Posted in Broadway Musicals, Opera, Theater

Corona Interlude

Bottom (Hammed Animashaun), Oberon (Oliver Chris) and Titania (Gwendoline Christie) in A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Production image: Manuel Harlan for the Bridge Theatre).

God bless the internet.

Weathering the lockdowns of COVID-19 may have robbed us of in-person live performance, but there is so much to see and hear online. The availability of free opera from a variety of sources has been amazing, from the Metropolitan Opera to Salzburg to the Vienna State Opera. I particularly enjoyed Vienna’s production of “Ariadne auf Naxos” featuring a very young Lise Davidsen as Ariadne and the wonderful Zerbinetta of Erin Morley. But what made it special was a particular feature that was so obvious, but which I had never seen done before. In this production which, judging by the costumes in the Prologue, appeared to be set in the early 1920’s, the Composer, sung by the excellent mezzo Rachel Frenkel, was on-stage throughout the opera proper. It makes a great deal of sense—it is the Composer’s opera after all, and while he had nothing to sing or speak, his attentiveness in “cueing” the singers was amusingly apt. The high point came when he “accompanied” Zerbinetta at the piano during her big aria. While the actual music came from the orchestra pit, Ms. Frenkel was so accurate in her keyboard locations throughout this long piece that I’d have to think she’s a pretty skilled pianist offstage. And the ending of the opera, which saw Zerbinetta and the Composer together as the earthly counterpart to Ariadne and Bacchus, was sweet indeed.

I had been thinking I wasn’t the Janacek fan I used to be until I recently saw the San Francisco Opera production of “The Makropoulos Affair.” When I last attended a Met performance a couple of years ago I longed for the opportunity to see the opera in HD. Since the springboard of the plot is a law suit involving an estate, it’s a very “talky” work that demands subtle acting that’s not always visible from the Family Circle. The SFO production certainly delivered with a uniformly excellent cast. While Karita Matilla, as the 337 year-old heroine, was a bit more Norma Desmond-ish than I would have liked, you couldn’t have asked for more musically. Bravi tutti!

Theater is thriving on the internet, and I have enough stockpiled links to performances to keep me busy for the next five decades. Some were especially enlightening—a regional production of “Fun Home” that proved this work loses its necessary intensity when performed on a proscenium stage instead of in the round as I saw it on Broadway, and a British production of Stephen Sondheim’s “Merrily We Roll Along” which I particularly enjoyed. I had never seen this musical before though I own three different cast recordings, and it was especially gratifying to finally experience the intended dramatic settings of the songs.

Of course the big event of this COVID-19 interlude was the premiere of the taped performance of “Hamilton” on Disney Plus featuring the show’s original cast. This was my second time around for “Hamilton”—I was fortunate to have seen it live on Broadway about 18 months ago by way of a win in the show’s perpetual ticket lottery. That performance’s strengths differed somewhat from the taped version—I had the benefit of a tall, handsome Hamilton who somewhat outshone the shorter, slighter, balding actor who played Burr, and while the electric give and take between audience and actors is a given in live theater, in “Hamilton” it was off the charts (Yes, the line “Immigrants, we get the job done” brought down the house). However, all bets were off at the juncture of “The Room Where It Happened” when Burr tore into that number like nobody’s business, making it the best performed part of the show. I missed that level of excitement in the taped version as well as a more consistent view of the full stage in order to see how inventively the chorus is used. Nevertheless this was more than compensated for by the superb performances of the original cast, especially that of Leslie Odom, Jr. as Burr. He had me with his melting version of “Dear Theodosia,” and it was easy to see why he, along with Renee Elise Goldsberry as Angelica Schuyler and Daveed Diggs as Thomas Jefferson won Tony Awards.

