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GLENN LONEY'S SHOW NOTES
By Glenn Loney, March 26, 2000
 New Play Premieres
"MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN"--Roy Dotrice gives Cherry Jones fatherly advice. Photo: ©Eric Y. Exit.
 "Joyful Noise"
 "The Tale of the Allergist's Wife"
 "The Altruists"
 "The Moment When"
 "The Hologram Theory"
 "Two Sisters and a Piano"
 "An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf"
 Juillard's "Importance of Being Earnest" & "A Question of Mercy"
 "A Moon for the Misbegotten"
 "The Country Boy"
 "The Time of the Cuckoo"
 "American Buffalo"
 "True West"
 Trinity Irish Dance Company
 "The Big Bang"
 "The Bombitty of Errors"
 "Taking a Chance on Love"
 The Songs of Cole Porter
 Salzburg Marionette "Figaro"
 Boito's "Mefistofele" at the Met
 Operetta at the Met: "The Merry Widow"
 Celebrating Kurt Weill's Centenary
 "The Eternal Road" at BAM
 Culture Notes from Chemnitz
 City Opera's "Mother of Us All"
 Michael Roth's "Their Thought and Back Again"
 "Fully Committeed"
 "The Red Balloon"
 "Pojagi" at LaMaMa
 "The Noise of Time"
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New Plays in Premiere—Last September, seasonal prospects on Broadway for provocative—or even entertaining—theatre looked rather thin. In December and January, they were positively bleak.
Now, days away from nominations for major theatre-awards, mid-town Manhattan seems suddenly flooded with new productions. Not to overlook the profusion of interesting new stagings Off-Broadway and beyond.
In the past few years, this eruption of frenzied theatre activity near season's end—and the award ceremonies—begins to resemble the rush to open new films before Oscar nominations.
As I am a nominator for the Outer Critics' Circle Awards, this means virtually full-time attendance at the theatre. No time to lie around the apartment reading trashy French novels…
Surveying only the new shows I've seen in the past few weeks—since I returned from a London theatre adventure—I know I will find it very difficult to limit my nominations to four names or titles in each category.
I could easily fill all categories on my score-card from the recent & current shows briefly listed below. But, realizing that great shows and performances seen last October are too soon forgotten—even if the productions are still running—I've kept notes on several score of names & titles from past months.
There just won't be awards enough to go around to all the excellent productions and outstanding performances!
And there isn't time or space enough—even here in the electronic ether—to do more now than indicate some of the high points of the important new stagings that follow. Some were virtual showcases. Others were limited runs. But most are still running, or will tour or return. Some of the shows with short engagements in New York deserve to be very widely seen.
"Joyful Noise" [*****]This elegant and engaging play-with-music encounters composer George Fredrick Handel [Tom Stephenson] at the lowest point in his London career. For the talented actress Susannah Cibber [Mary Miller]—the victim of a celebrated sex-scandal—prospects are even grimmer.
But Tim Slover's ingenious and often amusing drama raises them both on wings of song, notably those gracefully waving in "The Messiah." As in the current G&S film, "Topsy-Turvy," audiences are given glimpses of the bitter realities of theatre-life in another era.
With elegant costumes and handsome but limited props, the stage of the Lambs Theatre was deftly transformed into various locales in 18th century London. With a cast featuring impressive and well-trained voices of opera caliber, the fact that they are all able actors made the event both operatic and theatrical. Robert Smyth directed with nuance and skill.
This thoroughly professional production of the Lambs Players—no relation to the New York venue—from San Diego should be widely toured, if at all possible. This is clearly an ensemble to watch!
"The Tale of the Allergist's Wife" [****]Manhattan Theatre Club's Artistic Director, Lynne Meadow, has staged Charles Busch's new social satire with furious energy, sharpening its already razor-edge observations of Manhattanites and their morés.
Although Busch made his name playing some of his own female creations, the frantically culture-hungry Marjorie seems made for Linda Lavin. She is at times almost over-the-top, to the astonishment of her self-involved but lovable allergist-husband Ira [Tony Roberts].
Michele Lee is dazzling as the mysterious long-ago school-chum who drops in out of nowhere to endlessly drop names of the rich & famous. Shirl Bernheim is hilarious as the Jewish Mother from Hell, issuing frequent oral bulletins on her anal and internal problems.
This show convulses audiences, and even major critics have expressed delight—at least with the performances and the concept. But matters run out of control in the second half of the drama, so the play ends without an effective resolution.
This production is an obvious candidate for commercial transfer: Neil Simon with fangs!
The play should also do very well in regional theatres, even with its distinctively New York problems and characters. It could be a major motion-picture as well, if Busch can doctor his second act.
Linda Lavin & Tony Roberts would be great for the film, but Bette Midler will probably get the nod to play the hysterical wife.
"The Altruists" [****]Some Senior theatre-fans have confused Altruists with Allergist's, but Nicky Silver's new social-satire is at the Vineyard Theatre on Union Square, far from the MTC's midtown venue.
Considering the frequent complaint that most new comedies are little more than TV sitcoms performed live, it is astonishing to have two sharply contemporary indictments of morals and manners on view at the same time. The spirit of Molière—not to mention Aristophanes, Oscar Wilde, and Noël Coward—must be hovering over Manhattan!
Veanne Cox is even more over-the-top than Linda Lavin, in her evocation of a bubble-headed TV soap-opera star. She wrongly thinks she has just shot her lying, cheating, conniving, well-endowed husband.
She has shot someone dead all right, but not him. The hilariously complicated plot is animated by dotty amateur Social Protesters, who offer Silver—and his powerhouse cast—a field-day for outing such phonies.
They are all against sending the innocent to Death Row—in principle, at least. But when someone has to take the rap, it will never be them.
David Warren has dynamically staged Sam Robards, Joey Slotnick, Kali Rocha, and Eddie Cahill. The production gathers momentum like a brakeless bulldozer rumbling downhill.
"The Moment When" [***]Michael Lindsay-Hogg has staged James Lapine's new play with much less intensity than used by either Warren or Meadow. But this painful drama also has strong points to make about the way some New Yorkers in the cultural fast-lane now live—and how they mar their own lives and those of others.
After the show at Playwrights Horizons, some spectators—including my guest—dismissed the play as just another TV soap-opera. With so much real theatre to experience, I don't have time to watch such fundamentals of American Mass Entertainment.
My guess is that such complainers have watched so much TV—both sitcoms and soap-operas—that all they can now recognize on stage are stereotyped contemporary characters and obviously manipulated plots.
If there is anything special about the angst or professional & personal problems of the characters in a live play, the drooping antennae of the Golden Ager Audience can no longer pick up the vibrations.
Phyllis Newman is both amusing and sad as a bear-for-breakfast literary agent. As the central emotional triangle, Illeana Douglas, Arija Bareikis, and Mark Rufallo are impressively right as insufficiently armed soldiers in the Culture Wars.
Eugene Lee's bare-bones sheetrock set for the show reminded viewers that Playwrights Horizons—indeed the entire Theatre Row Block on New 42nd Street—is soon to be torn down.
A replacement theatre or two have been promised, but this property is now just too valuable to "waste" on performance-spaces with as few as 99 seats. Luxury apartments and modern offices with great Manhattan views are always more profitable producers.
But there was a time, not too long ago, when the city's Movers & Shakers saluted Theatre Row as the only way to reclaim a derelict block of shabby store-fronts and porn theatres. Sic transit gloria mundi. Also Gloria Tuesday…
Freak Out with "The Hologram Theory" [****]Up Broadway at 78th Street, in the intimate McGinn-Cazale Theatre, there is a dazzling but disturbing psychedelic production also dealing with troubled relationships. But Jessica Goldberg's ingeniously fractured modern morality tale of a gruesome murder by Club Kids is far more terrifying than the traumas of Thirty-Somethings.
It's also a far Wilder Party than either of the current evocations of dated eroticism on view at the Virginia Theatre and the MTC. These are, after all, just kids, not adults. That they seduce pre-teens and then sell them to wealthy, sadistic, even murderous pedophiles makes Fatty Arbuckle's fatal frolics seem very pale in comparison.
