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Bel Canto

a Drama
by Daniel Alexander Jones

COMPANY : Actor's Express [WEBSITE]
VENUE : Actor's Express [WEBSITE]
ID# 783

SHOWING : September 11, 2003 - October 18, 2003



Berkeley-boy Benjamin Turner turns sweet sixteen in 1978. His bi-racial, Californian strut makes him out of step in the world of Springfield, Massachusetts -- until he meets Terrence, an outcast with a secret, and larger-than-life former opera diva, Barbara Scarlatti. Opera and spiritual singer Marian Anderson appears as Benjamin's ghost-angel, guiding him through unexpected twists and turns. Arias and gospel fuse together to create songs that bleed the color of passion. Suddenly, a gray winter in New England is enchanted as Benjamin realizes his talent for opera and discovers his belief in magic as he is transformed by the power of love. Bel Canto is a dreamlike orchestration of the clash between the high world of opera and the jagged cadences of city life.

After attaining the Rockefeller Foundation's coveted MAP grant, Bel Canto was chosen for development at the 2002 Sundance Institute theatre lab. American Theatre Magazine recently dubbed Daniel Alexander Jones one of fifteen up and coming artists to watch in the 21st century. Bel Canto will receive its world premiere in June 2003 in Boston, MA - Actor's Express is proud to present the second production of this beautifully lyrical love story.

Director Jasson Minadakis
Stage Manager Rita Ann Marcec
Barbara Scarlatti Vinnie Burrows
Ms. Pava Josie B. Lawson
Terence Long Shon Middlebrooks
Benjamin Turner Theroun Patterson
Marian Anderson Laurie Williamson
Bessie Turner Minka Wiltz
Click to Submit Cast & Crew Info for this production


by troyhill
Monday, October 13, 2003
I settled into my seat at a recent Actors Express performance of Bel Canto to introduce myself to the new Artistice Director’s directing style while anticipating some fine performances. What transpired was an evening of artistic choices that criss-cross the index of a modern theater textbook with little unification. The set design is ok, though the spiked beams that lean from roof to floor remind one of sagging telephone poles. If the desired effect was to project a feeling of miscommunication, perhaps it was successful.

At the center of the text is Benjamin, a young man of 16, whose family was torn when his father took off for Canada. Benjamin and his mother struggle to make the transition from the Bay Area of California to small town life in the Northeast. His life seems to find some focus after a chance meeting with a master voice-teacher, Barbara Scarlatti, turns him on to the wonderful world of classical singing.

Daniel Alexander Jones’ apparent interest in this Marian Anderson, a renowned and controversial African-American operatic figure, and his need to incorporate a wide platform of socio-political issues seems to have gotten the better of him, to the detriment of this play. The writing skips from the naturalistic to the pseudo-lyric and back ad hoc and betrays itself as self-aware and contrived. The gay love interest, Terence, wanders through the performance with seemingly nothing to do except the highly predictable moment of what I’ll call, “mirror holding” (i.e. “You don’t love me. You love yourself.” That’s not a direct quote of the melodrama, but it’s close). In this critic’s opinion, you could cut that character entirely and the story would not suffer. The script is further waylaid by the ghost/spectre/portrait of Marian Anderson. Her lines are usually sung, though not always. The reasoning behind forsaking your own device like that and breaking the mystique of the haunting voice is unmotivated and unjustified. Laurie Williamson has a beautiful voice, but seems particularly awkward in those moments when she speaks the lines instead of singing them.

Throughout the performance, a veritable grab-bag of directorial choices are splashed across the stage. Benjamin paints a room by wrapping long swathes of red fabric around and between the telephone poles. Terence’s sketch material consists of torn pieces of leftover fabric. Mother and son reenact a dramatic opera scene while it plays on the upstage fabric behind them. Records are played by scooping air into one’s hands and then opening them again. Gifts are similarly taken into hands clasped and then “melted” into one’s heart, and so on. Again, all of this might work if it were unified and sustained by the text.

I have previously seen Theroun Patterson’s (Benjamin) work one other time, and enjoyed it immensely. In Bel Canto, however, Theroun appears to be older than his mother, played by Minka Wiltz. Benjamin has an over-eager earnestness at some times and an experience level at others that seem to contradict the character’s given age. Ms. Wiltz’s best moments come when she plays the blind father of Terence, a side character that displays a reality exceeding that of most all the other characters in this play. The exception…Vinnie Burrows is an absolute delight as Barbara Scarlatti. She captures the passion for the voice with the good-natured pride of a master. Josie Bergin-Lawson makes the best of a rather flat, one-dimensional and highly predictable character. Ms. Williamson as the Marian Anderson ghost/spectre/portrait has a lovely voice, but strikes an awkward chord when the other-worldly character decides to speak instead of sing. She also would benefit from a reduction in her blocking since she never seems comfortable walking and climbing stairs in those dresses and shoes. You can tell when you and your fellow audience members are focused entirely on whether or not she’s about to take a tumble, which steals some of the character’s thunder as it were.

See this play for the fantastic performance of Ms. Burrows, the good efforts all around of director and players, and decide for yourself whether Bel Canto is a finished work, or if perhaps the playwright’s voice could benefit from a few months’ worth of Scarlatti’s instruction.


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