Stephanie Machado as Sabina Spielrein and Philip Stoddard as Carl Jung in “Sabina” at Portland Stage. Photo by Mical Hutson

Musical theater is almost always, in one way or another, about the dreams and aspirations of the characters portrayed. The latest show at Portland Stage goes deep in that direction in telling a fairly complex story concerning some of the founders of modern psychoanalysis. But before you withdraw to your couch to reflect on attending a performance, be reassured that it’s also very entertaining.

Largely based on real people and events, the world premiere production of the musical version of “Sabina” concerns the transformation of a catatonic young woman at the hands of the legendary Carl Jung, with a little help from his mentor Sigmund Freud.

There’s intellectual heft to the play, originally conceived as a dramatic work by author Willy Holtzman. But in this musical adaptation by Louise Beach (music) and Darrah Cloud (lyrics), the show’s narrative combination of ideas, romance and social commentary may have found its finest form through the magic of music.

At the performance under review, the songs and the singing ranked from simply great to sublime. With just a hint of operatic flair, the performers broke seamlessly from dialogue into song with the tasteful live backing of a sterling sextet of strings, piano and horn. Passages of anxious modernism mixed with flowing impressionism and were easily topped off with bits of popular theatrical lightness to fit the moment.

The melodies soared or sunk in combination with the emotions expressed in the lyrics. Their subtle placement within the well trained voices of professional performers, such as Stephanie Machado as the sensitive but strong Sabina Spielrein, Philip Stoddard as the awkwardly passionate Carl Jung, Bruce Sabath as the worried but determined Sigmund Freud, Jason Michael Evans as the cautious Ludwig Binswanger, and Sarah Anne Fernandez as the resilient Emma Jung, resulted in a succession of highlights.

Machado’s voice, given a workout through many touching moments during the show (“Past the Edge,” “No Cure for Love”), capably met the part’s many challenges. Her duets with Stoddard were thoroughly enchanting and her overall performance as a woman personally and professionally on the rise felt right for the brilliant psychoanalyst and budding feminist Sabina would become (before historical darkness fell).

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Stoddard’s performance, as an earnest young doctor with ideas of his own one minute and a love-sick puppy the next (“Sailing,” “Dance Lesson”), helped humanize all the talk of collective myths and transference with the Oedipally minded Freud.

Sabath (“Every Father”), Evans (“Lift Up Your Head”) and Fernandez (“Stepping into the Light”) each shone in their solo spots while also contributing to well balanced duo and company numbers.

The scenic design by Anita Stewart heightened the sense of primal mystery and shadowy secrets.   In addition, co-directors Danilo Gambini and Daniella Topol and Portland Stage employed a lengthy list of first-rate artistic design and production staff in presenting this sophisticated and ultimately life-affirming musical.

Steve Feeney is a freelance writer who lives in Portland.


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