Emily Dickinson, with a musical twist 

At first glance, young poet Emily Dickinson’s aborted lesbian love affair seems unlikely material for a “play with music.”

Yet BootStrap Foundation’s production of “Tell It Slant,” which runs at Southside Theater at Fort Mason through May 16, grows increasingly compelling as the show by Sharmon J. Hilfinger and composer Joan McMillen unfolds.

The quasi-musical’s esoteric title, drawn from the Dickinson poem that begins, “Tell all the truth but tell it slant,” hardly bodes well for comprehension.

Yet this musical take on the sequestered Belle of Amherst, who wrote almost 1,800 poems in her lifetime, treats allusion and metaphor in such a straightforward manner that potentially obscure references become clear.

The principals, save for one, perform without undue artifice. As Emily, Caitlyn Louchard acts with unaffected directness. Although her pop singing style is at odds with both the period and many principals’ accents, her dramatic transition from youthful optimism to severely depressed poetic recluse is quite engrossing.

As Susan Gilbert, Emily’s beloved (and eventual wife of Emily’s brother, Austin), Siobhan Doherty’s grace and beautiful porcelain countenance are a standout.

As Austin, Todd Brotze is equally convincing with his retro bearing and restraint. Bear Capron as Daddy Edward is sufficiently stuffy, while Juliet Strong as sister Lavinia intentionally remains in everyone’s shadow. Nick Allen does OK in his multiple roles.

Composer Joan McMillen fits right in as the pianist. Only Michael Sommers, who triples as Aunt Lavinia, Benjamin Newton and a pas de deux Master, distracts with his constant mugging and other unnecessary business.

Quibbles: The long first act lacks drama, and the simple, hymn-like quality of too many songs seems at odds with Emily’s brilliant, forthright nature. Each time a man plays a woman, he adopts a preposterously stereotyped persona that seems more suited to a cheap drag show than a drama about Emily Dickinson.

Several biographical details, such as Susan’s secretive abortions, are merely hinted at, leaving viewers in the dark. The Master thing does as well, even though scholars don’t even know the identity of the person to whom Dickinson’s “Master Letters” were addressed.

Plusses: The dramatic transformation in the second act is extremely compelling and moving.

Poetry and music also grow more profound, making for highly rewarding theater. “Empty My Heart,” which begins as a musical trio, is a standout in both dramatic and musical terms.

Director Virginia Reed, who based her work on the original direction of Rachel Anderson, earns kudos for the choreography, as does musical director Alva Henderson. You’ll likely demand a second curtain call.

THEATER REVIEW
Tell It Slant

Presented by BootStrap Foundation

Where: Southside Theater, Fort Mason Center, Building D, Marina Boulevard and Buchanan Street, San Francisco
When: 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays; closes May 16
Tickets: $20 to $40
Contact: (415) 433-1235, www.tixbayarea.com

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Staff Report

Staff Report

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A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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