Stage & Dance

Review: Like its subject, sold-out 'Belle Brezing' is entertaining but flawed

Annie Barbera plays the role of a young Belle Brezing, and Dave Dampier is Mucci, who seduces her.
Annie Barbera plays the role of a young Belle Brezing, and Dave Dampier is Mucci, who seduces her.

It is rare to attend a sold-out opening night, rarer still for the entire run to be sold out before the first curtain goes up, but that is what happened with Actors' Guild of Lexington's latest production, Belle Brezing by Lexington playwright Margaret C. Price.

The response is proof that, 71 years after Brezing's death and nearly 100 years since the heyday of her famous "bawdy house" at 59 Megowan Street, Lexington's most famous madam still can draw a crowd.

Brezing's mystique and popularity as a fascinating and controversial figure from Lexington's past even led AGL artistic director Eric Seale to add extra performances to the show's run. During his curtain speech before Thursday's opening performance, which started 10 minutes late because so many patrons were trying to find seats, he said there might be even more.

With the show already a financial success before the first line was uttered, I wondered, would Price's play live up to the hype?

Well, it depends.

As an abridged biography of Brezing's life, highlighting the key events in her storied history, the show informs and entertains. Her life is as intriguing as it is heartbreaking, and director Tonda Leah Fields and her large cast succeed at taking the audience along on the roller coaster of events and emotions that defined Brezing's public legacy and private demons.

Ironically, it is the expansiveness of the subject matter that inadvertently undercuts Price's play from a artistic point of view. With so much biographical territory to cover — from a devastating youth that included an alcoholic prostitute mother, the death of her only friend, and a sham marriage punctuated by a scandalous murder and a fatherless baby to her ascension to esteemed and deplored "madam" — Price pins the entire plot on flashbacks.

With a dying Brezing's deceased true love, Billy Mabon, showing up to help her make peace with her life so she can enter the door to heaven, the pair embark on a long series of memories, with Mabon ushering Brezing around like the Ghost of Christmas Past.

Laurie Genet Preston and Bob Singleton, who play Brezing and Mabon, deliver polished, magnetic performances, but it is a shame that the convention requires them to react to memories more often than they get to directly act.

With Preston playing the deathbed Brezing (and shouldn't she be 80 years old? And not beautiful?), that leaves much of the heavy lifting to young, flashback Brezing, played by Transylvania University student Annie Barbera.

Barbera is talented and is probably the age Brezing was when she began her prostituting career, but she doesn't yet have the command of presence and gravitas required to carry a role that heavy.

A large, supporting cast comprising Brezing's family, her "girls" and various love interests and customers does a nice job keeping the momentum rolling and the energy upbeat and entertaining.

As young Alice, a girl who was sexually abused by her stepfather and then cast out and into life at Brezing's house, Bethany Finley delivers a particularly moving monologue. More than a stirring performance, the scene also highlights Brezing's compassion, which we need to see. (Finley alternates the role of Alice at every other performance with Ellen Kerr Jenkins.)

The show's final moments, when deathbed Brezing encounters a slew of memories, escalates to a dramatic and satisfying resolution, particularly due to Preston's re-enactment of a poignant and powerful remembrance from Brezing's childhood.

When she finally walks through the door to heaven, there is a palpable sense of poetry and resolution. Unfortunately, this is undercut by an auction scene that is useful for information purposes and is well acted, but it detracts from the spirit of the previous scene.

The entire experience is interesting and entertaining but flawed, probably not unlike Brezing herself.

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