Who would have thought that an original musical about Queen Victoria, with book, music, and lyrics by an unknown writer, would turn out to be a tuneful, funny, and emotionally moving surprise? 

A Piece Of Tin, by Rhett Judice, is all three.

Directed by Douglas R. Clayton, fresh from his triumph with Drood: The Mystery Of Edwin Drood, A Piece Of Tin begins quietly.  On Dan Jenkins’ elegant set, we hear the 23rd Psalm being sung offstage as a woman dressed entirely in black prepares a table in front of a veiled portrait of Queen Victoria. Two men enter carrying an empty casket, then return to lay the Queen’s shrouded body into the coffin.  

Into the Queen’s casket, the woman in black places photos, a necklace, and a plaster cast of the late Prince Albert’s hand…and the first of many flashbacks begins.  

The Queen is with her beloved Prince and two gorgeously gowned teenage daughters. Albert coughs. “A little rest is all I need,” he reassures them, however soon the Queen is standing alone, as her servants dress Her Majesty in the widow’s weeds she will wear for the rest of her life.

Back to the present, the woman in black stands before Queen Victoria’s coffin. “Your Majesty, just as you required,” she says softly, and begins to place something in the coffin. She is interrupted by the new King, and when she goes back to search the coffin, the object is gone.

“One Minute More” is the first of several exquisite Rhett Judice compositions. (Incredible that this is his first time writing a musical!)  The woman sings, “One minute more, the locket would have been concealed in her grasp.”  It is a lovely melody, and an emotional moment in A Piece Of Tin, for we soon learn that this “piece of tin” was so significant to Queen Victoria that she entrusted its interment, not to her son, but to her most loyal servant.

Flashing back again to six years after Albert’s death, three gossipy older women, friends of Victoria, arrive for a séance, commenting on the overuse of tartan in the castle.  (More on that later.) Looking and sounding a bit like the Addams family butler, Lurch, the medium leads a very cute “In The Light Of The Candles,” set to a jaunty melody, with the women around the table swaying this way and that and lights flashing around them.

It turns out the tartan is the influence of Scottish kilted servant John Brown, the widowed Queen’s new “favorite.”  A maid comments cattily to her workmates, “If he’s good enough to tend her stables, he’s good enough to tend her.”

A Piece Of Tin unfolds Upstairs, Downstairs style, with many cast members doubling as both royalty and servants.  The latter sing a bouncy song about being “the keepers of the secrets of the Queen,” in which they recount a humorous series of the Queen’s most embarrassing secrets.

Much of the conflict in A Piece Of Tin comes from Victoria’s son, the Prince of Wales (and future King Edward VII), who is outraged by his mother’s closeness with her stableman. Judice’s musical makes us believe that Brown did truly love his sovereign, especially in the beautiful and emotional “Where You Go” in which Brown sings, “Right behind you there I’ll stay.  No truer friend you’ll come to find.  I will always follow where you go.”  Victoria listens, holding back tears. The audience may find themselves wiping away tears of their own.

As important as Queen Victoria to this story, even more so is the character of Mary Tuck, who has been in service to Her Majesty since she was a child. Mary is torn between her loyalty to her Queen, and the burgeoning love she feels for Nigel, a fellow courtier.  In one of the musical’s most memorable highlights, Mary and Nigel sing, “Am I Delirious?,” wondering, “Is this just cups and saucers over tea. How would I know?  I’ve never had a feeling like this. Could this be more than just cups and saucers?” Beginning as twin musical soliloquies, the song leads to an exquisitely choreographed (by John Pennington) moment in which Mary and Nigel dance “together” without touching each other, then move into each other’s arms.  Is it just a fantasy? If so, it is a beautiful one.

In another song, “The Letter,” featuring clever, witty lyrics by Judice, the Queen’s veddy veddy proper (and snooty) children complain that their “royal image is askew.”  “It’s your servant, he offends us,” they continue.  Later, Queen Victoria herself gets to put in her two farthings’ worth, in “The Queen Will Not Be Dictated To.” 

As the time comes closer for the Queen’s coffin to be closed, a tug of war begins between Mary Tuck and the new King Edward. Will Mary be able to retrieve the “piece of tin,” the locket which the King has removed from his mother’s casket, and return it to the Queen’s grasp as was Victoria’s wish, or will the will of the King prevail? 

There is also, in flashbacks, Mary’s heartbreaking realization that she will have to choose between her love for Nigel, and her loyalty to the Queen, service for whom disallows marriage.

Under Douglas Clayton’s flawless direction, A Piece Of Tin, moves effortlessly, and without confusion, back and forth through time, aided in great measure by Jeremy Pivnick’s exquisite lighting design.  Clifford L. Chally’s costumes are some of the most elegant I’ve seen on local stages. Judice’s score, which has been prerecorded, features David Kole’s delicate orchestrations.  Adam Phalen’s sound design is faultless as are vocal director Jennifer Wilcove’s contributions.

The leading role of Queen Victoria is played by Dorrie Braun, who has a number of very good moments in the part, but the standout performance is that of Mary Sutherland as Mary Tuck. With her lovely face and voice, and a deep commitment to the role, Sutherland makes us feel all of Tuck’s loyalty, and her conflicted emotions. (I do wish Sutherland had provided credits in her bio.) In supporting roles, Derek Long is a strong presence as King Edward and Andrew Thacher, as Nigel, has a lovely voice and makes Mary’s scenes with him all the more poignant with the subtlety of his acting. Kelby Thwaits is verry (Scottish burr) good indeed as John Brown. Thomas Colby has much fun playing an over-the-top Disraeli, Matthew James Garland is hilarious as the oh so proper Prince Arthur, and Dan Wingard impresses in a trio of roles.  Completing the cast is an excellent ensemble made up of Kathi Copeland, Joyanna Crouse, Rachel Howe, Andrea Paquin, Terra Taylor, Janis Uhley, and Brian Wallis, all of whom play and sing their upstairs/downstairs roles very well indeed.

Unlike another recent period musical which impressed me but did not particularly move me, A Piece Of Tin provokes a real emotional reaction.  Judice’s melodies are some of the loveliest I’ve heard recently, and the story he tells is both informative and involving. I didn’t know what to expect when I sat down for A Piece Of Tin, but I was happy to join in the opening night standing ovation.

Lyric Theatre. 520 N. La Brea Ave., Los Angeles.

 –Steven Stanley
April 24, 2008

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