By Janelle Gelfand
The Cincinnati Enquirer
May in Cincinnati is perhaps the best time to put on a musical pageant about Noah and the flood. The skies cleared Sunday for the May Festival's first performance of Benjamin Britten's Noah's Flood in Covington's Cathedral Basilica of the Assumption - and what a production it was.
Fanfares from the balcony announced the procession of "animals" down the center aisle, a whimsical menagerie of puppet animals on poles, bird kites, squeaky mice, balloon figures and a large green paper horse. The coup de theatre occurred when the "ark," its passengers and the huge sail hoisted behind them swayed in the "storm," while umbrellas popped up against the rising waters (a rippling blue banner).
The production, staged by Cincinnati Playhouse in the Park's Ed Stern, choreographed by Linda Reiff and conducted by James Conlon, was as charming visually as it was musically.
Britten found his inspiration in a cycle of 24 mystery plays dating from the 14th century and popular in Chester, England. Stern, with designer Jay Depenbrock and Rebecca Senske (costumes), carried out the medieval theme imaginatively, culminating in a 20-foot long "rainbow" on 12-foot poles.
Except for three adult protagonists and several members of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the entire cast was children. The organizers expertly managed the large numbers, which included members of the School for Creative and Performing Arts Choruses, the Starling Chamber Orchestra, members of the Cincinnati Symphony Youth Orchestra and May Festival Youth Chorus, the Walnut Hills High School Percussion Ensemble and Canticle Bells from Crestview Presbyterian Church.
God (deep-voiced actor Jeffrey Thompson) spoke on high from the rear organ loft, and Noah (bass-baritone John Cheek) strode down the aisle to center stage, where he presided grandly. Contralto Sheila Nadler as Noah's wife was winning, as she refused to budge from her gossipy friends (10 young women).
Six impressive young singers (wearing body mikes on their robes) took the roles of Noah's sons and their wives: Jeremy Williams, Erin Childs, Zachary Kazior, Megan Aylward, Stacy Erin Sands and Jennifer Noel.
Even the audience got in the act, singing three hymns. Conlon whipped up his forces energetically, and the result clearly delighted the sold-out crowd of 660.
The program opened with the May Festival Youth Chorus and brass players from the Youth Orchestra in a beautifully prepared account of Purcell's Funeral Music for Queen Mary, led by James Bagwell. The singers projected fresh, mellifluous voices, and the brass made focused contributions.
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