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Arts & Entertainment
Coram Boy at the Imperial Theatre
by Mark Thompson & Robert Doyle
May 23, 2007 
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There must be a show biz adage about a show being only as good as its source material. Something akin to the Swiftian aphorism about making a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, perhaps. Which in the case of Coram Boy, now playing its final weekend in New York, means that the silk purse is the technical production, while the sow’s ear is the young adult novel on which the show is based.

Perhaps you had to read the book—at fourteen. Or still be in a case of arrested adolescence. To hear the actors exhume their lines (such chestnuts as “Don’t worry, Mother. I’m here now,” and “Mother, he’s not interested in me. And besides, he’s arrogant!”) is to feel the Babysitters Club has come to life—LIVE! ONSTAGE! The London Chapter of the Babysitters Club Acting Out 18th-Century Teenage Angst. And indeed, the audience was filled with secondary school student groups—and their long-suffering teachers. Good for all of them. There’s a need for the inculcation of theatergoing habits. And, indeed, as evinced by their enthusiasm throughout the show, and particularly at show’s end, when, yes, Handel’s Messiah was sung by the entire cast, Coram Boy does a fine job of inspiring a new generation of theatre aficionados.

For those of us no longer fourteen, however, Coram Boy requires a huge leap of faith. Perhaps earplugs might have helped—for visually, the show is quite stunning. The lighting is evocative, and along with the sets and costumes, 18th-century England is recreated with boldly dramatic strokes. A pipe organ hovers above the stage, flanked by a chorus of twenty—and Handel’s music punctuates the Dickensian drama unfolding below. Mistaken identity, village idiots, orphans and villains, nasty maids and absent fathers, along with teenage pregnancy and baby skeletons—it’s all here, fodder to keep the interest of today’s WiFi youth.

But, alas, for those of us taken by the graphic ad in the show’s advertising campaign—a child with his arms outstretched, his mouth open in awe, as an angel gazes downward—there’s little in Coram Boy which delivers on that promise of transcendence.