If you remember Nathaniel Hawthorne’s bleak novel, “The Scarlet Letter,” from your high school literature class, you probably didn’t imagine it arranged as a musical. But Theatre Harrisburg delivers a compelling musical rendition that both showcases the cast’s lyrical and acting talents while capturing the severity of Puritanical morality.
Theatre Harrisburg’s Executive Director Stosh Snyder noted the “historic occasion–the first time “The Scarlet Letter” has been done as a full-scale, two-act musical production in the U.S.”
According to co-writer Dan Koloski, who saw this rendition for the first time opening night, this musical was first produced in Scotland from 1996 to 2001.
“It’s a joy to see people we don’t know interpreting, bringing this to life,” he said.
The stage’s setting has a life of its own, a rustic simplicity reminiscent of a mystical fairy tale. On the left are the deep woods, green and gray, punctuated by roses red—the symbolic color of sin. On the right are simple chambers grimly lit with blue light. Center stage is an impressionistic backdrop of a town behind a public platform used for hanging and shaming in colonial Massachusetts in 1642.
On this platform, we first meet scorned citizen Hester Prynne (Christine Salazar), holding her infant. Her husband was believed to be lost at sea for over a year, but he surprises Prynne by moving to the colony posing as physician Roger Chillingworth (George H. Diehl). After refusing to name her infant’s father, Prynne is sentenced to wear a scarlet “A” on her monochrome Pilgrim dress as a shameful symbol of her adultery.
Throughout the production, Salazar sincerely expresses Prynne’s inner anguish with glints of joy through her melancholy singing to her daughter Pearl.
Pearl, clad in red and white—sinful innocence—skips around, singing sweetly against a discordant melody coming from the pit orchestra. The gritty, raw music called attention to itself by using obscure percussion instruments in a John Cage-like sequence. Oscillating between dramatic, playful and jarring, the score highlights the juxtaposition of characters strong and weak, the prey of unrelenting judgment.
With Pearl’s parentage secret guarded, Prynne’s quiet existence angers the gossiping townspeople, who endeavor to deliver her daughter to a Christian family. More villains than friends lurk in the colony for Prynne.
Instead of ministering to Prynne, the spineless Reverend Dimmesdale (Tony Barber) shuns her, contrasting sharply with Prynne’s tenacity. Dimmesdale may be weak in character, but Barber’s singing skills are strong, hitting soprano-like notes.
Chillingworth proves to be an even more sinister villain, looming as a pretend friend to the colony, but instead a tyrant with vengeful intentions. Diehl and Salazar ignited the charged dynamic between Chillingworth and Prynne.
When the audience feels sympathy for Prynne in the face of having her child ripped from her, the imposition of morality itself becomes a villain. And another villain is outed when the audience learns who Pearl’s father is.
Together, the cast harmonized in a range of tones that carried through in perfect reverberation, the kind of music that penetrates the skin like a seasoned church choir.
When Director Kristi Ondo workshopped this drama, she provided the framework, allowing the actors the latitude to develop their own interpretations of the characters.
“They need to be part of creating the characters or else it will fall flat,” she said. “It’s a collaborative effort, a vision we work from together.”
Ondo also had the unique opportunity to work with the writers. She knew co-writer Stacey Mancine Koloski from their time together at Susquehanna University.
“This [project] was our courtship,” Dan Koloski said of his co-writer/wife. “This is what we did back in those days for fun.”
Writing a musical about adultery with your life partner? Not the most romantic topic. But all the beguiling elements the writers wove together made the foundation for an enthralling play. Combine that with a surprising score brought to fruition by some of Harrisburg’s most talented dramatic musicians and actors, and you have a can’t-miss powerhouse of a play.
“The Scarlet Letter” runs through Feb. 2 at Theatre Harrisburg, Krevsky Center, 513 Hurlock St., Harrisburg. For more information and tickets, call 717-214-2787 (ARTS) or visit their website.