Apparently. according to Jay Turvey and Paul Sportelli, Maria Severa’s creators, hand-to-mouth poverty in the slums of 19th century Lisbon was certainly a happy gig to live. No matter the survival through prostitution and the humiliating class structure, it was like an MOR heaven where nothing challenges, nothing offends, and singing takes care of any trial of existence.
In their melodically pleasing score and their evocative and carefully conceived lyrics, there isn’t much that conveys the idiomatic spirit of Fado. One feels that any story about anything could fit in and replace the account of Maria Severa about whom, in truth, not much is known. On the other hand Maria Severa offers a good number of musically compelling songs that allow for characters to project their quirks and hearts.
Unfortunately, the fact that each character gets an extended solo to explain who they are structurally weakens the show. The story is of Maria Severa, the mother of Fado, but we get life enumerating solos from Jasmine, Clara, Armando and a café performance from Maria’s Mama. The icing on the cake of safe and secure is the death of Fernando who goes down singing. So add death to the list of feel good experiences.
The book does offer a number of touching moments and the peppy dialogue throughout sounds fresh. But the show seems more made for the stage than made from the streets and we never feel dirty. Yes, raunchiness is intended, to be sure. “Where are you, you horny husbands, where are you, you filthy bastards” asks Maria who, later is described as “just a whore who can sing”. When Mama says, “Clara looks like she never smelled a bad smell in her life,” we get the point. But when Maria philosophizes “the world throws shit at us….but we have to choose,” she has not been written or directed as a woman whose hard experience has learned this truth. It sounds like a good line.
Maria Severa is very entertaining, very accomplished as a creation, but not very believable. Nevertheless, both production and cast provide a number of pleasing experiences. Sherri Flett’s wealthy Constanca is an icy manipulative bitch, albeit with her own fear of poverty driving her on. Neil Barclay’s Father Manuel is rotund, humanly wise, kind and likeable without effort. Jacqueline Thair’s solo as Clara, like her whole characterization, is heartfelt and it lures one into its underplayed charm.
Jasmine, played by Saccha Dennis, is a creature of show-stopping athletic presence at every turn, a physical agility and an expressive face, dynamism through and through. At times she does seem too big for this chamber setting. As Fernando, Jonathan Gould covers his aching love for Maria with a wounded sneer and brings some complexity and unresolved nuance to the production. As aristocratic bull fighter Armando, Mark Uhre has a warm ring in his voice and is endearingly unpretentious, though not too grandiose or intense in his passion
The problem with this production is this: its immaculately realized but too polite style is simply not in tune with the raw nerves of its subject. If Julie Martell’s Maria is foolhardy in defiance, feisty, street smart pragmatic, and sexy, if she is forward in manner in order to survive, she also has too unblemished a shine to her and she doesn’t sing from an inner darkness. She has a facial scar, we are told, but her manner doesn’t reveal deep emotional scars. As a result, we feel that the book and the lyrics are pretending, slumming, out of their depth, for they do likewise.
Of course, any attempt to depict a female singer who happens to be the soul of a musical culture is very tricky business, especially because the art of these singers is rooted in their guts. For example, listen to Edith Piaf, La Nina de Los Penes, Chavela Vargas, Soteria Bellou, Billie Holiday, Om Kholthum, Bessie Smith, and, yes, Fado’s own modern deity Amalia Rodrigues, and you won’t be able to take this well-crafted show all that seriously.
Although several people have enthusiastically recommended this production to me, I offer the following account in desperate response. About ten years ago, the Fado singer Mariza explained to me that “Fado is like breathing, a way of living. It’s not me here and Fado there, separated, because we always walk together.” I wonder if anyone who buys into Maria Severa can understand Mariza’s meaning that Fado is life itself and not just a pretty diversion.