Posted in Broadway Musicals

Carousel

Carousel_web2.ashxI think Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” has always required an extra leap of faith on the part of its audience. Half melodrama, half homespun philosophy with more than a dash of fantasy, it’s become somewhat difficult to take given today’s attitudes toward bullies and men who hit their wives. But because of its musical score it has something of a mythical status in the Rodgers and Hammerstein canon. At its best, during the Bench Scene which includes “If I Loved You,” we’re watching an extraordinary milestone in musical theater.

The New York Philharmonic recently gave “Carousel” the all-star treatment, and the results were aired on PBS this past Friday (the performance will be accessible on the station’s website until May 3). I lasted until Kelli O’Hara, as the luckless Julie Jordan, began “What’s the Use of Wond’rin’,” at which point I had to bail. My credulity had reached the breaking point, with both the story and the production, and my remote became a lifesaver.

What went wrong?

I’m not sold on staged or semi-staged versions of musicals presented with a full symphony orchestra. I think it’s an awkward format at best; at worst, it can be a bloated mess. Broadway musicals were written with pit bands in mind; given the theaters’ cramped quarters, 24 players, give or take, was a big orchestra back in the day. So I wasn’t surprised that the New York Philharmonic sounded sluggish and ungainly reading the Rodgers and Hammerstein score. Matters weren’t helped by the slow tempos of conductor Rob Fisher—I half expected Kelli O’Hara and Nathan Gunn to turn blue during “If I Loved You.”

Casting was also a problem. I love Kelli O’Hara and thought she was a terrific Nellie Forbush, but something was off in her performance as Julie Jordan. At this point in her career, she’s past playing a role like that. I’m not fond of the character (frankly I think she’s a doormat), but in all honesty, it would take a young actress projecting total innocence and naiveté to get me to believe in her. And I don’t think Ms. O’Hara was helped by Nathan Gunn’s Billy Bigelow. Gunn is an operatic baritone, one of the first singers to catch the “barihunk” label. On the opera stage he’s decent, but he’s not capable of delivering “Soliloquy” the way it should be done—in character as Billy Bigelow. What we got instead was Nathan Gunn singing the showstopper.

This raises an issue of constant debate—do you prefer a performer with less voice but better acting chops in a musical? Sometimes I do. Obviously it depends on one’s own taste, but I dare anyone to listen to the “Cabaret” recording featuring Natasha Richardson and tell me that isn’t Sally Bowles to the life (my jaw hit the floor when  I first heard it). Her voice is at best passable—she can carry a tune— but she reads the lyrics in character. Of course Sally isn’t Billy Bigelow (the film version of “Cabaret” always begs the question that if Sally sounds like Liza Minnelli, why is she working in a dive like the Kit Kat Klub?), but try listening to the recording of the 1994 revival of “Carousel.” This featured a young Michael Hayden as Billy (not to mention Audra McDonald as Carrie), and while he was no John Raitt or Nathan Gunn, he brought so much to the table: Billy’s wonderment at being a father, his pride in Bill, his total anguish at not being able to provide for a daughter. He acts the role and the singing follows, rather than the reverse, and the result is an eye opener.

Even with these misgivings, “Carousel” is worth watching. Jessie Mueller is an excellent Carrie Pipperidge, and Jason Danieley (Mr. Snow), Shuler Hensley (Jigger) and Stephanie Blythe (Nettie Fowler) all do a great job. And even if you’re like me, who’d rather spend time with Curley and Laurie in “Oklahoma!” or Emile and Nellie in “South Pacific,” hearing the music of “Carousel” remains something special.

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Posted in Brain Bits, Observations, Television

Brain Bits for a Boston Week

B StrongI love New England. I was proud to spend my college and law school years there, and being able to return to visit family and friends is always a pleasure. So when the bombs went off on Boylston Street on Monday—on Patriot’s Day, no less—it was like a knife to the heart.

The site of this week’s carnage was midway between my law school apartment and my alma mater, which at that time was located on Newbury Street. So I didn’t need to watch the videos of the attack to visualize where this happened. But I did. And I didn’t have to see the photos of the horror that ensued. But I did. And I didn’t need to be glued to NPR while I was at work on Friday, listening to the feed from Boston, in order to picture the lockdown in Boston and what was going on in Watertown. But I was. And on Saturday afternoon I cried when Fox Sports cut away from the Mets/Nationals game to the crowd at Fenway Park, led by Neil Diamond, singing “Sweet Caroline.”

