Sarah Silver Hands

The magic in this new fairy-tale opera lies in its look more than its story

Arts Review
Photo courtesy of Kimberley Mead

Sarah Silver Hands

The Vortex, 2307 Manor Rd., 478-5282

Through Oct. 30
Running time: 1 hr., 35 min.

The magic emanating from the Vortex Repertory Company's latest spectacle practically makes the entire block pulsate. Yes, the outlandish fantasies of Austin's prolific and weird playwright/composer/costume designer Chad Salvata have been incarnated once again in the world premiere of Sarah Silver Hands.

As a virgin yet untainted by Salvata's work, I had no idea what to expect from this "dark faery tale." I thus found myself wondering "What the hell?" from the moment I walked into the theatre, at first in awe of scenic designer Ann Marie Gordon's visually dominating Cornucopia Tree laden with sparkly gold- and red-leafed boughs, behind which several mysterious autumn sprites lurked. The performance began in a dumbfounding surge of color, light, and sound, with eyebrow-raisingly rich costumes courtesy of Salvata and Talena Martinez, ostentatious masks by Melissa Vogt-Patterson, the fantastic lighting design we've all come to expect of Jason Amato, and an eerie, echoing sound design by Sergio R. Samayoa. Sarah Silver Hands overloaded my senses before the actors even opened their mouths.

Unfortunately, my confusion intensified as this complicated tale of seasonal warfare progressed. Perhaps I should have done more than skim the lengthy plot synopsis in the program, but I had trouble following the story, much less sympathizing with its characters. Salvata lands us in the Autumn Kingdom, where tween Princess Sarah (Christine Kelly Achico) must save her daddy, King Bushkin (Rudy Ramirez), by collecting four angel keys from animal guardians in order to conjure and eventually destroy the Autumn Angel, all at the behest of evil Winter Kingdom owl-witch Spyril (Vortex regular Betsy McCann). Oh, and Spyril's agile hench-owls chop off Sarah's hands and replace them with silver angel hands that give the 13-year-old magical music-making and guardian-calling powers and make her immortal, to boot.

Are you getting this? Alas, I never did.

This is just the tip of the plot iceberg that ultimately sinks the opera. And the fact that Sarah Silver Hands is an opera rather than a musical with dialogue poses another problem. Though score-writing is old hat for Salvata, who has won awards for his operatic work, this one misses the mark. A constant deluge of unmelodic electro-rock songs with strange tonal centers and frequently trite lyrics fail to establish a solid story. Though Sarah Silver Hands left me utterly bewildered, it certainly wasn't for lack of trying. Like most Vortex shows, the design is stunning. And Bonnie Cullum's steady directorial hand guides the talented ensemble to a remarkable level of commitment. For me, the magic of Sarah Silver Hands is in the execution, and that alone.

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Sarah Silver Hands, Chad Salvata, Bonnie Cullum, Vortex Repertory Company, Ann Marie Gordon, Talena Martinez, Melissa Vogt-Patterson, Jason Amato, Sergio R. Samayoa, Betsy McCann, Christine Kelly Achico

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