Uzo Adubu (l) and Xanthe Elbrick in the British import Coram Boy, at The Imperial Theatre through May 27.
Coram Boy comes bearing gifts, but arrives too early
By Scott Harrah
Over the past year, nearly all the great dramas on Broadway The History Boys, Frost/Nixon and Journeys End have been British imports. So it was understandable that Coram Boy, a smash hit in the UK that was hailed as the years best play by many critics across the Atlantic when it opened there in 2005, would arrive on our shores with high expectations. With a huge cast that includes 40 actors, a choir of 20 singers, seven producers, a full orchestra, lavish costumes and a high-tech set, Coram Boy has all the makings of a proverbial blockbuster. However, this morose, grisly Dickensian tale about orphans in 18th-century England is anything but.
Coram Boy focuses on intertwined stories set in Gloucester and London over a nine-year period. The action moves from a Gloucester cathedral to a country estate to a London orphanage to a slave ship on the Thames. During the 1700s, the distribution of wealth in England was outrageously imbalanced, and the lower classes lived in abject poverty. The tale revolves around two boys: Young Thomas Ledbury (Charlotte Parry) and Alexander (Xanthe Elbrick), the runaway son of the wealthy aristocrat Lord Ashbrook (David Andrew McDonald). Alexander goes to the local Coram Hospital because he is a singer and wants to attend the prestigious musical program there. Later, Alexander (played as a young man by Wayne Wilcox) who defied his fathers wishes to take over the family estate in order to pursue music becomes a protégé of famous composer Handel. Thomas, who grew up with Alexander, helps reunite the family in the second act.
This may sound like a standard tale of youth rebelling against their parents, but it is far too gory and gruesome. For one thing, there is a rather unpleasant subplot about mothers paying the despicable Otis Gardiner (Bill Camp) to have their unwanted babies put away in orphanages, but in reality the infants are being buried alive. Gardiner pretends to be a representative of the Coram Hospital, but he disposes of the babies as soon as their mothers hand over the cash to take care of their little ones. There are recurring scenes featuring angels and souls leaving the recently deceased, but these metaphysical touches become cloying and downright hokey at times.
Like Oliver Twist, the dramatic thread throughout Coram Boy concerns the neglect and abuse children of the lower classes endured in England at the time. The drama also depicts the drastic measures women had to resort to when there was no birth control, and illegal abortions had a high fatality rate. At nearly three hours long, however, the story drags at a lugubrious pace, and the subject matter is far too depressing to be compelling for most audiences, even young ones. Unlike the dark, brilliant musical Spring Awakening another show aimed at the under-30 demographic this is hardly a drama to which 21st century tweens and teens will relate.
The most absurd and off-putting element of the show is a church choir that sits above the stage. There really seems to be no reason for a full choir because this is hardly a musical, and other than performing a few Handel hymns as background music during certain scenes as well as the religious Christmas carol Handels Messiah in the shows finale the robed singers are merely aural wallpaper throughout the play.
Coram Boy may have been a theatrical event in England where it opened at Christmastime but it is anyones guess just what went wrong in this mediocre American production. The hallelujah church choir only seems appropriate when singing the ethereal rendition of Handels Messiah at the end, but why the producers chose to open a Broadway show at this time of year, with a Christmas song as its anthem, is puzzling indeed.
Editors Note: Coram Boy received six Tony nominations, including one for Best Direction of a Play, before producers announced last week that the show is closing May 27th.