There are two heartbreaking moments in “Intimate Apparel,” one exquisite, the other devastating, that eventually won me over to this production at Lincoln Center. But much earlier I started to understand why Lynn Nottage had collaborated with composer Ricky Ian Gordon to turn her lovely 18-year-old play about a lonely seamstress into a contemporary opera.
It is 1905 and Esther (Kearstin Piper Brown), the daughter of former slaves, hardworking, plain-looking, and illiterate, has lived on her own since the age of 17 in a rooming house in New York City. She’s seen one young woman after another get married and take off every year for 18 years. At the send-off party for the latest bride, she’s resentful.
“God, forgive me,
I hate her laughter,
I hate her happiness,
I hate the lightness of her step,
And the graceful way she moves. “
“She moves like someone who’s in love,” replies Mrs. Dickson (Adrienne Danrich), the boardinghouse proprietor, kindly.
“Love!?” Esther replies.
“I hate that word!
Love doesn’t come to no featherless bird.
Love is a music that I never heard. “
This would sound like stilted verse, unnatural to the ear in a straight play, and would surely be hard to match with a melody in a musical. But these are among the lines in Nottage’s libretto that make sense as recitative, in a contemporary opera.
Just because something makes sense doesn’t mean you will find it enjoyable, and I suspect many legitimate theatergoers share the attitude expressed by one of the characters in “Intimate Apparel,” Mrs. Van Buren ( Naomi Louisa O’Connell) .a rich white lady, unhappily married, who is one of the women for whom Esther makes dresses and intimate apparel. She tells Esther that her in-laws are coming to town. “We’re going to the op’ra, Oh yawn! “
Mrs. Van Buren and another of Esther’s clients, the prostitute Mayme (Kristy Swann), are Esther’s confidantes, and become her Cyrano de Bergeracs when, out of nowhere, Esther receives a letter from a Mr. George Armstrong (Justin Austin.) He is from Barbados and is writing from Panama, where is one of the many laborers breaking their backs in the construction of the Panama Canal. He learned of Esther through a fellow laborer who is the son of the Deacon at Esther’s church. He sounds as decent and as lonely as Esther, and she enlists her clients to read his letters to her, and to write him back. At the end of Act I, George asks Esther to marry him.
“Do you love him?” Mayme asks.
“As much as you can love a man you ain’t seen.”
This set-up is expertly done, effectively sung, and superbly acted — both the principals and the ensemble. Catherine Zuber’s costumes are stars in their own right. But “Intimate Apparel” didn’t take off for me until Act II, when George moves to New York, and in with Esther, and they both discover things were not what they seemed. What unfolds may be predictable, but my reaction was not.
I had admired “Intimate Apparel” – until the scenes between Esther and Mr. Marks (Arnold Livingston Geis), a fabric salesman who works out of his apartment on Orchard Street. He is an Orthodox Jew, who is not even allowed to touch Esther (or any woman who is not a member of his family.) But they bond over their love of fabric. It’s clear that they slowly, subtly, impossibly, fall in love, though it’s never spoken of. That’s when I too fell in love. And it’s not just Esther who had her heart broken.
Lincoln Center through March 6
Running time: Two and a half hours, including intermission
Music by Ricky Ian Gordon. libretto by Lynn Nottage, based on her play.
Directed by Bartlett Sher
Choreography by Dianne McIntyre, sets by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Catherine Zuber, lighting by Jennifer Tipton, sound by Marc Salzberg, projections by 59 Productions, casting by The Telsey Office, and music direction by Steven Osgood. Theresa Flanagan is the Stage Manager.
Cast: Justin Austin, Errin Duane Brooks, Kearstin Piper Brown, Chanáe Curtis, Adrienne Danrich, Jesse Darden, Arnold Livingston Geis, Christian Mark Gibbs, Tesia Kwarteng, Anna Laurenzo, Barrington Lee, Jasmine Muhammad, Naomi Louisa O’Connell, Adam Richardson, Kimberli Render, Krysty Swann, Indra Thomas, Chabrelle Williams and Jorell Williams.