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The Alley and the Opera tackle the same story, but the results couldn't be more different

Disappointing as these choices are, Black's production is not without merit. The supporting cast is one of the best things about the show: Charles Krohn's Candy, the lonely old man who loses his dog and his dream, is heartbreaking; Timothy Dickson's giggling, good-natured Whit is simply terrific; and Davi Jay makes a heartthrob of Slim (it's no wonder Curley's Wife can't stay out of the bunkhouse).

Despite the production's flaws, it holds on to the essence of Steinbeck's message about the existential loneliness of the human condition. When George is forced to give up his only friend at the story's end, you can't help but weep for the frailty of our lives.


David Rainey plays Lennie and K. Todd Freeman is George in the Alley Theatre's Of Mice and Men.
Jim Caldwell
David Rainey plays Lennie and K. Todd Freeman is George in the Alley Theatre's Of Mice and Men.

Details

Through February 17 at the Alley Theatre, 615 Texas Avenue, 713-228-8421. $40-$45. Through February 15 at Houston Grand Opera, Brown Theater, Wortham Theater Center, 713-227-ARTS. $18-$225.

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Carlisle Floyd's operatic adaptation of Steinbeck's novel certainly cannot be accused of too much romanticism. In fact, apocalyptic is a better word to describe it. The 1970 opera is all bone and fists, with no fear of cutting down to the dirty underside of Lennie and George's story.

Designer Richard Hudson fills the stage with a bleak landscape. The story opens in a rail yard rather than a clearing in the woods. Piles of rusting metal capture the violent nature of a life spent drifting from place to place. Two tracks of railroad end here, foreshadowing the outcome of the story: Lennie and George will never get out of this place together. The metal bunkhouse looks more like a prison workhouse. And the giant barn, where Lennie does his "very bad thing," feels dangerous; a long row of scythes hangs across the back wall, and an enormous threshing machine stands mutely in the corner.

The music is also grim and tough, but the complex harmonies and lean libretto strip the story of any soulful ruminations on the nature of man's loneliness. Of course, without these ruminations, Steinbeck's story seems a bit pointless. Two men travel together, come up with the cockamamie idea of owning some land, then fall victim to a steamy vixen in a short red skirt. Floyd's version is less emotionally effective than it could be, and should be.

Still, there are some wonderful performances, especially Anthony Dean Griffey in the role of Lennie Small. It is perhaps hard to image how Lennie could exist in the milieu of opera, but Griffey pulls off the strange fusion with fine acting and his wonderfully tender tenor. Lennie is also the best-written character in the opera; Floyd has distilled the oaf's language down to its essence.

Elizabeth Futral as Curley's Wife is steamy, and Floyd has given her some sultry, lilting music to sing. But Gordon Hawkins's George is less appealing. There is none of the angsty dreamer in this George; he's all logic and business about the farm they hope to buy. And it's hard to feel for him when he shoots Lennie to save him from the law.

This opera fails to pull from its miserable, rusty landscape any of the deep sorrow intrinsic to Steinbeck's story. Nobody except slow, violent Lennie seems to give a damn about anyone else. That message is too bleak even for the new millennium.

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