But without a doubt what I’ve most enjoyed during live performance exile was the National Theatre’s “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” directed by Nicholas Hytner. This was an immersive, anything-goes presentation with aerial stunts, the former Brienne of Tarth (Gwendoline Christie) as Titania and a quartet of lovers in which the girls seemed more interested in each other than in their interchangeable boyfriends. However, the neatest trick of this production was flipping Oberon’s and Titania’s lines so that he, not she, falls in love with the donkey-fied Bottom. It was so divinely silly, and Hammad Animashaun, braying nicely as Bottom, and especially Oliver Chris as the besotted Oberon, were simply superb. But above all, a special nod goes to whomever came up with the idea of using Beyoncé’s “Love On Top” as “their” song—he or she deserves both a bonus and a raise. Simply wonderful.

Stay safe everyone. Till next time.

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Theater

Oklahoma!

Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones) and Curley (Damon Daunno)

The overture’s missing. Ditto the chorus.

The first act ends not with a dream ballet, but with Laurey (Rebecca Naomi Jones) singing a stunning one chorus reprise of “Out of My Dreams,” a capella. The ballet opens the second act. It’s a solo dance—Dream Laurey, Curley and Jud, not to mention the dance hall girls of Ali Hakim’s dirty postcards, are nowhere to be found.

Two key scenes are played in total darkness.

These are only a few of the many differences in the Tony-winning revival of “Oklahoma!” at the Circle in the Square Theater in New York, probably the most controversial show now running on Broadway. Battles over this production’s merits have been raging in on-line forums for months; critics have either loved it or hated it. I saw it on Friday night, and while a lot of the show made me grin with delight, I nevertheless appreciated those aspects of the production that failed to make me do so. Director Daniel Fish’s vision is never less than thoughtful, and the choices he’s made that result in Rodgers and Hammerstein purists screaming “Betrayal!” in fact grow organically out of the text. Perhaps what disturbs people the most is that he’s divorced the show from the times that gave birth to it. “Oklahoma!” premiered during the World War II year of 1943, when unstinting American optimism was essential. In the years since we’ve come to realize our history as a nation wasn’t as squeaky-clean as those of that era believed.

Daniel Fish’s production is an intimate one. The show is presented in the round, more accurately in a rectangular playing area lined with picnic tables (chili and corn bread are served at intermission). The cast is pared down to speaking roles only and all act as chorus. You’d think the musical aspects of the show would suffer, but never fear. When the cast sings the title song, those soaring choral lines are neatly covered by eleven actors, including four women, sopranos all, who absolutely fly. The songs are performed country & western style, and accompanied by a seven-person band, consisting of accordion/snare (conductor), violin, cello, string bass, banjo, steel guitar/mandolin/electric guitar and an additional electric guitar, supplemented at times by Curley (Damon Daunno) on acoustic guitar. 

If you think there’s no way to shoehorn Richard Rodgers into country & western mode, guess again. It all works, but with one exception—“People Will Say We’re in Love,” which sort of goes clunk though it’s easy to understand why. One of the best aspects of this production is the refreshing youth of its principal actors. As a result Laurey’s initial brattiness and Curley’s near-adolescent boasting make perfect sense. Their solo numbers, “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning,” “The Surrey With the Fringe on Top,” “Many a New Day” and “Out of My Dreams” reflect their youth, but the lyrics of “People Will Say We’re in Love” struck me as a bit too sophisticated for this Curley and Laurey. After all the energetic country & western twang we’d been hearing, this song’s music comes across as staid ’40’s pop. This is a reversion to your parents’ “Oklahoma!,” and it sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb, especially after all the musical fun we’ve been having.

This is at times a dramatically raw production. Its take on Jud is interesting—though Laurey calls him a “growly man,” Parick Vaill, who plays him, is tall and rather poetic-looking (and has a terrific singing voice).  What makes him frightening is neither his physique nor his manner but rather his obsession with Laurey. When Curley confronts him in his smokehouse lair, the lights in the theater go dark, further putting the audience on edge. Critics have protested that this is too much for such a sunny work, but is it really? Think about it: Curley basically urges Jud to commit suicide, casting the funeral that would follow as a celebration of his character. Director Daniel Fish suggests that Curley and Jud are two sides of the same coin, and he may be right. Curley is universally liked, but nobody likes Jud, a fact made obvious in the scene where Laurey’s picnic hamper is put up for auction at the social. There’s a strong sense that the men Aunt Eller urges to bid don’t do so to help Curley win the girl, but are instead doing it because they hate Jud., the eternal outsider. 