This is a Blue Light Theatre production, tautly staged by Ruben Polendo and simply but stunningly designed by Scott Spahr and Ryan M. Mueller—who is responsible for the hallucinatory lighting-effects.
An angelic Club Kid and his chums have murdered a young dance-crazed Trinidadian. They've cut up his corpse, each keeping some body-parts in silver boxes. His twin-sister in Trinidad has a visitation from his spirit, now possessed by the Yoruba God Shango.
She must find his parts—as Isis did for the slain Egyptian God Osiris—and bury them together so he can find rest. She enlists a sympathetic cop in her search, and it nearly wrecks his wedding-plans.
The story recalls some of the more unsavory events at Limelight and other such discos and club hangouts. The name Michael Alig comes to mind.
Despite Off and Off-off Broadway's eagerness to put Manhattan's Lower Depths on stage, I've never seen quite as disturbing a representation—not even in "Trainspotting"—of zonked-out and utterly depraved amorality among trendy teen-agers.
The entire cast is quite remarkable, but Joie Susannah Lee, Daniel Hess, Chris Messina, and Michael Alexis Palmer stand out.
The Hologram Theory—as noted in this weird vision of modern Family Values—posits that any fragment of a torn hologram replicates the entire image. The whole is not the sum of its parts. One part is also the whole.
"Panache" [***]Dan Gordon's cute little romantic comedy at the Players Theatre has a ditzy New York socialite "meet cute" with a drop-out former artist, now an ambitionless fry-cook. The entire action occurs in his ratty one-room Brooklyn apartment.
She has come to trade her unwanted Special License-Plate PANCAKE for his, which has the improbable PANACHE on it. Metaphorically, he had panache once, but seems to have lost it, unable to let go of the memory of his dead wife.
OK, OK, this does look and sound like both TV sitcom and soap-opera. It might very well end up as either one. Or a zany motion-picture?
The point is, it works. And it will surely prove itself with actors and audiences around the country.
Lisa Pelikan is delightful as the Upper East Side ditz who undergoes an admirable transformation, thanks to the advice and irritation of the indolent Harry, played with offhand charm by Eric Pierpoint. David A. Cox directed.
"Two Sisters and a Piano" [****]Because I've not been especially inspired by other Nilo Cruz plays I've seen—notably "A Park in Our House" at NY Theatre Workshop—I went to see the Public Theatre's production of "Two Sisters" more out of a sense of duty than eager interest in his development as a writer.
Now, I am very glad I did make the trip to Lafayette Street.
This is a painful, passionate play of life in Castro Cuba for a dissident novelist [Adriana Sevan] and her rebellious sister [Daphne Rubin-Vega], whose piano is out-of-tune. As is her entire life. Loretta Greco has directed with distinction.
The sisters are both under house-arrest—in the now decaying family mansion. And under threat of attentions and reprisals from a complicated police-officer [Paul Calderon] who is attracted to the iron-willed writer Maria Celia.
"An Empty Plate in the Café du Grand Boeuf" [*]At Primary Stages, I've come to expect challenging new plays, usually strongly acted and directed. But often with merely serviceable scenery, adequate for the tiny stage and for suggesting locales for the far more important developments of plot & character.
Arriving for Michael Hollinger's "Empty Plate," I was amazed to see an absolutely charming little Parisian restaurant on stage. I had the uncanny sensation that I had dined there myself some weeks ago when I was in Paris.
Rob Odorisio should certainly get a design nomination for this evocation, complete in every detail. In fact, the set ought to be extended and installed in some West Side space to function as a real bistro.
The sole star noted above is for Odorisio's stage-environment. The rest is an empty plate indeed.
It is, in fact, an updating of a very old tale about a fatty who is trying to starve himself to death and is deliberately, compassionately poisoned by those who cannot bear to see him suffer so.
The O'Henry plot-twist is that he has not really lost the love of the beautiful woman he adores. But he discovers this only after he's wolfed-down his Last Supper.
Modern Dramas in Revival—
At the Juilliard School—
"The Importance of Being Earnest" [****]Following in the footsteps of earlier Juilliard Drama grads such as Patti LuPone and Kevin Kline may impose a strong sense of high standards to be matched. But the new graduating class—the "stars of tomorrow"—seem equal to varied challenges.
& "A Question of Mercy" [***]
Chris Durang's "Marriage of Bette and Boo," premiered last fall and now revived, showcases them at their best in contemporary sardonic social satire. Actually, Durang's plot & characters go beyond mere satire into caricature and the surreal. But the Juilliard Drama Division's young thespians seem very much at home there.
David Rabe's searing and hopelessly sad AIDs drama. "A Question of Mercy," offers much more difficult acting challenges. It was played passionately, but its very stylization—both in composition and staging—posed problems that inhibited some of the young talents.
Not that they are still too young to play such roles. But, when called upon to impersonate several of Wilde's more mature—not to say senile—characters, in "The Importance of Being Earnest," the difficulty of young bodies suggesting the crochets of age became apparent. Shuffling the feet slowly doesn't really do it for Reverend Chasuble.
Glenn F. Howerton and Evan Robertson made a charming duo of ardent young sparks, as Algy and Jack. They were charmingly paired with pert Aidan Sullivan and lovely Morena Baccarin, as Gwendolyn and Cecily.
Eve Shapiro staged. But she could have helped her Lady Bracknell seem more accustomed to command, by casually throwing-away some off-handedly hilarious observations, rather than pile-driving them home.
"Waste" [*****]Not only is Harley Granville Barker's "Waste" an extremely handsome production—thanks to set-designer John Arnone—but, in this revival, this modern tragedy shows itself still able to resonate powerfully in the contemporary political arena.
It concerns the destruction of a promising political career in the British Cabinet, owing to a sexual scandal. A scandal complicated by the misguided inflexibility of the man responsible.
Bartlett Sher has tautly directed this well-cast but much-neglected modern classic for Theatre for a New Audience on the long-neglected main-stage of the American Place Theatre. It is, however, not an APT production. Sadly, they haven't the funds to produce anything of this scale anymore.
Friend, colleague, and admirer of Bernard Shaw, Granville Barker also wrote social dramas of Shavian concern, wit, and ingenuity. His impressive "Voysey Inheritance" was successfully revived this season by Jonathan Bank's Mint Theatre.
When will Lincoln Center revive Granville Barker's "The Madras House"? Some major New York theatre group should certainly do this.
And why not consider some of the now forgotten dramas Somerset Maugham wrote ninety years ago for London's West End? After all, "Waste" was written in 1907—even if it wasn't finally performed in public until 1926, thanks to censorship.
"A Moon for the Misbegotten" [*****]
Cherry Jones is a predictable marvel as Eugene O'Neill's Earth-Mother heroine, Josie Hogan. But Roy Doctrice is even more remarkable as her shambling, but artfully scheming, drunken old dad, Mike.
"MOON FOR THE MISBEGOTTEN"--Roy Dotrice gives Cherry Jones fatherly advice. Photo: ©Eric Y. Exit.
In his Broadway debut, Gabe Byrne is troubled and charming as O'Neill's failed, drunken actor-brother, Jamie. It's nice to see him not playing cinematic priests for a change.
Yes, I do remember Colleen Dewhurst and Jason Robards in the central roles. But I didn't find them convincing. Colleen was too outsize; Robards too off-hand. Their performances had "Acting" written all over them.
GABE BYRNE'S BROADWAY DEBUT--Shown here in the embrace of Cherry Jones, in O'Neill's "Moon for the Misbegotten." Photo: ©Eric Y. Exit.
Sensitively staged by Daniel Sullivan, none of the subversive humor is lost in this drama of loss. He has such a deft touch that I'm almost persuaded this is a better play than I have thought it previously. I could almost believe in its hokey contrivances.
But then I have never much admired "The Iceman Cometh" either, despite the reams of critical superlatives written about both plays. O' Neill's dialogue frequently sounds awkward and contrived.
He obviously was no David Mamet. Yet his ear for the bar-talk of his time may not have been as tin-lined as it now sounds. When was the last time you heard someone seriously say something like: "Oh you kid!" or "23 Skidoo"?
