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Loney's Show Notes
By Glenn Loney, January 15, 2006
Caricature of Glenn Loney
by Sam Norkin.
Please click on " * " to skip to each subject in this index:
Plays New & Old— *
Douglas Carter Beane’s THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED [*****] *
Christopher Durang’s MISS WITHERSPOON [*****] *
Bert V. Royal’s DOG SEES GOD [***] *
Ariel Dorfman’s THE OTHER SIDE [**] *
Zayd Dohrn’s HAYMARKET [**] *
Neil Simon’s THE ODD COUPLE [****] * Buy " Odd Couple" Tickets
Edward Albee’s SEASCAPE [****] *
Horton Foote’s THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL [****] *
Eugene O’Neill’s A TOUCH OF THE POET [***] *
Samuel Beckett’s WAITING FOR GODOT [**] *
Harold Pinter’s CELEBRATION & THE ROOM [***] *
Musicals Old & New— *
Chita Rivera in THE DANCER’S LIFE [****] * Buy "Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life" Tickets
LaChanze in THE COLOR PURPLE [****] * Buy " Color Purple" Tickets
Judy Kaye in SOUVENIR [****] *
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s THE WOMAN IN WHITE [****] *
Operas Old & New— *
Tobias Picker’s AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY [***] *
Manhattan School Double-Bill: *
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ RIDERS TO THE SEA & *
Madama Butterfly [*****] *
Other Entertainments— *
THE STONES [****] *
THIS WAY/THAT WAY [**] *
THE PARK AVENUE WHIRL [***] *
Plays New & Old—
Douglas Carter Beane’s THE LITTLE DOG LAUGHED [*****]
"The Cow Jumped Over the Moon and the Dish Ran Away with the Spoon…"
Although there are giant baby-cradle toys dangling like a Calder Mobile over the audience, Douglas Carter Beane isn’t exactly offering reworked Nursery Rhymes at the Second Stage. Unless you feel that the nervous, closeted gay movie-actor Mitchell [Neal Huff] is on the verge of cradle-robbing by falling in love with the boyish hustler Alex [Johnny Galecki].
But Mitch is also on the verge of a Big-Breakthrough that could make him the favorite cinematic heart-throb of millions of American Mothers and their pubescent daughters. His tough, seen-it-all, lesbian agent, Diane [a hilarious Julie White], is not going to let this opportunity—she could become a Producer!—go down in flames. Even though "The Property" is a very frank new play about Coming Out of the Closet that poses both challenges and problems for her and her client…
Unfortunately for Alex, Ellen [Zoe Lister-Jones], his sometime girl-friend—to convince himself that he’s not gay—is pregnant. Neither he nor she can afford an abortion, so he asks the appalled Mitch to give him the money. How all this works out for a Hollywood Happy Ending, you’ll have to see to believe. But it is totally On Target, and Diane’s frequent tart commentaries are worth the admission-price alone!
This handsome show—designed by Allen Moyer, Jeff Mahshie, & Don Holder—is ingeniously staged by Scott Ellis. Soon To Be a Major Motion-Picture? Why Not? Brokeback Mountain in mid-Manhattan?
Christopher Durang’s MISS WITHERSPOON [*****]
I was beheaded in the French Revolution, so I can readily relate to Miss Witherspoon [a manic Kristine Nielsen] when she finds herself in a strange dimension, waiting to be reborn on earth. First seen as an Epic Depressive in unhappy Middle Age—even the petals fall off a tulip when she tries to sniff its aroma!—she has arrived in this Pre-Nirvana Waiting-Room as a result of too many pills.
A charming Hindu lady [Mahrira Kakkar] tries to prepare her for the necessary rebirth as a baby. Miss Witherspoon is a Very Long Way Off from Nirvana. Buddhist Enlightenment will surely not be hers until she had undergone many, many more lives. The prospect of becoming a baby again appalls her. She resists—and the pre-Heavens shake with her force of will.
Ultimately Intelligent Design—or The Cosmos—prevails, and Miss Witherspoon is mewling in her cradle. Her doting parents have a savage dog that takes an instant dislike to the Newcomer. His furious attack is her doorway back to the Waiting-Room. But provoking him was also a form of suicide.
Her next parents are red-neck cracker trailer-court Druggies. Obviously, she has to get out before she’s forced to Live This Life. At the close, she’s still Light-Year Lives away from Nirvana, but now she has Saint Peter as her earthly father—and she speaks out from her cradle for World Peace!
This may seem quite a change of pace for damaged Catholic schoolboy & playwright Chris Durang, but it is a welcome change from the hilarious anti-Church sophomorics of Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You.
The role of Miss Witherspoon is a boon to actresses with a gift for satiric comedy—and a fund of body-language to emphasize the horrors of what she’s experiencing. Cherry Jones was sitting in front of me, and she was often convulsed with Nielson’s hilarious anguish at what the gods were doing to Miss Witherspoon. So, in fact, was the entire audience at Playwrights Horizons!
Miss Witherspoon should soon move Off-Broadway. It is too amusing & engaging to miss. Emily Mann staged it originally at Princeton’s McCarter Theatre. David Korin’s amazing set-designs—zooming between Heaven & Earth—are a show in themselves. You’ll even see Chicken Little as the sky begins to fall. Or at least rain down chunks of defunct satellites…
In theory, Reincarnation involves living many Lives, learning many Lessons, and moving ever closer to Enlightenment & Nirvana. Western adepts reject the idea of being reborn into a lower form—as a dog or a camel, for instance. This is the Eastern Idea of Transmigration of Souls. Durang entertains this notion, but Miss Witherspoon is not a Religious Catechism, after all.
[Note: No, I do not remember Danton or Robspierre. And certainly not Marie Antoinette—at the foot of the Guillotine. Nor my actual Beheading. But I was always very good in French at UC/Berkeley: Only when I worked in France did I begin to Lose It. I learned of my Revolutionary Enthauptung only as a small child, when a psychic—who had been to Mars in a Flying Saucer—told me about it, explaining that was why I hated wearing neckties.
[It’s a very good thing you don’t remember Past Lives. Did I burn my mother as a witch in the 14th century? My worst fear in being Reborn is having to do school all over again. For Miss Witherspoon, the horror is becoming a baby again. Think about it! But don’t miss Kristine Nielsen as Miss Witherspoon when this provocative and attractive production transfers!]
Bert V. Royal’s DOG SEES GOD [***]
Seeing this unusual vision of Peanuts in High School the night after vivid demonstrations of Reincarnation in Miss Witherspoon, I was astonished at the topical coincidences. Will Snoopy see God when he dies? [G-d, as you may know, is actually DOG spelled backwards!]
Do our pets go to Heaven? Do they reincarnate? [Yes, if they are in Miss Witherspoon!]
Bert Royal’s innocent Hero, CB [Eddie Kaye Thomas], has just had his rabid beagle put down: he had eaten Tweety-bird. His Goth-sister appears in Dracula-Black with an immense cross at the dog’s graveside. No one else has come. Later, all the high-school crew apologize.
CB’s chums are a raffish lot: ditzy hormone-driven cheer-girls, a doped-out cheerful retard, a violent jock, a girlfriend in the madhouse for setting another girl’s hair on fire, and Beethoven [Logan Marshall-Green], a fearful shy nerd who’s a piano-prodigy. He’s verbally labeled a Fag, and Kick-Me signs are pasted to his back-pack.
