We begin with a joyful ragtime, this fallback musical theater to tell black stories from the beginning of the 20th century.
But the sound is muffled, distorted. The party is elsewhere in the boarding house where our heroine, Esther, a shy and simple woman of 35, sits in her room sewing corsets and camisoles for socialites and prostitutes. She’s too serious and too ambitious to go down to the living room and hang out with the revelers.
The same goes for “Intimate Apparel”. In musicalizing Lynn Nottage’s piece of the same title, Ricky Ian Gordon, working with text by Nottage herself, wants more for Esther than a fast dance and a smooth tune. A woman so committed to betterment in a time that makes it nearly impossible deserves the most serious, ambitious musical treatment available — and gets it in Lincoln Center Theater’s knockout production, directed by Bartlett Sher, who opened at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater on Monday.
That the play was excellent at the start was no guarantee of a viable libretto. But thinking back to its 2004 premiere with the Roundabout Theater Company, starring Viola Davis as Esther, you can see that “Intimate Apparel” already had the ingredients for a powerful opera: spine, scope and poetry.
The vertebral column remains well articulated. The first scene quickly establishes that Esther (Kearstin Piper Brown) has the discipline and drive to make a career out of her work; with the savings she sews into the lining of her crazy comforter, she plans to one day open a beauty salon. The scene also establishes her pride, as she rejects last-ditch men who come to parties given by her landlady, Mrs. Dickson.
“Pride will leave you alone,” warns Mrs. Dickson (Adrienne Danrich).
We then meet two of her clients, whose lives contrastingly express the limits Esther hopes to escape. Mrs. Van Buren (Naomi Louisa O’Connell) has all the luxuries a privileged white woman could want, including the pink silk crepe de chine corset that Esther brings to her boudoir for a fitting. But Mrs. Van Buren, trained only to be the wife of a wealthy man, has no other choice when her husband loses interest.
Although poor and black, Mayme (Krysty Swann) is also at the mercy of men for her few luxuries – which, amusingly, include the same corset worn by Mrs. Van Buren. (“What she has, you want, / What you have, she wants,” Esther comments.) Instead of an absent husband, Mayme has clients who are often vile or violent, but she is closer of Mrs. Van Buren that either might like to think.
Esther’s friendship with women is more than professional but nonetheless circumscribed by class and race. (She never entered Mrs. Van Buren’s house through the front door and presumably never entered a brothel.) Her third professional friendship is even trickier. Mr. Marks (Arnold Livingston Geis) sells fabric on Orchard Street, saving the finest bolts for him. Although he is the only man to ever acknowledge and encourage his gift, he is literally untouchable: an Orthodox Jew.
But he’s not the only man to flirt with her. Esther is surprised – then, almost against her will, satisfied – to receive a letter from a Barbadian worker working on the Panama Canal. It would seem that George Armstrong (Justin Austin) is looking for a correspondent to counter, with fine words, the grime and the harshness of his craft. As Esther cannot read or write, she depends on Mrs. Dickson to tell her what George is saying; then on Mrs. Van Buren and Mayme to suitably forge Cyrano-like responses.
I won’t say more about the plot, except that at the end of Act I, Armstrong arrives in New York to marry Esther, who is wearing an exquisite dress made with fabric she bought from Mr. marks. If she is not what one would have expected from their correspondence, she realizes it little by little either. In Act II, we learn why.
Many pieces stitched together so tightly unravel completely as they stretch toward their crisis. No “Intimates”; with his eye on the big picture, he maintains both its integrity and tension to the end. Never skimping on detail – or, apparently, period research – Nottage forces audiences to keep in mind the greater pressures that push all of its characters into situations they must ultimately escape in more explosive ways.
I focus on the story because that’s usually the problem with opera, like books are with musicals. Nottage has cut perhaps half of his piece to make room for Gordon’s music and in doing so has made the smart but painful choice to keep only what is most closely suited to the plot and yet the most allusive. What we call poetry in the opera is not really the verse (although Nottage’s libretto is lightly rhymed where necessary) but the rich texture of all the redundancy.
The same goes for Gordon’s lush but complex score, which soars in the timeless atmosphere of lyrical writing (though he calls his hybrid works “operas”) while always grounding us in the specifics of time and character. In numbers like “Nobody Does It For Us,” the repeated choruses do more than pick up pretty melodies; they point out the similarities between Esther and Mayme, who sing it. And it’s not for nothing that George’s letter tunes from Panama are typically accompanied by a ghostly chorus of other men, as if to question their strange intimacy.
None of these smart choices would matter if the performers couldn’t take advantage of them, but Sher has assembled and tuned an exceptionally fine cast of opera singers who can actually perform. Brown is particularly heartbreaking as Esther – and surprisingly tireless in a huge role. (Chabrelle Williams takes over for the Wednesday and Sunday matinees.) His scenes with Geis as Mr. Marks are so sweet and rich in subtext that you don’t want them to end. But the six lead roles are terrific, and the ensemble of eight other singers perform dozens of roles, each quickly and perfectly etched.
Sher’s staging in the 299-seat Newhouse, on a simple Michael Yeargan turntable, is a marvel of constant motion that never feels busy, and Catherine Zuber’s costumes are exquisite even when simple. As always, it’s a joy to hear opera in an intimate space with acoustics so clear and natural — the sound is by Marc Salzberg — that captions projected onto the walls of the set are rarely needed. And if the voices have priority in Gordon’s orchestration for two pianos, the presence of the instruments, on platforms above the stage, is not accidental. Portrayed Friday Night by Nathaniel LaNasa and Brent Funderburk, they seemed to have their own dramatic roles, representing not only the need for emotional independence for women, especially black women, but also the 1905 world that forbids it.
In this sense, “Intimate Apparel” – even more as an opera than a play – is an act of rescue. When Esther says to Mrs. Van Buren, as they write the first letter to George, “My life doesn’t really deserve words”, she means it’s not special enough to be made permanent on paper. It is not true; as Nottage and now Gordon have shown, she is worth even more. She is worthy of a music that is finally worthy of her.
Through March 6 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre, Manhattan; lct.org. Duration: 2h30.