‘Two Trains Running’ leaves the station with humor, reaches destination with self-discovery
Timothy Bond’s Syracuse Stage production finds the right balance between the play’s humorous elements and its powerful message
By David Abrams
They say laughter is the best medicine. Whether it can ease the pain African-Americans have suffered these past three and a half centuries is another matter.
Certainly, there’s lots to laugh about in Two Trains Running, August Wilson’s ethnocentric play set in 1969 that features an oddball assortment of African-Americans who gather each day at Memphis Lee’s diner to drink coffee, shoot the breeze, philosophize, dole out advice (usually unsolicited), interpret their dreams and play the numbers. Each of the seven characters is genuinely funny in his or her own way. Taken together, they form a tightly knit ensemble that could rival the characters in Seinfeld or Cheers.
It would be a mistake, nevertheless, to call this play a comedy. The African-American playwright uses humor not as an end in itself, but rather as a means to an end — a tool to help drive home a message. Indeed, when conversation at the diner turns from mundane bantering to matters of individual rights and freedoms, the play takes on a different guise as the audience begins to re-process the playwright’s signals.
Like its sister stories in Wilson’s 10-play 20th Century Cycle, Two Trains Running contains political overtones. Its enigmatic title comes from a blues song (“Two trains running, neither going my way”), an allusion no doubt to minorities who have had the ladder of success pulled out from beneath their feet by the ruling establishment. Nor are the “trains” going the way of the decaying Hill District of Pittsburgh, where the story is set — a microcosm of countless African-American urban communities in the late ’60s, inhabited by impoverished residents living shattered dreams and disillusioned by a Civil Rights Movement that had failed to make good on its promises.
Wilson offers no cure for the African-American society’s ills in Two Trains Running. Instead he raises the questions that need to be addressed if progress is to be made. Time and time again his characters are faced with a question that requires them to make a choice: Do you take the train society offers you knowing full well it will not take you where you want to go, or do you stand firm and hold out for what you deserve?
This question unfolds naively at first, in the guise of a running joke with Hambone (no one knows his real name), a mentally challenged former painter now down on his luck and on welfare. The man is so-named because the extent of his vocabulary has been reduced to a single phrase: “I want my ham. He gonna give me my ham.” Hambone (Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr.) had agreed to paint a fence some 10 years back for the community butcher, Lutz, in return for a chicken. Lutz had told him that if the job came out well he’d give a ham, instead. When the job was completed Lutz offered Hambone a chicken, which Hambone refused. Every morning for 9 and one-half years afterwards, Hambone chanted that same phrase obsessively, carrying it from Lutz’s grocery to the diner and back again, day after day after day.
Hambone’s rage appears silly to the others, but before long a steady crescendo builds among other regulars in the diner who one way or another find themselves similarly situated, at least metaphorically.
Memphis stands to lose his diner due to eminent domain, and although he values his property at $25,000 the city is offering only $15,000. Worse yet, Memphis — prior to relocating to Pittsburgh — had been robbed of his farm in Jackson, Mississippi through a gross miscarriage of justice. Little by little, Memphis begins obsessing over the idea of returning to Jackson to reclaim what’s rightly his.
He, too, is unwilling to settle for the chicken.
The ultimate message of the play is that in White America, African-Americans must be willing to build their own railroad to get what rightly belongs to them. The trains provided by the ruling establishment, to paraphrase Wilson, “don’t go where the black man need to go.”
The standout among a well-balanced ensemble of seven actors is G. Valmont Thomas, whose Memphis is at once believable as the proud, self-made man who perseveres in the face of never-ending personal and professional setbacks and repeated adversity. Thomas’s transformation from victim to a man empowered to “build his own railroad” was convincing.
Robert Manning, Jr. played the part of Sterling, the misguided young man recently released from prison and now looking for a job — or better yet, a winning number. Although Manning appeared overly enthusiastic at times in the quest to capture his character’s impulsive behavior, he forged a satisfactory balance of naivety and impetuosity: one prone to making snap decisions without considering the consequences.
As Holloway, the diner’s oldest, wisest and most jaded character, Abdul Salaam El Razzac captured the persona of a man who had been battling injustice for the better part of his 65 years. Razzac’s character, battered by the scars of oppression, carried the look of battle fatigue on his face as proudly as a wounded soldier showing off his Purple Heart. Holloway, who credits his longevity to a willingness to embrace the paranormal, tells the others he receives counseling from Aunt Ester — a woman of 349 years (she doesn’t look a day older than 322, we are told) who advises him on everything, with the possible exception of tomorrow’s winning numbers. Ester is never actually seen in the play, but her spiritual presence represents the collective lessons learned by African-Americans from the time they arrived in Jamestown as slaves in 1610 (which explains her advanced age). For all his good acting, Razzac nevertheless spoke far too softly through most of the production, and the ends of his sentences often tapered off to “barely audible.”
