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Bert Wechsler: On the Scene


NEW YORK, October 19 (NYTW) -- The Boston Symphony opened its annual New York series of three sets of concerts at Carnegie Hall on October 15. Somehow it was a typical Boston Symphony program and an evening with which old subscribers feel comfortable. Seiji Ozawa, looking a bit shabby now, conducted.

First came a generically atmospheric Debussy "Afternoon of a Faun." Then the Big Premiere, commissioned by the Boston, Henri Dutilleux' Five Episodes for Orchestra, "The shadow of time." Former Boston conductor Charles Munch seems to have discovered Dutilleux and saw something in his music that we have not. In a big puff article in the Times the morning before the concert, the importance of Dutilleux was explained to us all and an Apologia of his for not writing as Pierre Boulez wants him to (but he'll try in the future) was included. OK.

"Shadow" runs only 20 minutes and is rife with extra-musical literary connotations, like three children singing "pourquoi" to commemorate Anne Frank. To me, it sounded like a series of musical sound effects, as for radio plays (the composer worked for many years in radio). It seemed to have no focus, and was limited in meaning.

The Times review said that the whole audience felt a sense of the importance of this premiere. I don't know, everyone I spoke to said they were there to hear soloist Krystian Zimerman.

In a switch, Tchaikovsky's "Francesca da Rimini" came before the Concerto. Here we had fortissimos that were really fortissimos and furiosos that were really furious. The whole thing was stretched out of shape and the mind wandered.

But, finally, the piano was rolled in, the orchestra took their seats as if they were at a social event -- very slowly -- and what finally happened was what so many of us were waiting for: Krystian Zimerman showed us the Rachmaninoff First Piano Concerto. Now we had volume and velocity that was not vulgar: we had sublime elegance throughout. The first movement was a blockbuster in every good sense of the word and the whole performance was simply magnificent, Ozawa along with Zimerman. It is an imperfect work but the way it was played, who cares? Zimerman, Ozawa and the Boston are embarked on a recording venture of all the "Rocks:" This No. 1 bodes well for the project but there is nothing like live and this was it.


Last May Tisa Chang's Pan Asian Repertory Theatre presented a musical comedy -- a lot more than a "musical comedy" -- called "Shanghai Lil's." It was reviewed here. On October 16 they opened it again at St. Clement's Church, revised and a bit recast. I thought it important enough to re-review and here we are.

Yes, it is important, even more important now. While it talks about Chinese, Japanese, World War II, wars in general, and love in general, it is about heart and humanity. It is theatre. The whole cast is warm and appealing, one can even say you take all eight of the actors to your heart. Act One is still a bit slow although tightened, but you get to know everyone and in Act Two you follow their emotions like a Jewish or Italian (or Chinese?) mother. Act Two carries you along and you might even find tears welling.

The action takes place from 1941-45, mostly in Lil's restaurant in San Francisco's Chinatown, a restaurant opened by her late husband and catering to Chinese. She is there as are two waitresses, Hyacinth and Peony, and Sara, an American-born Japanese finishing high school whom Lil has taken in before Sara joins her parents who are on a return visit to Japan. There are two waiters, Chase and Jerry. Wally, a lonely Caucasian with some Cantonese experience and an ex-vaudevillian, becomes a regular customer. To spur business, it is decided to have an amateur hour, and Mei-Mei, a dancer of dubious age and experience, comes in. It is November of 1941. The War and the Japanese Internment happen. Lil's becomes a successful night club but we take that on faith.

The interaction of these characters, Mei-Mei and Chase primarily but not solely, make up the story. There is plenty of time for music and dance. The men go to war, The women stay home, the old folks get together, the youngsters grow up.

Everyone in the cast is human and wonderful. Donna Ong's Mei-Mei is so original that it could stand apart from the rest of the cast but she manages to blend her idiosyncrasies into the ensemble playing and even thereby strengthening the script. Michael Minn, Chase, is an unlikely leading man as he looks like a sort of Sad Sack but he has charm, a warm singing voice, and easy sincerity. You stay with him. Mimosa is also a seemingly unlikely ingenue as Sara, physically cut from a different mold than the rest, but again she sings, dances and acts with great warmth. Timothy Huang is just perfect as Jerry, projecting the easy humor, yes, but also the pathos. May he always have roles to play on stage.

