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Fiery Tale of `Brimstone' Debuts in the Berkshires

BRIMSTONE. Book and lyrics by Mary Bracken Phillips. Music by Patrick Meegan. At the Berkshire Theatre Festival through July 16.

THE Berkshire Theatre Festival's world premiere production of ``Brimstone'' is that rare theatrical bird - an exciting new musical based on a compelling original story and given a first-rate performance.

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The 66-year-old festival, in its second year under the direction of Julianne Boyd, has changed its focus from traditional repertory to new and seldom-seen works. With ``Brimstone,'' which was nurtured during last summer's New Works Project, the festival has collaborated on a winner. Directed by Boyd, with a book and lyrics by playwright Mary Bracken Phillips and a score by noted Irish composer Patrick Meegan, ``Brimstone'' is a powerful, passionate tale told with rousing music and poignant drama.

``Brimstone'' is set in 1988 Belfast, where the bloody dance between Irish and English, Catholic and Protestant continues with fury. The tale centers around Eamon Dunne (Jeffrey McCarthy), ``the man who walked away.'' A prestigious architectural scholarship from Princeton University had taken Eamon out of strife-filled Northern Ireland eight years before. At the play's start, Eamon has returned home to attend the funeral of his brother, an Irish Republican Army (IRA) terrorist gunned down by the police.

In an attempt to come to grips with his brother's death, Eamon must confront his own pacifism in the face of increasing violence. He also must confront the wild-spirited Miraid (Colleen Quinn), the woman that he left behind, convinced by a family determined to keep him safe in America that she no longer loved him. Though the plot is complicated by the presence of spies and counterspies, ``Brimstone'' is basically a love story framed by betrayal, both political and emotional.

Phillips's story is unusually credible and moving for a musical. She deals quite astutely with the complexities of the conflict in Northern Ireland, bringing vitality and conviction to her characters without wallowing in dogma. She manages to bring the gray area into a situation many participants view as black or white.

The play has a healthy balance of humor and pathos. There is a rowdy drinking song, ``If Not for the Ale,'' that includes a lively flurry of Irish step dancing (with a dynamite solo turn by dancer-actress Mary Beth Griffith). There are a couple of love songs, a mother's impassioned plea, confessional songs that pull at the heartstrings, and a satirical ditty called ``Paramilitary Dance'' that lays out Northern Ireland's convoluted political situation.

PHILLIPS'S lyrics range from simple to clever, sweetly poignant to bitterly angry; there is a lovely eloquence to many of the spoken lines as well. As Seamus the barkeep succinctly contends, ``I run a Catholic workin' man's pub in a city that has no work for a Catholic man.''

Meegan's score for ``Brimstone'' is both the play's strength and its weakness. Many of the tunes have a traditional Irish flavor enlivened by a contemporary sensibility, and this seems totally appropriate. But Meegan also dips rather heavy-handedly into the Broadway-style rock idiom that jarringly changes the play's tone. Some of the most moving songs, such as the lovely ``Alba'' and the love duet ``On the Edge,'' sound cheapened by a rock backbeat. Similarly, some of Phillips's most poetic lyrics and Meegan's most tuneful lines are belted out against a driving musical arrangement, instead of being allowed to flourish in understated simplicity.

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Meegan, however, does get the beginning and ending completely right. ``Brimstone'' is framed by the sweet voices of young children singing an unaccompanied little tune that captures both hope and reality: ``Skylark, our day will come. Until then, skylark fly away.''

Boyd's direction is crisp and fluid, aided by Daniel Levans's strong choreography and Ken Foy's atmospheric sets, comprised of brick columns that open and reconfigure to become the play's eight settings. The cast of ``Brimstone'' is outstanding, complete with Irish accents that, for the most part, sound convincing to non-Irish ears at least.

McCarthy is magnetic, albeit a little stagey, as the prodigal Eamon. Though his accent is uneven, his singing voice is rich and full. Colleen Quinn is luminous as Miraid, her inherent sweetness and sensitivity wrapped in a brittle veneer after six years in prison for collaborating with the IRA.

Eamon's mother, in an understated performance by Brooks Almy, is perhaps the most powerful character onstage - strong in her resolution, achingly bereft yet stoic in her loss. Her ``Stand Your Ground'' is a show stopper.

Supporting players Nick Wyman, Mark Honan, Jeff Gurner, and Richard Pelzman are uniformly excellent.

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