Theater Review: Horizons of Gold

by Edward D. Hyde

More than 300 people packed into Miami Hamilton’s Parrish Auditorium last night to see the premiere of Horizons of Gold, a bold new musical about loss and love in the Great Depression.

HOG cast
Cast of Horizons of Gold

Remaining shows are tonight at 7:00, Sunday afternoon at 3:00, evenings (7:00) next Thursday through Saturday (September 19th-21st), 2:00 matinee Saturday the 21st, and 3:00 matinee Sunday the 22nd.  Tickets are $13 each (discounts available).  The show weighs in at a hefty three hours (including one 15-minute intermission).  All performances are at this building (map, directions) in Hamilton, Ohio.  Samples of the music, plot synopsiscast list, and backstage photos are available on the official Web site.

3 lights

3 out of 3 lights: With beautiful singing, believable characters, and a truly moving story, this play is Recommended.  A cast of more than 60, accompanied by a live 20-piece orchestra, performs more than 20 original songs.  While the story is full of sorrow, it also manages to incorporate humor, and is occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.

1 finger

1 out of 3 fingers for impropriety

Horizons of Gold is deliberately wholesome.  In wedding scenes, at the point where the bridegroom traditionally “may kiss the bride”, bridegrooms kiss their brides on the cheek or forehead.  At one point, when a woman quotes the famous “Frankly my dear” line from the end of Gone with the Wind, she is cut off (in “Shut your mouth” fashion) before she can say the last word.  When a man and a woman end up alone together after dark, the play makes it clear that (as in its source material) nothing happens.  (The characters actually sleep on opposite sides of the stage, lest there be any doubt.)

Yet an older woman who ought to know better advised the young woman to get herself into that situation in the first place.  Arguably owing to too-literal devotion to its source material, the play insisted on retaining this awkward nighttime encounter, even though it’s not clear either why it’s necessary or why it would be permitted when the story is translated into 1930s American culture.  The creators make the best of it, acknowledging the incongruity with humor—the young woman says, You’re telling me I should sneak into a strange man’s bedroom at night? and the older woman says, Why, what’s wrong with that?—but it seems like the equivalent of the play smiling and shrugging and saying, This is the source material I’ve got, I’m stuck with it.

The closest it comes otherwise, one time a man gets a little rude in the course of coming on to a woman, but it’s pretty tame compared to what’s in the culture out there these days.  Even with it, the play would get zero fingers, but the bedroom device pushes it into one-finger category.

On the other hand, also in the audience were a priest and a whole passel of nuns in full habit.  If it’s pure enough for their consumption, arguably it ought to be good enough for anyone.

3 female signs

3 out of 3 female signs for strong female character development

Some feminists recommend the “Bechdel rule” or “Bechdel test” for evaluating movies (and presumably other fictional works):  To pass, a work must have at least two female characters, and they must talk with each other about something other than a man.  This play passes that test; while the men in their lives are certainly very important to them—and in a sense, the story ultimately revolves around one of those men—the main characters are a pair of women; much of the time, they’re the ones on stage, whether they’re talking about the men close to them or not.

The play is not a feminist polemic; it is a story, and this story matter-of-factly happens to be about two women.  If you weren’t looking for it, it might not occur to you to remark on it.  In this, the play fairly resembles its source material:  At risk of spoiling parts of the story, Horizons of Gold is based on the book of Ruth.  Indeed, because it is a full-length play, Horizons of Gold develops the characters of Margaret and Rose (Naomi and Ruth) significantly more than the book does, and it makes them much more prominent relative to the pivotal male character.

The play also features a song in which a male chorus declare that land is more important to them than women, and women chime in with a rebuttal (“Where would you be without a woman?”).  In it, the men’s impulse can be read as an excessive focus on work, where women bring an important sense of perspective and a reminder that there is more to life, notably including raising a family.  At the same time, the women are also an important part of the work; in the pre-urban farm economy, there’s plenty of manual labor to go around.

Ideas

Recurrent themes in Horizons of Gold include loss, the desire for belonging and a home, and, surprisingly, prejudice.  Disapproving of looking down on the stranger or foreigner in our midst is seemingly one of the few things that Americans can still agree on, and the play trades on that, repeatedly but in good taste and good humor calling out characters’ prejudice against Mexicans and “Okies”.

