By Yuko Kurahashi
The San Diego Repertory Theatre production of FLYING SOLO, a collaboration of Nathan Gunn and Hershey Felder, chronicles Nathan Gunn’s life and career. The show captivates the audience not only with musical selections from the operas and musicals that he has performed but with its genuine portrayal of Gunn’s life and his relationship with those who have influenced him.
In addition to numerous operas and operettas at major venues around the world, Gunn has starred in a number of musicals including Sweeny Todd (The Houston Grand Opera), Camelot and Carousel (both with the New York Philharmonic) and Show Boat (Carnegie Hall and the Lyric Opera of Chicago). He will be seen in the revival production of The Magic Flute (directed and designed by Julie Taymor) at the Metropolitan Opera in December 2018.
Hershey Felder, who wrote a script and directed the show, is known for his one-person shows that portray the lives of “great composers” including Tchaikovsky, Gershwin, Bernstein, Berlin, and Beethoven. In addition, Felder has been instrumental in developing other musicians’ solo productions. After FLYING SOLO, Felder will develop and direct The Story of My Cello, a solo work by cello virtuoso Antonio Lysy.
During a 90-minute performance without intermission, Gunn takes the audience from South Bend, Indiana (where Gunn was born and raised), the University of Champaign-Urbana, Illinois, to New York City, acting out key events and encounters
The thread that ties them together is his love of and for his family. Particularly important and touching is Gunn’s father’s quiet support and connection. From his father’s introduction of his favorite (and the only song he can sing) song “Five Foot Two, Eyes of Blue” (with a wonderfully portrayed dance number by Gunn as his mother) to his unannounced visit to New York City to attend his son’s debut at the Metropolitan Opera, Gunn’s appreciation of his Scotsman father touches the audience’s heart. FLYING SOLO shows how his father’s (and mother’s) love guided not only his career but how he and his wife raised their own children,
This show introduces some world-renowned music pieces in the context of his encounters. His first voice teacher—a kind and talented voice instructor in South Bend—introduced Gunn to Mozart’s The Magic Flute and encouraged Gunn to play the part of Papageno in a local performance of the opera. In FLYING SOLO Gunn works this instructor into a lively performance of Papageno’s Aria. Gunn also weaves this early experience into his appearance in the Metropolitan Opera’s first HD Broadcast production, singing along with a video recording of the performance.
He sings Rossini’s “Largo al factotum” (Figaro’s Aria) from The Barber of Seville as he remembers his first lesson as a new student in the Metropolitan Opera’s Young Artist Development Program. During this piece, Gunn transforms from a nervous student into an accomplished baritone.
His love for his wife and children is equally touching. Gunn expresses his joy and struggles as a father of five children through lullabies.
The musical director/pianist Michael Bagby’s understated presence on stage provides an excellent accompaniment to Gunn’s singing. In one scene, Bagby is hilariously sabotaged by Gunn, while he nonchalantly continues playing the piano.
The staging is simple but effective (Hershey Felder, scenic designer). It consists of a turntable phonograph on a side table, a couple of record albums covers, a leather armchair with a scarlet velvet cushion and a tartan scarf (which makes it look like a throne in a Scottish castle), and several moveable back panels which serve as projection screens. Like other Hershey Felder shows, what the audience sees on the stage as they enter the theatre serves as a symbolic landscape for the narrative; Flying Solo begins in the living room of Gunn’s childhood home and ends with a hospital room for his father.
Complimenting this stage is the combination of lighting (Richard Norwood), projection (Brian McMullen), video (Christopher Ash), and sound (Erik Carstensen) designs. The omnipresence of the Scottish metaphors is projected through tartan patterns on the floor and panels. McMullen and Ash’s projection/video suggest different times and places from a country road in Indiana to streets in New York City, and the Highlands of Scotland.
Nathan Gunn, FLYING SOLO at San Diego Repertory Theatre’s Lyceum Stage through June 10th, 2018.