Easily one of the least sympathetic characters in classic literature, Emma Bovary cheats on her husband out of boredom, squanders his fortune, and plots her own tragic ending. Paul Dick has ambitiously adapted Gustave Flaubert's epic late-19th-century novel Madame Bovary, which chronicles the life of the infamous adulteress, into the most unlikely of incarnations—a musical. Despite his efforts, this version fails to capture the incapacitating madness that predicates Emma's astonishing actions. In a troubled and lethargic production, we are left with an impression of the despondent Emma that arouses neither empathy nor intrigue. Dick, who last year created a musical version of Wuthering Heights, obviously has an appetite for dark and twisty literary sources, and he pulls triple duty here, contributing book, music, and lyrics. Together with director Elizabeth Falk, he has created a brooding, melancholy, interminable dramatic affair that never focuses clearly enough on its extravagantly flawed heroine.
Almost immediately after marrying the older, upright, and uptight Dr. Bovary, Emma is restless and ready for a radical change of circumstances: "My life is slipping away," she laments. As she begins to spend time with the youthful, romantic Leon, she is seized by feelings of love inspired by their shared passion for poetry, music, and art. The two become confidants, but Leon leaves for law school before they have a chance to consummate their affair.
When the conniving Rodolphe Boulanger arrives in town, however, he recognizes the dissolute Emma as easy prey, luring her into his affections with slick—and obviously well-honed—acts of seduction. But when a marriage promise (and escape plan) goes awry, Emma finds herself a ruined woman, and she quickly runs into the arms of another man. At the same time, she naïvely purchases more and more gifts for her lovers from the local pharmacy, and the steadily increasing bill threatens her demise. "The Noose Tightens," Dick alerts us in one of the none-too-subtle scene titles.
And subtlety is certainly not de rigueur in this moody production. Characters proclaim their fervent emotion, and then sing about it—at often exhausting length. The stormy, cascading, and often beautiful melodies ebb and flow to reflect emotional grandiosity, but the score ultimately trickles out like one continuous vamp (seamlessly played by talented music director Russell Stern, who sits elegantly behind the onstage piano). Melodies percolate but never coalesce into any thrilling focus; instead of channeling emotion with moving precision, the music diffuses rapture into confusion.
As rendered here, the plot itself is similarly uneven, and the action lurches between lengthy, confessional ballads and clipped, choppy mini-scenes. One particularly baffling series of scenes chronicles Leon's unrequited lust for Emma as he encounters her and her husband in various scenarios. Although the sudden blackouts and fragments are obviously meant to chart Leon's romantic frustration, these structurally problematic devices do little to probe the depths of this odd romantic triangle. Instead, these strange scenes become unwittingly comic and rather ridiculous. In fact, they inspired unsolicited laughter from the audience on the night I attended.
Still, there is much that is rich in this production, primarily in the cast's excellent vocals. Nicholas Mongiardo-Cooper and Christopher Vettel offer exceptionally well-sung turns as Dr. Bovary and Boulanger, respectively, and Steven Patterson turns in a delightfully nuanced performance as the shrewd and conniving pharmacist Homais.
In the title role, Lauren Hauser showcases prodigious coloratura tones and a lovely, fragile presence, but her character's madness never reaches an appropriately feverish pitch. In her first big aria (gloriously operatic in tone, if not in dramatic delivery), she complains of the trials of her domestic duties, but as it concludes she weakly pummels a chair—a feeble action that fails to convey her ostensibly harrowed state of mind.
The production looks fantastic, and the designers have surrounded the cast with an appropriately lavish environment to reflect the domestic sphere of 1890s provincial France. Brian Garber's elegant set features walls painted in rich scarlet hues that match the fiery plot, and Noah Marin's costumes capture the dapper style of the Bovarys' social set.
Meghann Babo also contributes exquisite vocals as the Bovarys' servant Felicite, but as she sings the glorious ballad "Rain on the River," director Falk perplexingly keeps the actress hidden in the offstage shadows. It's this misuse of resources and continually misguided focus that doom much of this musical Madame Bovary. Here, with a character as audacious and controversial as any in the theatrical canon (if not more so), Emma Bovary's fire is extinguished in a swirl of tempestuous melody.