The play does not hesitate to touch on hard issues and hard questions; right out of the gate, it implicitly raises the question of unanswered prayers:  People suffered terrible loss during the Great Depression; we see a character praying to God for rain, but no rain comes.  To its credit, the play makes no attempt to give pat or “easy” answers.  If people are looking for rational arguments, there are answers for such questions, but Horizons of Gold is above all a story.  Perhaps, as may be in our own lives, the story even is the answer:  The saga that (spoiler alert) began with so much loss ends in joy; you might say that God has made everything right, as Margaret prayed he would at the beginning of the story.

Other issues that make it into the play include the refusal to accept government handouts even in great need (necessarily proud and sinful, or noble, even required?); FDR’s make-work programs and other efforts to alleviate the Depression (was he the man of the hour, or did government interventions make the Depression worse?); immigration law (does love compel lenience, or does having a country entail enforcing a border?)—I could wish that the play had addressed these and others more fully, but one play can’t do everything, and again, it’s not a treatise; it’s a richly imagined story about the particular experiences of particular people.

Faith

This is unmistakably a Christian work of art—not pugnaciously, but matter-of-factly.  It incorporates prayer, church, and mentions of God naturally, as a normal part of life for the characters; think of it as just like a mainstream secular musical, but if the characters and creators were all Christians.  One point of the developing relationship between John Bollen and Rose is when he quotes, “Those who sow in tears shall reap in joy,” and she recognizes it as Psalm 126:5 (a little like in Guys and Dolls).  The chorus makes a whole recurring song out of James 1:2 (“count it all joy when you fall into various trials”).  Etc.

Adaptation

The author, Elizabeth Kenniv, does a good job of expanding the short book of Ruth into a full-length play, not just embellishing details but creating a rich new story in its own right, including memorable new characters.  At times the story seems oddly bound to the details of the original book of the Bible—John Bollen seems to keep the Old Testament Jewish practice of leaving the corners of fields unharvested (for the poor to help themselves), though the practice was presumably alien to 1930s Kansas; there is the bedroom scene, mentioned above—but the play is perhaps best understood as a stylized form, somewhere between the simplified story presented in the Bible and a full-realism enactment.  Perhaps the creators have a great respect and affection for the original biblical story, and it would not occur to them to change the familiar beloved plot devices for the sake of a dry historical accuracy.  (Perhaps coming up with a credible replacement for them that fits that place in the story just right is really hard.)

Technical

It’s a good musical, proud heir to the Broadway tradition (“An inherently American art form”, as the program notes describe it).  The directors manage to bring together an impressively intergenerational cast, from kindergartners in the “children’s ensemble” (who really participated in some of the dancing) to older persons in significant roles.

The music is good, with some beautiful vocal harmonies.  Some of the songs sounded a little like something out of a Disney movie—and indeed, it turns out that one of the composers, Jeff Smith, as the program explains, “is a prolific composer, arranger and producer with music that has been performed at . . . Disney World . . . and even Tokyo Disney.”

This production does unfortunately choose to mike the actors, one of whom couldn’t enunciate or make himself heard even with that help, which I suppose goes to show that there’s no substitute for properly training actors in speaking clearly and projecting in the first place.  The microphones were, meanwhile, attended by all the usual downsides.  An actor exhales sharply, and the blowing sound is amplified louder than his words.  Characters suddenly become much louder when they move closer to each other, as their lines are amplified by two mics instead of one.  Sometimes the sound swelled into a bellow of feedback; sometimes the mics cut out entirely.  I could swear I saw one girl pulling her mic away from her face at one point, as if trying to get away from it.

I thought, in their defense, that they might need the mics to be heard over the live orchestra, until I realized that the orchestra was miked, too.

That’s not to mention the question of whether the audience can suspend disbelief when everyone is walking around 1930s America with a headset microphone stuck to his face, like an operator at a call center.

Someone somewhere suggested that it’s a sign of weak writing or weak acting in a movie when the director feels the need to play music over dialogue.  Horizons of Gold employed this technique more than once.  I thought it actually worked well at least one of the times, but most of the time not.  At least one time I think the music was louder than the dialogue.

There is plenty of dancing, to which most of the actors know the steps.  Some of the actors stumbled over a couple of their lines.  This was the first night; probably some of these things will improve in subsequent performances.

But these are quibbles.  Despite some little imperfections, this original musical is well worth seeing.

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