CEDAR RAPIDS -- A star is born. Lily Adams, 8, of Cedar Rapids, is simply enchanting as Francoise/Opal, "the strange little foreign girl" ripped from the seas that killed her parents, and thrust unceremoniously into a rough-hewn Oregon lumber camp in 1904. Placing a title role on tiny shoulders is a bit of a gamble, but Adams rises mightily to the task in Robert Lindsey-Nassif's stunning musical "Opal," which opened to a wildly enthusiastic capacity crowd of 200 on Friday night (1/31/14) at CSPS Hall. Saturday night's show sold out, as well, so don't dilly-dally before snapping up any remaining tickets for next Friday and Saturday,  Feb. 7 and 8. I read this script by local playwright Nassif years ago, and thought it was one of the saddest tales imaginable. This tiny girl is literally left on the doorstep of a young widow who needs muscle-powered help, not a child of privilege who has never done chores. The child is berated physically and emotionally by her unwilling caretaker, whom she must call "Mamma," her taunting classmates and the lumber camp folks who can't understand the French words sprinkled throughout her English. Those who do treat her kindly meet with The Mamma's scorn. The Mamma can't pronounce "Francoise," so she renames the child "Opal." Nassif's sophisticated, sparkling music and glimmers of humor pull this story out of the depths of sorrow. It also helps that he hand-picked his cast and crew from the area's cream-of-the-crop musical theater pool. "Night of Shooting Stars" is the title of one of the play's most buoyant songs and an apt description for the depth of talent in this production. Nina Swanson, who has charmed audiences for more than 30 years with leading lady roles on local stages,  is her usual astonishing self as Sadie McKibben, the mystical old woman who embraces Opal with warmth and understanding. In a show where every song is memorable, Swanson digs deep and soars majestically on the show's finale, "If You Want to See." Much of the credit for keeping the tone from one of utter desperation goes to Alisabeth Von Presley, who lets us see moments of maternal softness break through The Mamma's hardened shell. "What Might Have Been" is achingly beautiful in her heartfelt interpretation. Still, it's Opal's youthful wonder that brings joy to this story, as she embarks on her quest to make the earth glad and bring back her parents. The child with no name makes up names for those around her -- The Man That Wears Gray Neckties, Girl That Has No Seeing, The Thought-Girl and the Gossip Sisters. The play is based on the very real diary 7-year-old Opal Whiteley scrawled with wax pencils on whatever paper scraps she could find that first year in the camp. A few years later, a foster sister ripped the diary to shreds, but plucky Opal gathered up the tatters and saved them until adulthood, when she painstakingly pieced back together that year when her life changed completely. The Atlantic Monthly published the diary in serial form in 1920. So popular, it was immediately turned into a book and hailed as a masterpiece of American primitive literature. Nassif fell under Opal's spell when he read the diary in 1980 and launched his journey to bring those pages to the stage. He traveled to England many times to speak with Whiteley, who maintained until her death in 1992, that her father was Prince Henri D'Orleans, great-grandson of the last king of France. Whiteley heard Nassif's music, but died while the show was in previews in New York. The script won the Richard Rodgers Award, which financed its premiere production off-Broadway in 1992. It received four Outer Critics Circle Award nominations and won the AT&T Award. Nassif has been tweaking the show ever since, injecting what he's learned as a playwright and composer back into this show of his heart. It's been performed elsewhere in the country since its New York debut, but Nassif says this is his favorite cast. It's easy to see why. Tim Arnold, who has appeared in Nassif's "Honky Tonk Highway" and "The Flight of the Lawnchair Man," is delightful as the tongue-tied Neckties. Opal is determined to find him a wife, playing matchmaker with The Thought-Girl, the lumber mill owner's "old maid" daughter, played with panache by the gorgeous Amy Friedl Stoner. Angela Meisterling Billman, another local leading lady, plays the blind girl who mistakenly believes Neckties is in love with her. She and Stoner sing a glorious duet on "Someone," as they each dream of finding love. Other cast members cycle in and out of various roles as the Narrators. It's a device that moves the story along in moments sometimes smooth, sometimes fragmented, mirroring the diary and its piecemeal history. Paige Hauer and Jordan Hougham are especially hilarious as the Gossip Sisters who giggle and spread rumors in the camp and at the harvest jamboree, where Amy Blades' choreography really kicks up its heels. Doug Anderson has worked wonders with the scenery and lighting. The CSPS stage is not large, but Anderson manages to capture the lumber camp feel by using actual rough-hewn wood, branches and burlap, sometimes casting a sepia-toned memory feel with subdued lighting and other times replicating the blue skies of the Pacific Northwest. The wardrobe by Curtains Up Costumes of Sigourney perfectly captures the late Victorian/early Edwardian styles, along with longjohns and sturdy outdoorsy garb. The orchestra sits behind the backdrop, which made for occasional tempo pulls with the singers out front. It's a busy show for the instrumentalists, with incidental music underscoring and adding shimmer and continuity to the various scenes. The most amazing aspect is that a script I once viewed as a grim fairy tale is actually a story with humor and heart, set to joyous music. The details:
  • Robert Lindsey-Nassif's "Opal"
  • 8:00 p.m. Friday (1/31), Saturday (2/1) and Feb. 7 and 8
  • CSPS Hall, 1103 Third St. SE, Cedar Rapids
  • Tickets: $25 advance, $30 door, CSPS, (319) 364-1580 or Legionarts.org
  • Exhibit: See copies of Opal Whiteley's original diary pages through Feb. 5 in the CSPS first floor Commons Gallery, open 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Sunday and during performances
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