Review: Marble City Opera’s ‘Sweets By Kate’ Charms–Devilishly

One of the many engaging features of Marble City Opera has been its willingness and courage to present in a wide range of alternative performance spaces—from refurbished stages to coffee shop backrooms to church naves. Their most recent locations were two vastly different ones, albeit with the same work: the lecture/viewing hall at the Knoxville Museum of Art and the Gay Street storefront space recently taken by Sugar Mama’s Bakery. The work was Sweets by Kate by Griffin Candey (libretto by Thom Miller) in its premiere professional performances.

The plot of Sweets By Kate is an intriguing blend of reality and fantasy, and one that has intriguing production challenges as well. A widower and current owner of his late wife’s sweet shop, Joe Brigmann, dies under seemingly natural circumstances. Upon his death, his estranged daughter, Elizabeth, and her partner, Kate, return to the 1950s small town to run the business. The superficial happiness of the iconic 1950s time period barely masks the underlying disapproval of the townspeople. In other words, where there’s hypocrisy, insidious evil can’t be far behind.

The audience knows, however, that Joe’s death is anything but natural. Unbeknownst to Joe, his wife had sold her soul to the Devil in return for success with the sweet shop. Cheated out of his win by her death, the devil, in the form of the local grocer Carl Silverton, poisons Joe in order to take over the shop and expand his territory in the town. The arrival of Elizabeth and Kate force him to take alternative measures as the pair make a go of the shop amidst the watchful eye of the townspeople.

Candey’s work, scored for string quartet and piano, has a charming and elaborate complexity, full of ironic facets and interesting textures in a similar musically descriptive vein as Benjamin Britten’s Albert Herring. In the performance I viewed at the KMA, that interesting density often overpowered some of the singers, usually in their lower registers. This seemed, however, more a factor of the acoustics and arrangement of the performance space than of the excellent cast or instrumental ensemble under the direction of Peter Leonard. Scott Skiba was the stage director challenged with conveying the conflict of seriousness and black comedy in a small 1950s town, all accomplished with minimal resources.

Leading the cast in the roles of Elizabeth and Kate were Brooke Larimer and Kathryn Frady. Each made top use of the contrasting nature of the characters—Elizabeth’s grim pragmatism and Kate’s positive brightness—to sell their relationship. Brandon Evans was excellent, both vocally and dramatically, as Carl Silverton. His stature commanded attention and his voice gave the role a delightful devilishness—and with a crisp clarity.

Michael Gonzalez was wonderfully nerdy as Doofey MacLaran, a local youth hired by Elizabeth and Kate to work in the shop. The object of Doofey’s affection was Denise portrayed by one of UT Opera’s best actor-singers, a poodle-skirted Noelle Harb. Another of UT Opera’s best, Ryan Colbert, took the role of the pivotal townsperson, Mrs. Webster. Jonathan Ten Brink appeared as the unfortunate Joe Brigmann.

Filling out the solid cast of townspeople were Maxwell Porterfield, Maggie Ramsey, Alexandra Engle, Lindsey Helton (in the unusual role of a patient 1940s console radio), Breyon Ewing, Taylor Colton Stone, Maurice Hendricks, and D.C. Miles.

Once again, Marble City Opera has taken a challenge and filled a niche in Knoxville’s art and music scene. As their third season comes to an end, one certainly looks forward to what’s next for this absolutely essential organization.