It's appropriate the revival is at the Walter Kerr Theatre. I think Walter would really have loved it—and Cherry Jones!
"The Country Boy" [**]John Murphy was no Brian Friel. Nor is his 1959 "The Country Boy" another "Philadelphia, Here I Come!"
But there are certainly resonances. In fact, Friel's play could have been inspired by Murphy's.
Eddie Maher [Ciarán O'Reilly] has come home for a visit to his crochety old father's County Mayo farm after ten long years. Emigrating to America in search of a better life has not been much of a success.
Maybe his younger brother Tom [James Stephens] should give up his dream of also emigrating? Especially to stay behind and look after the old folks, to ease Eddie's conscience about deserting them.
Eddie's American wife Julia [Valorie Hubbard] is completely out of her depth in the Maher's cramped Mayo cottage. She cannot put a well-shod foot right. This must have been hilarious forty years ago at the Abbey Theatre.
Heather O'Neill plays the lovely young Irish lass Tom is leaving behind him. Aideen O'Kelly and Dara Coleman complete the cast, staged by Charlotte Moore.
"The Time of the Cuckoo" [***]The most amazing thing about the Lincoln Center Theatre revival of Arthur Laurents' "Time of the Cuckoo" is how great the slim new Debra Monk now looks. She should publish her diet-secrets!
Always a performer of charm and attractiveness, here she turns up the volume and the current to make the eagerly yearning but sadly unfulfilled Leona Samish almost the Middle-Aged American Woman Tourist from Hell.
Of course those old-timers who remember Shirley Booth in the role—or Katherine Hepburn in the film-version, "Summertime"—may not be willing to accept Monk's interpretation.
But director Nicholas Martin—assisted by such talents as Cigdem Onat, Oleg Krupa, Polly Holliday, and Tom Aldredge—has done a very nice job of transporting audiences back in time to the far more innocent Fifties.
James Noone's suggestive evocation of Venice in the background and Signora Fiora's hotel courtyard on the open-stage of the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theatre is admirable.
The experience is rather like watching some Period-Piece revived. Next, we'll probably be having a revival of "Do I Hear a Waltz"—which could have been called: "The Cuckoo Sings."
"American Buffalo" [*****]
Frankly, I never much liked David Mamet's "American Buffalo" when it first appeared. Having first encountered his unique dramatic vision—and now celebrated ear for realistic dialogue—in "Duck Variations" & "Sexual Perversity in Chicago," I thought "Buffalo" a needlessly extended attempt at transmuting "The Lower Depths" into a screwball lowlife comedy.
WILLIAM H. MACY--As Teach in Mamet's "American Buffalo." Photo: ©Mark Douet.
Even the violence of Al Pacino—who was then much given to violent portrayals—didn't amuse, arouse, enrage, or engage me. But all around me, older spectators were clucking—or downright furious—about the violence and raw language on stage.
Not me. I viewed it as a deliberate provocation of brain-dead Broadway audiences. It certainly had a provocative effect on them—even if it didn't jump-start many spectators' brains.
Thanks to the considerable talents of William H. Macy—the quintessential Mamet Actor—as Teach, supported by Philip Baker Hall and Mark Webber, I now have to concede that "American Buffalo" is indeed a powerful modern comedy. As well as a potent symbolic social comment—but of a rather different kind than found in the plays of Neil Simon or David Hare.
Staged by Neil Pepe—in a wonderfully cluttered junk-shop setting, by Kevin Rigdon—this new "Buffalo" is Coin of the Realm! This high-powered production should transfer for a commercial run.
"True West" [*****]It's sadly true that I did not initially much admire O'Neill's "Moon," or Mamet's "Buffalo." And, as a result of the current productions, I have had to reconsider my earlier reservations.
This is also true for Sam Shepard's "True West." When I first saw the play some years ago at the Public Theatre, I thought it a teen-pleasing gimmick. As well, of course, as a metaphor for the loss of the Old West, etc., etc.
The ease with which the desperate screen-writer Austin's dangerous drop-out brother Lee invades his ordered life—house-sitting for their vacationing mother—still seems a gimmick.
Notably so, when Lee's improvised & unwritten plot for a "true" Western screen-scenario seduces Austin's agent [Robert LuPone] away from their previous project, a sure loser in any case.
Yes, it is very funny when Lee starts stealing neighborhood TVs, to the immense annoyance and fear of the properly prim Austin. And, yes, it's downright hilarious when Austin tries to break out and prove his old western manhood by stealing a score of toasters from neighbors.
Especially amusing is all that toast popping up at the same time, as Austin tries to get all of it buttered. Before Lee grinds it underfoot and trashes the kitchen.
As staged by Matthew Warchus, this is a violent and excitingly dangerous production, full of mystery and menace. I saw John C. Reilly as Austin, with Philip Seymour Hoffman as Lee. They seemed just right in the roles, but they alternate, so this is a show you may well want to see twice.
On with The Dance!
Irish-Inspired Dance Theatre:
Trinity Irish Dance Company [*****]
One of the curiosities of distinctive Irish folk-dancing is the comparative rigidity—even lifelessness—of the arms and torso. In Irish Step-Dancing, the feet flicker furiously in thundering steps the best tango and flamenco artistes could envy.
"RIVERDANCE" GOES FLAMENCO--The dynamic Maria Pagés. Photo: ©Joan Marcus.
But the upper bodies of traditional Irish dancers seem petrified columns of bone and flesh. Their arms are deliberately hanging—but not dangling—closely at their sides. Considering the major muscular efforts down below, this refusal to involve the whole body in the act of the dance seems curious indeed.
It's tempting to think of this as a visual and physical metaphor for the centuries of restraint and constraint the British have imposed on the Irish. They were marginalized and victimized in their own land.
The aristocratic Anglo-Irish could live expansively on their great estates. Not so the poverty-stricken Irish tenantry.
When they dared to raise their hands against the English—until this century—they were crushed. Is that why they kept their hands at their sides, while their feet furiously protested?
More than a century ago, in Music Halls and Vaudevilles, Irish Clog-Dancing—the clogs really thundered—was a very popular variety act. But not something you would want to watch all evening.
Even when "Taps Were Tops"—which revealed its antecedents in Irish Step and Afro-American dances—there had to be some variety in programming. No matter how brilliantly performed, a little tapping can go a long way.
Mark Howard's Trinity Irish Dance Company has solved that problem very creatively. In effect, a new but related genre has evolved: Progressive Irish Dance.
Trinity is an Irish-American ensemble, based in Chicago and Milwaukee. And Howard grew up in Chicago, becoming a champion competition dancer. So it has probably been easier to move beyond traditional Irish steps and sequences than if Howard had been born, raised, and stayed in Dublin.
The artistic and aesthetic problem about Irish Dance as entertainment—aside from amateur dancing at wakes and weddings—has long been that it became something of a spectator-sport, with fans watching solo and ensemble competitions.
Introducing elements of classical ballet, modern dance, and African & Caribbean dancing into the Irish traditions, some stunning new choreographies have been created. What a sensation to see—and thumpingly hear—young dancers in their sturdy, tap-enhanced black shoes rise up on their toes.
Think of a ballerina performing a machine-gun burst of tap-steps en pointe!
Howard's wonderfully fresh and skilled young dancers certainly know how to fling their upper arms about, or gracefully wave them when the choreography calls for that.
But in the traditional step-dances, they are ramrod straight, fixed-smile serious, with almost frozen upper-bodies, but furiously trying to drill holes in the stage-floor.
Not only are dance-choreographies a mixture of tradition—not all of it Irish, of course—and modernity, but some costumes are a dazzling festival of color and geometrics. These help distract attention from the fact that the dancers' arms are just hanging there at their sides.
Their thoroughly energized orchestral combo of traditional Irish instruments gets its own moments in the spotlight as well.
This touring company should be at the top of your must-see list when they are scheduled to perform in your area. You can see them again and again and be recharged every time!
"Riverdance" [*****]In Michael Howard's notes about the achievements of Trinity Irish Dance Theatre, he makes it clear that the tremendous worldwide success of the eternally touring "Riverdance" is at least partly based on innovations introduced by Trinity. That could true of the touring "Lords of the Dance" as well.
