Review: Marble City Opera’s ‘Ghosts of Crosstown’

Already in its short existence, Knoxville’s chamber opera company, Marble City Opera, has sought to transport us to western barrooms, garden parties, Parisian garrets, and New York City apartments. Last evening, though, the destination was the old vacant, art deco Sears Crosstown Building in Memphis, a journey that depended on the audience looking past the kitschy Halloween decorations of the venue, Scruffy City Hall, and imagining an environment completely different.

SearsCrosstownTheir vehicle on this journey was Ghosts of Crosstown, a cycle of five short operas created at Opera Memphis with librettos by Memphis playwright Jerre Dye, that delve into the lives of those that worked in or frequented that building at some point in its life. Marble City’s performance, directed by MCO artistic director Kathryn Frady Marvel, took three of the five pieces along with two of the accompanying monologues. The included works were Mitch and the Moon (music by Jack Perla), sung by Lindsay Cunningham; Abandoned (music by Kamran Ince) sung by Julie Bélanger Roy; and Moving Up in the World (music by Zach Redler), sung by Brandon Gibson. The two monologues were “Sarah Jane,” performed by Maggie Ramsey, and “Catalogue Gurl,” performed by Michael Gonzales.

As has been the case in all of MCO’s productions, the musical performances (Brandon Coffer, music director and pianist) were impressive and strong. In some cases, however, I struggled to understand the lyrics. Had I not been somewhat familiar with the gist of each piece, I might have been left to wander Crosstown’s floors in the dark, searching for the answer.

In Abandoned, the character was the building itself anguishing over its status, a structure made solid and hauntingly believable by Bélanger Roy’s range, vocal strength, and dramatic ability.

In Moving Up in the World, Gibson’s beautifully resonant bass-baritone and natural stage presence brought life to an elevator operator in the building dealing with the downsides of life, yet with the ever presence of hope.

In Mitch and the Moon, Cunningham’s troubled teenager wanders through the abandoned building, comparing the unwanted junk and disused space to her own existence.

The two monologues by Ramsey and Gonzales were stories well-told delivered with energy and optimism, welcome contrasts to the three cerebral musical explorations.

Downtown Knoxville’s performance venues have been a continuing subject of mine, particularly the lack of venues for more intimate theatrical productions such as those undertaken by MCO. My one continuing wish for Marvel and MCO is that their hard work be rewarded, somehow, with such a space that does justice to their essential endeavor and allows them the technical support they so richly deserve.

MCO’s next production is Menotti’s Amahl and the Night Visitors, staged at St. John’s cathedral downtown, on December 4 and 6. Those performances are FREE.