It is sad but inevitable that bad plays will happen to good theater companies. In their search for new and stimulating works, virtually every group of performers takes a chance on a pile of words, whether set to music or not, that even talent and glowing intentions cannot overcome.
So it is with Opal, now playing at Kalliope Stage. This enormously gifted ensemble, which often features the best singers this side of Manhattan, has tasked itself with breathing life into a collection of songs and a script that is mundane when not wincingly saccharine or gratuitously savage. The sweet and sour package offers fleeting glimmers of theatricality awash in a sea of stock characters and aggressively unmemorable tunes.
The sea, in fact, is what starts the whole business, as a preteen girl is washed ashore in 1900ish Oregon after her ship sinks in a storm, taking with it the girl's parents. Claiming to be of royal lineage from some undefined country (an 11-year-old doesn't know what nation she's from?), the girl is taken in by a woman at a lumber camp and taught to slop pigs, scrub floors, and sing unnecessary songs. Told in episodic sequences by a handful of anonymous storytellers, the newly named Opal tries to reunite with her drowned parents by "finding a way to make Earth glad."
Perhaps in other hands, such an arch conceit could work. But Robert Lindsey Nassif, who wrote every jot and tittle of this 100-minute excursion into banality, has such a tight grip on his characters, he chokes the life out of them. There's the mean surrogate mother, the sweet Irish scrubwoman, the shy guy and gal who really love each other, and the blind woman -- all of whom Opal messes with in her attempt to do good. Along the way, Opal befriends a pig she names Peter Paul Rubens -- she went to museums in her previous life -- but Porky is butchered, and Opal has to help grind her curly-tailed pal into link sausage. Welcome to the backwoods, princess.
Swerving from the morbid to the treacly in the blink of an eye, it's all the actors and inventive director Paul F. Gurgol can do to keep this creaky enterprise moving forward. In the central role of Opal, young Dani Apple sings well enough and has a refreshingly matter-of-fact manner, so at least she doesn't become cloying. The 12-person cast is quite capable, even though Marla Berg as Sadie McKibben chews her Irish accent to dust. On the plus side, there are a couple songs, the rousing working anthem "To Conquer the Land" and an uptempo "Everybody's Looking for Love," that manage to rise above the ordinary.
But between cutesy-poo character IDs (the program identifies the blind woman as "The Girl That Has No Seeing") and Opal's infantile expressions (when happy, she has "joy feels," when sad, "crying feels"), this play generates nausea feels. In short, it is The Play That Shouldn't Have Been Produced When There Are So Many Better Pieces Available.