NEW YORK — Director and choreographer Susan Stroman might have posed the most difficult challenge of her career in choosing to transform Emile Zola's 1867 novel "Therese Raquin" into the musical "Thou Shalt Not."
Coming off the frivolity and gags of her production of "The Producers," not to mention her sunny revival of "The Music Man" and the creative surprise of "Contact," Stroman and her collaborators - actor, singer, composer, and lyricist Harry Connick Jr., and book writer David Thompson - have succeeded only by half to shape the novel for the stage. But even that much makes for a fascinating evening.
"Thou Shalt Not," a world première production by Lincoln Center Theater, opened last night at the Plymouth Theatre. Like Zola's book, the musical drama tells the story of the young wife, Therese Raquin, trapped in a marriage of convenience to her weakling of a cousin, Camille. When she meets her husband's handsome friend, Laurent LeClaire, she is awakened to the grand passion of an illicit affair. The lovers resolve to murder Camille, but their lives unravel in the aftermath of the crime.
Zola understood that the wages of sin are guilt and remorse well before Sigmund Freud began to explore the workings of the psyche. Zola's stunner of a novel, shocking in content and outcome, was based on what he considered a realistic examination of the human condition.
The novel proceeds through minute descriptions of the characters' feelings, but Stroman thinks in visual terms, chiefly animated by the dance. The locale of the story has been moved from 19th-century Paris to New Orleans just after World War II, a period brimming with possibilities.
Stroman takes old-time New Orleans-style jazz, the French flavor of the region, and popular American dance forms such as the strut, jitterbug, shag, and dirty boogie and mixes them with musical theater conventions that have been in place since the 1940s, when Agnes de Mille first began using choreography to help tell the story.
Connick, the wunderkind of the jazz and pop music charts, with four multi-platinum and three platinum albums to his credit, is making his Broadway debut with this show as a composer, lyricist, and orchestrations arranger. His score, alternately melodic and jazz-based, never quite provides a song that captures the grandeur of Zola's language or the breadth of the characters' feelings as expressed in the novel.
The Raquins' dry goods store has been changed to a seedy jazz club, presided over by Madame Raquin as a big-mama figure, who both smothers her son, Camille, and belts out red-hot numbers.
Stroman takes ample opportunities for pageant-like dance numbers placed on a revolving turntable floor, including a Mardi Gras scene, a New Orleans-style funeral parade for Camille, and the "Thou Shalt Not" ballet, populated by menacing characters from the city's waterfront.
Dancer Kate Levering has been well cast as Therese, using movement to express the character's total change of personality. Stroman even gives her a red dress to wear for her night on the town with Laurent that's as evocative as the signature yellow dress in "Contact."
Craig Bierko, who has just finished his run as effervescent leading man Harold Hill in "The Music Man," is fine as the smoldering Laurent, complete with pouty good looks and an Elvis hairdo.
The problem lies in the uneven balance between the two couples. While we are enthralled by the lovers, the spunk and charisma of Debra Monk as Madame Raquin and Norbert Leo Butz as her son Camille threaten to steal the show. The mother-son bond transcends any other on stage. Monk, in particular, gives an award-worthy performance as an exuberant woman who eventually is reduced to telegraphing her emotional state from her eyes and one hand.
Another concern is reducing the punishment of the lovers from their consciousness of it to the triumph of Camille's retribution, making a simplistic wrap for the ending. Perhaps the passions of these characters are too large to be contained on the Broadway musical stage.