I’ve written before about being a native New Jerseyan. But today, while the Jersey Shore may be in my DNA, my heart beats for Boston.

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What with season finales, series returns and shows dangling over the precipice awaiting word on renewal, there’s a lot going on in TV land. Sunday night is a virtual head-on collision of stalwarts, with “Game of Thrones” airing opposite “Nurse Jackie,” followed by “Mad Men.”

My scorecard so far reads like this:

“Game of Thrones”: Despite (or maybe because of) all the grue and gore, probably the most entertaining show now on the air. Yes, it’s getting complicated with all the different houses vying for the Iron Throne, but some time spent on the HBO web site or reviewing the family trees which appear as an appendix to each of George R.R. Martin’s novels should keep your head straight. And how can you resist Diana Rigg as Olenna Tyrell, pulling the strings as Margery’s grandmother? Or Danerys Targaryan and her dragons of renown? Not to mention Tyrion Lannister, the unlikely hero of this saga? Sunday can never come soon enough.

“Nurse Jackie”: Getting a bit tired here. When did Kevin get to be such a bastard? I hope the show runners aren’t going down the Alzheimer’s path with Akalaitis. And why oh why did O’Hara move to London? Eve Best has got to return, otherwise this show will be a prime candidate for the trash can.

“Mad Men”: Flaccid. Limp. Sorry for the imagery, but what a disappointment the first two episodes of this season were. The two hour premiere was an exercise in tedium—Don Draper doing his “man of mystery” number again while screwing his neighbor’s wife, and what else is new? (By the way, I never would have recognized Linda Cardellini if her name hadn’t appeared in the closing credits). We already know what a rotten childhood Don had, but Matthew Weiner insists on belaboring the issue. At this point I want no more Draper flashbacks whatsoever unless they feature Anna Draper.

Based on the background news casts in last week’s episode, it appears we’re at the beginning of 1968, but where’s the creative snap of this era? Advertising was exploding at that time, what with the “let it all hang out” attitude, yet you’d never know it from what we’ve seen so far. And what’s Joan up to, besides putting down Mr. New Jersey Jaguar Dealership? She’s a partner in SCDP, and should have taken Lane Pryce’s job (though you can bet the boys won’t make her a VP). I enjoyed the Peggy scenes, especially those with her gossiping with Stan, but the show as a whole seems stuck in a rut. Relief is desperately needed.

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southland-cast-regina-king-michael-cudlitz-shawn-hatosy-ben-mckenzieThis season of “Southland” (and perhaps the entire series) ended on a fitting if unhappy note last Wednesday. As a big fan of the show I’d like to see it renewed, but if it isn’t, I have to say the producers left things in a logical place. Former Detective Sammy figured out that Ben was behind the robbery at his house, and their confrontation may have been the best scene of the episode. If “Southland” does return I suspect one of these men will be stuck with Dewey as a partner, which would be great comic relief.

John Cooper was left with nothing, perhaps not even his life. His ex-wife decides not to have a child with him, his ordeal at the hands of two meth heads keeps him off the streets and his sergeant refuses to override the brass’s decision on that score (Cooper’s pistol whipping the noisy neighbor demonstrates exactly why). While it looks like he’s gone, a return of “Southland” would no doubt bring word that the neighbors were indeed engaging in cannabis horticulture, thus exonerating Coop. We’ll see.

Only Lydia seemingly got a happy ending (though Sammy talking to his 18 month-old son like an adult is a joy). I say “seemingly” because while Tom Everett Scott is always easy on the eyes, I’m not sure I’d be trusting an ex-partner who threw me under the bus to save his own skin. But hey—if Lydia is happy, I’m happy.

In the meantime, we can only sit, wait, bite our nails and besiege TNT with emails begging them to renew “Southland.” Let your voice be heard by way of this link on TNT’s website. It can’t hurt.

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I love a good pun, and this one is especially welcome, given the events of the last week. It’s a great play on words, and I’ll give you a hint—it’s from a modern dress production of a certain Wagner opera. Sing out if you get it:

Bayerische Staatsoper

Posted in Television

Southland

southland
Cooper and Sherman….too much water under the bridge

For the umpteenth time, one of the best shows on TV is circling the drain. “Southland,” once NBC’s anointed successor to “ER’s” time slot and more recently in residence on TNT, will air its fifth season-ender on Wednesday night. Let’s just hope it’s not the last we see of it.