Ado Annie (Ali Stroker) gets her big “Oklahoma hello” from Will Parker (James Davis)

The last 15 minutes of the show are a roller coaster. Curley and Laurey’s wedding scene of course features “Oklahoma!,” performed as joyfully as you remember it, the audience clapping along, only to end abruptly when Jud shows up. The gun he presents to Curley as a wedding gift is fired when Jud rushes toward Curley and Laurey, whose faces and wedding clothes are spattered with blood. In contrast to other productions as well as the “Oklahoma!” film, the on-the-spot trial which follows is played not for laughs, but in all seriousness. The actors’ delivery slows to a crawl with pauses between each line. The audience is completely silent (though I was becoming irritated at how much this scene was being stretched out). When Cord Elam, the US Marshall, protests the absence of legal formality, Aunt Eller’s responding threat to him for interfering is deadly serious; while the tension is eventually broken, it doesn’t go away. At the conclusion of the show, when the cast reprises “Oklahoma!,” Cord approaches Laurie, looming over her, as if to say “This is your fault” (Does he think she led Jud on?) She joins in the song, but angrily, with full awareness that her future with Curley has been literally and irrevocably stained (This was the version of the song that was performed at the Tony Awards, which made viewers ask “Why is she so pissed off?”). It’s not a happy ending, but I think a valid one, given what we’ve seen, and a logical conclusion to that trial scene.

The performances are uniformly excellent. I especially enjoyed Will Brill, sharply funny as Ali Hakim, and was intrigued by Patrick Vaill’s Jud. But most of all, Ali Stroker as Ado Annie simply exceeds expectations. What a voice! That Tony she won was deserved tenfold.

This is a show that requires open minds. I strongly urge you to see it and make up your own. 

 

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Music, Theater

The Sound of Broadway–Reprise

Ah. Broadway! It’s been a while since I did a round-up of some favorite cast albums, so a sequel is definitely in order. All of these have taken up residence in my MP3 player, as they’re well worth the listen.

The New York City Center’s “Encores!” series has rescued a number of musicals which have fallen into obscurity, closed prematurely due to plain bad luck or are just ripe for revival. “Encores!” productions, all of very limited runs, were initially semi-staged, but later blossomed into more elaborate performances. Some have transferred to Broadway: the current production of “Chicago” that’s been running for the last 20 years began as an “Encores!” presentation, and many fine recordings have resulted from the work of this series.

The latest is an absolute gem that memorializes the revival of Lerner and Loewe’s “Brigadoon,” that starred Patrick Wilson and Kelli O’Hara. Before this I had never really been a fan of the show, which relies on the fairy-tale premise of a magical village that avoids the strife of the world by appearing for only one day each century. It has some lovely songs: “Come To Me, Bend To Me,” “The Heather on the Hill,” and especially “Almost Like Being In Love,” the musical’s hit tune. A number of years ago John McGlinn, the conductor responsible for the classic recording of “Show Boat,” recorded “Brigadoon” with Brent Barrett and Rebecca Luker. Much as I admire these performers, I wasn’t impressed. The tempos were slower than they should have been, and the approach taken was too sunny bright, even though there’s a darker side to the story. It seemed like a first tentative reading of the score. I listened to it once and put it away.