Again I use the word "warm" because Blossom Lam, as Lil, seems to have a corner on warmth. She does not appear to be an actress at all (she is) but just simply the role. The downside of that is she holds up the tempo of the first act in her smiles and qvelling. Matt Hyland couldn't be bettered as Wally, "Uncle" Wally, the Caucasian, who adopts the troupe and who is adapted by them. Eileen Rivera and Liza Lapira are cute, giggly and supportive and interchangeable as the two young girls.

Chang's direction is fluid and simple, allowing the story to be told without distraction. Her choreography, cut down I believe from the original production, also adds and adds in its diversity. Robert Klingelhoefer's adjustable single set also adds to the fluidity of the evening. Terry Leong's costumes are generous but sometimes call attention to themselves. There are too many and few really flatter.

Lilah Kan's book and lyrics are, as I believe I wrote in May, knowing. She can be both funny and heart-wrenching. Louis Stewart's music seems simple at first but raises itself to some importance as the evening progresses. The ensembles are not just exercises. There is a plethora of real tunes. It is played by Erik K. Johnston at the piano and Heather Edwards, whose synthesizer goes easily from surging strings to a guitar.

"Shanghai Lil's" runs at St. Clement's Theatre, 423 West 46 Street Wednesdays through Saturdays at 8pm, matinees Wed. and Sat. at 2pm. Tickets $30. Telephone (212) 245-2660. Have a nice time at the theatre: see "Shanghai Lil's."


It wasn't quite the Great Roundup but a little history first. In the far (to us) Canadian province of Alberta, there was an Edmonton Ballet and a Calgary Ballet. In 1990 they merged into the Alberta Ballet under the leadership of Ali Pourfarrokh, an Irani-born New York dancer with Cecchetti training (Margaret Craske and Antony Tudor) and a great deal of international experience. The Alberta Ballet opened at the Joyce Theatre on October 14 for week's run. Perhaps they got more out of performing in New York than New York got out of hosting them as it seemed like a vanity booking.

The program began with "The Last I Saw . ." to excerpts from something called "The Sinking of the Titanic" by Garvin Bryars. It was for eight dancers who began in silence, a lot of silence, with dull movements. Then "Amazing Grace" on the harmonium began, just the first of innumerable repeats of that hymn -- the Titanic must have gone down before that. This was very Modern Ballet with jerks, thrusts, interrupts, deep meanings I am sure. It was dreary and certainly did not show the company to any advantage.

A duet, "Butterfly Dream," first to silence again and then to a movement of a Flute Sonata by Marjan Mozetich, was choreographed by Pourfarrokh and introduced us to Barbara Moore, partnered by Dominic DeWolfe. It was a fluid love duet without too many gymnastics.

Then came Pourfarroukh's "Facets," premiered last April. This, unfortunately was to the Third Movement of Mahler's Fourth Symphony, a work that stands very well on its own, thank you, and is no way "dance Music." For three couples, it had much movement in common with the previous duet, only more so. It had its fill of soupy, romantic swoops, liquid arms, mooning preparations, dim lights, and the girls ministering to and hanging onto the boys. It also often did not fit the music, as could be expected, like a troubled male trio that did not make it to macho.

Sickness, mine, prevented me from seeing the closing "Minor Threat" to music of Mozart by Mark Godden and I apologize.

The Alberta is a nice company. I'm sure they benefited by coming to New York, but how much of New York saw them? But if you didn't see Moore, perhaps you missed something. Come to the Big City, gal. (Closed.) [Wex]

Copyright © Bert Wechsler 1997

Related articles:
Bert Wechsler's CD Reviews - Broadway and Classical releases.

BERT WECHSLER was active in the performing arts as an actor, singer, director, coach and manager before he turned to full time writing. As editor of Music Journal for eight years, he wrote about all aspects of music and dance. He was a music and dance critic for the New York Daily News and New York Concert Review, dance critic and associate editor for Attitude, video critic for video Review, music editor of High Performance Review, dance critic for Der Tanz der Dinge (Switzerland), recordings critic for High Fidelity, correspondent for the music magazine Rondo in Finland and newspapers in Norway (regular column) and Denmark as well as other free-lance activities. He is co-author of "Dear Rogue," the biography Lawrence Tibbett, published by Amadeus Press. He was also associate Editor of Computer Buyers' Guide. He is a member of the Music Critics Association, the Outer Critics Circle, The Bohemians, an honorary life member of the New York Mahlerites, and a founder of the Manhattan Festival Ballet and the Center for Contemporary Opera. He retains his membership in four theatrical unons.

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