The Passion of Sister Dottie S. Dixon
Sister Dottie S. Dixon (Charles Lynn Frost) originated in three-minute segments on local radio, so I was fearing that The Passion of Sister Dottie S. Dixon would be the theatrical equivalent of those ghastly Saturday Night Live sketches padded out to feature-length movies. I never expected Sister Dottie to become so … real.
The character as conceived is already intriguing and complicated: a faithful Mormon wife and mother from Spanish Fork who is also an activist on behalf of her openly gay son Donnie. The play—by Sister Dottie’s co-creators Frost and Troy Williams—serves as kind of an “origin” story, flashing back to pivotal events including Donnie’s coming-out, a consciousness-expanding trip to the Burning Man festival and confrontations with church authorities over her civil disobedience.
Along the way, there’s room for plenty of fun at the expense of Dottie’s unique manner of speaking, including an audience-participation lesson in how to speak Spanish (Fork) and plenty of malapropisms referring to the “Hairy Christian Temple,” “Specific Islanders” and a visit to the “groin-ocologist.” It could have made for a one-joke evening, but Frost inhabits the character so fully that the broad verbal humor somehow feels completely natural. A one-man/woman show is an opportunity either to crash or to soar, and Frost soars.
But what’s truly surprising is how smartly constructed this play is. Williams and Frost include genuinely emotional moments as Dottie wrestles with reconciling the dictates of her faith with her love for her son, and it would have been easy to pack them into the end for a simplistic silly-to-serious arc. Instead, the script mixes laughs with the emotion in a way that makes the triumphant ending a rousing culmination, not just a sop to a likeminded audience. Anchored by a terrific performance, this Passion is a remarkably affecting piece of theater—and there’s nothing sketch-y about it.
Claude-Michel Shonberg and Alain Boublil certainly know how to pick libretti with a classical oomph. For their first huge hit, they chose Victor Hugo’s sweeping novel Les Misérables. For their second, they adapted Puccini’s Madama Butterfly into Miss Saigon. Both shows brought a certain bombast to inherently melodramatic material like war, mysterious parentage and doomed love. So why is Les Mis so emotionally potent, and why is Miss Saigon such a mess?
In part, it may be the context for the material. In 1975 Saigon, innocent country girl Kim (Shannon Tyo) spends her first night as a prostitute with American Marine Chris (Josh Rouah). They fall in love and plan to return to America together—but for reasons initially unrevealed, Kim is still in Vietnam three years later, with a young son fathered by Chris, while Chris is married in America.
Madama Butterfly’s use of the ever-pining Asian heroine can feel very politically incorrect to contemporary sensibilities, but Puccini’s soaring score makes it all go down easier. Now imagine the same sadly deluded character, only she’s singing along to synthesized and heavily orchestrated Euro-pop.
The music, indeed, is one of Miss Saigon’s major failings. Whatever magic allowed Shonberg to come up with magical, heartbreaking Les Mis melodies like “I Dreamed a Dream” and “On My Own” is utterly absent here. With the exception of the sardonic late number “The American Dream”—sung by the opportunistic operator known as the Engineer (Kevin Gray)—there’s not a memorable tune in the bunch. And some of them—including the would-be anthem for Amer-Asian children, “Bui Doi”—are almost laughable in their overwrought earnestness.
Director Karen Azenberg and Pioneer Theatre Company’s production attempt to provide some visual spectacle, including the centerpiece descent of a helicopter during the flashback to the fall of Saigon. But lighting, costuming and choreography can’t make up for the lack of an emotional center. What was true of Saigon is also true of Miss Saigon: a helicopter can only do so much rescuing.