Portland Playhouse’s new musical, Scarlet, is no dry historical retelling of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s 1850 novel The Scarlet Letter. While that popular 19th-century novel was the source material for playwright Michelle Horgen’s retelling, and it is set in the same puritanical time, this is not your father’s Scarlet Letter.
For starters, this is retold by a woman (Horgen is at least a triple threat, having written book, music, and lyrics) in 21st century America. And Hester Prynne has a lot to say — and, it turns out, sing — that rings as true today as it must have in 1850. Judgment and shaming, after all, have become public, prolific, and painful in the era of Twitter and Facebook, where most people can’t simply escape or go home to hide their embarrassment.
In Horgen’s hands, the story also becomes much more about motherhood—how becoming a mother “shatters your existence” in a “blinding instant” — than it was in the words of Hawthorne. There is an especially heart-wrenching story involving Hester’s friend, Sarah Winthrop, a new character who was not part of Hawthorne’s story, which is set in 17th century Puritan Boston. Dana Green, who plays Sarah, wears her grief for the rest of the play — across a number of years — and will break your heart. It is also more about the sisterhood we share with other women — our friends, our community, even the crazy old lady everyone pretends not to understand.
And the relationship between Hester and Dimmsdale is fleshed out and made real in a way that makes them both more sympathetic and relatable than Hawthorne’s words were ever able to do. Actors Rebecca Teran and Isaac Lamb have a palpable and electric chemistry you feel the moment their eyes first meet — which is especially impressive, because it stands out and will draw you in even though they are on a stage filled with people. The sexual tension intensifies — but so do their tenderness and compassion for one another — leading up to Fallen for You, a romantic ballad that brings to a head both the inner conflict and sexual chemistry our protagonists are feeling.
And, of course, unlike Hawthorne’s novel, this version is set to music and song. I don’t know about you, but when I first read The Scarlet Letter in high school, I didn’t imagine Hester and Dimmesdale (as Hawthorne spelled the character’s name) bursting into that powerful love song. But that’s exactly what they do here, and it amplifies the emotions these characters are feeling. Even Roger Chillingsworth — Hester’s detestable husband, played here by Darius Pierce — sings a memorable number, A Life Most Ordinary, that will make audiences sympathize with his plight.
Before you start comparisons to the mass worldwide hit Hamilton — with a Broadway tour coming to Portland this month — or to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, perhaps the first big musical that Portland Playhouse put on, back in 2012, this is not a rock musical. Sure, the songs are modern, but they could almost be set in the period of the story, making the breaks into song less jarring and less humorous than in those other two fine musicals — and that’s a good thing. These topics are deadly serious and need not be turned into jokes through song.
That’s not to say there aren’t funny moments: There is a running joke about the festivities of “lecture Thursday” that will make you grateful to live in modern times. There is even a biblical joke about Dimmsdale’s childhood dog. And the incomparable Susannah Mars gets to deliver some vicious one-liners lodged at the play’s puritanical men — and sings a fabulous and funny number, Call Me a Witch, with little Pearl Prynne (Eva “Rainbows” Hudson Leoniak), that will have you in stitches and make you wonder why she hasn’t been in Wicked on Broadway.
The whole cast is incredible — Leoniak will astound you not only with her singing and acting talent but also with the bravery of her performance. She is playing 6-year-old Pearl with the poise and professionalism of a much older actor. Comedian ranney gives enormous importance to the role of Samuel Maverick, Hester’s landlord and Dimmsdale’s confidante, but of course also provides levity, especially with his performance of Before You Fall (for a Puritan Girl), and in a brief but memorable interaction with Pearl, who nearly outwits him without even trying.
This is a huge production with a large cast and live orchestra (Eric Nordin on piano, Alan Juza and Ann van Bever on oboe, and Dale Tolliver on cello), under the fine direction of Brian Weaver (Portland Playhouse’s co-founder and artistic director) and Jessica Wallenfels. And it all takes place in Portland Playhouse’s original space, an old church on Northeast Prescott.
Similar to Portland Playhouse’s own humble beginnings, Horgen launched Scarlet as a Kickstarter campaign five years ago. She raised funds to create an album she hoped to shop around and, three years later, Portland Playhouse decided to stage the world premiere.
How appropriate, then, that her Kickstarter campaign becomes a lofty production and the first show back in that space after a major renovation (when I say major, I mean it is hard in some ways to relate the old space to the new one — though both are beautiful and welcoming). Post-renovation, there is better seating, better lighting, more of a theater stage, and more bathrooms. The changes are good, though I can’t help but miss sitting on mismatched couches and pews in a space that felt more like the abandoned church it had been than the theater it was becoming.
It’s remarkable what the Playhouse space has become. The same should be said for Scarlet, which has already sold out most performances of its three-week run. Two Saturday matinees have been added to accommodate all those clamoring to see it. This ambitious production may very well go on to become the next Hamilton. But, for now, you can still catch the world premiere in Portland.
Scarlet continues through March 25 at Portland Playhouse. Ticket and schedule information here.