Theater / Film

GableStage mounts a monumental production with a trio of transformative actors

Written By Christine Dolen
March 11, 2024 at 7:05 PM

James Zannelli, Mark H. Dold and Brandon Morris play the Lehman Brothers in “The Lehman Trilogy” at GableStage with a preview, Friday, March 15, and opening Saturday, March 16 through Sunday, April 21, at the theater inside the Biltmore Hotel, Coral Gables. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

The play starts with a brief prelude, a reminder of why so many people know the name Lehman Brothers: the spectacular, $3.9 billion failure of an investment bank that helped cause a recessionary avalanche in 2008.

But then, as oldest brother Henry Lehman arrives in New York from Bavaria in 1844, the epic commences.

Surrounded by the hustle-bustle activity of the famous metropolis, he speaks of himself in the third person, painting a picture with his words, including these:

“Children yelling / the creak of metal and squeak of pulleys / and in the midst of it all, / there he is. /Silent, still, / just off the boat. / Wearing his best shoes, / the ones he’d never worn, / the ones he kept in storage for that moment when / I will be in America. / And here it is. / That moment.”

Thus begins “The Lehman Trilogy,” a theatrical feat that unspools 164 years in the history of an entrepreneurial Jewish family alongside the interwoven political and economic evolution of the brothers’ new homeland.

Written in Italian by playwright-novelist Stefano Massini and translated into 24 languages after its 2013 debut in France, “The Lehman Trilogy” took off in the English-speaking world in 2018 thanks to the way adaptor Ben Power and director Sam Mendes decided to create their version at London’s National Theatre.  After a three-year developmental process, the form was set: Just three actors would play  the founding brothers and every other character in a three-part, three-hour production (Massini’s original ran five hours).

Director Bari Newport rehearses a scene from “The Lehman Trilogy” with Brandon Morris, Mark H. Dold and James Zannelli at GableStage. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

Now it’s GableStage’s turn to deliver its own version of an epic.  Previewing Friday, March 15, and opening Saturday, March 16, “The Lehman Trilogy” will run at the company’s space in Coral Gables’ Biltmore Hotel through Sunday, April 21.

Producing artistic director Bari Newport is staging the complex production with associate director Jeni Hacker by her side; Newport celebrates Hacker, who is also a Carbonell Award-winning actor and a choreographer-movement coordinator, as “a fabulous problem solver and collaborator.”

Although Newport notes that “The Lehman Trilogy” requires “a ton of simple, clever staging,” the play itself is anything but simple.

Performed in three, hour-long sections with a pair of 15-minute intermissions, the production introduces each of the three Lehman brothers as he arrives from their hometown of Rimpar, Bavaria: Henry (his name changed from “Heyum Lehmann” by an immigration officer who didn’t understand what he was saying) in 1844, Emanuel in 1847, Mayer in 1850.

The New York-based GableStage cast – James Zannelli as Henry, former Miamian Brandon Morris as Emanuel and Mark H. Dold as Mayer – must necessarily become a mighty, in-synch trio. Not only do they portray the founding brothers, but they also play Lehman descendants, wives, customers, executives and every other role in the multi-character piece.  Sometimes, a change in character is accomplished by little more than a hat, a cigar, a shift in posture or voice. But clarity – who is playing whom in any given moment – is paramount.

Former Miamian Brandon Morris plays Emanuel Lehman, James Zannelli plays Henry, the first of the Lehmans to come to the United States, and Mark H. Dold plays Mayer Lehman in “The Lehman Trilogy” at GableStage. (Photos courtesy of Benjamin Spradley, J. Demetrie, and David Noles)

“I love big plays like this,” says Dold, who was an understudy in Matthew Lopez’s two-part, six-hour, Tony Award-winning “The Inheritance” on Broadway.  “This is what I was born for…The arc of it is so innately compelling.”

Because of the length of the 183-page script (most contemporary plays are under 100 pages), the stylistic complexity of mixing direct address and dialogue, and the particular challenges of producing an epic in GableStage’s cozy space, Newport gave herself, her collaborators and the cast the luxury of time.

Rehearsals stretched to six weeks, with the actors paid for an additional two weeks up front as they memorized their lines.  A significant challenge happened when the actor originally cast as Henry decided to withdraw.  Luckily, GableStage found Zannelli, who had just finished a run as understudy for the character of Henry at Arizona’s Phoenix Theatre on Feb. 11.

“I had a flight booked back to New York on Feb. 19 to audition for another production of ‘The Lehman Trilogy,’” says Zannelli, who is also a musical theater performer and opera singer.  “I was in a Home Depot parking lot with my parents in Phoenix when I got the call from Bari. The timing was incredible.”

Morris, who grew up in Miami, graduated from the New World School of the Arts college program in 2000 and appeared in a trio of GableStage productions when Joseph Adler was producing artistic director.  Although he performed in theaters throughout the country, after moving to New York he focused on film and television (his credits include “The Flight Attendant,” “FBI: Most Wanted” and “Law and Order: SVU”).

But in a bit of serendipity, when Morris decided to come back to South Florida at the start of 2022 to do a production of “Almost, Maine” at Palm Beach Dramaworks, Newport saw his performance and asked him to read for the part of Emanuel Lehman.

“This is one of the most challenging things I’ve ever had to do,” says Morris.  “It’s close to Shakespearean in its heightened language.  But if you say the words exactly as it’s written, it makes sense – it’s a big puzzle of words you’re putting together.”