The new “Encores!” recording, which was only released a few months ago, is another matter entirely. It’s wonderfully alive. There’s an urgency to the performance—the chorus of villagers in “Down on MacConnachy Square” is brisk and beautifully sung. Kelli O’Hara is such a natural for Fiona that it’s almost ridiculous. Listening to this recording, I was struck by how high her music lies—I believe only Cunegonde in Leonard Bernstein’s “Candide” sits higher. But it’s Patrick Wilson who makes the difference in this recording. Whether in song or dialogue, he presents as a true believer in the magic of Brigadoon, which in turn makes true believers of us. These two performers, along with a vibrant Stephanie J. Block as Meg , Ross Lekites as Charlie, and the rest, seem to have had a wonderful time playing this show, as you can see here. My recommendation: Buy it before it goes out of print or otherwise disappears.

Moving from the introverted to the extroverted (to say the least), perhaps the best represented Broadway show on disk is “Gypsy,” with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and an exceptionally strong book by Arthur Laurents.  The gifts this show provides are endless: that classic overture during which the audience always loses it when the strip music begins; a female starring role that’s generally acknowledged to be the Mount Everest of musical roles; and the strippers’ “You Gotta Have a Gimmick” perhaps the best showstopper in Broadway history, among other charms. The musical runs an emotional gamut ranging from show business love letter to wrenching self-confession. Louise, aka Gypsy Rose Lee, isn’t the only one who strips; her mother Rose peels away many emotional layers to admit a core desire: “Someone tell me when is it my turn?”

The original cast album with Ethel Merman is of course the blueprint of performance, presenting the creators’ original intentions. It’s been followed by a number of worthy Roses: Angela Lansbury, Tyne Daly, Bette Midler, Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Imelda Staunton, all of whose performances are available on CD or through streaming services. Each of their recordings is interesting, all valid in one particular or another. I saw Bernadette Peters perform the role onstage (twice) and Bette Midler in the made for TV version, though after listening to the Tyne Daly recording, I really wish I had seen her on stage.

Which recording do I prefer? Your mileage may vary, but my vote goes to  Bernadette, not just because I’m a fan. This seems to contain every note of music in the show, with if not the original orchestrations, some accurate facsimiles. I like her approach to the role–she charms more, shouts less, though there’s some steel there. She’s partnered by John Dossett as Herbie, and refreshingly, the man can really sing. The other recorded Herbies are funny and cute when they can’t carry a tune, but it makes a big difference when there’s a Herbie who can be Rose’s musical foil. And we finally get to hear in their entirety the four strip acts Louise performs on her way to becoming a Minsky’s headliner (This was a wonder to see in the theater—there must have been an army of dressers on each side of the stage to facilitate each costume change). Beginning as a scared to death newbie, she audibly grows in confidence and delight in performing.

The runner-up in the “Gypsy” recording sweepstakes for me is the one with Patti LuPone. I’m not a particular fan of hers, but Laura Benanti is the best Louise on disk. It’s interesting to hear a soprano sing it, plus she plays the comedy exceptionally well—her wickedly accurate imitation of Patti LuPone during one of her strips is worth the price of the recording. Whichever one you favor, enjoy the score of one of the greatest musicals ever written.

One of the funniest shows I’ve ever seen is “The Prom,” now running on Broadway. The story begins with four narcissistic Broadway actors in need of some good publicity who come to the aid of a gay Indiana teenager. The problem? Her desire to take her girlfriend to their prom has resulted in the event’s cancellation by the town’s powers that be. The results are hilarious but with an underlying sweetness that makes the audience cheer. And yes, there’s a prom for all at the end where girl gets girl.

The original cast album is an excellent representation of the work of composer Matthew Sklar and Chad Beguelin, author of the exceptionally witty lyrics. When I first heard the score I thought it a bit generic, but subsequent listening reveals the frequent references to other Broadway shows, in the same fashion the lyrics allude to these other musicals. Broadway diva Dee Dee’s song, “It’s Not About Me” has the rhythmic pulse of “America” from “West Side Story,” and the ending of Emma’s ballad, “Unruly Heart,” is reminiscent of “One Boy” from “Bye Bye Birdie,” as if to say straight or gay, a teenager is still a teenager. Taking the cake, though, is “Zazz,” a Kander & Ebb/Bob Fosse send-up sung by Angie, a girl who’s been in the chorus of a “Chicago” touring company for twenty years, who instructs Emma in the art of strutting her stuff.