These teen-agers will help you understand Columbine High and that poor kid who was crucified on a barbed-wire fence way out West…
CB writes to a Secret Pen-Pal with initials CS [Charles Schulz? Or is this name in copyright?], but he receives an answer only at the close of the play—a letter that wraps it all up.
Disgusted at the way his friends treat Beethoven, CB is impelled to kiss him full on the mouth in front of all of them! Brokeback Mountain in the music-room!
This is a Social Disaster! The jock—who admires CB to distraction—beats Beethoven senseless. Like Miss Witherspoon, Beethoven definitively Checks Out.
WARNING: The F-Word—and its grammatical variations—illuminates almost every speech—even entire sentences. George Bush may believe he’s left No Child’s Behind, but these kids are not the Fresh-faced Innocents beloved of Born-Again Fundamentalist Parents. No Way!
Senior Audiences may be appalled not only at the language, but also at the plot-events, the characters, and their apparent Lack of Moral Values. Bert Royal may be offering a satirical version of Peanuts in pubescence, but under the comical hysterics, there is a disturbing reality.
The Century Center was packed with a young and very enthusiastic audience. Royal is a casting-director, so it’s no wonder that his entire and vibrantly youthful ensemble have major film, TV, and stage credits. In addition to Thomas and Marshall-Green, the company includes Eliza Dushku, America Ferrara, Kelli Garner, Ari Graynor, Keith Nobbs, & Ian Somerhalder.
Some spectators surely came to see favorite players on stage, but the play itself seemed to capture the major interest. Trip Cullman staged in a simple David Korins setting. Is it another instance of coincidence that Korins also designed Miss Witherspoon?
Ariel Dorfman’s THE OTHER SIDE [**]
Best-known to theatre-experts as the playwright of Death and the Maiden—later filmed by Roman Polanski—Ariel Dorfman writes in several genres. But it was surely the success of that play that inspired the Manhattan Theatre Club to produce his allegorical embarrassment, The Other Side.
Obviously, Dorfman deplores the futility and lethality of War. As who does not—aside from Geo. W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Condi Rice, & Donald Rumsfeld?
The one Socially Redeeming feature of this labored MTC production is the presence on stage of two of America’s most talented and admired players: Rosemary Harris & John Cullum. This stellar duo is trapped in a wreck of a hut in an anonymous No-Man’s-Land. Behind this ramshackle structure loom stage-wide rows of tombstones.
The shambling and shabbily-clad couple subsist on boiled scraps, spending their days collecting dead bodies of young soldiers which they then bury in the endless cemetery outside. Both the warring sides pay for this service as the couple are a curious combo: He is from one side; she, from The Other Side.
She longs repeatedly for the return of their son, whom he drove away many years ago.
Suddenly, the rear wall is shattered by bombardment [good stage-effect by designer Beowulf Boritt], and an out-of-control soldier [Gene Farber] appears to divide their room in half. Peace has at last been negotiated, but the National Border must be very clearly drawn. It runs right through their hut. He has to stay on one side; she, on The Other Side!
Could this violent boy/man soldier be their Long Lost Son? Does it really matter? War suddenly breaks out again anyway…
This script—and the staging by Blanka Zizka, of Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre—immediately reminded me of such hoary dramas as Lodging for a Night and Outward Bound. Not to overlook Journey’s End. Lodging is not an anti-war play, but it does feature feckless peasants murdering a nameless traveler for his riches, only to discover that he was, guess what!, their Long Lost Son!
Why couldn‘t MTC’s Lynne Meadow & Barry Grove revive a Shavian Anti-War Critique? Both Harris & Cullum could shine in Shaw. Rosemary Harris is now visibly too senior to play Barbara Undershaft, but she’d be superb as Lady Undershaft, with Cullum as the Munitions-King.
Unfortunately, the MTC is dedicated to producing New Plays—of whatever quality. It’s the Roundabout that provides rousing revivals. I’ll bet most New Yorkers can hardly wait for its revival of the Pajama Game, starring Harry Connick, Jr. [Why don’t we know more about Harry Connick, Senior?] This revival will play at the American Airlines Theatre—is that one of those airlines facing bankruptcy?
Zayd Dohrn’s HAYMARKET [**]
"Those who do not study history are condemned to repeat it," philosopher George Santayana famously said—although that Truism has been attributed to many, including Aristotle, Machiavelli, and possibly also to Napoleon.
Obviously, a President who boasts that he does not read the newspapers has read very little—if anything at all—of History. So his relentless pushing of the Fear Agenda—animated by America & Democracy-Hating Terrorists—as something entirely new on the National Horizon, betrays his ignorance of the Terrorist Threats that have alarmed and shocked the American Public for generations.
Long before Lee Harvey Oswald’s rifle killed President John Fitzgerald Kennedy in Dallas, Anarchists and other malcontents had assassinated three previous presidents. Not only the sainted Abraham Lincoln, but also James A. Garfield and William McKinley!
US Presidents have not been the only Terrorist Targets. Think of Federal Office-buildings! Tim McVeigh was only the most recent Home-Grown—and certainly non-Muslim—Terrorist. Before him, there have been scores of deadly dissidents: Think of Tom Mooney and the Preparedness-Day Parade!
Recently, the horrendous Chicago Haymarket Bombing of 1886 was revisited in Haymarket, originally a Boston Playwrights’ Theatre production. In Manhattan, it was presented by the Alchemy Theatre Company.
It is good, in these troubled times, to be reminded of Terrorists Past—and how they were dealt with. But with Modern Military Technology and Weapons of Mass Destruction—much of it developed by the Pentagon—the damage-potential from Terrorist Actions has been raised exponentially.
So what is there to be learned from exploring—even fictionally, as in Haymarket—the reasons for & results of such horrendous Acts of Social Violence?
Revisiting America’s violent Labor vs. Industry History can be both interesting and instructive. The Irondale Ensemble has attempted to do that with Henry Clay Frick—and the assassination-attempt which he survived. But, as with Haymarket, the writing and the adaptation of real events and personalities were not powerful enough.
Where is Bertolt Brecht, now that we really need him? Take a look at Brecht’s Saint Joan of the Stockyards! It is also set in Chicago!
Neil Simon’s THE ODD COUPLE [****] -- Buy The Odd Couple Tickets
The Brooks Atkinson—formerly the Mansfield—Theatre is packed. The curtain rises, and a cloud of tobacco-smoke wafts out over the audience. A Poker-Party is in progress: could this be yet another revival of Streetcar Named Desire?
Certainly not! The minute Nathan Lane appears, all thoughts of Brando & Kowalski vanish. As slobby, schlumpy, depressed, divorced Oscar Madison, he doesn’t need to take off his shirt and strut his sexual-stuff. Lane makes this now-classic role his very own, even to the point to dashing a plate of pickles into the audience!
His sparring-partner is Matthew Broderick—alias Felix Unger: initials FU!—who is far more comically complicated than his nerdy Leo Bloom in The Producers. They work very well together, even without Mel Brooks and a pit-orchestra.