“Southland” has not been the luckiest of TV dramas. A classic 10:00 p.m. show, it became a casualty of NBC’s suicidal Jay Leno primetime debacle, which forced the unfortunate rescheduling of dramas to the 9 o’clock hour. This made “Southland,” the grittiest TV show in years, an instant misfit in the eyes of NBC brass—after heavily promoting it they suddenly deemed the show “too violent”  and refused to air its second season. Happily “Southland” did find a home on TNT, which not only aired the season NBC had scuttled in its entirety, but ordered additional episodes.

But there was a catch—more than one, in fact. Not only did the TNT seasons consist of fewer episodes, “Southland” became smaller in terms of budget and cast. Initially it featured the story of Police Cadet Ben Sherman (Ben McKenzie) learning the ropes from Training Officer John Cooper (a superb Michael Cudlitz) against the backdrop of a large ensemble of officers and detectives. But each year has seen the loss of key characters (I especially miss Officer Chickie Brown, Dewey’s beleaguered partner), resulting in the show’s focus on four leads—Cooper, Sherman, Detective Lydia Adams (Regina King) and Police Officer Sammy Bryant (Shawn Hatosy), once a detective and now partnered with Sherman.

“Southland” is not afraid to show the dark sides of its leading characters. Sammy, the classic “two steps forward, one step back” in the personality department, having smacked his ex-wife around, now realizes how badly he acted and wants to make good. Unfortunately his partner Ben, having lied for him to Internal Affairs, sought to protect himself by having some shady characters steal a video of the Bryants’ encounter from Sammy’s house, beating up the babysitter and traumatizing his kid in the process. And Cooper, a cop’s cop, is at a crossroads. His personal life is untethered (a two-year relationship just ended), and he knows his police career will soon come to a close. He doesn’t want to end up like a retired cop friend of his—a drunk bending the ears of all who will listen to his war stories. So Cooper, a gay man wanting more out of life than a police pension, seeks to have and co-parent a child with his ex-wife. It would be incredibly disappointing not to see these stories play out during another season.

“Southland”‘s hallmark is intense drama peppered with the absurd. This season has seen a faked death via a make-up artist’s acid bath; one of the earliest episodes is threaded with the sight of two hookers, having stolen a pro basketball player’s Bentley convertible, riding around with his huge Great Dane in the back seat and waving at Cooper and Sherman each time as they pass by. But when “Southland” gets dramatic, there’s nothing quite like it. Last week, in a plot reminiscent of Joseph Wambaugh’s “The Onion Field,” Cooper and his partner were ambushed and stripped of their weapons by two meth heads, whose kidnapping of the officers ended with the torture and murder of the partner. And one of “Southland”‘s most memorable sequences featured the lengths to which Detective Adams would go to defend the juvenile witness she’s sheltering in her own home against the gang looking to silence her. Regina King is absolutely brilliant in the role.

At this point “Southland”‘s chances for a sixth season look somewhat dim—the ratings have never been lower and Regina King, Ben McKenzie and Shawn Hatosy all have fallback plans for new shows. If it does end, here’s hoping “Southland” goes out on the high level it’s maintained over the years. At least we’ll be left with some great DVDs.

Posted in Music, Opera

A Detour or Two

divaOnDetour310x310I love Patricia Racette. She’s one of the best singing actors I’ve ever seen on an opera stage. Her Blanche de la Force in Poulenc’s “Dialogues of the Carmelites” was incredible, and I’m looking forward to hearing her again in this work at the Met in May, this time as Madame Lidoine. Both her voice and her presence are warm and engaging—she’s superb at drawing the audience in, whether as a Puccini heroine, Verdi’s Leonora or Britten’s Ellen Orford, and she was especially touching in Tobias Picker’s underrated “An American Tragedy” several seasons ago.

I always felt she should have had the type of career Renée Fleming has enjoyed (including the ad for Rolex). Certainly Racette would have been a far better choice for Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah,” and I would love to see her do more at the Met—Marguerite and Desdemona are at the top of my list of roles I’d like to see her perform.

