If Emile Zola were alive today, he would have others besides the enemies of Captain Dreyfus to hurl his “J’accuse!” at. I am thinking of David Thompson, Harry Connick Jr., and Susan Stroman, respectively the book writer, composer-lyricist, and director-choreographer of the musical Thou Shalt Not, adapted – or, rather, travestied – from Thérèse Raquin.
Zola’s novel, almost unrelievedly gloomy, is a poor choice for a musical. The ghost of the murdered Camille cannot be a song-and-dance ghost, singing the snappiest song, capering like a goat (not ghost!), and looking ten times manlier and healthier than he did when alive. Thompson’s book is all homogenized oversimplification; Connick’s tunes are jazzy but tuneless, his lyrics routine; Stroman’s direction and choreography try halfheartedly to be stunning or shocking, but manage only to be trite and attitudinizing, garish and ultimately tacky. Tacky, surely, is also the word for Thomas Lynch’s uncharacteristically appalling sets. The costumes by William Ivey Long fare no better.
Directorially, Stroman has, aside from the ghost’s ghastliness, committed no grave errors, although from neither of her principals has she coaxed more than a serviceable performance. More disappointing is the choreographic failure: By moving the action from an 1867 Paris haberdashery to a 1946 New Orleans bar, Stroman has made things easier for herself, perhaps too easy. The first segment of Contact did, to be sure, succumb to vulgarity, but the choreographer has not previously shown signs of weariness, waywardness, or, worse, self-parody.
Great performances would have helped, but there is only one: the Camille of Norbert Leo Butz. He manages the difficult task of being simultaneously an annoying nerd, a pathetic loser, and a tragic victim. Kate Levering, so fine in 42nd Street, is out of her element here. She dances spiritedly, sings nicely, but cannot, with her light speaking voice and conventional acting, convey the dramatic depths of Thérèse. As Laurent, Craig Bierko is good enough when he must merely be hunky and sexually hungry; the haunted and tormented killer is way beyond him. As Madame Raquin, Debra Monk comes across as déjà vu, perhaps from overexposure in recent seasons. The great Hungarian critic D. Kosztolanyi wrote that Zola’s play – which he adapted from his novel – “is not notable in the evolution of the drama, but its aesthetics and daring battle cry are.” Thou Shalt Not fails on both counts.