“The Prom” cast album presents many other rewards: Christopher Siebert’s ringing tenor in “Love Thy Neighbor,” as he demonstrates that cherry-picking the Bible is not a good idea; Brooks Ashmanskas’ “Barry’s Going to the Prom,” as he finally has the opportunity to make up for what he missed out on as a gay teenager; and Caitlin Kinnunen and Isabelle McCalla as Emma and Alyssa, who share the same vocal range and sing in tight harmony, the universal signal that they’re meant to be together. And because this is a show about a prom, the dance music is a great way to get your blood flowing in the morning if you’re slow to wake up. Here’s a taste, which juxtaposes the recording of the prom-posal scene with scenes from the show.

There’s nothing like a Broadway show, is there?

Posted in Broadway Musicals, Theater

Still Rolling Along

Then and Now: Lonny Price (Charley), Ann Morrison (Mary) and Jim Walton (Frank)

What do you do after you’ve achieved your life’s dream at age 20?

“Best Worst Thing That Ever Could Have Happened,” a wonderful documentary available on Netflix, asks and answers this question, among many other classic queries. Although the ostensible subject of the film is the legendary Stephen Sondheim-Hal Prince musical, “Merrily We Roll Along,” equally known for being a legendary flop at its 1981 premiere, it rewards us as much by its insights into life’s paths as it does by its examination of the creative process.

Based on a George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart play of the same title, “Merrily” famously mirrors its source material by telling its story in reverse. Each succeeding scene takes place earlier in time so that we can see where and how Franklin Shepard, a successful songwriter turned movie producer, hashed up his life—more precisely, how he left the path of personal fulfillment and promise and lost the love and goodwill of his wife and two closest friends along the way. It should come as no surprise that adultery, divorce, cynicism and chasing the almighty dollar, not to mention the sacrifice of youthful ideals, factor heavily into the equation. By now this plot may seem old hat, but Sondheim blessed it with one of his finest scores, which includes “Good Thing Going,” “Not a Day Goes By” and “Old Friends.” Although the original production lasted only 16 performances, the show has grown enormously in reputation through numerous revisions and revivals. If you haven’t guessed by now, I’m a “Merrily” junkie—I own three different cast albums of the show, and wouldn’t part with any of them.

How could a Sondheim-Prince musical flop after a string of shows like “Company,” “Follies,” “A Little Night Music,” “Pacific Overtures,” and “Sweeney Todd”?”Best Worst Thing” tells us why through footage shot during the rehearsal process by ABC, which began but later abandoned its documentary of the creation of this Broadway show. Ultimately two directorial choices proved problematic. Hal Prince opted to present “Merrily” on a more or less bare stage with costuming consisting of t-shirts and sweatshirts bearing character names and designations (“Mary,” “Best Friend,” “Unemployed Actor”). The effect was to make the setting of the show look like a high school gymnasium, which amplified Prince’s even worse decision: casting very young actors (late teens into early 20’s) to play the characters throughout the piece, even as their middle-aged selves (Remember, we’re going backwards). With very few exceptions, they just didn’t have the acting chops to bring it off, which “Best Worst Thing” makes painfully obvious. At one point in the film we see Sondheim telling Prince he needs more time to write and revise a number of songs, that because kids are telling the story, he needs to “write simpler.” Yet he never completely succeeded in “writing backwards” by toning down the sophistication of his lyrics or modifying the very adult point of view of his work. This is totally evident when we see the original leads, now in their 40’s, playing these roles in footage from a 2002 reunion concert. What appears as a tremendous disconnect in 1981, to hear Sondheim’s razor-sharp, adult-insightful lyrics coming out of kids’ mouths, seems tailor-made as sung by the same people 20 years later. Life’s mileage will do that.

