The respect paid to this community of women — successful in business, true to their traditions, open to outsiders — is of course admirable. Yet when the black characters are universally uplifting and noble, when their conflicts do not rise above June’s rejection of a suitor’s hand some 24 times, the intended beneficiaries of all this admiration are at the same time drained of drama. A sister who commits suicide in the novel does not do so here.
Even their Mariolatry is appropriated; the emotional high point of the musical comes only when Lily, whose mother died under mysterious circumstances, approaches the driftwood Madonna, finally willing to “let her in.”
Leaving aside questions of moral scale, I find conversion a vague climax; it’s a fundamentally invisible experience. Ms. Teeter, lovely as Lily, isn’t given lines to explain what she’s going through; nor do we get to hear her work through the moment in solo song, achieving the kind of interiority prose handles so well.
The absence of context is not ameliorated by Mr. Gold’s staging, which seems to scrape away all novelistic trappings as if they were ostentatious. (Mimi Lien’s set design, almost entirely abstract except for that stunning icon, resembles an Anthropologie store.) As a result, we usually have no idea where we are, and major plot points are too often obscured. Even the incident that gets Rosaleen in trouble in the first place is incomprehensible without reading the script.
I am usually a big fan of Mr. Gold. He helped make an unlikely hit out of “Fun Home,” and his work with Annie Baker is exemplary. (I even admired his radically demythologized version of “The Glass Menagerie.”) Ms. Nottage’s plays “Ruined” and “Intimate Apparel” are two of my favorites. So I have to ask myself what they see in their musical that I’m not seeing.
What I think they see is the novel itself, surrounding and enriching the stage experience like an aura.
That’s of no use to those who haven’t read it. I wish I had, because one of the great things about doorstop books is that, aside from their climaxes, they have plenty of downtime. That’s when characters attain depth, when themes get woven, when the roads toward big collisions (and away from them, too) get patiently paved.