Wednesday was the day I once again was unable to get tickets to see Taylor Swift. (Thanks for nothing, Ticketmaster.) Swift’s “Eras” tour is arguably the hottest ticket around, with the potential to become the highest-revenue tour of all time. Taylor is also notably considered to be a girl-boss who took control of her own destiny. Yet Wednesday night also happened to boast the invited-dress rehearsal of Jenny Lind Presents P.T. Barnum at the Black Box Theatre. Lind may not be a household name now, but her 1850 tour was the equivalent of Taylor’s “Eras,” thanks in part to PT Barnum’s promotion.
Nicknamed “The Swedish Nightingale,” Jenny Lind (Shelley Cooper) was an opera singer popular in Sweden. The Greatest Showman, P.T. Barnum himself, saw Lind as a way to draw big crowds – and make big money. Barnum brought her over to America to tour, but after a time, Lind felt exploited and removed herself from Barnum’s control. And that’s about where this one-woman-plus-an-accompanist snapshot into Lind’s life takes place: at her final concert in New York with Barnum. Have you ever wanted to be a fly on the wall of a difficult conversation? Jenny Lind Presents P.T. Barnum gives you that delicious opportunity.
As directed by Michelle Crouch, Cooper (who also wrote the show) brings a serious sweetness to the role of Lind. While I get the sense that the soprano was generally meek, however, Cooper’s monologues suggest she was also smart and fierce. Whether showcasing her operatic skills or speaking to the unseen Barnum with just the right touch of a Swedish accent, Cooper kept full control, which is so essential to a one-woman show. Lind grappled with the belief that Barnum was manipulating her, but also with the morality of slavery in the United States at the time of her visit. During her monologuing, Cooper drops fascinating insight into what Lind thought of slavery as she spoke frequently of her God. In one particularly powerful moment, it’s suggested that Barnum is trying to interrupt the conversation … but Lind holds him off, a scene executed to perfection by Cooper.
I wouldn’t call myself an opera buff – or even, if I’m being honest, a fan. But when Cooper was singing, she had a way of making eye contact with her audience, even the handful of us that were there on Wednesday, which somehow made the music personal. I assume a considerable amount of research went into the music selections in this production, and when Cooper sings, she nearly transports you back to 1850s New York.
The minimalistic set, designed by Lora Adams, still seemed grand. White columns offset by the black curtain really popped, as did the red velvet draped over the Clavinova to stay visually in the suggested time period. Two chandeliers hung over the stage, giving the room a sense of opulence you might expect from the opera. Yet none of these details pulled focus away from Lind, who is showcased, in part, thanks to Megan Hoppe’s costume design: a beautiful blue hoop-skirt dress swathed in pink lace trim. Cooper moves flawlessly in this dress, and though I went home to promptly Google-search “How to sit in a hoop skirt,” Cooper had no problem doing so with grace and elegance.
A one-woman show about an opera singer might sound as though it might be stagnant, but Crouch and Cooper clearly worked together to keep the pace flowing. Cooper often alternated between standing to sing or sitting in the lone chair on stage and taking a sip of water before explaining her position to Barnum. Fellow Reader reviewer Roger Pavey Jr.’s lighting design shifted between when Lind was onstage and when she wasn’t, and while the lights might not have left me gasping over their beauty, the shifts effectively changed the mood in ways that worked quite well.
Admittedly, though, Cooper wasn’t the only person on stage on this “solo” production. Accompanist Luke Tyler was there the whole time, most often with a rather stoic look on his face – although occasionally while playing, he seemingly got into the music and story and reacted accordingly. Those moments were the most mesmerizing to me, especially when paired with Cooper’s rich vocals. Even though Cooper truly excelled at connecting with the audience, there were times I was swept away and closed my eyes to take in the beauty of the music.
Here, Cooper offers the perfect snapshot into the world of Jenny Lind. The Swedish Nightingale might be the original touring girl-boss, but at the end of the day, like any famous lady singer, she was just one female trying to make her way in the world. If you’re a Swiftie without a ticket, or even with one, check out Jenny Lind Presents P.T. Barnum. I think you’ll appreciate Lind's era, too.
Jenny Lind Presents P.T. Barnum runs at the Black Box Theatre (1623 Fifth Avenue, Moline IL) runs through August 13, and more information and tickets are available by calling (563)284-2350 and visiting TheBlackBoxTheatre.com.