Being cast in a Sondheim-Prince musical in 1981 was a dream come true for all of the young actors in the “Merrily” company. All of those interviewed in the documentary had grown up on original cast albums, and for years had harbored visions of appearing on Broadway. It’s obvious that to a certain degree these people still feel the devastation that ensued when the show took a critical beating and abruptly closed.

We see to what extent their lives came to deviate from their youthful plans. Lonny Price, the original Charley, eventually turned to theatrical directing, and in fact directed “Best Worst Thing.” Others stayed in the business, though several supporting players, like Tonya Pinkens, Liz Callaway and, most prominently, Jason Alexander, eventually enjoyed the greatest post-“Merrily” success. Several, like Abby Pogrebin, later a “60 Minutes” producer and author, went on to entirely different careers. Suffering a monumental setback at age 20 was horrendous, but at least they all had youth and resilience on their side.

“Poignant” is the word most frequently encountered in reviews of “The Best Worst Thing,” and there’s no better reason for the usage of that word than the sight of Lonny Price watching the ABC documentary footage of his 22 year-old self. Referring to his imminent Broadway debut, young Lonny says “Even if I never do anything else, I will have had this,” which reduces older Lonny to tears. It’s not hard to read the adult’s thoughts: how little the young man knew, how much more Price went on to accomplish, what more there is in store in life and career.

Age will do that.

Posted in Theater

Indecent

Adina Verson and Katrina Lenk in INDECENT written by Paula Vogel, created by Paula Vogel and Rebecca Taichman, directed by Rebecca Taichman. Photo by Carol Rosegg, 2015.
Adina Verson and Katrina Lenk in “Indecent” (Photo by Carol Rosegg, 2015)

One of the joys—or woes—of live theater is its variability. An actor may be slightly off, the audience could be restless or something else may break the mood (Curse those cellphones!). On the other hand if you’re lucky all can fall into place and you’re treated to a wonderful performance. Fortunately that was the case when I saw “Indecent” last weekend at the Vineyard Theater in New York.

Created by Paula Vogel (author) and Rebecca Taichman (director), “Indecent” is a play about another play: Sholem Asch’s “God of Vengeance,” as well as the actors who perform it in its various incarnations. Written in 1907, “God of Vengeance” is the story of a Jew who runs a brothel in the basement of his home. Married to a former prostitute he seeks redemption through an arranged marriage between his innocent teen-aged daughter and a prized Talmudic scholar. He’s even commissioned a handwritten Torah to present to his future son-in-law as another mitzvah to wash away his sins. All comes to naught when Papa discovers daughter Rivkele has fallen in love with Manke, one of the girls downstairs, with whom she has spent the night. Enraged, he hurls the Torah to the floor and drags his daughter to the basement to work with his other girls. Curtain.

Although the play had been performed to great acclaim in Europe and in Yiddish theater in America, an English translation of “God of Vengeance” that opened on Broadway in 1923 was shut down, its cast and producers arrested and convicted of obscenity. Why? Because of the love scene between Rivkele and Manke, by turns lyrical and erotic, though most of it had been cut so as not to offend American sensibilities (The leading blue nose was a prominent Manhattan rabbi who denounced “God of Vengeance” from the pulpit as “bad for the Jews,” flying as this does in the face of Asch’s stated opinion: “Why must every Jew on stage be a paragon?”). Ultimately the actors’ convictions were overturned on appeal and the producers paid small fines, but not before the trial judge excoriated the play from the bench in a speech quoted in “Indecent” that just drips with the barely veiled antisemitism of that era.

But “Indecent” goes beyond that; it traces “God of Vengeance” from its inception to 1952 when Sholem Asch departed his adopted America for England. It’s not strictly biography or history but a cultural kaleidoscope. Presented by a company of seven actors and three musicians,  “Indecent” sounds some essential themes: the power of theater, the beauty of love, the harshness of censorship, the homogenization of culture and ultimately the survivorship of the human spirit through art. And it does so with a deft touch.