In the current edition of "Riverdance," now at the Gershwin Theatre, Irish dancers have not merely livened up their step-dancing with tap and tango. They've shared the stage with other dancers from other lands.
Flamenco star Maria Pagés can out-stamp any trio of Irish lassies.
The multi-cultural mix has been enriched with the addition of the Moscow Folk Ballet, the Amanzi Singers—starring the radiantly beautiful Tsidii le Loka, the Riverdance Tappers, and the Riverdance Drummers.
The Slavs know how to use all of their bodies—especially their extended arms and gesturing hands—in expressive choreographies. The Irish seem to be learning from them.
Ireland is no stranger to drummers—along with harps and pipes—but Japan's Kodo Drums are now a distinct and potent influence in this show.
Previously, "Riverdance" has had only short bookings at Radio City Music Hall. The Gershwin permits a longer run, which has already been extended.
The great Gershwin stage is not as vast as that at Radio City, but it is large enough to accommodate the immense ensemble in this show.
Seeing the long line of Irish dancers link arms and perform high kicks in unison brings back the glory days of Radio City's fabled Rockettes. Precision unison choreographies are great crowd-pleasers.
If "Riverdance" wants to make itself into a kind of United Nations of ethnic dance, then Producer Moya Doherty should consider the dancers of Bali, not to mention those of China, Japan, and the Indian sub-continent. Equal Time, after all!
The obvious intent is to avoid a noisy but boring evening of nothing but dead-armed step-dancing. But this relentless search for variety in programming could dilute or eclipse the distinctive traditional Irish dances which made it famous.
Echoes of the Past at Lincoln Center—
"Contact," A Dance Play in 3 Short Stories [***]Ostensibly about lonely people attempting to make a human connection, the trio of dance-plays which compose "Contact" evoke the aura of other eras. As well as dance-styles and innovations of earlier decades.
John Weidman ["Pacific Overtures"] drafted the danced narrative plot-lines and minimal dialogue. The talented Susan Strohman choreographed and directed the work for a fall opening in the Mitzi Newhouse Theatre.
It enjoyed a good run there, but had to be taken off, owing to other planned productions. Now it has reopened upstairs in the much larger Vivian Beaumont Theatre, freed for this show by the early closure of "Marie Christine," the ill-fated John La Chiusa musical, based on "Medea."
The spirits of Jack Cole—the creator of Jazz Dance on Broadway, Agnes de Mille, and other Broadway powerhouse choreographers must have been hovering over Strohman as she worked with her delightful stars and the excellent supporting ensemble.
Although the frenetic and hallucinatory bar-scene in Part III is nominally set in New York in 1999, it suggests "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue." Or some of Jack Cole's jazzy show-choreography, like "Wedding of a Solid Sender."
The first danced-story is obviously inspired by a famous Fragonard painting of an elegant 18th century maiden frolicking in a swing. Her lover lies below and in front of her, with an excellent view of an earthly paradise.
This is not about innocent young girls having a harmless bit of outdoor recreation. Instead, it is rococo eroticism. But there's an almost S/M twist to this tale. The muscular and surly servant manipulating the swing—and soon, the young woman as well—is not what he seems.
A kitschy statue of Eros on a pedestal—seen also in the Fragonard original—remains a visual prop-link with the remaining two dance-dramas. In Part II—set in 1954 as a certifiable period-piece—Eros is definitive decor for a pretentious but disastrous Italian restaurant.
With recycled Agnes de Mille balletic choreography and the definitely 50's costumes of William Ivey Long, it is certainly a lively and comedic echo of some fondly remembered Broadway musical numbers of the Post-War era.
Abused and humiliated by her surly Italo-American Mafioso husband, Karen Ziemba, as an insecure and unhappy wife, has hallucinatory moments of ecstasy. These include shooting her husband in a wild balletic confrontation.
It's surprising—given Mayor Rudy Giuliani's constant courting of ethnic Catholic voters—that he hasn't yet denounced this work as insulting to Italian-Americans. But he might really get off on this, however, considering how the brute on stage silences his wife.
Part III features Boyd Gaines as an award-winning Hollow Man of TV advertising shorts. His latest award is yet another Golden Eros—but smaller than the Eros in the earlier plays.
In terminal despair, he tries to hang himself, but ends up dancing with the angry woman downstairs. She insists he put rugs on his resonant loft-flooring.
In several surreal scenes in a Hernando's-Hideaway of a poolroom/bar/dance-hall, he find the courage to break out of his alcoholic haze and dance with the fabulous Woman in Yellow [Deborah Yates]. She reappears as the furious tenant below.
The payoff is "telegraphed," but even that softening of surprise helps the audience think they are very clever to appreciate what's really going on. What's going on too long, however, is the choreography in the bar-scenes. Too much seems repetitive.
This danced flirtation with self-destruction seemed to me longer than "Long Day's Journey into Night." But audiences appear to love it—and the other two dance-plays as well. It should have a prosperous run at the Beaumont.
"Squonk" [***]The Helen Hayes Theatre was overflowing with kids and teen-agers. Did they already know something about "Squonk"—or at least the original Squonk Opera Ensemble—that had eluded far more mature critics?
Obviously, they did. And they and the parents they brought along seemed to be having a high old time. Actually, this very strange but haunting show has an almost hypnotic quality.
Not only from its New-Age-and-Beyond music-making and surreal lyrics, but also because of its immense and totally freaked-out stage-prop machines, set-pieces, and puppets. These have been devised by Steve O'Hearn, credited with the show's "Image Book."
Squonk performer Jackie Dempsey developed the music with the ensemble, and the lyrics with performer Jana Losey. I liked the visual images much more than the verbal/lyrical images.
But "Squonk" clearly has the makings of a youthful cult-show, like "Stomp" and Blue Man Group's "Tubes." If it succeeds with the public, it may tie up the Helen Hayes for the forseeable future. Just when "Cats" is preparing to close.
"The Big Bang" [****]Jed Feuer and Boyd Graham also have a potential cult-show in midtown. A potted and potty survey of Human & Inhuman History, "The Big Bang" explodes all over the place. And the Feuer-Boyd Universe keeps expanding all evening long.
Feuer composed the catchy music while Graham provided narrative continuity and some very funny song lyrics. They are also the entire cast—with the enigmatic Albert Ahronheim at the keyboard.
Adam and Eve duet in "Free Food and Frontal Nudity."
An imperious and arrogant Queen Nefertiti revels in her aria, "Viva la Diva." Her famous headgear is swiftly created by robbing a table-lamp of its shade and inverting it.
In fact, one of the most amusing elements in this hilarious show is the constant adaptation of art-objects, furniture, plants, and decorative fabrics in the elegant on-stage apartment to create instant costumes & characters.
Among the Era-Evoking songs are Eva Braun's ballad to Der Führer: "Loving Him." Or the Ides of March duet between Julius Caesar and his Soothsayer: "Wake Up, Caesar."
Leo the Lion sings "The Coliseum," followed by Attila the Hun boasting he is "Number One." Pochahontas and Minihaha sing about "The Dating Scene," but Shanghai Lil and Tokyo Rose prefer to salute "Asian Ladies."
Ireland's Great Hunger is blithely recalled by Paddy O'Gratin, in "Potato."
I had a great time at this show, so I hope it finds its audience before they tear down all of Theatre Row. It's at the Douglas Fairbanks, which may yet be spared.
"The Bombitty of Errors" [***]Is a white-boy rhyming rap-version of Shakespeare's "Comedy of Errors" a play or a form of musical? I'll opt for the second category, and not only because of J. A. Q.'s dynamic score, personally performed.
Composer & solo-musician Jeffrey Qaiyum is the kid-brother of GQ, or Gregory J. Qaiyum, one of the manic quartet of white males who blackly rap and frenetically burlesque the Bard in this wild parody they've mutually concocted.
If many in the theatre-audiences in New York's smaller venues seem a mix of Grey Panthers and Golden Agers, that's certainly not the case down at 45 Bleecker Street—where once you could buy lumber. This engagingly sophomoric show is pulling in a trendy and funkily fashionably-dressed crowd of teen-agers and young twenties.
