Performing Arts

Review: SoBe Arts’ ‘Intelligent Systems’ is a smashing success

Danielle Buonaiuto is Dr. Helium White in Carson Kievman’s ‘Intelligent Systems’ at SoBe Arts.
Danielle Buonaiuto is Dr. Helium White in Carson Kievman’s ‘Intelligent Systems’ at SoBe Arts. A.R. McFarlane

Carson Kievman’s visionary music theater work Intelligent Systems — The Surrender of Self in Mystical Contemplation received a rousing reception at its world premiere Friday night at the Little Stage Theater of Kievman’s SoBe Arts Institute in Miami Beach.

Begun some three decades ago, the long-gestating work is an immersive sensory experience combining film, projections, dance and sound design rather than an opera in the traditional manner. This is Kievman’s most daring, strikingly original work, and it succeeds through a plethora of musical and theatrical invention.

Cast in five scenes lasting 95 minutes with one intermission, the subject of Intelligent Systems is nothing less than the evolution, destruction and rebirth of the universe. A space ship is launched and enters a time warp as gases form into planets. This tale of a parallel world traces the first forms of life destroyed by natural catastrophes and the gradual evolution of early man, the rise of oppressive dictatorships, the birth of cities, war and disease, corporate greed, climate change and manmade catastrophe. In the epilogue, new forms of life evolve as the natural metamorphosis continues.

What could have been a didactic treatise is turned into a brilliant soundscape and eye-catching spectacle, splendidly crafted by Kievman, director Jeffrey Marc Buchman and a first-rate production team.

The musical and visual elements are closely intertwined. In the opening launch of the spaceship, antiphonal voices accompany stunning images of outer space, the vocal lines high and ethereal. Colorful brass writing portrays gases and particles with elegant choreography set against visions of the sun. Kievman’s minimalist strains become ferocious as floods and tidal waves engulf the planet, the sounds turning more restrained at the appearance of man. Clanging bells herald volcanic destruction, but a serene chorale that could have been written by John Rutter brings the birth of a new civilization. The Kabuki-masked dictator Prince Icon sways to rhythms not far removed from rock n’roll.

A lovely, partly a capella ensemble opens the second half as the modern city is born. In one of his most creative strokes, Kievman streams an advertisement for space travel to war zones (“15 Hot Spots for the Beautiful People”) to madrigal-like strains. The sequence is both grandly satirical and musically exquisite in its austere simplicity. In a stunning final image, numerous human heads and new vegetation become a vision of an ocean to the lyrical tones of women’s voices.

Kievman has blended these disparate elements with a richly evocative, rhythmically urgent score. The mix of vocal and orchestral timbres is beautifully conceived, with a vast array of colors.

Buchman’s fast-paced production offers a nonstop visual panorama. The image of a dead woman (the victim of the dictator’s corrupt brutality) being carried out on an improvised board through the audience at the conclusion of the first part was powerful and moving. From the flamboyant dance of the medicine man to agitated steps of warriors, Rosa Mercedes’ choreography was consistently imaginative. Beautiful and often fantastic costumes by Camilla Haith meld with striking digital designs from the creative team of Alain Lores, Barbara Gutierrez, Andrew Lopez, Steven Guas, Brian Bobinski and lighting designer Patrick Tennent.

Playing multiple roles and in ensemble passages, the six-member cast conquered Kievman’s challenging vocal writing with flying colors. Timothy Stoddard’s sweet lyric tenor and Nathalie Avila’s clear, burnished soprano took special honors. Danielle Buonaiuto soared in her high soprano parts, and Eric McConnell’s powerful bass-baritone was potently utilized. The firm baritone of David Robinson and Zaray Rodriguez’s dark mezzo offered fine support.

Mary Adelyn Kauffman conducted a rousing, colorful and sensitive performance, drawing first-rate playing from the 14-piece ensemble in the often overlapping and difficult instrumental writing. Connoisseurs of experimental music theater, dance and film should not miss this ground-breaking production.

If you go

What: ‘Intelligent Systems’ by Carson Kievman.

Where: Little Stage Theater @ SoBe Arts, 2100 Washington Ave., Miami Beach.

When: 8 p.m. Friday-Saturday, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, through Sunday.

Cost: $25 ($15 students and seniors).

Information: 305-674-9220 or