In fact, Doc Simon may have doctored his original script, as one of the Pigeon Sisters asks Felix "where he gets his ideas," writing for CBS News. When this comedy was new, the networks broadcast Real News.
Behind me, several seniors were comparing Lane & Broderick with Walter Matthau & Tony Randall. They thought the latter duo was "more Mature," whatever that means.
They may have been bothered by an obviously rehearsed performance-gaffe, when Felix puts on his coat without taking a soup-ladle out of his hand. Lane’s face goes deep red as he waits for the audience-reaction to build: Did they see the ladle? Broderick makes sure they do, appearing to suppress his own laughter as both chums break-up.
Joe Mantello staged in an ingenious John Lee Beatty Riverside Drive set. The monumental mess that is Oscar’s living-room is almost instantly brought to order—with a brief dip of the curtain—thanks to revolving panels in the walls!
So what if the movie of The Producers isn’t as good as the stage-musical? They both work very hard in the film—and it shows. But their success in Simon’s Odd Couple ought to cheer them.
[Director Susan Stroman’s problem was that she learned nothing from the brilliant rethinking of Chicago as a movie-musical. Chicago broke free of real grimy locations and set-design details—as it had already in its ENCORE revival on stage—to float freely & colorfully in Time & Space. Producers is still too closely tied to real interiors—even when painted all-white—and staged production-numbers.]
Edward Albee’s SEASCAPE [****]
I saw this show years ago up in Hartford, where its then—and current Broadway—director, Mark Lamos, was Artistic Director of Hartford Stage. He staged it minimally, with the audience almost on the beach with the ageing Nancy & Charlie.
Originally, on Broadway, it hadn’t been as much fun as in Hartford, but it still seemed like an extended one-act philosophical comedy—with two cute costumes, for the evolving giant lizards, Leslie & Sarah.
[When Albee had his first successes, with Zoo Story and The American Dream—an interviewer asked him when he was going to write a "Full-Length Play." He slyly observed that all his plays were full-length, in that they didn’t need to be any longer than they were to make their dramatic points! Soon after that, with the epic-length of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, some wished he’d return to the one-act form…]
Even now, in the handsome revival at the Lyceum Theatre, it still seems a bit long-winded, especially the loving but querulous opening banter between a now venerable George Grizzard and the wonderfully ageless Frances Sternhagen.
But once they hit their stride, and the lizards [the excellent Elizabeth Marvel & Frederick Weller] come Over the Top of the dunes, the wit and the ideas begin to click. This is not a satire for Apostles of Intelligent Design, however.
[In fact, were he now alive & well, Charles Darwin himself might be much amused at the evolutionary points Albee makes. Actually, after you’ve seen this show, a visit to the EVOLUTION exhibition up at the American Museum of Natural History would be an excellent Darwinian follow-up. There are even some giant green living lizards on display, as well as some Galapagos Island Turtles: those evolving hard-shelled creatures which first fueled Darwin’s ingenious imagination!
Horton Foote’s THE TRIP TO BOUNTIFUL [****]
Thomas Wolfe—the real, or the first, American novelist of that name—famously wrote that You Can’t Go Home Again. He meant this more in an emotional and spiritual sense, than in terms of actual places. But even in his own time, the places and houses where he’d grown up were changed, degraded, altered, lost.
The same is true for Horton Foote’s Mrs. Carrie Watts, sensitively played by Lois Smith. Almost a prisoner in her son’s home—criticized and abused by her bitter daughter-in-law, Jessie Mae [Hallie Foote]—she longs to return to Bountiful, in her memory an idyllic community of family-farms and friendly, supportive neighbors.
She runs away, trying to get back to Bountiful by bus. Her adventures have their comic aspect, but there is real pathos in her need. Her son goes after her, appalled at what might happen—and regretful that he’s not been more sympathetic to her quiet desperation, as his wife’s unquiet desperation is of a much more verbal and demanding kind.
When Mrs. Watts finally reaches Bountiful, it’s all but gone into the ground. Her last old friend—whom she thought she’d stay with—has just died. Her son, Ludie [Devon Abner], has to help her become resigned to what must be. And not keep longing for what was long ago lost in Time & Space…
Harris Yulin staged for the Signature Theatre, which some time ago had an entire season of Horton Foote dramas.
Eugene O’Neill’s A TOUCH OF THE POET [***]
Carlotta Monterey has a lot to answer for. At the end of his life, playwright Eugene O’Neill had not permitted any of his late plays to be produced. He sealed them away, intending that they never be performed. But he did not destroy them…
Fortunately, his widow understood the tormented genius of his Long Day’s Journey into Night, so this monumental family-tragedy was not lost to the world’s stages. Some of the other late plays are less rewarding, although there are certainly directors and actors who venerate More Stately Mansions, Moon for the Misbegotten, and A Touch of the Poet.
Among these theatre-people was Prof. Karl Ragner-Gierow, artistic-director of Dramaten, the Royal Swedish Dramatic Theatre—of which Ingmar Bergman was once also artistic-director. He won Carlotta’s confidence, convincing her that—translated into Swedish and far removed from Broadway—these plays could find their voices on stage, free from the New York Hit-or-Flop Syndrome.
In fact, these Dramaten productions created quite a stir in Europe, with major critics from Germany, France, and Britain coming to appraise the dramas. Long Day’s Journey was unquestionably the major discovery, and it has since had major productions on major stages all over the world.
Touch of the Poet is much more problematic, focusing on the contradictory character of Con Melody, a frustrated, boastful, drunken Irish immigrant who keeps a tavern near Boston in 1828. He has epic Issues with the dominant WASP Elite—who he rightly thinks believe an Irishman like him is beneath their notice nor worthy even of their contempt. [And this was twenty years before the disastrous Potato Famine of 1848, which flooded Boston with poverty-stricken Irish Peasantry.]
Melody insists that he’s the equal of these proud New Englanders because his father had an estate in Ireland and because he has won honors as a British Officer. These are virtual fictions, but—dressed in his colorful British uniform—he rallies around himself a few drinking-comrades who flatter his pretensions in exchange for the free drinks.
Meanwhile, his feisty daughter, Sara, has the scion of an Old Boston Family upstairs in the bedroom. His much-abused, but still adoring, wife, Nora, caters to his every whim. Fortunately and finally, he gets his come-uppance even from his drinking-buddies. But especially from Sara…
The story is not all that compelling, nor is Con endlessly interesting as a character. What makes this Roundabout Theatre production—at Studio 54—work is the performance of Gabriel Byrne as Con Melody. As directed by Doug Hughes, he gives a larger-than-life bravura impression of Con, worthy of the Greats of the English Stage back in the days of Sir Herbert Beerbohm-Tree and Sir Henry Irving.
The peculiar set is the invention of Santo Loquasto, who also provided suitably shabby costumes for Emily Bergl, Dearbhla Molloy, & Byron Jennings, but not for the peacock-resplendent Byrne.
Eugene O’Neill was—and remains—one of America’s most adventurous playwrights, essaying every form from Melodrama [Desire Under the Elms], Expressionism [The Hairy Ape], Stream-of-Consciousness [Strange Interlude], Epic Theatre [Marco Millions], Ethnic Drama [All God’s Children Got Wings, The Emperor Jones], Surrealism [Lazarus Laughed], to Greek Tragedy [Mourning Becomes Electra].
