"Trouble in Tahiti," this season's lunchtime show from the Shaw Festival, is a tasty trifle that will neither weigh you down nor fill you up.
A one-act opera with music and libretto by a young Leonard Bernstein, it is a piece largely of its time: mid-20th century, middle class, middle level in concept and resolution. If "West Side Story" is a masterpiece, consider this a Bernstein sketchbook in which he tries out styles to see what fits.
However, this production doesn't play like a practice run. Its execution is of a level both deeper and higher than might be expected, with captivating performances by Elodie Gillett and Mark Uhre, in the roles of the troubled married couple Dinah and Sam.
The opera is contemporary with when it was written, the early 1950s, when post-war America had left behind conflict in Europe and Depression at home in favor of living the dream of little white houses, good jobs, televisions, golf and four-burner stoves.
Sam and Dinah have the dream, she a housewife and mother, he a businessman respected by his peers, and they have Bernstein's small nightmare, bickering over breakfast, always at odds while dancing around honest anger. Sam escapes to the gym and his handball buddies; Dinah finds comfort through therapy -- rather new at the time -- and at movie matinees. Anything to fill the emptiness where her marriage should be.
They are not oblivious to their troubles -- "There are things to be discussed," sings Sam. "There certainly are," Dinah answers.
But, while they say they want to break down the wall, and stop their brawling, something always gets in the way. In suburban America, it seems, truth can be a very scary thing, so our young former and wish-they-were-again lovers talk and sing about it, but can never seem to share it.
The jazzy show, with four-piece band on stage and a nine-member chorus (tripled from Bernstein's original three), takes up a mere 45 minutes -- more a scenario than operatic arc -- and gives the sense that the composer was relying on audience input to fill in the backstory of his young couple.
Gillett does much of that herself with her finely etched, almost brittle performance as Dinah. No big-stage belter, her voice instead embodies the fragility of the young woman striving to understand why happiness has vanished from her life. A handsome husband, healthy son, and yes, a little white house -- there must be something more, perhaps the magic of the movies, or that lovely garden of which she sings -- but it eludes her.
Sam, on the other hand, is all forward motion and extroverted energy. Problems at home -- they should be able to deal with those like problems in the office or at the ball court, directly, expeditiously -- impersonally. His star turn at the gym with the guys is a comic reflection of that style.
Still, from their softly lit opening slow dance to the helplessness both show over their lost romance, this is a story that refuses to believe all is lost.
Sung in English, of course, the lyrics nevertheless are not always easy to follow from the seats of the Court House Theatre. The larger meanings are there, of course, but for those planning to sit in on this small domestic drama, it may pay to be familiar with the show and its pretty but not especially memorable songs before you go.
That leaves you open to appreciating the performances themselves -- relishing their haunting sweetness and, like Sam and Dinah, hoping for the best.
"Trouble in Tahiti"
2 1/2 stars (out of 4)
WHEN: Showtime 11:30 a.m., through Oct. 7
WHERE: Court House Theatre, 26 Queen St., Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont.
INFO: 800-511-7429 www.shawfest.com