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“Our Ladies” at #ArtsIdeas16

Photo credit Manuel Harlan

Photo credit Manuel Harlan

A great opening night last night for New Haven’s International Festival of Arts and Ideas. After an celebratory banquet in the faux-Scottish castle / Harry Potter set that is Yale’s Jonathan Edwards College, we headed across to street to see the Festival’s lead event, last year’s prize-winning play from the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, “Our Ladies of Perpetual Succor.” Think “Pitch Perfect,” but with a half-dozen potty-mouthed Scottish Catholic schoolgirls on a one-day trip to the big city for a choral competition that ends up being not the point of the trip at all.

The quest instead seeks booze, sailors, and adventure — plus perhaps a little self-discovery. Rumor has it that a party of sub-mariners are on leave in town, though neither they nor any other male bodies appear on stage; the ladies play all the male parts as well as the female ones. Their adventures get increasingly derailed by spontaneous eruptions into Electric Light Orchestra covers, including brilliant versions of  “Don’t Bring Me Down” and “Shine a Little Love”  in a string of increasingly dodgy locations. My favorite was a rendition of ELO’s lovely “Wild West Hero,” a song I must have missed back in the ’70s when I was in middle school.

Photo Manuel Harlan

Photo Manuel Harlan

The play opens with a played-straight version of the group in their soon-to-be-ditched choir-girl uniforms singing Mendelssohn’s “Lift Thine Eyes,” presumably the hymn to divine beauty they are bringing to the competition. The show’s central conceit asks us to find the hymn’s celebratory spirit elsewhere, as the girl’s adventures grow more and more wayward, including encounters with assorted sleazy men and grungy locales.

The contrast between the glory of their voices and their too-cool-for-school desire to swap out music for smoking, drinking, and sex animates the first half of the show. I thought the second half, with its deeper engagement with the human stories of the six, especially a miracle cancer survivor who’s been “cured” on a trip to Lourdes and a university-bound rich girl who’s not what she seems, was stronger.

I won’t spoil the ending except to highlight the final number, a version of Bob Marley’s “No Woman, No Cry” that shows up on their soundtrack courtesy of a sympathetic manager at the train depot cafeteria who switches the juke box to “classic reggae.” It was transcendently gorgeous, recalling but eclipsing the Mendelssohn opening.

I remember when we used to sit,

In the government yard, in Trenchtown,

Observing the hypocrites

As they would mingle with the good people we’d meet…

I’ve never heard that old song sound more poignant or moving.

Lift thine eyes! This great show will be at Yale Rep for the rest of June. Don’t miss it!

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