Why doesn’t the Roundabout—or Manhattan Theatre Club—explore one of these neglected dramas? Not since Lee Strasberg’s disastrous Actors Studio mounting of Strange Interlude has that epic been on Broadway.
With a repertory of so many O’Neill plays, you could almost establish an Annual O’Neill Festival, but, unlike Shakespeare, he wrote only one comedy [Ah, Wilderness], so there wouldn’t be enough balance in the program.
[It’s true that they have lively summers up in Waterford, CT, at the O’Neill Center, but they are busy work-shopping new plays and training apprentice drama-critics for rapidly disappearing newspaper posts.
[Under the late, great critic, Ernie Shear, your scribe once provided Cultural Enrichment for the O’Neill’s novice-critics with an exploration of the Concept of Time: LOST TIME IS NEVER FOUND, TIME & TIDE WAIT FOR NO MAN, etc., etc.
Samuel Beckett’s WAITING FOR GODOT [**]
By now, most theatre-fans know how this obscure drama comes out: Godot—who may be an Irish-French version of G-d—never shows, despite repeated promises.
Beckett now lies quietly beneath a brown marble slab in Paris’ Cemetery Montparnasse—or is it Montmartre? I have a photo somewhere, having also lensed the graves of Oscar Wilde & Edith Piaf, but they are in Père Lachaise—so we cannot ask him what he intended to imply, if anything.
This drawn-out fable has proved a watershed—or is it a G-dsend?—for famous actors to display their serious sides: There was that famous one at Lincoln Center: Robin Williams, Bill Irwin, F. Murray Abraham, and—could it have been: memory fails—Steve Martin?
Although this modest revival on Theatre Row featured five producers—including Rock and a Hard Place Productions—it looked very much like an exercise imported from The Actors Studio. Nonetheless—even though some of my colleagues despised it—I liked the Didi & Gogo of Sam Coppola & Joseph Ragno.
[When I taught Theatre years ago—1960, to be exact—at Hofstra, one of our student All-Stars was Francis Ford Coppola. Can these two so very different talents be related?]
Harold Pinter’s CELEBRATION & THE ROOM [***]
The very best of Harold Pinter is now his Nobel Prize Acceptance Address. Check it out on the web! Until now, I thought the best Nobel Address ever made was that of William Faulkner. He actually believed that Mankind would not only Endure, but that it would Prevail.
Recent events have thrown that belief into serious doubt. And Pinter’s speech documents why, point-by-point. America, post-World War II, is the culprit. And Pinter’s Target. He has it in his rifle-sights, so he won’t be getting a Visitor’s Visa any time soon. He’ll be lucky if Cheney doesn’t abduct him from a West End sidewalk and "render" him south of Cairo!
After reading Pinter’s devastating Nobel speech, an alert theatre-goer might be forgiven for finding The Room a repetition of Pinterian themes & styles, without being especially revelatory of human peculiarities and temporal ambiguities.
Whose Room is this really? Who really is the Landlord? Why doesn’t Bert speak as Rose tirelessly prepares his toast & tea? Are they really married? [She looks old enough to be his Mother!] What does he really do? Where is he off to? Who are the couple who come to look at the Room? Are they just checking it out, or will they dislodge the current lodgers? Why is Earle Hyman appearing in this play as Riley?
The Atlantic Theatre’s tireless Neil Pepe staged this one-acter, as he did Celebration, moderately more focused & amusing as a study in arriviste vulgarity in an upscale restaurant, with a rather peculiar staff. In this vision of Dining-Hell, Pinter’s calculated ambiguities heighten the satire. Or something like that…
The admirable Mary Beth Piel was a faded, washed-out, fearful Rose. She didn’t even get a nice house-dress. The handsome ladies in Celebration had very smart frocks! Thanks to costumière Ilona Somogyi!
Musicals Old & New—
Chita Rivera in THE DANCER’S LIFE [****] "Chita Rivera: The Dancer's Life" Tickets
I bless Chita Rivera for saluting dancer/director/choreographer Jack Cole in her new show, The Dancer’s Life! Cole was the dancing-genius who developed Jazz-Dance. Not only did he teach & train Rivera in this wonderfully varied Dance Vocabulary, but he also passed it on to his favorite assistant, Gwen Verdon, and a generation of Broadway & Hollywood’s greatest dancers, choreographers, and teachers.
But, as Rivera surveys and relives her long career in Cabaret and Musical Theatre in this colorful show, it’s clear that she’s danced with the very best of them. And She’s Still Here!
Not only are some great shows and memorable choreographies recalled—and physically evoked—but Rivera gives audiences a personal-tour of her Trials & Triumphs. Not the least of these is that she is still a sensational stage-dancer & personality after having her left leg shattered in a Manhattan traffic-accident when she was starring in Jerry’s Girls! You would never know!
As Rivera has to hold the stage for almost two hours, dancing and singing—she’s the Star, after all, and it is Her Story!—she is careful how she uses her resources. There are some electrifying numbers in which she is more the centerpiece than the Dancing Diva. But these work very well: Let the Star have the spotlight and sing: What do we have Dancing Boys for anyway?
There can be a danger in this if audiences expect more knock-‘em-dead dancing. When the lovely Cyd Charisse was starring in the Ziegfeld musical in London, she was often carried around & high aloft by the Chorus-boys, rather like a beautifully-costumed Trophy than a star-dancer, which she once had been.
But Chita Rivera avoids this adroitly. If there’s a problem, it’s in Terrence McNally’s script, which runs the risk of seeming a catalogue of "…and then I was in, and then I was in…" Some personal details do detract, and it’s useless to hash over The Rink. It was a Bad Idea Gone Wrong. [Pace, Walter Kerr!]
Rivera’s Resumé & Life Story would have been better served had Marshall Brickman crafted the script. He did wonders for Jersey Boys!
There were some original songs by Ahrens & Flaherty, as well as Broadway hits like A Boy Like That, Big Spender, Class, Put on a Happy Face, and Kiss of the Spider Woman.
The resourceful Graciela Daniele both choreographed and directed, as is her wont.
[Disclosure: Your scribe was and is a great Jack Cole fan, and Gwen Verdon helped him immensely when he wrote Unsung Genius: The Passion of Dancer, Director, Choreographer Jack Cole. It’s long been out-of-print, but it will soon be online for all to read and copy!]
LaChanze in THE COLOR PURPLE [****] -- Buy The Color Purple Tickets
If there’s one color I really hate with a passion, it is The Color Purple!
Not the Broadway show: it’s just fine! Lovely! Vital! Vivid! Great Production-Numbers! Wonderfully posed Silhouettes! Memorable Scenery. Fabulous Costumes—especially the Sunday Hats! LaChanze heart-breaking as men abuse and take advantage of her!
No, I mean the actual color, especially when it is impregnated on nubby fabric to make a dowdy dress. That was my mother’s very favorite shade, sheen, and style. It was also favored by an aged teacher of Oral Interpretation at Brooklyn College, who used to play an upright piano in class to set the mood for student-readings of poems by T. S. Eliot, Vachel Lindsay, and Amy Lowell.
But the novel, the movie, and now the musical wouldn’t have had the same resonance had Alice Walker opted for The Color Fuschia, would they?