Leland Gantt, as the slick and smoothly mannered neighborhood numbers runner, Wolf, was outfitted in such a manner as to resemble Sportin’ Life from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess. Although Gantt flubbed his lines on two occasions, he had charisma, and his colorful presence at the diner was always a welcome sight. William Hall, Jr. was suitably unctuous and socially aloof as West — the well-to-do community undertaker who represents the successful African-American businessman who, somewhere along the way, had forgotten his roots.
As Hambone, Godfrey L. Simmons, Jr. exuded perhaps just a bit too much anger and rage for a man who had been wronged 10 years ago. The actor’s turbocharged performance frequently placed him on the verge of physical violence, which belied his character’s image as a harmless eccentric battling a personal injustice.
As the only female role in the play, Erika La Vonn as Risa was outstanding as the depressed and emotionally vacuous waitress who years ago had disfigured her legs with a knife so as not to attract would-be suitors. Slinking around the diner at a snail’s pace wearing an empty gaze and an expressionless face, Vonn evoked an image of the Bride of Frankenstein tethered to a coffee pot.
Risa is mistreated by Memphis (and, to a lesser extent, by the other men in the play with the exception of Sterling — who has a romantic interest in her). Shabby treatment of women appears to be a common thread in Wilson’s plays, and is disturbing to the sensibilities of today’s audiences. It must be remembered, however, that this regrettable state of affairs mirrored the reality surrounding African-American men’s treatment of women at the time of the story.
Almost everything in this production bears the mark of Director Timothy Bond, who in 2005 — and with August Wilson by his side — vowed to direct all 10 plays in the 20th Century Cycle. Bond’s commitment to the 20th Century Cycle project is at once evident in the great attention to detail in all facets of this production, including the set, props and costumes. Most impressive, perhaps, is the strong ensemble interaction Bond drew from the seven actors.
Scenic Designer William Bloodgood’s irresistible set gave Memphis’s diner the look and feel of today’s Johnny Rockets retro-themed ’60s diner. And my, what a jukebox! Several times during the play I was sorely tempted to jump onstage, seat myself at the counter and chow down a bowl of beans. Together, Bloodgood and Bond fashioned the feel and flavor of a hometown diner, and those regular customers who frequented it, that projects a faithful “slice of life” of the Black experience in urban America around 50 years ago.
If this sounds like a place you’d like to visit, I know just the train to take you there…
What: Two Trains Running, by August Wilson
Who: Syracuse Stage, directed by Timothy Bond
Where: Archibold Theatre at Syracuse Stage, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse
When: February 2, 2013
Remaining performances: Plays through February 17
Time: Three hours, including one intermission
Tickets: $30 through $51, general; $18 under age 19; $30 under age 40; call 443-3275 or visit www.syracusestage.org
Family guide: Adult themes, language some may find offensive (N-word)
What: Mozart’s La Clemenza di Tito, Simulcast Live in HD
When: December 1, 2012
Who: Metropolitan Opera
Running time: About three hours and 13 minutes, including intermission
Where: Metropolitan Opera House, New York
Encore performance: 6:30 p.m. EST Wednesday, December 19
If Thursday’s performance is any indication, the numbers won’t be flagging in Central New York, either. Despite playing here a few years ago, the house was packed and the show ended with a cheering crowd and a standing ovation.
This was the third time I’ve seen Wicked, a re-envisioning of the Wizard of Oz story, having caught the national tour when it came through in January 2010. I saw the original Broadway cast production with Tony Award winner Idina Menzel, Kristen Chenoweth, Joel Gray, two-time Tony winner Norbert Leo Butz and the great character actress Carole Shelley. I thought the most recent viewing here in Syracuse, starring Christine Dwyer and Jeanna DeWaal, was the most enjoyable of the three performances.
Nine years ago I had just finished reading the book Wicked: The Life and Times of the Wicked Witch of the West by Gregory Maguire (upon which the Broadway musical is based), and I was anticipating a darker, more tragic tale. Maguire’s best-selling novel tells the back-story of Elphaba, the “Wicked Witch of the West.” It conjures up big questions about religion and government, and his heroine is decidedly off-putting. She’s described as a “hatchet-faced girl with putrescent green skin and long, foreign-looking black hair.” Elsewhere, Maguire notes her “chin in profile could slice a salami.” In many places, Wicked the book is decidedly creepy. Elphaba’s sister Nessarose, aka the “Wicked Witch of the East,” is born without arms and becomes a severe, bitter woman of rigid piety.