As have clever opera librettists—faced with the daunting task of compressing Shakespeare into a musical format—the fearless four have cut some of the confusing complications of the original plot.
This is entirely to the advantage of their show and the now threadbare story Shakespeare has to tell. The gleeful use of what were once comical stereotypes of Hassidic Jews may bother some spectators. Especially Senior Citizens who venture several blocks south of the Public Theatre to see this hysterical entertainment.
"Taking a Chance on Love" [***]The late and much-missed Janet Hayes Walker made the York Theatre an admirable and lively showcase for unjustly forgotten or failed Broadway Musicals. That tradition—with some variations—is going forward under James Morgan's energetic artistic direction.
With the Theatre at Saint Peter's as its venue, the York glories in its motto: "One of a kind for thirty years." Many a worthy theatre ensemble has worn itself out in fund-raising and producing after a mere ten years. The York's record is an astonishment.
This season as last, the York is showcasing some new musicals which nonetheless echo the recent past of the American Musical. "Jolson & Co." was praised last fall for its evocation of the great, if troubled, talent of Al Jolson and the musicals and revues of his heyday.
"Taking a Chance on Love," devised by Eric Haagensen, is chronological survey of the career, catastrophes, and musical-comedy lyrics of John Latouche. Unfortunately, Latouche's life appears to have been an extended gay sob-story.
Nonetheless, out of his pain and loss—as well as his rich sense of ironic humor—Latouche was able to concoct some immensely clever or moving lyrics for shows such as "Cabin in the Sky" and "The Golden Apple."
Among his greatest achievements are "Ballad for Americans" and the opera, "The Ballad of Baby Doe," with a memorable score by Douglas Moore. This touching tale of a love that never died, in the silver hills of Colorado, is one of the very few American operas to find a place in the repertory.
A manic cast of four kept the lifeline and the lyrics moving swiftly along.
At the New-York Historical Society—
"I Get a Kick out of You:With the resounding success of "Encores" at City Center—reviving Golden Oldie Broadway musicals in concert—not only the York Theatre wants to salute this wonderful but fading heritage.
The Songs of Cole Porter"
Now the New-York Historical Society is getting into the act. Or at least it's loaning its spacious auditorium to Judy Brown, musical director of this three-part tribute to the genius of Cole Porter.
Mondays are almost always dead evenings on Broadway, so musical-comedy addicts should set aside the first three Mondays in April: the 3rd, the 10th, and the 17th.
The first program features Mary Beth Pell and Guy Stroman, singing Porter's songs related to the theme: "The Lost Generation of Americans Abroad."
On April 10, for "The Spirit of the 30's," Christine Ebersole will sing Porter songs such as " Night and Day" and "Begin the Beguine."
Victoria Clark, of "Titanic" and "Cabaret," will sing some of Porter's cinematic gems, for "Cole Porter in Hollywood."
If these programs are successful, there could well be more. Tickets are $12, or $30 for the series.
The Society's Beaux Arts Museum faces Central Park West, but the entrance is across West 77th Street from the American Museum of Natural History. Call: 212-873-3400.
Opera & Operatics—
Wooden Acting from Salzburg:
"Le Nozze di Figaro" [*****]
The famed Salzburg Marionettes made an all-too-brief visit to the Kaye Playhouse at Hunter College. On their current tour, they travel with elaborate settings for three major Mozart operas and more than a decade of puppet-handlers. This includes the admired Gretl Aicher, of the original Founding Family.
WOODEN ACTING--Salzburg Marionettes in "Figaro."
Their famous opera stars—talents like Anna Moffo, Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, Cesare Siepi, Birgit Nilsson, Leontyne Price, and Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau—are all on tape, of course. But this makes it much easier to trim the scores and librettos to the attention-spans of their often youthful audiences.
To say that the acting of these elegant puppets is wooden is only a pun. In fact, thanks to the delicate articulation of the puppet-joints and the evocative modeling of the faces, these handsome miniature people move with great grace and eloquence.
It is a marvel to see Susanna take a quill-pen in hand and actually seem to write a provocative note to Count Almaviva. This is puppet-manipulation of a very high order.
And it's on view on tour—and back home in Salzburg—not only in "The Marriage of Figaro," but also in "Magic Flute" and "Don Giovanni."
The period costumes for "Figaro" are miniature marvels of 18th century dress for the various social classes which interact on the Mad Day the French playwright Beaumarchais originally devised.
But the deep three-dimensional settings are an even greater astonishment. On tour, these engaging marionettes could surely have got by with old-fashioned cloth drops and wings. But no—only the grandest of miniature rococo salons will do!
Do not miss these wonderful puppets and their handlers, either on their travels or in their own jewel-box theatre in Salzburg. It's the cheapest ticket at the Salzburg Festival. If you can get one, for they are often sold-out.
At the Metropolitan:
Boito's "Mefistofele" [*****]The medieval Faust Legend so fascinated Goethe that he had to write two epic dramas to encompass his vision of Magister Faustus's sin and redemption. Played complete, back-to-back, they are almost as long as Wagner's RING.
These dramas, in turn, inspired three major operatic composers: Gounod, Berlioz, and Boito—who was his own librettist.
Arrigo Boito compressed Shakespeare's "Othello" and "Merry Wives of Windsor" masterfully in the librettos he fashioned for Verdi. He didn't do nearly as well for Goethe—or for himself.
His "Mefistofele"—despite some magnificent orchestral music, choruses, and arias—is something of a dramaturgical potpourri. It is a structural disaster-area, if not entirely so in its conception.
The directorial and design challenge is either to make all of its elements work together visually, audially, and dramatically. Or to try to ignore some of the considerable problems by rising above them to focus on the central characters.
The late Norman Treigle had a great success years ago at the New York City Opera in an elemental production of the latter order.
The magnificent new mounting at the Met—staged by Robert Carson and designed by Michael Levine—tries to make everything work in concert. And it almost succeeds.
Physically, it is a much grander production than anything seen at Radio City or on Broadway. It is visually a show-and-a-half, with an immense cast only a heavily subsidized opera ensemble could afford to present—and only for a very limited number of performances.
The overpowering settings—a series of towering movable arcaded balconies—or theatre stage-boxes—were originally created for the government-subsidized Grand Theatre of Geneva. The Swiss don't seem to mind using their tax-monies for the Arts!
But today, things are no longer so simple. Nor are costs of opera production as relatively reasonable as they once were.
So this is a co-production with the San Francisco Opera and Chicago's Lyric Opera, which now jointly own the sets, costumes, and concept.
Samuel Ramey—in a variety of diabolically sexy outfits—had a field-day as Mefistofele, using all his wiles and strategems to seduce the soul of the aged scholar Faustus.
HOT TIME IN HELL--Samuel Ramey as Mefistofele at the Met. Photo: ©Dan Rest/Chicago Lyric Opera.
Transformed into a young lover, the fusty old academic—eloquently sung and acted by Richard Margison—was of course nearly vanquished by his dalliance with the sadly abused Margherita [Veronica Villarroel, in splendid voice and presence].
Fortunately, to preserve the moral force of Goethe's drama, Boito ensures that they are both redeemed from their sins.
Along the way to perdition or redemption, Boito arranges ample opportunities for Angelic and Diabolic Choruses to have their say. At the Met, they were splendid—and never has there been such an array of angel-wings on stage, not even in the old Easter Pageant at Radio City Music Hall.
There is also a medieval fair, or Kermesse, with all of the carnival attractions, such as religious floats, acrobats, jesters, and players. Anyone fascinated with the arts & crafts of theatre—even those who think opera is not for them—will find this amazing production a visual showcase of what modern designers, technicians, and their machines can do on stage.
In the pit, conductor Mark Elder brilliantly managed to give coherence and power to the action and the score.
Lehár's "The Merry Widow" [****]
The Met's Press Officer, Francis Giuliani, points out that "The Merry Widow"—premiered at the Metropolitan decades after its original European premiere—is the first real operetta to be shown on its august stage.
