When reminiscing about their high school years, most adults can probably recall having studied Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter at some point or other.  An imdb check shows over a dozen film or TV adaptations including 1995’s, which starred an improbably cast Demi Moore as Puritan adulteress Hester Prynne. The classic melodrama even made it to Broadway a century ago.  Never before, however, has it been set to music, or at least not until composer songwriter Mark Governor decided to turn it into a rock opera now making its Hollywood club  debut.

You read correctly.  Governor’s 1994 The Scarlet Letter, completely reworked and now cleverly retitled and spelled shAme (with a capital A for Adultery), is being staged every Wednesday by the newly formed Los Angeles rock Opera Company  at popular Hollywood night spot King King, adding a special cachet to the production.

shAme’s greatest assets are its score and performances, and both are absolutely terrific.

Governor’s songs have some of the catchiest rhythms, melodies, and hooks I’ve heard in a new musical, making each instantly hummable.  Halfway through most, I had to stop myself from singing along, though in several cases I succumbed to the temptation, albeit quietly.  I was less successful at preventing myself from tapping my feet to the beat, though I doubt that I was the only one.

Governor’s melodies run the gamut of styles, from pop to rock to Latin to 1950s doo-wop, and are performed by a sensational cast of actors-who-can-sing and accompanied by a dance club ready prerecorded soundtrack.  (The musical direction and arrangements are uncredited.)

Katrina Lenk dazzles as prim and proper Hester, who wears her A as a badge of pride. Lenk, whom I’ve seen before doing excellent dramatic work in iWitness and Safety, is (like Mask’s Michelle Duffy) an actress whose vocal talents equal her acting chops.  Lenk’s scenes opposite secret lover Dimmesdale sizzle, and her pop rock voice is a perfect fit for songs like “The Scarlet Letter”  and “Interior Of A Heart.”

Cast opposite Lenk in the role of Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale is Mask’s Mark Luna, himself an accomplished songwriter/recording artist and Broadway vet.  It’s great to see Luna in a starring role, and like Lenk, he is as talented an actor as he is a singer, with his emotional “Only The Night” being a particular highlight.

In the role of Pearl, Hester and Dimmesdale’s 13-year-old daughter, is the amazing Laura Darrell. Darrell, who was thoroughly convincing as George’s elderly mother in the recent USC student production of Sunday In The Park With George, does even finer work here as a young girl on the threshold of womanhood. Her folk-rock themed “Main Street At Noon,” in which she dares her secret father to acknowledge his paternity by kissing her in public, provides the evening’s most memorable moment.

Also excellent is Danny Shorago, chilling as Hester’s husband Roger Chillingsworth.  The cast is rounded out by a talented and charismatic trio of men (Daniel Lujan, Joe Donohoe, and James W. Lynch) and women (Kelly Becerra, Erin Zaruba, and Trina Taylor) performing a variety of roles. All do terrific work, with special mention due the women who appear both as judgmental Puritans and as sexy spirits. 

Janet Roston has directed and choreographed shAme to make full use of King King, with actors not only on stage but also atop booths, at the bar, among the tables, and above stage level. She is ably assisted by Liz Sroka and by Michael Wells’ vocal direction. 

Leah Piehl’s costumes are a provocative mix of 17th century grays and blacks, and 21st century leather and lace. Sean Forrester’s arresting lighting design highlights the drama, with scarlet appropriately being the predominant color. Jesse Bonnell’s media design flashes images on the upstage wall of historical and contemporary figures, including 20th century Anita Hill who had her own battles with public shAme, and Dino Ramble’s sound design is gratifyingly NOT earsplitting.

Now comes the quibble.

Governor’s song lyrics aren’t sufficient in and of themselves to tell the story, or at least require a degree of concentration that I didn’t give them, being caught up in the voices, melodies, and rhythms. It took me a long time to realize that Chillingsworth was Hester’s husband, lost at sea, and not an Indian. That he was gradually poisoning Dimmesdale with herbs and mushrooms also went whoosh over my head. So while I realize that spoken dialog is not part of an opera, whether classical or rock, I would have wished for some, at least to clarify key plot points.

Despite this ambiguity, shAme still works, and quite well indeed.  The music is catchy and the performances rock. And there’s no shAme in that!

Note: shAme is restricted to audiences 21 and over (there’s a bouncer at the door) and there is a one drink minimum.

King King, 6565 Hollywood Blvd., Hollywood. 

–Steven Stanley
June 4, 2008
Photos: Ryuichi Oshimoto, Barry Weiss

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