Opera review: Fun 'Coffee Man' brews up some laughs

Led by a title character with a cup on his head, the comic opera is a light blend with lots of caffeine

Monday, September 25, 2006

JAMES McQUILLEN

The Oregonian

There was a special brew on tap Friday night at the Portland Center for the Performing Arts to celebrate the world premiere of "Too Much Coffee Man," and it wasn't exactly coffee.

Jim Parker, publican of Oaks Bottom Public House, had brewed a delicious stout with a heavy dose of Stumptown Roasters coffee, and it was strong stuff, with just a pint leaving a person simultaneously tipsy and buzzed. Which is to say, it was pretty much like the opera itself.

Based on Shannon Wheeler's 15-year-old comic strip character, a familiar figure from the pages of many alternative weeklies, the piece presents a slice of coffee shop life in a light operatic idiom. The hypercaffeinated, over-thinking Too Much Coffee Man (Stacey Murdock), a portly anti-superhero with a coffee cup atop his cranium, vies with the cynical, calculating Espresso Guy (Matt Dolphin) for the attentions of a barista (Jasmine Presson), who loathes her job and her customers equally.

The music, written by Daniel Steven Crafts and directed by Joey Prather at the piano, was pitch-perfect for the story. Composed for the three singers and a trio of clarinet, piano and string bass, it was melodic and brisk, with a cabaret sensibility. The witty libretto, by Wheeler and Damian Willcox, rejoices in the joke potential of the narrative outline, though parts of it would scan better with an edit -- as when Coffee Man sings to the barista, "It's so clear, we were meant to be together, like dirty bikers and wardrobes of black leather."

In the title role, Murdock was both brilliantly, unself-consciously silly, and as commanding as a performer can be in a stretchy red jumpsuit adorned with an enormous cup. He has a great voice, great presence and great timing. Dolphin was a slippery counterfoil with a flexible voice and elastic face, and Presson rounded out the cast with equally good singing and a suitably sarcastic demeanor: She used a raised eyebrow like a truncheon.

Devon Allen's direction and Carolyn Holzman's choreography moved them around Bethany Foran's spare set fluidly, even as the action devolved into giddy comic mayhem.

With seating divided between risers at the back of the room and 10 tables between them and the stage, PCPA's 200-seat Brunish Hall was a fittingly intimate, casual venue.


2006 The Oregonian