Considering the special qualities of the movie-version of Walker’s original, I wondered how this tale could be made into a foot-stomping Broadway musical and leave the Sapphic elements unspoiled. Not to worry: Marsha Norman has provided a very skilled text, with rousing songs by Brenda Russell, Allee Willis, & Stephen Bray.
My favorite set-designer, John Lee Beatty, has ingeniously created a Grand Parade of Beautiful Stage-Pictures, which director Gary Griffin and choreographer Donald Byrd have used to maximum effect.
Über-producer Oprah Winfrey must be very proud of what all these talents have achieved at the Broadway Theatre. Looks like this will be an Oprah-Induced Long-Run.
Judy Kaye in SOUVENIR [****]
When this Salute to Florence Foster Jenkins premiered at the York Theatre two seasons ago, Judy Kaye was already winning rave reviews for her valiant interpretation of Mme. Jenkins. In its recent run at Broadway’s Lyceum Theatre, the bravos were redoubled.
Not only does Stephen Temperley’s Play-with-Music require his star to become a monumentally deluded Manhattan Socialite, but she also has to risk doing permanent damage to her voice. That surely took some courage for Kaye, already beloved for her fine voice and dynamic vocal interpretations in Broadway musicals. Among her credits: Phantom of the Opera [Tony Award] and Mama Mia!
Over half-a-century ago, at UC/Berkeley—when I first heard the recording of Florence Foster Jenkins in concert—she was already a legend. The album featured a black-&-white photo of the imposing Mme. Jenkins in an angelic costume, complete with great wings.
Like America’s first great International Opera Diva, Emma Nevada, Jenkins was fond of changing costumes for each aria. Apparently, one of Jenkins’ angel-wings fell off in the wings, so the New York Times critic reported that she was "Coming in on a Wing and a Prayer."
[This was a popular World War II inspirational song about a wounded US Army Air Force plane returning from a mission severely crippled. The tart critical application of this song to Jenkins only added to her legend.]
An evening of deliberately bad singing—especially of famed opera-arias—would have been unendurable, at least after the first one or two. Temperley’s ingenious solution, in creating his "fantasia" on Jenkins’ life, was to present her singing-career in the framework of an audience-friendly remembrance of things past by her longtime accompanist, Cosme McMoon [his real name!].
This has the advantage, not only of putting her concerts in context, but also of showing both these musicians as sympathetic, if somewhat deluded. At first appalled at what he hears when Jenkins auditions him as an accompanist—she obviously has no ear for how she sings, and little understanding of what she is singing—over time, McMoon becomes very protective of her, both in rehearsal and performance.
After the York premiere, the show toured. At the Lyceum, it was greatly improved—especially the production-values—notably with the charming Donald Corren at the keyboard as Cosme.
Before the show opened this season, the radio-ad was largely Judy Kaye squalling as Mme. Jenkins. It was horrendous to hear. Although I’d loved the show at the York, I came to hate the ad so much I decided not to check out Souvenir at the Lyceum.
Suddenly someone at the publicity-agency got the message and changed the ad. I’m glad they pulled it, and I’m even more glad I saw Kay & Corren triumph in this most unusual Music-Drama!
Andrew Lloyd Webber’s THE WOMAN IN WHITE [****] -- Buy "The Woman in White" Tickets
When I first saw Lord Webber’s The Woman in White at its premiere in London, I was astounded and delighted. I thought he’d returned to his former mastery—after a series of declining musical inspirations.
The worst had been a West End musical that mercifully never made it across the Atlantic: Whistle Down the Wind, about Snake-Handlers in the American South, an area and a topic about which Webber appeared to understand little or nothing.
But Webber’s 21st century recreation of Wilkie Collins’ immensely popular Victorian novel I thought very effective and even moving—in both dramatic and musical terms. He seemed to have regained his stride.
Collins’ quasi-ghost-story of is visually haunting as Music-Theatre, especially as designed, but its musical ambitions prove even more unusual. Like the operas of Richard Wagner—odd comparison!—Webber’s is Through-Composed. Virtually every line is sung!
This is a mixed-blessing, as the lyrics of David Zippel provide frequent and often obvious rhymes that at times reduce what should be powerful passion, or fearful presentiment, to doggerel.
This is made even more obvious by an electronic-signboard downstage-left which presents each line as it is sung: YOU CAN SEE THE RHYMES, as well as hear them. I assume this display is for the Deaf—so they can understand the banalities being sung—but even the Stone-Deaf will be able to hear the music, so loudly & thoroughly miked & amplified.
As for "Facing the Music," this is another Andrew Lloyd Webber show with One Hit Song—which permutates throughout the action. Fortunately, it is a very lovely, enchanting theme. It is even more haunting—to me, at least—because it is descended from more classical sources, though I cannot yet pinpoint the composer or the original composition.
[In London, it used to be fun to nail-down the classical compositions Lord Webber had raided for his themes. Lloyd Webber’s father was head of the Guildhall School of Music, so both Andrew and his cellist-brother, Julian Lloyd Webber, grew up in a household filled with classical music!]
Charles Dickens and Wilkie Collins collaborated on occasion. Dickens was as gifted as Collins in crafting stories of mystery. One of Dickens’ most haunting ghost-stories is titled The Signal-Man, and its essence provides the opening-scene for The Woman in White.
Our Artist-Hero, Walter Hartright—his heart is right, as you will soon see!—is dropped off the train at a dismal signal-box, not even a proper station. He has been engaged as an arts-tutor for two sisters in a mysterious & ancient Tudor Manor-house.
The Signalman has just had a terrible vision of an accident looming in the future on these very rails: and Walter was part of his dream. He vanishes. Suddenly a ghostly apparition materializes: a Woman in White, in mortal distress! And with a Secret she cannot divulge…
But no, the wraith-like Anne Catherick [Angela Christian] is not a ghost: she is a desperate fugitive from the evil plots of Sir Percy Glyde [Ron Bohmer], soon to wed Laura Fairlie [Jill Paice], the lovelier of the two sisters, the one with whom Walter falls into impossible love. Although Laura’s valiant, self-sacrificing half-sister, Marian Halcombe [the magnificent Maria Friedman!], has also fallen in love with Walter—who has eyes only for Laura, who returns his adoration.
After all, Walter is but a penniless painter, and Laura is an Heiress! Adam Brazier is a handsome, stalwart Walter. The plot thickens almost immediately when Walter realizes that the ghostly woman looks like Laura! All will be revealed by the Final Curtain, shortly after the dead & buried Laura is discovered confined in a Madhouse!
[I share this artistic gimmick so that those who clamber up the maze of escalators to the Marriott-Marquis Theatre can admire the ingenious ways in which Wilkie Collins, book-adapter Charlotte Jones, and Lord Webber have devised this Vintage Victorian Page-turner. Both at UC/Bekeley and at Stanford University, Lit Profs insisted we read the first chapter and the last, so we could then study—chapter-by-chapter—how the authors had constructed their novels! And The Woman in White is certainly a cleverly constructed show…]
Oh, there’s also comic-relief in the over-padded character of the Italian quack-doctor, Count Fusco. He of the many bird-cages and the trained white rat! He is aiding Sir Percy in his malign designs on Laura and her bank-account. But he also finds Marian attractive…
Michael Ball is featured in this diverting role, but Norman Large—usually the Signalman—ably played Fusco on the Lesser Critics’ Night. Your scribe was assured he could see the production again when Ball was playing. I like the show so much I will certainly take up this offer!
