.‘The Divine Sarah’ at Ross Valley Players

Sarah Bernhardt arguably invented modern celebrity culture. She was an irrepressible, controversial and highly complex woman working at a time when women had little to no agency. Couple that with her public relations/marketing genius, and it’s hard to know what part of her legend is true and what was part of her orchestrated facade. Anyone trying to write her story faces an uphill battle.

The Divine Sarah, a new musical originally written in the 1980s by June Richards and Elaine Lang, takes on the battle by trying a new approach, focusing on the traumatic childhood relationships that created Sarah’s personality. New Works at Ross Valley Players has a production at the Barn Theatre at the Marin Art and Garden Center through April 7.

The play opens with Sarah receiving a letter from the Moliere Theater offering her the role of Phaedra. The catch is that she has to learn the iconic role in only three days. The story then veers unexpectedly backward into Sarah’s past. The entire first act is spent on Sarah’s relationship with her mother, Youle. Youle is even given her own song about never wanting to be a mother. Act two, which focuses more on the better-known aspects of Sarah’s adult life, flows more evenly and starts to make a dent in the complex story of what made Sarah divine.

The script utilizes one actress playing Sarah (Merrill Grant) from age 16 onward and a choir that plays all other roles as needed. Grant is a clearly talented performer with a strong stage presence that matches her talent. In fact, director Jay Manley has done a good job of casting a talented ensemble with strong voices and a lot of stage presence.

The choreography by Lucas Michael Chandler is clean and well-executed, and musicians Jon Gallo and Diana Lee are crisp and engaging. Unfortunately, the costumes by Michael A. Berg didn’t serve the production at the same level—notably Sarah’s scene-stealing bum roll, which drew attention away from Grant’s performance.

Ultimately, this sentimentally rose-tinted view of Sarah Bernhardt doesn’t present a new or deeper understanding of the legend. Nor does it say anything original about the culture that created her or the culture she created. When asked what they thought as we filed out of the theater, one patron summed it up best; “Well, it, uh, told a story.”

The divine Sarah, perhaps, deserves more.

‘The Divine Sarah’ runs through April 7 at the Barn Theatre in the Marin Art and Garden Center, 30 Sir Francis Drake Blvd., Ross. Thurs.-Sat. 7:30pm; Sun., 2pm. $20-$35. 415.456.9555. rossvalleyplayers.com.

3 COMMENTS

  1. Totally disagree with this review. It was a fabulous show with incredible music and original storytelling.

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  2. We went opening night. Standing ovation. IJ called it “riveting!” We all loved it!

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  3. Only the first half of the first act focuses on Sarah’s relationship with her mother. The second half of the first act is about her burgeoning career, her first great love, and the birth of her son. Did Ms. Vega miss that? “Bum-roll?” – where did that come from?!

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