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Beautiful Dreamers

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Foster care: Kevin Brown (foreground) and Stephanie Riso star in PICT and Opera Theater's Beautiful Dreamers. - COURTESY OF SUELLEN FITZSIMMONS

One of the many surprises of the world premiere of Beautiful Dreamers is how fresh and lively seem the 150-plus-year-old songs of Stephen Foster, in the context of the play written and directed by Martin Giles. The co-production by Opera Theater and Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theatre pairs the sweep of mid-19th-century America with the range and vision of the leading pop composer of the day, spiced by Giles' witty and irony-tinged dialogue.

The story centers on one Moses Walker (Joel Ripka), a glib child of privilege but unlucky in love. His aimless wanderings take shape when he teams up with his "boon companions" Caleb Jefferson (Kevin Brown) and Susannah Milsap (Stephanie Riso), respectively a runaway black slave and the young white widow who assisted his escape. Sure, it's an unlikely combination of travelers, but a country as vast and young as America has seen far unlikelier happenings.

The trio's saga makes for a sort of intimate epic. They travel thousands of miles from sea to shining sea, through countless months and years, looking for some reality of freedom, for a home -- for America and the beautiful dream it stands for. Their quest is fraught with dangers and many coincidences, not least of which are the cameos of soon-to-be literary giants Walt Whitman, Emily Dickinson and Mark Twain.

It's a fun trip, with Giles seamlessly weaving comedy, drama and song. Helping Foster sound so much better than many of today's musical-theater "composers" are music director Douglas Levine's arrangements, and the strong vocal talents of the cast, Riso and Brown especially.

Ripka delivers Moses' loquacity with a smooth physicality. Portraying the dozens of other characters -- heroes and villains both -- is a multifaceted ensemble of Daniel Krell, Allison Moody, Daina Michelle Griffith and Michael Fuller.

Kudos also to Tony Ferrieri for a versatile set evoking the breadth of America, purple mountains and all. That's not to overlook the rest of the design/tech team: sound, Dave Bjornson; lighting, Cindy Limauro; costumes, Kelly LeVine and associate Peter Dolkas; props, Cory F. Goddard; technical director Paul Bistric; and stage manager Phill Madore and assistant Joey Scarillo.

It's a huge show but not heavy, even though there are weighty issues portrayed and discussed, often with jokes and song. Yes, America is a dream, a beautiful one, if not yet attainable.

 

Beautiful Dreamers continues through May 1. Charity Randall Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, Forbes Avenue at Bigelow, Oakland. 412-394-3353 or www.picttheatre.org

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