But what most astonished me were the innovative settings & projections of designer William Dudley, an artist I’ve long admired—and interviewed several times. He designed Peter Hall’s RING at the Bayreuth Festival, evoking a remarkable "Romantic Realism." His Billy Budd at the Met remains one of its most impressive productions!
I could see Lord Webber’s Woman in White over and over again just for Bill Dudley’s wonderfully evocative and sweeping video & photo-projections of English Landscapes, Stately Homes, Victorian Villages, & London Stews!
The Basic Set is the essence of technical simplicity. It consists of two great moving shell-arcs on which vistas and interiors are projected, moving swiftly along as a bird flies above the fields and cemeteries! These shells circle the center-stage, gliding on tracks to form a convex white drum-wall for front-&-center, "In One" downstage scenes.
They open, circling upstage to form concave sides & back-wall for both exteriors and interiors. There is also a lesser-curved & smaller arc-segment that moves out and downstage from the joined major arc-shells, for more intimate interiors. This free-standing unit also revolves, as does the center-stage itself.
The effect can be positively vertiginous, especially when both the shells and the videos are in sleek, insidious, magical, sweeping motion! One of my aged critic-colleagues actually got ill at the sight. It is at once amazing—but also potentially disorienting!
But the revolves and the birds-eye-view projections are not mere visual stunts.
Director Trevor Nunn has used them brilliantly to tell this haunting tale. He has found the way to move the actors about in swiftly mutating environments that actually enhance their own movements and make them more powerful and meaningful. And, no matter how swiftly the façade of Laura’s ancient home zooms around the shells, she and Marian always find the entry-door just where it should be!
Of course scenes are enhanced by a few—very, very few—set-props and pieces of furniture. Tombstones rise up out of the stage-floor and fold back down again. Dudley also designed the elegant Period Costumes!
Incidental Note: A Through-Composed score is not something new for Andrew Lloyd Webber. Some years ago, I interviewed him in his suite at the Hotel Carlyle for Opera News. I asked him why Jesus Christ Superstar and Evita didn’t have real "books." They were entirely sung narratives! Why wasn’t there any spoken-text?
Of course, Hal Prince’s brilliant staging of Evita obviously needed nothing more—no more words, certainly—to make this gripping fable so compelling. Most audiences probably never noticed that there were no speeches, as such. Arias, instead!
Webber explained that he and his librettist-partner, Tim Rice, initially had doubts about finding a producer for Superstar. It was, after all, a Revolutionary Take on the Passion of Christ. And not one in the Mel Gibson vein.
So there was no book, merely an outline of the story, illustrated with songs and moved along with orchestral-music. They got it recorded, and the album exploded worldwide.
When a major production was assured, Rice was prepared to craft a book, but the producer pointed out that this was not necessary. The songs told it all!
The same thing happened with Evita—whom the team was later accused of "glamorizing"—which they feared would have a difficult time in finding a producer. So they made an album, and it was also a runaway success. As was the long-running stage-version—with other productions around the globe. Not to overlook Madonna & Antonio Banderas in the film-version.
So Lord Webber is not a novice in creating Through-Composed scores. But, initially, it was an accident…
Operas Old & New—
Tobias Picker’s AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY [***]
On first hearing Tobias Picker’s score for An American Tragedy at the Met, I was struck by how "serviceable," but undistinguished—musically & dramatically—it was. This should hardly have been surprising, as this is the underlying problem of most new American operas, few of which ever find their way into the regular repertoire.
Seen & heard once, subscribers are not eager to see them again. A notable exception is Douglas Moore’s The Ballad of Baby Doe, but even that sad charmer isn’t on view every season at the New York City Opera. When was the last time you saw/heard Moore’s haunting Wings of a Dove? Is Milly Teale less compelling than Baby Doe? Well, maybe…
Although Tobias Picker studied initially with such relentless moderns as Milton Babbitt and Charles Wuorinen, over time he has modified his modes to achieve some really effective compositions: his Old and Lost Rivers has been widely performed by major symphony orchestras.
Nor is he an Opera-Ingénue like Andre Previn—who was pushing 70 when he composed his first opera, A Streetcar Named Desire. This has certainly not been widely produced and played. Not least because Previn did not provide a single aria for the raging-bull, Stanley Kowalski! Blanche has three arias…
Tom O’Horgan—who staged Hair! on Broadway and Les Troyens at the Vienna State Opera—used to explain the problem of the frequent failures of new American Operas as the various composers being unfamiliar with dramaturgy—or not even interested in "what works on stage."
"They win their Guggenheims & Rockefellers. They compose their concertos, their song-cycles, their quartets, and their symphonies. They get commissions! Then it’s time to compose an opera, to cap it all! But they haven’t a clue about using their music to heighten the power of an already powerful play or story."
Picker has certainly followed some of that trajectory: the awards, the honors, the commissions. But An American Tragedy is not his first operatic effort. The Santa Fe Opera premiered his well-received Emmeline, which he followed with his musical version of Roald Dahl’s Fantastic Mr. Fox, for the Los Angeles Opera. And a consortium of opera-companies—Dallas, San Diego, & Montreal—commissioned his vision of Zola’s Thérèse Raquin!
So Picker has been around the block a time or two. Of course, it could be argued that he could hardly bring Verdian musical epiphanies to such relentlessly Realist material as Theodore Dreiser’s almost banal novel. Nonetheless, it could have had much more powerful self-examinations, more furious arguments, and challenging musical interactions than it did.
Several commentators suggested that the serviceable score was more like music to accompany a sung-play. Useful, in a musical-theatre mode, but not compelling, exciting, unforgettable. Picker came close, however, with his music for Clyde Griffiths’ evangelist mother, Elvira—truly powerful in Dolora Zajick’s interpretation.
It may take time to "get used" to An American Tragedy? When I heard it a second time, on the Met’s Saturday afternoon broadcast, I was more impressed with the dramatic & emotional effect of the score and libretto, even without seeing the production. Hearing the cast’s intermission discussion also helped!
In fact, Picker was blessed in his cast, his conductor, James Conlon; his stage-director, Francesca Zambello; his designers, Adrienne Lobel, Dunya Ramicova, & James F. Ingalls. Zambello had already won her directorial spurs in American Realist Opera with her Bregenz Festival staging of Carlisle Floyd‘s Of Mice and Men!
Award-winning designer Lobel did something worthy of a major European Opera-house. She created a stage-setting on three levels, filling the Met Opera’s immense Proscenium-Arch. This permitted rapid changes of locale and changes of mood and temper. But it must have been a death-defying scramble for the singers to scamper up and down all the ladders in the wings?
Among the fine cast were Susan Graham as Sondra, Clyde Griffiths’ beautiful ticket to High Society in Lycurgus, New York. Other admirable performances were provided by Jennifer Larmore, Jennifer Aylmer, Patricia Racette, Kim Begley, and William Burden, Clyde’s jealous cousin.
