Book by Will Pomerantz and Nancy Harrow
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited
When Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote “The Marble Faun” (his last novel), he was concerned about themes that recur in his previous novels. Are there any benefits extant in human suffering? What happens when humans fall into sin? Does guilt result in changes in one’s identity? This last novel also includes Hawthorne’s interest in how prolonged exposure to a foreign culture exacerbates the descent into sin and mortality. The new musical “For the Last Time” is based on Hawthorne’s novel and focuses on Donatello’s (Britton Smith) fall from grace and subsequent isolation and takes place in the “foreign culture” of the New Orleans jazz and artist scenes.
Will Pomerantz and Nancy Harrow (who also wrote the music and lyrics) have created a stunning musical that develops characters that parallel Hawthorne’s in “The Marble Faun” and have given these characters depth and believability. Miriam (played with disarming innocence by Brittany Campbell) has moved to New Orleans to pursue her career an artist and is dating club owner Kenyon (played with aggressive charm by Carl Clemons-Hopkins). Miriam is visited by her friend Hilda (played with a charming naiveté by Anita Welch) who is also escaping the confines of Cleveland. Kenyon hopes his band member Donatello (played with a charming ruggedness by Britton Smith) will find Anita “to be the bowl of jambalaya [he feels} like digging into” but Donatello begins to fancy Miriam.
An Overseer and his “Players” host the musical and interact with the audience and serve as an extended metaphor for human vulnerability, temptation, and the search for redemption. Reggie D. White, Jason Veasey, and Kim Exum weave in and out of the action of the musical with grace and counterpoint the conflicts of the characters with the weight of the past and the impact of that past upon Miriam, Hilda, Kenyon, and Donatello in the present (1950). When Miriam’s teacher (also played by Reggie D. White) appears and threatens her safety and her future, Donatello comes to her aid and his actions change the course of their lives forever.
Nancy Harrow’s music throughout is more blues than jazz but that does not detract from its interest and its importance to the musical. Each member of the ensemble cast has a distinctive and appealing vocal range and vocal ability and each brings to his or her musical numbers heartfelt interpretations of the lyrics. Numbers that stand out are “This Life Is Mine,” “Dear Miriam,” “You Gotta Do What You Gotta Do,” “Carnival,” “How Can This Be Love,” and “He’s Gone.” The band under Cody Owen Stine’s direction is superb and the balance between instruments and vocals is consistently perfect.
“For the Last Time” raises important questions about the human condition and these rich questions are enduring and inescapable. Can humankind live in the present without being influenced by their past lives? What does one need to do to be forgiven? Does forgiveness always result in redemption and new life? Why do humans miss the mark and is it possible to live a blameless life? Will Pomerantz and Nancy Harrow’s retelling of “The Marble Faun” is effective and significantly challenging and worth the trip to Theatre Row.