“Bum Phillips All-American Opera” at the Ellen Stewart Theatre (Closed Sunday March 30, 2014)

March 25, 2014 | Off-Broadway | Tags: ,
Composed by Peter Stopschinski
Libretto by Kirk Lynn
Conceived and Directed by Luke Leonard
Reviewed by David Roberts
Theatre Reviews Limited

Bum Phillips (Gary Ramsey) is more anti-hero than hero in the opera being his name currently playing at the Ellen Stewart Theatre (La MaMa). The apparently iconic Houston Oilers football coach has to endure the same struggles heroes have always experienced (Ulysses, Antigone, and that lot) but the stakes in the strife seem lower and the return home less glorious. It is this anti-hero status that both weakens and potentially strengthens the impact of the opera.

Unless one knows who Bum Phillips is, one has great difficulty connecting to “Bum Philips All-American Opera.” Unfortunately, the librettist (Kirk Lynn) fails to provide enough exposition about Phillips or his “iconic” struggles. Even the reporters, serving as a Greek Chorus, fail to provide substantial (or even interesting) exposition or commentary about Mr. Phillips’ conflicts. Without a strong and identifiable protagonist with equally powerful conflicts, it is difficult for the libretto to drive engaging plots.

On the other hand, the gap in knowledge about Bum Phillips could provide the audience an “Everyman” with whom audience members could connect their own catalog of losses, victories, near-victories, faith crises, and unreasonable hopes. Had the characterization of Mr. Phillips been stronger, the audience member could easily have seen himself or herself in the vicissitudes of the coach’s life story.

Luke Leonard’s concept for an all-American opera is commendable and filled with potential. Some of that potential is met here in the design and the score composed by Peter Stopschinski. There are pleasant musical moments and the set and projections manage to adequately fill the large open space at the Ellen Stewart Theatre. Unfortunately, there is a disconnect between the enormity of the space and the dimension of the man it embraces.

Ultimately, the scale of Marie Yokoyama’s set and Darwin Gilmore’s expansive projections does not match the “size” of the character of Bum Phillips: based solely on the libretto (which is all the audience has), he was a mediocre husband and father (“We took one family vacation); he leaned on his faith only in times of crisis or danger; his generous spirit, at least in the opera, seems limited to providing ice cream cones to his players; and he never reaches the one thing he wants – “peace on earth and a super bowl ring.”

Charlotte Griffin’s choreography and Luke Leonard’s direction score the end runs here, at times avoiding collisions with libretto and occasionally providing staging that brings authenticity to Earl Campbell’s (Anlami Shaw) truism: “it doesn’t matter knock ’em back/knowing what’s about to happen/doesn’t stop what’s about to happen.” The audience knows Bum Phillips will not reach the Super Bowl; however enough of Ms. Griffin’s and Mr. Leonard’s plays “knock back” obstacles to scoring to provide visual and cerebral delight.