Bernstein’s “Mass” gets a rare but welcome revival at Northwestern

Fri Nov 13, 2009 at 5:26 pm

By Bryant Manning

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Leonard Benstein’s Mass was performed at Northwestern University’s Cahn Auditorium in Evanston Thursday night.

To this day there is no definitive categorical home for Leonard Bernstein’s 1971 Mass. Is it schlocky musical theater or a masterly update on timeless religious themes? Vietnam-era zeitgeist or something longer lasting? It is, indeed, an ambitiously hodge-podge opus with undeniable moments of surpassing beauty abutting passages of hokum and camp.

 In a letter to critic Peter G. Davis, Bernstein himself hinted that he wasn’t even sure what he had created. “I still don’t quite know where its home should be. Is it the Vienna State Opera or a high-school auditorium?”

On a chilly Thursday evening, it was Cahn Auditorium on the campus of Northwestern University. A lively array of talented college students excelled under the veteran guidance of director Dominic Missimi, whose experience with the work stretches back three decades.

Perhaps it’s fitting that a gifted university troupe would do justice to Bernstein’s fanciful and rebellious notions about politics, god and secularism. Yet Bernstein’s platitudinous liberal messages felt toned down in favor of strictly pure and thrilling musical theater.

It helped that these five productions feature revised lyrics from the original librettist Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked), who consulted closely with Jamie Bernstein, the legend’s daughter. (Schwartz is on campus this week to mentor the students.) Quality singers were in abundance, namely the colorfully-clad Red Rose Children’s Choir and a particularly raunchy band of street singers.

At the heart of Mass Thursday night was senior theater major Andrew Howard, who portrayed the celebrant with a near perfect papal glow. Disillusioned congregants regularly crowded in on him (“Do you believe in anything that has to do with me?” they hound him), but Howard convincingly rose above the fray to a priestly grandeur and calm. His penultimate act mad scene (Things Get Broken) was fraught with nervous energy without any braying touches of Broadway emotionalism. Andrew Howard is an actor to keep tabs on.

He was served well by a punchy Ryan T. Nelson-led orchestra, bifurcated in the pit and unobtrusively at the back of the stage. Scaffolding dressed the stage on three sides, giving easy access to the profusion of mercurial acts that come and go in Lenny’s musical cornucopia. The ambiguous interior made comfortable homes for either a raucous marching band or street singers snapping out a tune in the vein of Grease. Nothing seemed hokey in these students’ hands who conversed at ease in these popular and classical vernaculars.

The amped up acoustics and electrical devices offered a little more reverb than necessary, but this lively swarm of sound gave a jolt of urgency to what is usually a plodding religious ceremony. At only 100 minutes, this Mass seemed to quicken as it moved to toward its eventual dissolution.

Notable individual efforts included Ben Hoffman’s cool rendition of God Said and boy soprano Henry Griffin’s sweet trebled offering in the work’s closing Secret Songs. The balletic liturgical dancers, garbed in monkish brown robes, were splendid. String work might have lacked polish and even correct pitch, but this should be corrected for the remaining four performances.

Sadly, Missimi, a Northwestern professor by day, is punching the clock one last time at the end of this academic year. But he can ride off into retirement knowing he’s got a production and cast to be proud of.

Leonard Bernstein’s  Mass will be repeated at Cahn Auditorium 8 p.m,. Friday, 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday.

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