By no means to overlook Dreiser’s anti-hero, Clyde, sensitively interpreted by the brilliant young baritone Nathan Gunn. Not only has Gunn a fine voice and almost innate skill in using it, but he is also an impressive actor.
This past summer at the Munich Festival, he was devastating as Herman Melville & Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd. Yes, he was tied to the mast and he did have his shirt off! He looks terrific, but he acts and sings even better!
Montgomery Clift also looked terrific in this role [A Place in the Sun], but he didn’t sing…
A recent New York Times article notes that Gunn can also sing with his shirt ON!
Soon, he will be Papageno at the Met in Mozart’s Masonic Magic-Flute. That role is light-years away from Clyde and Billy—who were not required to wear a feathered-costume. Papageno is a bird-man fantastic… Looking for his lovely little birdie-wife, Papagena. Not for a Place in the Sun.
But this production is a Julie Taymor Vision, so it may be very short on feathers! It is a revival, but, as your scribe is no longer given press-tickets at the Met—the Web is Nowheresville for them!—I have not seen it. I have no idea how Papageno will appear on stage. The Picker Production was a gift of a friend and former grad-student…
BONUS: Show Notes Report on Billy Budd in Munich:
Peter Mussbach’s Billy Budd:
At the Metropolitan Opera, William Dudley’s great British warship—the overpowering setting for Benjamin Britten’s Billy Budd—rises magisterially deck-by-deck out of the stage, until it is towering over its crew, masts thrusting up into the flies.
This is a tremendous coup-de-théâtre, but it actually does not serve the action of the plot well. The most important and most powerful of the confrontational scenes in the libretto of E. M. Forster and Eric Crozier are small-scale, intimate—even if observed by members of the crew.
Designer Erich Wonder has found a wonderful scenic-solution for the Munich mounting of Billy Budd, staged by Peter Mussbach. Instead of filling the stage with decks and cannons, masts, sails, and riggings, he has set all the action into a kind of below-decks space, ringed with ramps, stairs, and platforms.
Thus, major scenes centered on Billy and Captain Vere, or Master-at-Arms Claggart and Billy, are sharply focused, even with groups of sailors on their fringes. And, as the set works on several levels—accessible by the ramps and stairs—the emotional and verbal action is never visually static.
In some productions, the story is decked out in late 18th century naval uniforms. Not so in Munich. Sailors wear pea-coats; officers use cell-phones. The Royal Navy no longer flogs unruly sailors, but this mixture of the bygone with the here-and-now makes the theatrical-experience even more immediate.
Designer Wonder even slyly inserts a definitely Modern Scenic Quote: On the upper set-level, on the stage-right side, there is a row of airline seats, with airplane-windows instead of naval port-holes! How did Lufthansa or British Air get onboard?
The circling ramps make possible some interesting choreographies for the sailor-chorus. And there are even a few ballet-boys in high-heels, suggesting the alternative gratifications of sailors long at sea.
But the powers of this production—while strongly enhanced by the set & costumes—are largely generated by the dynamic acting and vocal performances of the principals: John Daszak as a morally baffled Vere, Nathan Gunn as a handsome but childishly innocent Billy, and Philip Ens as the sadistically malicious Claggart, determined to destroy him.
Of course, the basic powers of the production, its very foundations, reside in the spare libretto—carefully developing Herman Melville’s novella—and the strong score. It is effectively "through-composed," with some dramatically effective atonal emphases.
This is a tragedy, certainly, but it is Captain Vere’s, not Billy’s. Vere knows the lad was provoked to strike Claggart, but his officer is now dead, and hanging from the yard-arm is the inflexible penalty. But Vere is also attracted to Billy’s beauty and radiantly open nature: more than a fatherly feeling?
In this set, Billy cannot be hanged aloft from the mast. Instead, he is terminated against the below-decks base of the mast: rather like Christ on the Cross…
Knowing that hanging is the required punishment for what he has done, the dying Billy blesses Captain Vere. Who is later tormented by the knowledge of the boy’s essential innocence and that he could have—should have—saved him.
Munich’s new GMD, Kent Nagano, conducted with both power and sensitivity. This is a production you could see again and again, finding new nuances in the music, the text, the staging, the interactions, and the interpretations.
Manhattan School Double-Bill:
Ralph Vaughan Williams’ RIDERS TO THE SEA &
Lennox Berkeley’s A DINNER ENGAGEMENT [****]
The Fall and Spring student opera-productions at the Manhattan School of Music are always worth a trip uptown to Convent Avenue. You can also see Grant’s Tomb, Riverside Church, and some theological seminaries.
This autumn, instead of a full-length opera, an odd double-bill was programmed. This has the advantage of offering a wider range of singing-roles for young opera-singers who are on the verge of potentially important professional careers. Alum Brandon Jovanovich has been outstanding at New York City Opera, notably as Lt. Pinkerton in its Madama Butterfly.
Vaughan Willams’ brooding Riders to the Sea opened the program. Ordinarily, with short operas, one might want to save the most powerful for last.
Tragedy before Comedy could dampen the spirits, but that didn’t bother Puccini, who followed Il Tabarro and Souer Angelica with Gianni Schicchi. And ancient Greek tragic trilogies always ended with a bawdy Satyr Play!
Lennox Berkeley’s A Dinner Engagement—with a libretto by Paul Dehn—is certainly no Satyr Play. Premiered at Benjamin Britten’s Aldeburgh Festival in 1954, it offers a witty and charming vision of English Polite Society that makes it now definitely a Period Piece.
Actually, it deals with Impoverished Aristocrats—the Earl & Countess of Dunmow—hoping for the favor of the Grand Duchess of Monteblanco, whom they knew long ago when the Earl was His Majesty’s Ambassador. If only her son, H. R. H. Prince Phillipe, will want to marry their daughter—whom he’s not seen since they were children…
This one-acter also has some delightful musical parodies that give young singers some scope for invention. But it’s not something for the repertory…
Totally in the spirit of the production, however, were Gideon Dabi, JennyRebecca Walker, Sarah Williams, Rachel Calloway, Alexander Boyer, and Marissa Famiglietti. Rhoda Levine staged both works, with David Gilbert conducting the School Orchestra.
Riders to the Sea, on the other hand, has a pathos and power in the music and the libretto—based as it is on John Millington Synge’s tragic tale of poor Irish peasant women who lose their men to the turbulent sea from which they must make a living. Or a death…
Synge’s original one-act drama was revived this past summer at the Edinburgh Festival, in a complete Synge Cycle by the Druid Theatre, a compelling ensemble from Galway. It was devastating, but the opera, as performed at the Manhattan School, was compelling in its own way.
Grant Clarke was Bartley, marked for death. The women of the family were Sharin Apostolou, Krysty Swann, Marissa Famiglietti, and Cathleen Carlson.
BONUS: Show Notes Report on Madama Butterfly & Jovanovich at the NYCO:
Madama Butterfly [*****]
Stage-director Mark Lamos’ original City Opera production of Puccini’s Madama Butterfly was a revelation in its utter simplicity. Instead of the usual attempts to recreate an elaborate Japanese house and an orchard of cherry-blossoms, designer Michael Yeargan devised a stage-wide rank of steps upstage, closed to the outside by immense sliding-screens. These screens were matched downstage.
