Michael John LaChiusa’s Bernarda Alba, the multiple-Tony-nominated composer-lyricist’s darkly dramatic adaptation of the Federico García Lorca classic, not only provides its all-female, mostly Cal State Fullerton student cast with an equal-parts challenging/rewarding showcase for their considerable musical theater gifts, it offers Southland audiences the opportunity to see a rarely-produced chamber gem in a production so stunning, it rivals the finest intimately-staged musicals in town.

Like the 1936 García Lorca play upon which it is based, LaChiusa’s ninety-minute adaptation centers on the women who dwell inside The House Of Bernarda Alba, presided over by just-widowed matriarch Bernarda (Maria Cominis), more intent than ever on keeping her five adult daughters under virtual house arrest, the better to protect them from the covetous eyes of the menfolk of the small Spanish town they call home.

Only eldest daughter Angustias (Allison Parker) seems likely to wed (given that she and she alone has inherited her mother’s first husband’s fortune).

Unfortunately for the marital prospects of Bernarda’s four remaining daughters, eternal pessimist Magdalena (Kira Jamison), kindhearted but fearful Amelia (Lily Bryson), ugly, resentful Martirio (Alli Schynert), and sultry sexpot Amelia (Adriana Rodriguez Burciaga) have scarcely a peseta to their name, though the youngest at least has beauty in her corner where a dowry ought to be.

Meanwhile, the girls’ demented but still lusty grandmother Maria Josepha (Olivia Pence) remains under double lock and key, servant Poncia (Allison Revelino) being the only one willing to talk back to a mistress whose Young Maid (Cassy O’Brian) and Servant (Kelly Rosales) know better than to bite the hand that feeds them.

Though Bernarda Alba’s spoken dialog has the stilted sound of Spanish translated into non-colloquial English, LaChiusa’s distinctively discordant notes prove, if not exactly hummable, strangely, unexpectedly melodious, mixing minor-keyed Spanish folk with flamenco’s driving beats.

Percussive hand claps and foot stomps open the show as a guitar-strumming Poncia wails out the tale of a woman and her five daughters who lived “once upon another time in a little town in Spain.”

And we’re off on an absolutely thrilling ride thanks to Kyle Cooper’s inspired direction and design, choreographer Angeline Mirenda’s striking movement and dance, and Rod Bagheri’s dynamic musical direction.

Rarely if ever has CSUF’s Grand Central Arts Center blackbox been used to such eye-catching effect, Cooper hiding master keyboardist Bagheri behind a simple but effective dark wood-slatted backdrop, an assortment of boxes configured and reconfigured in ever more imaginative ways in addition to serving as part of Craig Shields’ pounding, pervasive percussion design.

Casting CSUF professor Cominis in the title role gives Bernarda Alba a professional quality it might lack with an entirely student cast, and though performers barely in their twenties play daughters ranging from twenty-five to nearly forty, the all-around terrific Bryson, Burciaga, Jamison, Parker, and Schynert pull it off, acing quite possibly the most challenging music they’ll ever have to perform while creating five dramatically distinctive daughters.

Revelino’s powerhouse Poncia stands out among the supporting ensemble. O’Brian and Rosales prove themselves multiple-threats, whether acting or singing or percussing or executing Mirenda’s balletic moves, Rosales doubling effectively as snooty neighbor Prudencia. Pence’s cameo as the dotty Maria Josepha completes Bernarda Alba’s cast to heartrending effect.

The women’s dresses and boots may be contemporary basic black, but Paulina Sanchez’s ever-changing lighting design is the furthest thing from monochromatic, making each and every scene a visual stunner, and Wyn Moreno’s fight choreography adds realistic action and punch.

Margaret Riorden is stage manager and Joshua Hoover is assistant stage manager.

Like Illyria, Ordinary Days, and Violet before it, Bernarda Alba gives CSUF musical theater majors the invaluable opportunity to strut their stuff up close and unmiked at the Grand Central.

Staged and performed to rival SoCal professional theater at its best, the latest from Cal State Fullerton’s Department of Theatre and Dance is a production no true musical theater lover will want to miss.

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CSUF Grand Central Art Center, 125 N. Broadway, Santa Ana.

–Steven Stanley
April 20, 2017
Photos: Mark Ramont


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