Review: In ‘Intimate Apparel,’ Letting the Seamstress Sing

We begin with joyful ragtime, that musical theater fallback for telling Black stories of the early 20th century.

But the sound is muffled, distorted. The party is elsewhere in the boardinghouse where our heroine, Esther, a shy, plain woman of 35, sits in her room sewing corsets and camisoles for socialites and streetwalkers. She is too serious and too ambitious to descend to the parlor and cakewalk with the revelers.

So is “Intimate Apparel.” In musicalizing Lynn Nottage’s play of the same title, Ricky Ian Gordon, working with a text by Nottage herself, wants more for Esther than a quick dance and a slick tune. A woman so bent on betterment in an age that makes it almost impossible deserves the most serious and ambitious musical treatment available — and gets it in the knockout Lincoln Center Theater production, directed by Bartlett Sher, that opened at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater on Monday.

That the play was excellent to begin with was no guarantee of a viable libretto. But looking back on its 2004 Roundabout Theater Company premiere, starring Viola Davis as Esther, you can see that “Intimate Apparel” already had the necessary ingredients for a powerful opera: spine, scope and poetry.

The spine remains neatly articulated. The first scene quickly establishes that Esther (Kearstin Piper Brown) has the discipline and drive to make a career of her handiwork; with the savings she sews into the lining of her crazy quilt she plans one day to open a beauty salon. The scene also establishes her pride, as she rejects the last-chance men who come to the parties given by her landlady, Mrs. Dickson.

“Pride’ll leave you lonely,” Mrs. Dickson (Adrienne Danrich) warns.

We next meet two of her clients, whose lives express in contrasting ways the limitations Esther hopes to escape. Mrs. Van Buren (Naomi Louisa O’Connell) has every luxury a white woman of privilege could want, including the pink silk crepe de chine corset that Esther brings to her boudoir for a fitting. But Mrs. Van Buren, trained only to be a wealthy man’s wife, has no options when her husband loses interest.

Though poor and Black, Mayme (Krysty Swann) is likewise at men’s mercy for her few luxuries — which, amusingly, include the same corset as Mrs. Van Buren’s. (“What she got, you want,/What you got, she want,” Esther comments.) Instead of an absent husband Mayme has johns who are often vile or violent, yet she is closer to Mrs. Van Buren than either might like to think.

Brown and Arnold Livingston Geis as Mr. Marks, a fabric salesman, in the opera at Lincoln Center’s Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Esther’s friendship with the women is more than professional but nevertheless circumscribed by class and race. (She has never entered Mrs. Van Buren’s house through the front door, and presumably never entered a brothel at all.) Her third professional friendship is even more delicate. Mr. Marks (Arnold Livingston Geis) sells fabric on Orchard Street, saving the most beautiful bolts for her. Though he is the only man ever to recognize and encourage her gift, he is literally untouchable: an Orthodox Jew.

But he is not the only man to flirt with her. Esther is surprised — and then, almost against her will, gratified — to receive a letter from a Barbadian laborer working on the Panama Canal. It seems that George Armstrong (Justin Austin) is looking for a pen pal to counter, with beautiful words, the filth and harshness of his job. As Esther can neither read nor write, she depends on Mrs. Dickson to tell her what George is saying; and then on Mrs. Van Buren and Mayme to forge suitably Cyrano-like replies.

I will say no more about the plot except that at the end of Act I Armstrong arrives in New York to marry Esther, who wears an exquisite dress made with fabric she bought from Mr. Marks. If she is not what might have been expected from their correspondence, neither, she gradually realizes, is he. In Act II we learn why.

Many plays sewn so tightly unravel completely as they stretch toward their crisis. Not “Intimate Apparel”; with its eye on the big picture, it maintains both its integrity and its tension to the end. Never stinting on detail — or, apparently, period research — Nottage forces the audience to keep sight of the larger pressures pushing all her characters into situations they must eventually escape more explosively.

I focus on the story because it is usually the problem with opera, as books are with musicals. Nottage has cut perhaps half of her play to make room for Gordon’s music, and in doing so has made the smart if painful choice to retain only what is most narrowly tailored to the plot and yet most allusive. What we call poetry in opera is not really the verse (though Nottage’s libretto is lightly rhymed where necessary) but the rich texture of everything doing double duty.

Courtship by mail: Brown and Justin Austin as George Armstrong.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

So too with Gordon’s lush yet intricate score, which soars into the timeless atmosphere of operatic writing (though he calls his hybrid works “operacals”) while always regrounding us in the specifics of period and character. In numbers like “No One Does It for Us,” repeated choruses do more than ram home lovely melodies; they underline the similarities between Esther and Mayme, who sing it. And it is not for nothing that George’s letter arias from Panama are typically accompanied by a ghostly chorus of other men, as if to question their strange intimacy.

None of these smart choices would matter if the performers could not make hay of them, but Sher has assembled and tuned an unusually fine cast of opera singers who can actually act. Brown is especially heartbreaking as Esther — and astonishingly tireless in a huge role. (Chabrelle Williams takes over for the Wednesday and Sunday matinees.) Her scenes with Geis as Mr. Marks are so gentle and rich in subtext you don’t want them to end. But all six leads are terrific, and the ensemble of eight other singers performs dozens of roles, each quickly and perfectly etched.

Sher’s staging in the 299-seat Newhouse, on a simple turntable set by Michael Yeargan, is a marvel of constant movement that never feels busy, and the costumes by Catherine Zuber are exquisite even when plain. As always, it is a joy to hear an opera in an intimate space with acoustics so clear and natural — the sound is by Marc Salzberg — that the captions projected on the walls of the set are rarely needed. And though the voices are prioritized in Gordon’s orchestration for two pianos, the presence of the instruments, on platforms above the stage, is not incidental. As played on Friday evening by Nathaniel LaNasa and Brent Funderburk, they seemed to have dramatic roles of their own, representing not only the need of women, especially Black women, for emotional independence, but also the world of 1905 that forbids it.

In that sense “Intimate Apparel” — even more as an opera than as a play — is an act of rescue. When Esther tells Mrs. Van Buren, as they write the first letter to George, “My life ain’t really worthy of words,” she means that she isn’t special enough to be made permanent on paper. That isn’t true; as Nottage and now Gordon have shown, she is worthy of even more. She is worthy of music that is finally worthy of her.

Intimate Apparel
Through March 6 at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater, Manhattan; Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes.

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