Sarah Plain and Tall
nytheatre.com review by Jo Ann Rosen
March 22, 2006
The professionals behind the musical Sarah Plain and Tall should be very happy, very happy indeed, because the cast of this spunky revival at the Lucille Lortel is filled with heart, generosity, and enthusiasm. Under the skillful direction of Joe Calarco, themes such as love, rejection, homesickness, and insecurity are tackled head-on without pandering to the young audience. In a theatre filled with children of all ages, there was barely a peep throughout. Why? Because, this is a show worth writing home about.
The lights rise on Anna, the pre-teen daughter of Jacob, a Kansas farmer who lost his wife during the birth of their son about nine years earlier. As lady of the house, Anna prepares breakfast, kneads the daily bread, and prods her optimistic yet dreamy brother Caleb into tackling his chores. Their needs are clear. Anna misses her mother and resents her brother. Caleb needs a mother, and Jacob still mourns his wife. Enter Matthew, a neighbor, who suggests Jacob place an ad in the paper for a mail-order bride. The ad catches the eye of Maggie in Maine, who is recently married and saddled with her husband’s outspoken sister—Sarah, both plain and tall, and with no prospects for a husband of her own. Seeing this as an opportunity to get Sarah out of her house, Maggie cajoles Sarah into answering the ad, setting the events in motion.
Kate Wetherhead wastes no time bringing Anna to life. She commands the stage with the first musical number, “Lady of the House,” creating a formidable spitfire of a character. She instills Anna with a vibrant sense of purpose, under which lies a layer of sadness and longing. Wetherhead stops the show when she hurls an honest yet bitter accusation at Caleb, and takes the unendurable silence that ensues, allowing the audience to react—and it does: with gasps, tears, disbelief. Anna may be lady of the house, but she is still a child, albeit a child without a childhood.
Gene Biscontini’s Caleb is all boy. He is not yet beaten by daily chores, and he is wide with wonder at the day to day. He alone is completely open to Sarah and all her peculiarities and Biscontini makes this behavior not only understandable but welcome. He brings light into the home and the touch of humor that distinguishes a house with children. He introduces the "Law of Kissing" as if he were an authority. His solo “Don’t Miss the Sea” demonstrates the sophisticated insight and empathy of which children are capable.
Jacob is a dour character and Herndon Lackey delivers the dark cloud that hangs above his character’s head. His craggy face and lumbering walk make him nearly unapproachable, and are ideal preparation for the relief we feel when he finally smiles at the end. He is perfect for the part.
And then there is Sarah. Tall, tall, plain, plain Sarah. Becca Ayers embraces this role and accepts the traits as if they were her own. She is slow to win Anna’s heart, making it all the more gratifying once she does. Ayers is both secure in the awkward skin of Sarah and emboldened by her character’s idiosyncrasies. It is as if by each successive rejection, she becomes more confident of her identity. When Jacob says, “You are impatient, impetuous, and peculiar,” Sarah doesn’t shrivel. Rather, she agrees. Thoughtfully, Jacob realizes that he actually likes those traits in her, too.
Two more actors round out the marvelous cast. Kenneth Boys ably doubles as the neighbor Matthew and Sarah’s brother, William—the first confident and open and the second henpecked and weak; Heather Ayers breathes vitality into both Estelle, Matthew’s beautiful mail-order bride, and Maggie, the arrogant, domineering sister-in-law who pushes Sarah out of the house. Although we know the ending before it comes, Julia Jordan, who wrote the book, gives the cast solid material and the cast never takes the easy way out. We are with the characters as they struggle from loneliness to a sense of community, never losing their individuality along the way.
The lyrics, by Nell Benjamin, do a good job of propelling the story forward, covering the nuance of the journey on stage. “Letters” introduces hope and the personal stakes for the characters. In “Sixty Cents” we understand Jacob’s misgivings and his last minute demand to be reimbursed for the ad. In “Is It Me You Want to Kiss?” we know that Sarah will only stay if she is wanted for herself and not as a substitute for the woman who died earlier. Laurence O’Keefe’s tuneful music fills the stage and offers the characters ample room for expression. The live orchestra, conducted by Jono Mainelli, assures this.
Michael Fagin’s simple farmhouse set consists of a table and stools and four movable windows on tracks. A shuttered window with a ladder provides views outside. Only Fagin’s interpretation of hay left me wondering, although it made for interesting movement on stage. Credit Chris Lee with the brilliant red opening sunrise. It commands attention. Anne Kennedy’s costumes complement the sentiments on stage: a gray drab sack of a dress for Anna and a bold golden travel ensemble for Sarah that threatened to shriek “Out of Place”, but didn’t. Like everything else in Sarah Plain and Tall, it works beautifully.