercy of King George II (Frank Lawler), who may or may not decide to pay his bills. King George has a Catholic bishop whispering hard-line religious doctrine into his ear. Bishop Henry Egerton (William Kumma) is already against Handel’s earlier works based on the Bible, because they were written with an apostate, librettist Charles Jennens (Kevin Pitman) and performed outside a church. Horrors!

Handel is also a curmudgeon who thinks most sopranos are awful, until he hears Susannah Cibber (Allison Standley) sing and finally thinks his work will be sung properly. However, Cibber was the scandal of Europe as she was essentially prostituted by her abusive spouse and then spied upon and had a book written about it. If she performs this religious piece, won’t her scandal taint it? Will anyone even come to hear her sing? Can Handel risk it?

A chunk of the play focuses on Cibber’s scandal as she relates it, haltingly, to Mary Pendarves (Pam Nolte), a super-fan of Handel’s who introduces Cibber to Handel. That allows for including Cibber’s feud with another famous actress/singer of the time, Kitty Clive (Molli Corcoran). Whether Clive really was not that good, Clive in this play is included for a lot of comic relief.

Corcoran plays the comedy with pitch perfect delivery, making herself a character to laugh at, until she starts to sing. Then, Corcoran’s glorious soprano appears, to contrast and combine with Standley’s also wonderful singing.

Pam Nolte also provides a bit of comedy, along with moments from Chris Shea, playing Handel’s secretary. Lawler clearly has a lot of fun with King George. Taproot usually has wonderful casts for their shows and this one certainly continues the tradition.

The play itself is not particularly earth-shattering, but it amuses and perhaps educates. You won’t be treated to the entire composition, but it does lead to some of the most famous parts of the music at the end.

One other aspect is the stupendously gorgeous costumes by Nanette Acosta. Costuming is also often a high point to Taproot productions, but I think this one exceeds most others in exquisite and expensive-looking detail.

Certainly family friendly, you can decide to get your Christmas celebrating started early, or just enjoy something with a bit of religious content (which is less available in a lot of playwriting, these days). For more information, go to or call 206-781-9707.