Her new project is an ambitious cabaret show called “Diva on Detour,” the recording of which was recently released. I’m a huge fan of cabaret, but I’m well aware that when opera singers take on this repertory, it’s really hit or miss (Eileen Farrell is of course the gold standard, though Dawn Upshaw and lately Stephanie Blythe are doing quite well with the American Songbook). Since Racette’s first career ambition was to sing jazz, I was curious as to how she’d sound in this type of music. The answer? At this point I’d give her a “B”—good but needs some improvement.

Here are the pluses: Patricia Racette’s cabaret voice is uncommonly rich, but without resorting to a stereotypical opera soprano sound. She does a great job with the Edith Piaf numbers, especially “Milord” and “Mon Dieu,” but her stylistic choice and/or key of “La Vie en Rose” is too heavy for the song. Perhaps not surprisingly she’s at her best when there’s a story to be told, as in “Guess Who I Saw Today?” featured in her “sad song” medley, and her marvelously bluesy “The Man That Got Away.” The minuses: I’m not crazy about some of the tempos (“So in Love” is far too driven), and I think her accompanist is a stiff.

Also, I would have liked the patter to be more informal and less instructive. I’ve heard Racette as a guest on the Metropolitan Opera Quiz, and she’s quick on her feet—funny and wonderfully opinionated. But we don’t get enough of this in “Diva on Detour,” except when she imitates her mother’s broad New Hampshire accent: “Patty! Why ahrn’t ya goin’ on ‘Stah Search’?” And after referring to “my man” several times in “I Got Rhythm,” there’s a sly and perfectly timed switch that rightly makes the audience crack up (Racette came out in an “Opera News” cover story ten years ago at a time when few opera singers, let alone sopranos singing romantic leads, did).

The bottom line? Nancy LaMott or Diana Krall she’s not, but Patricia Racette is interesting, no matter what she sings. With her intelligence and musicianship, the end result is always worth hearing.

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Speaking of divas with a pop streak, I enjoyed Marilyn Horne’s interview of Susan Graham on WQXR’s “Operavore” a few Saturdays ago. The mezzo-to-mezzo chat got really interesting when Horne asked Graham whether she had ever wanted to sing the soprano lead in music. I grinned when Graham replied that she had always preferred harmony—her teen-age career goal was to join the Manhattan Transfer. Susan Graham rocks.

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I want to thank my fellow blogger, The (notso) Secret Life of PhD Student , for nominating me for the Sunshine Award, which is:

… [A]n award given by bloggers to other bloggers. The recipients of the Sunshine Award are: “Bloggers who positively and creatively inspire others in the blogsphere”. The way the award works is this: Thank the person who gave you the award and link back to them. Answer questions about yourself. Select 10 of your favourite bloggers, link their blogs to your post and let them know they have been awarded the Sunshine Award!

So here we go!

What inspired you to start blogging?

This was something I had wanted to do for quite a while, but only started when I was going through a really stressful time a couple of years ago. In my book blogging beats therapy—and it’s cheaper, too!

How did you come up with the name to your blog?

It just popped into my head. For the record, I usually name my pets this way and it works!

What is your favorite blog you like to read?

Anything about classical music and opera, especially those on the WQXR website.

Tell about your dream job.

Chief music critic of the New York Times.

Is your glass half empty or half full?

At the risk of putting the evil eye on it, these days it’s half full.

If you could go anywhere for a week’s vacation, where would you go?

I’d split it between two cities I’ve never been to, except to change planes—Chicago and San Francisco.

What food can you absolutely not eat?

Calves’ liver (though I adore chicken livers—go figure).

Dark chocolate or milk chocolate?

Age brings with it a total love affair with dark chocolate. Can’t get enough of the stuff.

How much time do you spend blogging?

Not as much as I’d like. My present job makes it tough for me to post more than once a week, and I’m hopelessly behind in thanking bloggers who’ve posted comments and liked my stuff, let alone keeping up with blogs I follow.

Do you watch TV, and if so, what are some of your favorite shows?

Can’t live without the tube, and my current favorites in no particular order are Homeland, Mad Men, Game of Thrones, Southland, Nurse Jackie, Boardwalk Empire and Law and Order: SVU. I’m still a fan of The Sopranos, The Wire, Six Feet Under (for my money, the best show ever), The Twilight Zone, Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

Once again, mille grazie, PhD Student!