By BOB HOOVER
In this unusual, smartly mounted musical production about the lives of Expressionist painter Marc Chagall and his writer wife, Bella, a knowledge of Yiddish would help a lot.
Lyrics and dialog in the language bring a sense of their lives in the ancient town of Vitebsk, now a part of Belarus but under Russia and then the Soviet Union during their formative lives there. At that time as the play opens in 1914, the town had a large Jewish population as well, shaping the couple’s traditions as we learn from the play.
Still, a good deal of the story is hard to follow without translation. Zanny Laird, who plays Bella, has a terrific voice, so I decided to sit back and listen to her singing flow over me and enjoy it.
Dan Mayhak, a frequent performer in regional musicals, is a powerful presence as the revolutionary painter and works tenderly with Laird despite their characters’ personal struggles to find their paths as artists.
They’re backed by a talented three-piece band with Douglas Levine on keyboard, Cara Garofalo on violin, and Lenny Young on oboe and English horn. They fill in as background actors, too. Levine also did the orchestration.
The set by Stephanie Mayer-Stanley dominates The Flying Lovers with a movable centerpiece flanked by tall, wooden ladders on both sides of the small theater in the synagogue. It requires the actors also to be stagehands as they move the pieces, much like the Chagalls kept moving from Vitebsk across Europe, hounded by revolution and war, settling briefly in New York State during World War II.
By then, Chagall was a major figure in modern painting, with major exhibitions and a growing international reputation. The artist’s flying figures in many works inspire the show’s title. Bella struggled to achieve recognition as a poet, and she took her frustrations out on her marriage.
Artistic Director Karla Boos writes that she first saw The Flying Lovers at an Edinburgh festival written by Daniel Jamieson and Ian Ross in 2017 and eventually brought it to Pittsburgh. She also brought Argentina-born Gustavo Zajac here to direct it in a moving, lyrical way.
The play has its drawbacks. It’s too expository rather than pure drama and slights the maturation of Chagall’s work for his marital problems.
Still, it’s a visual and musical experience, a unique production that brings a rare ode to beauty to the Pittsburgh theater scene. Look for the Simon-Markowitz Violin in the theater, a survivor of the concentration camps of Nazi Germany, presented by the Violins of Hope project.
Checkout our feature stories on the show:
TICKETS AND DETAILS
The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk (The Chagall Musical) by Quantum Theatre at Rodef Shalom Congregation has performances through November 26th, 2023 Tickets at: www.quantumtheatre.com/vitebsk.