THE MERRY FREDERICA VON STADE--At the Met in Lehár's "Merry Widow." Photo: ©Beth Bergman.
Some might think that Offenbach's "Tales of Hoffmann," a big hit with Met audiences, could be classified as an operetta. Or even Smetana's "The Bartered Bride." But that's not quite the way things work.
I heard Giuliani—who doesn't seem to be any relation to our opera-loving Mayor—assure a friend & colleague of mine that this new "Widow" production is sure to find a firm and popular place in the Met repertory.
Certainly enough money has been thrown at it. British designer Antony McDonald—whose immense stage-prop skeleton looms over the Bregenz Festival's "Masked Ball" set on Lake Constance—has opted for an eclectic Minimalist Post-Modernism, oddly alternating with a conventional and kitschy painted backdrop.
This massive drop looks like the Luxembourg Gardens, under the strangest of constantly changing lighting. The white tip of the Eiffel Tower peeps over a dense background forest.
Downstage, Frederica von Stade is discovered in a sleigh in a token snowstorm. This could be a revival of "Up in Central Park," if only the music were not so dated and Vienna-Gemütlich.
The radiant and lovely Frau Von Stade—still in good voice—glamorously impersonates the Stein-reich Widow, Frau Hannah Glawari. What appear to be the Luxembourg Gardens are actually her own backyard, scene of varied amorous intrigues. With a lovers' shuttered pavilion right out of "Figaro."
One of several showbiz fantasies of the designer—and director Tim Albery—is to have Hannah make her initial entry down a ramp which seems to issue from the Eiffel Tower.
To save his tiny Balkan nation from bankruptcy, the carefree, dashing Count Danilo—now more a native of Paris—has to marry the widow, an abandoned flame, and of course her considerable fortune.
Casting the nobly aging Placido Domingo as the Count ensures that all of the most expensive seats at the Met will be filled. But, even though he gamely tries a high-kick or two, he is much too mature—if not downright too old—for this role.
It would be much more interesting—even musically—to see and hear Danilo as a younger Man-about-Paris. Nonetheless, it's clear from the libretto that the Widow is no longer a sweet young thing. So glamorous maturity is appropriate.
But do we finally decide to do operettas only when the voices are beginning to fray or fade? Will Domingo—who has tried his operatic hand at almost everything, including conducting and singing Wagner—end up on Broadway?
He could reprise Ezio Pinza's role in "South Pacific."
At BAM & Elsewhere—
Celebrating the Kurt Weill Centenary:Not only have we been celebrating Goethe's 250th anniversary, but this is also the Centenary Year of composer Kurt Weill. On Saturday, March 25, there was an all-day Weill Marathon in Manhattan at Symphony Space.
In Germany, there has been even more activity. A note from my friend Prof. Dr. Joachim Herz—former director of the Semper Opera Dresden—is crammed with news of his lectures, symposia, and seminars dealing with Weill and his works. Professor Herz has not only staged "Mahagonny" in Tokyo, but also in Leipzig, site of the opera's world premiere.
Johannes Felsenstein—son of Herz's own mentor, the opera innovator Walter Felsenstein, founder of Berlin's Komische Oper—is staging Weill's long-forgotten opera Der Kuhhandel in Dessau. I first met the young Johannes in his father's office in Berlin—and later when he was an assistant to Broadway's Harold Prince. So this production might be worth a trip to Dessau, with a side-visit to the Modernist buildings of the Bauhaus.
Of major interest during this Weill Anniversary Year are the three virtually unknown operas he composed before he became a major Broadway composer.
They are Die Bürgschaft, Der Kuhhandel, and Der Weg der Verheissung. All three were banned by the Nazis as "Degenerate Music." And virtually forgotten after the defeat of Hitler and his henchmen.
Der Kuhhandel will be performed by the Juilliard Opera Center during the week of April 10, but only for three performances. It has an updated English libretto which moves it from Deutschland to the Caribbean. A report will follow soon.
"The Eternal Road" [****]
The enthusiastic and indomitable conductor John Mauceri has, for over 15 years, been trying to arouse interest in a full-scale revival of Kurt Weill's score—with Franz Werfel's text—for the epic 1937 Max Reinhardt Manhattan Opera House production of "The Eternal Road." In Germany, it's known—if at all—asDer Weg der Verheissung.
NO MORE HUMAN SACRIFICES--Father Abraham [Theo Adam] drops the knife, sparing his son Isaac in Kurt Weill's "The Eternal Road." Photo: ©Dieter Wuschanski.
The production was so costly, complicated, and cast-heavy that box-office sales didn't begin to offset weekly operating expenses. Let alone pay back the tremendous investment in the production itself—not to mention make a profit!
Designer Norman Bel Geddes gutted the opera-house down to Manhattan bedrock, striking a spring in the process. It was the last Broadway Epic before World War II, and it was, in fact, a harbinger of the horrors of the Holocaust.
Despite glowing reviews and some definite popular interest, it did not survive or prosper. Despite its great length in performance, Reinhardt was not able to stage its fourth and final section. This was performed in concert in New York recently.
For a limited number of performances, New Yorkers were at last able to see the entire work—sung in German, with English sub-titles—at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Conducted, of course, with verve by Mauceri himself.
In his memoirs, Reinhardt was very ironic about his experiences with the original—and until now, only—production. Although the main-movers in the initial project were all Jews, each had an imposing ego.
And Werfel—thanks in part to the influence of his Muse and wife, the redoubtable Alma Mahler Gropius—had converted to Catholicism. This was an admirable preparation for writing "The Song of Bernadette," but it may have had adverse effect on his "Eternal Road" drama, which is hardly notable.
The impressive production at BAM, imported from German Chemnitz—formerly Karl-Marx-Stadt—featured a large cast and chorus, with generally strong soloists.
But the unknown riches of Weill's score—which Mauceri and Weill specialist Edward Harsch had so painstakingly reconstituted—were not immediately apparent in the first half of this very long work. Much of this sounded like Gebrauchs-Musik, or background for the Passing Parade of Biblical History.
Distinctive Weillian melodies and rhythms only began to emerge in the second section, in scenes between Ruth and Naomi, between Ruth and Boaz, Saul and David, David and Bathsheba, and Solomon and his Temple.
Operatic echoes of Weill & Brecht collaborations were clear, as were prefigurations of Weill on Broadway. Obviously, the entire score—as well as the critical arias, duets, and choruses—needs to be heard, and the opera seen in production, a number of times for us to begin to appreciate what John Mauceri so admires.
The worship of the Golden Calf, the Death of Moses, Saul and the Witch of Endor, the Prophets Isaiah and Jeremiah: all make a powerful musical, emotional, and theatrical impression.
Unfortunately, Michael Heinicke's pedestrian stage-direction makes the opera look rather like a Jewish version of the Oberammergau Passion Play. And Israeli David Sharir's colorful and charming designs—suggestive of children's book-illustrations—have been criticized even in Germany for their apparent inappropriateness to the nature and potential power of the material.
Still, this production—also to be seen in Poland and Israel—is a considerable achievement. For American audiences, it provided a rare opportunity to see the venerable East German Theo Adam perform. His Abraham was in fact touching.
Culture Notes from Chemnitz:Chances are the names of artists Steffen Volmer, Klaus Süss, Wolfram Schneider, Osmar Osten, and Michael Morgner are unknown to you. Unless you've been to Chemnitz recently, that is.
All these artists—who contributed to the city's very special celebration for the German Premiere of Kurt Weill's long-forgotten opera, Der Weg der Verheissung—are from Saxon Chemnitz.
Before the Fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, this industrial center was known as Karl-Marx-Stadt for 45 long years. It was a very depressing place—even just to pass through on a train.
In 1945, Allied bombing almost entirely destroyed not only its factories and railyards, but also its ancient city-center and its handsome Jugendstil Stadt-Theater.
Under the rigorous and penurious Communist regime of the DDR, reconstruction and restoration were only a slight improvement on the wastages of war. Nonetheless, rebuilding of the bombed-out theatre-shell was an important priority.
In most German cities, East & West, then & now, the State or City Theatre is a major cultural center, a focus of community-life.