Six of the actors play multiple roles in “Indecent;” the one constant is Lemml (Richard Topol), a Polish tailor drafted to participate in the first reading of “God of Vengeance,” who acts as stage manager for both plays. As is evident from his introductory remarks, the fulcrum of “Indecent” is the love scene in “God of Vengeance” between Rivkele and Manke, referred to as “the rain scene.” One aspect of what makes “Indecent” extraordinary theater is the way Ms. Vogel and Ms. Taichman use this throughout their play and the manner in which it ultimately unfolds—twice. We see bits, pieces and other allusions at various times, but experiencing the rain scene in full is the emotional high point of the evening, as it also is in “God of Vengeance.”

Along the way there’s musical commentary by the actors and musicians: a naughty Berlin cabaret song, klezmer, a “Goodbye, God, I’m off to America” number (in which Orthodox payess, or sidelocks, become a flapper’s curls), some Charleston and—you guessed it—an Andrews Sisters-style “Bei Mir Bist Du Schein” (Yiddish meets ’30’s swing). There’s also a cameo by Eugene O’Neill, who was set to testify in defense of the 1923 production of “God of Vengeance” before the judge disallowed his appearance. It should come as no surprise that his favorite aspect of the play is Asch’s take-down of the selling of religion.

It’s somehow fitting that the full performance of the rain scene is presented by a troupe in hiding from the Nazis in the wartime Lodz Ghetto. As Lemml announces, “We’re performing Act II tonight, and God willing, if we’re still here, Act III next week.” And Katrina Lenk (Manke) and Adina Verson (Rivkele) do so, with a perfect blend of tenderness and sensuality. You think “nothing can top this” until these actors perform the scene once more, this time in Yiddish, after a disillusioned Sholem Asch leaves America. But this time it really rains—on stage—so that Manke’s stated desire, to wash Rivkele’s hair in the May rain, can become as real as Asch intended. It’s a magical sight.

The cast of “Indecent” is uniformly excellent. They’ve stayed with the play through its various stages of development, and their experience shows. Likewise the expertise of Paula Vogel in writing playwright to playwright, as it were. “Indecent” is one remarkable achievement.

Unfortunately the play’s New York run is currently set to end on June 19. Here’s hoping it’s taped by PBS—both play and production have earned it.

Posted in Music, Opera, Theater

All in a Weekend

oldhats1
Bill Irwin and David Shiner in “Old Hats”

There are ups and downs to the freelancing life, and one of the latter is sometimes having to work on holidays. While I did so on Presidents’ Day, I still enjoyed fine theater and music throughout the weekend. Unfortunately, though, I ended with the Metropolitan Opera’s latest dead-on-arrival new production, “Manon Lescaut.” In the immortal words of every baseball manager who ever lived, “You can’t win ’em all.”

Fortunately my weekend kickoff was “Old Hats,” a return engagement of the 2013 show starring Bill Irwin and David Shiner. Although I wasn’t previously familiar with David Shiner’s work, I feel like Bill Irwin and I go way back. I remember him as the mime Enrico Ballati on “Northern Exposure,” and was fortunate to see his Tony-winning performance as George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” opposite Kathleen Turner (the corrosive look those two exchanged after his “get the guests” game will remain with me forever).

“Old Hats” predictably begins with Irwin and Shiner one-upping each other in a hat routine; what follows is one cleverly outlandish sequence after another. What is most striking about the evening’s entertainment is how fresh and spontaneous they made everything seem, even after working together for twenty years. You’d think a routine featuring two politicians engaged in debate would be a yawner, but aside from the timeliness during this election year, how quickly they responded to each other became its own source of delight.

My favorite sequence in “Old Hats” consisted of an act featuring an over-the-hill magician (Shiner) and his blowsy blonde assistant (Irwin in drag). He goes into a disco move every time something goes wrong (which is frequently); she looks daggers at the young female “volunteer” from the audience who’s about to be sawed in half. In short this is a compilation of every bad act that ever appeared on the old Ed Sullivan show, and I could not stop laughing. Equally good is Shiner’s take on silent cowboy movies, featuring a cast recruited from the audience. Whether some or all of these people were plants is immaterial—Shiner’s inventiveness was amazing. I can’t remember the last time I laughed like that.