Aside from a kimono-frame for Butterfly’s beautiful marriage-robe, there was no other décor to distract. The focus was entirely on the acting/singing characters and the tragedy that was unfolding.
Every time I have seen this production I am again reminded that Less is More, especially in terms of traditional Japanese art & architecture. So it is always a painful pleasure to relive Butterfly’s bitter saga.
But I was not initially prepared to be moved to tears, as Shu-Ying Li made her debut as Cio-Cio-San. It’s not just that her voice is so beautiful and her phrasing so intuitively subtle, but that she really seems to be living, experiencing every moment of Butterfly’s new life as the wife of the American Naval Officer, Benjamin F. Pinkerton.
Every moment breathed The Illusion of the First Time. This was especially heightened by the fine performances of the rest of the cast, notably Brandon Jovanovich as Pinkerton. It was clear that he was delighted with Butterfly and was even falling in love with her. But it was equally clear that he had no intention of taking her back to America, or returning to her, as she fondly believed.
Jovanovich previously impressed in opera-stagings at the Manhattan School of Music. Not only is he a stalwart and powerful tenor, but he’s also a young, blond, vital stage-presence. His subtle body-language as he was engaged in the formalities of the wedding with Butterfly eloquently betrayed what Pinkerton must really be feeling in such a false situation.
Jake Gardner’s Consul Sharpless was also wonderfully sensitive to the fragility of Butterfly, as was her maid, Suzuki, Kathryn Friest. Ari Pelto conducted sensitively as well.
But what made this evening different from all other evenings of NYCO Butterflys was the amazing acting/singing performance of Shu-Ying Li. I have never been so moved by any soprano in this role.
The Lamos staging makes her final sacrifice even more powerful than in most productions. Instead of committing ritual suicide downstage, facing the audience, Butterfly slowly climbs the upstage steps and slashes her throat the instant Pinkerton arrives to open the shoji-screens.
Her blood spatters him, the false lover who has betrayed her trust.
It is an absolutely devastating moment. Small wonder that the entire audience leapt to its feet to salute Ms. Li. This was a really spontaneous Standing-Ovation such as I have never seen in years at the New York State Theatre. The cheering spectators were not just getting up to put on their coats, for once…
THE STONES [****]
Stefo Nantsou and Tom Lycos are an extremely talented duo from Melbourne, Australia: They can do performance acrobatics to challenge any of those Chinese troupes now flooding the globe. They are consummate Rockers, whanging away on their electric-guitars. They are brilliant mimes and character-actors—switching personas in an instant. And they are dynamic narrators, stepping in and out of character to move their shattering story of senseless teen-age violence speedily along.
Although they are grown men—Mutt & Jeff-like: one tall & thin, the other, short & trim—they rapidly transform themselves into a crazy 13-year-old and his more fearful 12-year-old sidekick. They break into a garage to pry the Ferrari medallions off—setting off clanging alarms. They are always looking for the opportunity to make some mischief.
One fateful day, they take some rocks up onto a pedestrian overpass and proceed to drop them down on cars speeding underneath. A woman-driver is killed. They panic and run away, but the younger turns himself in.
Nantsou & Lycos are almost simultaneously the kids and the Good Cop/Bad Cop. This is based on a real case Down Under—even a somewhat celebrated case. How should they be tried: As kids or as Adults? Was the death an accident, or did they realize the danger of what they were doing?
Will sending them to prison Ruin Their Lives?
As played, they seem immensely deficient in Common Sense, not to mention IQ-Challenged. What prospects to they in fact have in life, with or without prison?
In the event, they are acquitted, but this doesn’t seem to provoke any deeper thoughts about their previous actions or what they have been spared in the lockup.
The Melbourne duo interviewed police about the actual case to reconstruct it onstage, but some other Aussie juvenile crimes have been added to the dramatic-mix to fill out the characters of the two kids.
The show has been such a success in Australia that Nantsou & Lycos tour it to schools, playing some of it directly to teen-audiences, challenging them as jury-members: If they had killed your mother this way, would you want them punished—or forgiven?
This same tactic was used at the New Victory’s Duke Theatre on New 42nd Street. Parents and children were enthralled: there was that intense silence when no one coughs or whispers. The audience-interaction livened things up a bit, helping to ease the tremendous tension the duo had built up.
What was surprising, however, was how often the F-Word and other rough expressions were used by the kids in performance. That may well be the way Aussie teen-agers talk—and American teens in Dog Sees G-d—but isn’t this level of Reality a bit strong for the devoted Family-Audiences of the New Victory?
Just asking… It was in fact powerful.
THIS WAY/THAT WAY [**]
One of the most interesting new performance venues in Manhattan is Elysabeth Kleinhans’ 59E59. It’s between Madison & Park—not far from the Plaza, the Pierre, and the Sherry-Netherlands.
It is an almost clinical Late Industrial Style structure with three theatres, all of which are kept busy with new plays by Primary Stages, special Play Festivals—like last season’s epic survey of new British Theatre, and challenging productions by avant-garde ensembles.
Parallel Exit, for example, presented This Way/That Way during the holiday season. Both Joel Jeske and Ryan Kasprzak—the Entire Cast—are skilled and attractive Mimes & Clowns. Jeske is even a Clown Doctor for the Big Apple Circus! Kasprzak has toured extensively with Fosse!
With a slight narrative-thread, they perform a number of mimed sequences, often with standard mime-gimmicks, including signs comic & otherwise, to let the audience know how far we are on their journey to New York.
They are worthy of the mantle of Bill Irwin, if not Marcel Marceau. But the problem is that some of the gimmicks are a bit shopworn by now, even when Irwin does them. With it’s Depression Era flavor, this show also recalls Mime-Turns in Vaudeville, where they might get ten-minutes tops on stage.
Mark Lonergan directed—although the duo devised the set-pieces and actions—but even he could not find ways to sustain audience-interest for an entire evening. The virtuosity became wearing after while: You know: They’re very good, but half an hour would have been enough?
THE PARK AVENUE WHIRL [***]
A special Holiday Treat at 59E59 was this "Musical Toast to the Twenties and Thirties." For those Seniors who remember the great days of the Big Bands, it was wonderful to relive that sensation for an hour or two, even though the smooth Vince Giordano and the sassy Nighthawks Orchestra aren’t all that big, numerically speaking.
But—especially in their solo riffs,—Dave Brown, Brad Shigeta, Dan Block, Mark Lopeman, Mark McCarron, and John Gill surely do have that Big Band sound. Playing such Golden Oldies as Cheek To Cheek, The Very Thought of You, Begin the Beguine, Shall We Dance, and even Jeepers Creepers, they brought back those Big Bands in the Golden Days of Radio: The Manhattan Merry-go-round, Kay Kyser’s College of Musical Knowledge, Bing Crosby’s Kraft Music-Hall, with Bob Crosby and the Bobcats…
Those really were the days! Glenn Miller, Shep Fields and His Rippling Rhythm, Paul Whiteman, Harry Owens and His Royal Hawaiians, not to forget Guy Lombardo and Carmen, or the fantastic Gene Krupa!
Broadway and Cabaret classics were thoughtfully interpreted by Vince Giordano, Marion Cowings, and Daryl Sherman at the keyboard.
Copyright Glenn Loney, 2006. 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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