Real musicals are getting hard to find. We either get jukebox musicals, with classic songs but not much story, or musicals based on old films, with familiar stories but mediocre music. Fortunately, the Festival of New American Musicals, which is showcasing musicals at a number of California theatres for the next two months, has served up a gem with Camila, playing for two weekends at Santa Monica College’s Theatre Arts department.
Drawing upon a true story from 19th century Argentina, composer/ lyricist/writer Lori McKelvey has fashioned a show that plays like a classic musical but doesn’t feel retro. McKelvey’s strength is that she writes really enjoyable songs. The melodies are flavored with Latin rhythms, orchestrated by Robert Elhai (who has many movie scores to his credit), and played by a six-piece ensemble. The lyrics manage to combine emotional expression with the necessary exposition, and there are no throwaway numbers – everything serves to tell the sad but inspirational story of Camila O’Gorman, a Buenos Aires society girl who falls in love with a priest and suffers the consequences.
The show opens in, and occasionally returns to, a Tango Bar where a singer (Joanne Bailey) and her mysterious military man partner (Dean DeBenedictis) set the scene amidst a bevy of tango dancers (the choreography, by Makela Brizuela and director Perviz Sawoski, is authentic and an asset to the production). The romance of the tango leads us subtly into a world of outward dictatorship – the cruel General Rosas rules Argentina, riding herd over aristocrats and even the Church fathers – and a social world where women are subject to rule by men. As the song “The Convent or Marriage” puts it,
“Like a horse,
needs a saddle and master
to make her obey.”
Camila (Leanne Tallis) disdains her suitor in favor of real love. At first, it is only a dream that she expresses in a moving song called “My Love Is A Whisper”, but during her confessions to a handsome and idealistic priest Ladislao Gutierrez (Geoffrey Going), she realizes that he is the only man she can really love. He tries to deny his feelings (in the dramatic solo “She Is There”) but finally returns her love, and the two rebels flee to a small village. Although they make plans for the future (“If We Could Look Back”) the General’s authorities come to arrest them and even the clergy are powerless to save the lovers. But the people are not fooled by tyranny and they vow in the finale: “Nunca Mas!” (Never Again!).
Parallels to more recent injustices are hinted at, as a chorus of widows and lloranas (mourning women) sing of los desaparacidos, the “disappeared.” In Camila, this refers to the characters who are taken away and executed for speaking out or being even suspected of loyalty to the “wrong” political party. It also refers to the over 11,000 people who disappeared in Argentina between 1976 and 1983.
But despite the grim subject matter, Camila is a diverting entertainment. Musicals like this one walk an uneasy line as they balance real and tragic incidents with soaring music and energetic dance. Camila manages to pull it off.
It must still be said that this is a student production and thus not all of the performances are top-form. The spoken dialogue comes off a bit stilted at times, and some of the singing voices are not all they could be. But with a world-class cast and the kinks ironed out, Camila could be mounted on Broadway. Why not? It provides a more enlightened answer to Evita, and it’s not just a recycled hits collection.