"The musical is unspeakably glorious," says Lillian Groag, director and author of the first new translation of the play in fifty years, currently at the Missouri Repertory Theatre. "But you always want to go back to the original," she says. "The play is performed every other day in Europe."
After seeing Groag's version, we understand why. Initially clumsy, this adaptation unfolds like a lyrical tale told around a midnight fire.
Images of old Budapest hit our eyes before the show even begins. The screen rises to reveal a wooded park a few steps from a popular carousel. Judging by Victor En Yu Tan's superb lighting (which keeps getting better throughout the show), it is probably around dusk when Julie (Molly Jo McGuire) and Marie (Jenny McKnight) come tearing down the sloped stone walkway that bisects the set.
They're servants to a rich family, and they've been up to something naughty. The carousel owner (Kandis Chappell) begins accusing the girls of having been too familiar with her barker, the dashing and randy Liliom (David DeSantos). But it seems that Liliom has merely been up to old tricks -- playing with the vulnerable affections of young women to make them appear guilty.
Julie eventually falls for his game and is soon carrying his child. Back at the crumbling quarters that she shares with a bossy photographer (Merle Moores) and her lap-dog son (Rusty Sneary), she confides in her female friends not only that Liliom isn't working (he's been fired from the carousel) but also that he hits her. He's not apologetic; he blames Julie for causing him to resort to violence. And he's planning more mayhem: the robbery of a businessman (Mark Robbins) at the train station that night. He and a grimy cohort, Ficsur (Larry Paulsen), are planning to kill the guy and swipe his bankroll.
When their potential victim turns the tables on them and Liliom is cornered (and here comes a bit of a plot spoiler, so beware), he decides suicide is his only way out. As the barker's life slowly slips away, Tan's scarlet night gradually becomes a calming blue. As bad as Liliom's life has been, heaven itself seems to be lighting his ascent.
The best design element is yet to come. Once Liliom is gone, he's stuck in something like purgatory, overseen by a celestial chief of police (Gary Neal Johnson). Set designer Nayna Ramey proposes that this place -- neither heaven nor hell -- might be at once bitterly cold yet suspended over unforgiving heat. The stone walkway from earlier in the show breaks into four parts like a massive ice floe; even its edges seem to be bearing icicles. At the center, though, is a cauldron of fire. Liliom's task, which he chooses to accept, is to spend 16 years in hell burning away his badness. Once his time is served, he'll have the chance to return home for a day to correct some of the evil he left behind. Without giving away yet another plot point, let it be said that he does a smashing job, resulting in a theatrically magical moment that might have been overseen by George Lucas' Industrial Light and Magic.
Groag's handling of the material is quite assured. The show could tumble away from her and become overly saccharine. It never does, though; Liliom's temper and idleness are presented at face value, and there's even a bit of charm in him, even though he's a batterer. What Groag might take another swipe at is the exposition-heavy first act. When Chappell's carousel owner insults the two girls at the opening of the show, for example, she begins repeating herself. The girls are not only "sluts" but also "whores," "trash," "tramps" and "kitchen skivvies." We get the point.
The acting is mostly first-rate, including Tom Beyer in a fully realized yet brief comic performance as Marie's fiancé and Emily Peterson as Liliom and Julie's daughter. Gary Neal Johnson is fine as the chief of police, but I liked him even more as the wood carver who has eyes for Julie. Even with one scene and hardly more lines, he communicates everything about unrequited love. If there's a weak link among the cast, it's McGuire, who is too wooden and reined in to make the audience invest much in Julie. When the guy who has hit her elicits more compassion, there is probably another way to play it.