It's curious to realize—especially for New World Anti-Communists—that even the most repressive of East European Communist governments made high-quality, low-cost theatre, dance, opera, and concerts a prime priority.
Right up there with electrified razor-wire fences and mined borders, not to mention combat-ready troops to prevent Allied Invasions from West Germany.
Not only were the Communist Leaders determined to demonstrate to the world—or those citizens of it who could get visas to visit—the superiority of their Culture, as a hallmark of their Socialist Societies. But they also provided culture as a reward and consolation for their hard-working peoples, who were prevented from tuning in on news and entertainments from the West.
In Dresden, Leipzig, and Karl-Marx-Stadt—as well as in Warsaw and Budapest—after the sun went down, there was nothing to do at night except stay home or go to the theatre.
So Chemnitzers are understandably proud of their theatre—not only as a noble example of the German Jugend-style which bridges Art Nouveau and Art Deco—but also as a popular Temple of the Arts.
In 1993, just a few years after the city had its historic name restored—and its freedoms, which had already disappeared in 1933, with the rise of Hitler—local artists, the theatre-personnel, the museum-directors, and local businessmen joined to form Kunst Für Chemnitz. Their aim was to develop and improve the Quality of Life in their reborn city.
They have done wonders in the past decade. A long run of handsome posters for the theatre is only one achievement.
In 1995, on the 50th anniversary of the destruction of the city, the arts group organized a major presentation of Benjamin Britten's War Requiem, with soloists, chorus, and orchestra from Chemnitz and its British Sister-City,
New statuary, historic restorations, new gardens, and one of the most handsome modern railway stations in the former East Germany are all complemented by the artworks of this enterprising group.
The American conductor, John Maucieri, had for 15 long years been trying to interest American and European opera-houses in a revival of Kurt Weill's long forgotten opera-pageant, The Eternal Road. He finally found friends at the Chemnitz Theatre who shared his belief that this is a major 20th century opera.
As the rehearsals got underway, Kunst Für Chemnitz artists decided to mount a complementary art-exhibition to be displayed in the theatre's spacious foyers. And in a local gallery. They called it DU, which is the familiar form of You, as used for loved ones, dear friends, and small children.
In the event, the premiere last July—with a revival this past fall—was the World Premiere of Weill's work. When the great German stage-director Max Reinhardt mounted it at the Manhattan Opera House in 1937, he only managed to get three of its four acts on stage.
Even at that, it was over four hours long, with a cast of hundreds, and tons of solidly-built scenery by Norman Bel Geddes—who gutted the theatre to create a massive mountain with a road leading devout but persecuted Jews up to their Promised Paradise.
The libretto, by novelist Franz Werfel [Song of Bernadette], was overlong, unwieldy, and unlyrical, as well. The production, though critically admired, was too expensive to run—and too few people wanted to see it in those dark Depression Years.
So the new production—mounted in cooperation with Opera Kraców, New Israeli Opera Tel Aviv, and the Brooklyn Academy of Music—is a major cultural event to be shared and seen in four nations. It is costing nearly $1 million to bring to Brooklyn.
A special dividend of Chemnitz interest in the monumental Weill-Werfel Pageant of Jewish History and Endurance is the local citizens' decision to rebuild the Synagogue which the Nazis destroyed on Kristal-Nacht in 1938.
Younger Chemnitzers especially—who knew nothing of Nazi repressions and persecutions—are eager to help the growing Jewish Community thrive. Jewish refugees from Eastern Europe have been made welcome, so there is now a congregation of some 300. Where once there were none.
But the Chemnitz artists don't forget the past in other ways as well.
When the Berlin Wall came down, many cities and towns in East Germany—and much farther east—couldn't wait to bash the statues of Lenin and Marx. In Chemnitz, however, some sculptural remembrances of the town that was once named for Karl Marx are being preserved.
On my last visit, I found an old brick railroad out-building which still had a faint Karl-Marx-Stadt painted on it. The photo didn't come out. Could Marx have jinxed it?
City Opera Salutes Stein & Thomson:
"The Mother of Us All" [*****]"When This You See, Remember Me"
Gertrude Stein famously described Oakland [CA] thusly: "There's no there there." She of course didn't italicize, preferring and promulgating verbal ambiguities. There are ample examples in her charmingly, disarmingly bizarre libretto for "The Mother of Us All."
Some critics think of this playful collaboration with critic-composer Virgil Thomson that there's also no there there. Or at least, not a real opera.
Stein's engaging operatic tribute to that pioneer of Women's Rights, Susan B. Anthony, is anything but musical biography or sung narrative. Rather, it is a series of emblematic vignettes, collaging the most unlikely famous Americans with imaginary but symbolic unknowns.
Virgil T. and Gertrude S. are even included as characters, commenting on the action and its possible significance. Here is the historic John Adams paying ardent court to an eminently Victorian Miss Constance Fletcher.
And there are such notable politicos as Daniel Webster, Andrew Johnson, and Thaddeus Stevens. Not to mention pornography-foe Anthony Comstock, General Ulysses S. Grant, and the celebrated actress, Lillian Russell. Could Stein have known Russell was an honorary US Marine Colonel? [She was buried in her dress-uniform!]
Susan B. Anthony is determined to change the laws to give American women the vote. That is the forward conceptual thrust of this patriotic entertainment. Even when Indiana Elliot refuses to take Jo the Loiterer's last name when they wed: Rights for Women. Jo and his buddy, by the way, may have been inspired by Stein's affectionate salute to American soldiers liberating France, her Brewsie and Willie.
Thomson's originality as a composer is not much in evidence in this work, for he has deliberately drawn on old Southern Baptist hymn-tunes, as well as other American folk-melodies. But the score, as a result, has a kind of historic & nostalgic rightness about it.
What makes this new mounting at the City Opera so special is the very inventive way director Christopher Alden has been able to visualize Stein's grab-bag of characters, helping the singers to make them more than Victorian cardboard cutouts. He has also worked out stage-business so that even those who are not involved in a confrontational moment can at least react to it as part of the larger stage-picture.
The entire cast deserves high praise for being able to perform this complicated staging with the precision, energy, commitment, and perfection one expects of the best of Broadway productions.
It cannot have been easy to attain this level of performance, for rehearsals are limited. And the opera won't be performed eight times a week, as on Broadway.
The disparate elements in the libretto are visually and emotionally fused, not only through Alden's staging, but also with the crisp, fresh costumes of Gabriel Berry and the amusingly "down home" settings of Allen Moyer.
Much of the action takes place in a large schoolroom with blackboards, patriotic portraits, American flags, and a monster podium. The opera, in fact, closes with Anthony—still singing, still sending out her message & spiritual force—although she is now an honored statue on a pedestal.
Lauren Flanigan was truly heroic as Susan Anthony. Her vocal power and purity added that extra dimension of passion to her laments and exhortations.
Most of the cast of characters were also vocally and dramatically outstanding. Playing this kind of playful historic comedy is not easy. The immediate danger is looking and sounding ridiculous, instead of ironic and amusing.
George Manahan's conducting was entirely in the spirit of the high-jinx and soul-searching moments on stage.
New & Innovative Opera on CD: [*****]
Michael Roth's "Their Thought and Back Again"Gertrude Stein's zany librettos—both for "Mother" and "Four Saints in Three Acts"—are wonderfully echoed in a terrific new opera-theatre-dance work by composer Michael Roth. It's called "Their Thought and Back Again."
In fact, this brilliant work has been critically compared with "Four Saints"! As well as with Weill & Brecht's "Mahagonny" and Bernstein's "Wonderful Town." Other comparisons include Eric Satie, Elliott Carter, John Cage, John Adams.
The San Diego-based composer studied with William Bolcom, who has had his share of theatre-oriented musical experiments. So Roth could hardly have avoided being drawn to the world of music-theatre.
Roth's song-texts are antically concocted from the cut-up & collaged clichés of advertising, want-ads, how-to-use instructions, and the ubiquity of TV verbal garbage. Wouldn't Stein be delighted with: "press the sleep button/while the repair your/just up and down can"?