Brandon Morris, Mark H. Dold and James Zannelli rehearse a scene from “The Lehman Trilogy” at GableStage with director Bari Newport (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark

Dold, a Yale School of Drama grad and associate artist at Barrington Stage Company in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, got to know GableStage supporters Rhoda Levitt, board chair Rosalind Stuzin and others over his 20 summers at Barrington Stage. They and Newport, who saw Dold in a production of Brian Friel’s “Faith Healer,” hoped the actor could be part of a GableStage production, and “The Lehman Trilogy” proved to be another case of just-right timing.

“The rhythm, the dovetailing dialogue is very much like a game of ping-pong,” Dold says. “It’s written like a poem in blank verse….All of that room has been left for the actor to be the storyteller.”

And what a story the three actors tell.

From the brothers’ beginnings selling cotton goods from their store in Montgomery, Alabama, to growth that feels like the American Dream on steroids, “The Lehman Trilogy” covers the finer points of finance, the diminishing connection to their Jewish roots over generations, the trading of cotton grown on plantations worked by slaves, the impact of the Civil War and the crash of 1929, the stunning collapse of 2008 – the 164-year saga is a riveting piece of theater and history.

Newport, who saw the Mendes-directed version of the play in London, is crafting something complex and markedly different for GableStage.

“It’s based on etching something out of nothing. The set and concept involve coming out of the darkness of the universe and creating light on one thing at a time,” says the director.  “In the stage directions, often the word ‘magic’ is used.  The notion of miracles is something that happens often.”

Describing “The Lehman Trilogy” as “a big ol’ fable,” Newport appreciates how deeply theatrical the piece is.

GableStage producing artistic director Bari Newport is staging the three-hour “Lehman Trilogy.” (Photo courtesy of Alex Fox)

“This uses almost every aspect of what theater does best.  It uses metaphor to evoke images…in colorful and majestic ways,” she says.  “It’s such a theatrically rich and epic feat…This iteration celebrates the act of creation – coming with nothing and building something that lasts generations.”

Newport is also pleased with the way the actors are illuminating the text as they navigate multiple roles.

“They’re all just exceptional transformers. They do that thing we look to actors to do – be magical, miraculously turn into something or someone else.  It requires a level of trust among the three of them,” she says.

All three actors say that forming a bond, as brothers might, is key.  Dold and Morris met for coffee when they were still in New York, then did an abbreviated walking tour of Manhattan’s Financial District and places mentioned in the script.  Dold went to Salem Fields Cemetery in Brooklyn to pay his respects at the resting place of Mayer Lehman and his family.

“Our chemistry is terrific,” Dold says. “Once James joined us, by his second week it felt like he had always been part of it.”

Says Zannelli: “Bari is great, very smart. She is always getting back to what is happening, what are we trying to say, who’s got the power, what’s the conflict. She reminds us to always be telling the story. She strips it all down to make sure you see the sign, see the fire, know what you’re talking about.  She wants us to take the time to see everything and really paint the picture for the audience.”

Performed in three, hour-long sessions only 3 actors play the various roles. Brandon Morris, Mark H. Dold and James Zannelli work with producing artistic director Bari Newport on “The Lehman Trilogy” at GableStage. (Photo courtesy of Magnus Stark)

Morris feels Newport is trying to get the cast to “conjure the story through our narration.”

He adds, “Bari came in with a vision and passion, and so did we. I think she has great ideas. I trust her. And I’m having fun.”

For a time, very long-form drama in the form of epic theatrical events such as the Royal Shakespeare Company’s “The Life and Adventures of Nicholas Nickleby” (with a running time of nearly nine hours on Broadway in 1981) or Robert Schenkkan’s Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Kentucky Cycle” (a seven-hour Broadway experience in 1993) were what theatergoers wanted.  And of course, William Shakespeare’s plays aren’t exactly short.

But in the 21st century, perhaps with our diminished attention spans in mind, the 90-minute play with no intermission has become ubiquitous.

Regarding “The Lehman Trilogy,” Newport observes, “Some plays are appetizers. Some are dessert. This is a full-on meal.”

WHAT: “The Lehman Trilogy” by Stefano Massini, adapted by Ben Power

WHERE: GableStage in the Biltmore Hotel, 1200 Anastasia Ave., Coral Gables

WHEN:  Previews 7:30 p.m. Friday, March 15, opens 7:30 p.m. Saturday, March 16;  2 p.m. Wednesday, 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 2 p.m. Sunday (additional 7:30 p.m. performances Tuesdays beginning in April), through April 21

COST:  $45, $50, $55, $60, $65, all with additional $10 service fee (discounts for students, teachers, artists, military and groups)

INFORMATION:  305-445-1119 or gablestage.org.

RELATED EVENT:  Dr. Josh Parshall, director of history at the Goldring/Woldenberg Institute of Southern Jewish Life will speak about “The Jewish Diaspora in the American South: Southern Jews and the Cotton Economy” at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, March 26 at The Hub at Temple Beth Am, 5950 N. Kendall Dr., Pinecrest. Admission is free, but reservation required. Click here for RSVP.

 ArtburstMiami.com is a nonprofit media source for the arts featuring fresh and original stories by writers dedicated to theater, dance, visual arts, film, music and more. Don’t miss a story at www.artburstmiami.com

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