Review: Harvey Milk at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis Is a Triumph

Jun 13, 2022 at 1:18 pm
click to enlarge Dan White (Alex Shrader) and George Moscone (Nathan Stark) in the new performing edition of Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie's Harvey Milk. - ERIC WOOLSEY
Dan White (Alex Shrader) and George Moscone (Nathan Stark) in the new performing edition of Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie's Harvey Milk.

Forty-four years ago this November, a San Francisco city supervisor murdered two colleagues. Dan White was a former cop and former firefighter who’d grown angry at the political machinations of his opponents — and the way his city was changing.

He blamed Harvey Milk, with some justification. White represented a white, middle-class neighborhood unhappy with the way gay people in San Francisco were increasingly not only tolerated but celebrated. Milk was openly gay, a Jewish transplant from New York City who’d realized he didn’t need to hide who he was or whom he loved. The rapidly changing Castro district voted him into a seat of power.

White wasn’t having it. Soon after quitting in a huff and then learning he couldn't reverse that decision, he fired four rounds into Mayor George Moscone and five into Milk. Both died. White served only five years in prison; two years after his release, he killed himself.

Perhaps you saw the movie version starring Sean Penn. Or perhaps you heard the jokes about the “Twinkie defense,” in which White claimed his junk food consumption was partly to blame for cold-blooded murder. (Hey, it worked.) Maybe you even know the song by the Dead Kennedys. In every case, you’ve missed the way this story should be told. Harvey Milk’s story is an American tragedy, and tragedy belongs to opera.

The world premiere production that debuted at Opera Theatre of Saint Louis on Saturday is brilliant. It's a show that not only gets the history right but helps us understand the beating hearts that drive it. I’ve been to many operas in recent years, and I’ve loved quite a few — but this was the first to leave me weeping. It is nothing short of a triumph.

Here we see Harvey (Thomas Glass, simply terrific), who rises to his moment and goes from caring about money to caring about people. We cheer his liberation — and yet we can’t help but hear his mother warning of the “golems” who root for his demise. She’s right to worry, of course; in a tragedy, the seer predicting violence is always correct. We also know Harvey’s fate from the beginning. This production, wisely, starts with the end.

Yet we resist what we know is coming. We see the Stonewall Riots, the headiness of the gay rights movement forming and gaining steam. It’s impossible not to cheer. We see Harvey falling in love, finding a partner (Jonathan Johnson) who brings him into a fuller version of himself.

Then we see Mayor Moscone (a dazzling Nathan Stark), convinced he can handle the darkness building at City Hall. And, inevitably, we see White. Brilliantly portrayed by Alek Shrader, he’s increasingly isolated, brooding in his Barcalounger. He’s menacing (when we see him suddenly enter the climactic scene, it’s a jolt right out of a horror movie). But he’s also human: a lost, angry man left behind as the times are a-changing. White’s sad tribute to the old Irish neighborhood he knew as a kid was a showstopper, and for one brief moment, you understand his world. That’s the power of opera: Even the villain gets a great song.

This new Harvey Milk reworks the much longer version mounted by the Houston Grand Opera in 1995 into a vibrant two hours, smartly staged and paced like a top-notch television show. We never learn that Harvey outed people who would prefer to remain closeted. We don’t even learn what happens at White’s trial. There isn’t time.

Despite its 20th-century origins, Harvey Milk couldn’t feel more suited to this moment. Directors Sean Curran and James Robinson have given us a story about America, the people who want to change it and the people who resent their liberation.

To their credit, they don’t shy away from how monumental those changes are. Harvey Milk doesn’t suggest Dan White was wrong about what was happening around him. LGBTQ people were taking over San Francisco and reshaping it in their image. White’s way of life, the authoritarian world where father knew best, would never be the same.

That White chose murder was a tragedy. Yet the fact America mostly let him get away with it — only for White’s own demons to finish him off — isn’t where this story ends.

Harvey Milk may not make it to the promised land, but he can see it from the mountaintop. Today his ideas aren’t just ascendant; they’re accepted. Surveying the scene at the opera’s end, Harvey’s smile stretches ear to ear. This is his America now. The opening night ovation offered thunderous proof.

You should drop everything and see Harvey Milk. It is a thrilling debut, and St. Louis will surely not be its final stop.

Harvey Milk is written by Stewart Wallace and Michael Korie. Directed by Sean Curran and James Robinson. It will be presented through June 25 by Opera Theatre of Saint Louis at the Loretto-Hilton Center (130 Edgar Road, Webster Groves; 314-961-0644). Tickets $25 to $135.