While Irwin and Shiner are for the most part silent throughout, Shaina Taub and her band who supply the music, songs and occasional sound effects fortunately are not. This is clowning at its finest, and I can’t recommend “Old Hats” highly enough.

Manon Lescaut
Love in Occupied France: “Manon Lescaut”

Had Jonas Kaufmann not cancelled his appearance in the Met’s new production of “Manon Lescaut,” the approach taken by director Richard Eyre might have worked, at least in part. Instead we were left with an ill-conceived staging that did few favors for the spirit of the work. By the end of the opera it seemed apparent that the only heroes of the night were Puccini and conductor Fabio Luisi.

Eyre set this production in Occupied France, ostensibly because he feels “Manon Lescaut” has a noirish tone. Certainly he can’t get this from the music—Act I just pops with youth and springtime. To say it killed the joy to see the stage populated with German soldiers is an understatement. Their presence begged so many questions: How could the crowd at the outdoor cafe get away with taunting them en masse? Why would the Wehrmacht, not the gendarmerie, come to arrest Manon for common theft? Any deportations during World War II would have been to the death camps, not to the swamps of Louisiana envisioned by Puccini, Massenet (composer of the earlier Manon) or even Abbé Prévost, author of the 1731 novel on which both operas are based. While I usually enjoy updated opera—I particularly liked Eyre’s own “Le Nozze di Figaro” set during the “Regle du jeu” 1930’s—the setting has to serve the work and the intentions of the composer and librettist. It did not do so here.

Jonas Kaufmann’s participation would have wall-papered over some of the shortcomings of Eyre’s approach. At least he and Kristine Opalais (Manon) would have had chemistry. Unfortunately with Roberto Alagna as des Grieux, we were stuck with two hard-working professionals who simply didn’t relate to each other. In fact despite the bedroom scene in the second act, there was no discernible heat on stage until Act III, when the lovers’ plight became desperate. I was also bothered by Eyre’s view of Manon. Simply putting Opalais in a Veronica Lake wig and silk negligee does not supply motivation for the character. Mirella Freni was the first Manon Lescaut I ever saw onstage, and though she probably wouldn’t have seen 60 again at that point, she had a firm view of the character that was expressed from within. She let you know in Act II that Manon had her bitchy side, but more than that, the character enjoyed showing it. Opalais could reach that watermark, but in a different production of “Manon Lescaut” that doesn’t saddle her with such a wrong directorial concept.

My advice is to stay home and listen to the radio broadcast on March 5. Fabio Luisi leads a sympathetic reading of the score, the singers tend to the musical side of things in good form and you won’t be distracted by all the nonsense that transpires on stage.

Preludios

 

Every so often it’s refreshing to leave the standard Italian/French/German vocal repertoire for works from other cultural traditions. Mezzo-soprano Isabel Leonard’s recent album “Preludios” presents some wonderfully ear-catching Spanish song, including de Falla’s “Siete canciones populares españolas” and Montsalvatge’s “Cinco canciónes negras”; her performance of the latter is worth the price of the CD alone.

The Catalonian Xavier Montsalvage composed this cycle in 1946, and its reliance on both Spanish and Cuban styles resulted in the composer’s best-known work. I’ve loved this from first hearing via a Victoria de los Angeles song anthology. Her version had symphonic accompaniment; Miss Leonard is partnered by the talented pianist Brian Zeger. The high point of both song cycle and CD is without question her performance of “Canción de cuña para dormir a un negrito.” Leonard takes this work with its unusual sliding chromaticism at a markedly slower tempo than de los Angeles—it’s a lullaby after all. This, in addition to the progressively softer dynamic, serves to underscore the beauty of the alluring melody and the lovely sound of Leonard’s voice. The result is absolutely stunning. The exuberant “Canto negro” follows to end this expressive song cycle.

Brava Isabel!