That is from "The Dance of Television." But what about this lyric fragment from "In Fourteen Hundred Ninety You (Took Him to the River)": "somebody borrowed fare in Spain/a business on the bounding Maine/somebody"?
Roth's eclectic—but not really derivative—music is exhilarating to hear. I must say I enjoy hearing "Their Thought and Back Again" again and again. In a way that I do not really savor Thomas Ades' "Powder Her Face," though it is also fascinating.
Stein's "Mother" libretto seems fussy in its specific details, compared with "Their Thought."
Here's the CD Synopsis: "Two women, singing in a language of their own invention, arrive in an interesting town. They seek their places in the community, make new acquaintances, tell stories, reminisce, dream, and dispense advice. Finally, after a time, they settle down there themselves."
Their songs are hypnotic. What the CD of course cannot provide is the vision of this work, performed by singers, dancers, and instrumentalists.
Roth composed music for the current Off-Broadway production of "Dinner with Friends," as well as for the San Francisco ACT staging of Tom Stoppard's "The Invention of Love."
Both these impressive productions have been noted in this column, so Roth asked if I'd be interested in his chamber opera. I was and I am, so much so that I believe it should have a New York production very soon.
And be made generally available in HMV, Sam Goody, Virgin, & Tower Records. There is no order-number because Roth has produced this himself, with designs by his wife, Jill Moon.
If you want a copy for yourself—or would like to stock it in bulk in your shop—contact Michael Roth at: Rothmusik@aol.com
Note Roth's very Germanic spelling of the Food of Love. And you'll surely love "Their Thought and Back Again."
Very Special Entertainments—
"Fully Committed" [*****]Mark Setlock is so compelling a performer in "Fully Committed"—developed by Setlock and playwright Becky Mode—that it has taken weeks to get a seat to see him go into Bell Atlantic-orbit at the Cherry Lane Theatre.
As Sam—really an actor—he is discovered in the cruddy basement of a very trendy Manhattan restaurant. He's making phone-in dining reservations for the Rich & Famous, the Movers & Shakers, and too many kvetching, furious Wannabees.
His co-reservationist has not turned up for work—interviewing for a better job elsewhere. So he has to contend, not only with anger on the phone-lines, but also with disasters and temper-tantrums upstairs.
There are only so many tables available, and no one wants to sit at a deuce by the kitchen doors. This restaurant-of-the-moment seems constantly "Fully Committed," which is the management's code for fully-booked.
The dining-mavens, the Zagats, have arrived, unexpected and unannounced. There is no table ready. They will have to wait.
Some unfortunate woman has missed the seat in the Ladies'—and it looks like Mrs. Zagat is headed for the restroom. The busboys are all in hiding. Guess who has to clean up the mess?
This is not exactly a monologue, for Setlock is himself fully committed as a cast of many. He does all the voices, facial expressions, gestures, and body-language—no costume changes—rapidly interchanging them with his harried, frustrated, but sweet-natured Sam with-the-head-set.
This taut, fast-moving production has been staged by Nicholas Martin. But it's certain that many other directors—and solo-performers—will want to try their own hands with this hilarious material.
"The Red Balloon" [****]This children's fable was once made into a lovely, lyrical film. Now the young players of Scotland's Visible Fictions Theatre Company have transformed Albert Lamorisse's novel into a charmingly visualized stage pantomime with music.
On the boards of 42nd Street's New Victory Theatre, Karen Tennent's ingenious and elemental unit-set was flexed into a variety of locales. This not only worked very well, but is surely a godsend for touring.
Veronica Leer played the schoolboy Pascal, who wants to bring his friendly red balloon into class with him. Douglas Irvine deftly animated the balloon.
As in the Japanese Bunraku Puppet Theatre, you could watch the balloon's odd antics. And pretend Irvine wasn't moving it. But he was by no means an indifferent puppet-handler, so his own involvement made this effect even more enjoyable.
Of necessity, New Victory engagement are short, often only a week or so. Most of the shows are outstanding and quite varied. So New Yorkers who want to sample the best of innovative theatre and dance should get the New Victory's schedule for ready-reference.
Programming is keyed to younger audiences—often short, with no intermissions—but the productions are generally so imaginative and professional that parents seem eager to take their children. Rather than the other way around—though the kids really "get into" the shows as soon as the curtain goes up.
Fortunately, there is no policy that adults have to be accompanied by children. So there are plenty of progeny-free adult couples and singles as well.
This meditation on the History of Korea and its peoples is a work of great beauty. But also of elegant visual simplicity. It's to be hoped that Ping Chong and his company of three performance-artists will be able to tour it widely.
C.S. Lee, Esther Chae in "Pojagi"
photo by Dae-Hyun Cho
The Pojagi of Ping Chong's title is a traditional square of cloth, used to wrap, carry, and cherish both very ordinary and very special objects. This beautiful production is a white-on-white Pojagi-bundle of ancient and recent Korean history.
Clad in shimmering white silks, Esther K. Chae and C. S. Lee are at the ends of a long lucite table. Using text-cards which they slide into slots on the table-edge, they lead the audience through the Long March of Korean Chronology. Masks are used to great effect as well.
Shin Young Lee is a mysterious ghostly presence, hovering in the background, a visual metaphor.
Korean language, customs, and culture are very old, we learn, but they have constantly been under threat from Korea's more powerful neighbors, China and Japan.v Not even the brutal repressions of Japanese Occupation crushed the Korean Spirit, as is made clear. Even the disastrous and tragic division of Korea—arbitrarily partitioned by two American colonels, using an outdated map—has not destroyed hope for eventual reunion and continued survival.
This work is Part Four of Ping Chong's East/West Quartet. And, like his brilliantly conceived and ingeniously designed puppet-plays, KWAIDAN, it was presented in the LaMaMa Annex.
"The Noise of Time" [**]This much-heralded event, involving the peculiar talents of conceptual director Simon McBurney, his Theatre de Complicite colleagues, and the brilliant if overly adventurous Emerson String Quartet, proved something of a disappointment.
It was cheered lustily by admirers in the John Jay College of Criminal Justice Theatre. But, if there is any justice, criminal or otherwise, the huzzahs should only have been for the four gifted members of the ensemble. They played Dmitri Shostakovich's brooding, elegiac Quartet No. 15 with nuanced intensity and rare sensitivity.
The fact that they had to do this in near darkness, without music, stands, or even seats, on occasion, made their splendid performance all the more remarkable.
More avant-gardist even than opera-director Peter Sellars, McBurney senses a visual lack in concert performances which he is trying to overcome through a strange new form of theatre.
He believes audiences "cannot quite hear" instrumental works in performance. With the music of Shostakovich, "we can feel both far and near: far from the cultural, political, and social framework of his life; near to his darkness, violence, and human frailty."
When McBurney's four characterless men-in-suits furiously tossed chairs offstage, they must have been suggesting the tormented Soviet composer's violence. This seating-image, however, also recalled McBurney's recent Broadway staging of Ionesco's "The Chairs."
As his silent acting-quartet darted around the stage, sitting, standing, moving, their actions baffled. Rather than preparing listeners for a greater appreciation of No. 15 in E-flat minor.
McBurney's brother Gerard provided some History of Radio-Broadcasting sound-bites and some film-footage from wartime and the pre-war years, linked loosely to Shostakovich's often precarious position in the Soviet Cultural Pantheon.
McBurney intended to set the quartet in a context: "…a dramatic context that is neither play nor concert, but sets out to evoke the presence of the man, to listen to his voice. This dramatic meditation aspires to tune the ear and the eye in order to listen to the heart beating in this most intimate essay, in the most personal of musical forms, at the center of the darkest of centuries."
Simon McBurney has needlessly and anti-theatrically complicated listening and appreciation. He should give up directing in favor of writing Op-Ed Essays, or those loquaciously learned art-museum wall-texts with interpretative glosses that would astonish the actual artists.
"The Noise of Time," by the way, is said to be History. A&E will surely soon have it for you on CDs. [Loney]
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Copyright © Glenn Loney 2000. No re-publication or broadcast use without proper credit of authorship. Suggested credit line: "Glenn Loney, New York Theatre Wire." Reproduction rights please contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
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