My first reaction was that Wicked the musical, directed by Joe Mantello with music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz and musical staging by Wayne Cilento, had robbed some of the deeper meaning and darker subtexts of Maguire’s work. For example, in the present version Nessarose is in a wheelchair, not armless — hard for a musical theatre actress to pull off, to be sure. The musical was given a more hopeful, friendly ending so that families walking out onto Times Square after the show would leave singing rather than shaking their heads in puzzlement, pondering the philosophy.
In the ensuing decade I’ve come to see how the show, including some changes from Maguire’s text, cleverly brings in so many of the details we have come to love from that original family favorite, the 1939 classic film musical The Wizard of Oz starring Judy Garland. How did the Tin Woodsman lose his heart? How did the Wicked Witch get her atrocious black hat and her signature cackle? How did the flying monkeys get their wings? How did the slippers get enchanted? How did the Scarecrow end up hanging off-kilter in a field? All of these plot elements from the movie classic — and the original books by Chittenango native L. Frank Baum — are neatly tied together by the end of the Broadway musical.
And what a musical it is. Unlike other recent shows that have few memorable melodies (for instance, last season’s Famous Artists offering The Young Frankenstein), nearly every song in Wicked is a showstopper.
DeWaal (as Glinda) and Dwyer (as Elphaba) have a number of incredible songs, both separately and together, telling the story of their unlikely friendship — including the hilarious Popular and the deeply poignant For Good. Of course, mention must be made of Elphaba’s adrenaline-charged song, Defying Gravity, which has been given an even wider audience in recent years by the Chris Colfer and Lea Michele rendition on TV’s Glee.
Of note were Jay Russell as Doctor Dillamond, Elphaba’s beloved professor; Paul Kreppel as the Wonderful Wizard of Oz; Michael Wartella as Boq, a Munchkin with an unrequited love; Zarah Mahler as Elphaba’s ill-fated sister; and Gina Ferrall as Madame Morrible, who sets much of the misfortune into motion with her self-promoting machinations.
This Wicked is also love triangle, with the initially cavalier heartthrob Fiyero (played by Billy Harrigan Tighe) at the center. The most romantic song of the play, As Long as You’re Mine, lost some of its gripping intensity due to an emergency in the audience. A man attempting to walk up the center aisle either tripped or collapsed. He was apparently incapacitated, calling weakly for help, as members of the audience (using their cell phones for light) carried him up the aisle to safety. Throughout the ordeal Harrigan Tighe and Dwyer continued to sing. (What are the policies for stopping a show for a medical emergency, I wonder?)
The Landmark is another reason why this current production is so special. Wicked’s Broadway house is a massive and newer theater designed to hold a large audience, while the Crouse-Hinds Theater in Syracuse is stark and contemporary. The rich gilt embellishments of the recently refurbished historic Landmark Theater really set off Wicked’s ornate set design — with its eye-popping green Emerald City, its steam-punk gears and clockworks and massive red-eyed, winged dragon poised scarily across the proscenium.
I suspect he will continue to look out over full houses for a long time to come.
What: Wicked, music and lyrics by Stephen Schwartz; directed by Joe Mantello
Who: Famous Artists Broadway
Where: The Landmark Theatre, 362 S. Salina St., Syracuse
When: Through December 9
Length: Two hours and 50 minutes, with one intermission
Tickets: Prices start at $30. Call (315) 424-8210 or http://www.famousartistsbroadway.com/
Family guide: Themes dealing with bullying and discrimination
Thomas Adès’s ‘The Tempest’ takes the Met by storm
The British composer’s bold musical score and Robert Lepage’s magical visuals add an expressionist dimension to the Shakespeare play
By David Abrams
In a 1963 episode of the expressionist television series The Twilight Zone, a desperate screenwriter uses black magic to summon Shakespeare to the present. The Met’s new production of Thomas Adès’s The Tempest, broadcast live from Lincoln Center last Saturday, brings the Bard and expressionism together once again — only the “dark arts” here come not from the chain-smoking Rod Serling, but from the fertile imaginations of the composer and Robert Lepage.
In The Tempest, Lepage — the controversial director and scenic imagist whose 45-ton set monstrosity in the Met’s Ring Cycle last season deserved a Twilight Zone episode all its own — spins a handsomely crafted and visually stimulating supernatural fantasy combining magical spells, monsters, spirits and surrealism that would have made Serling envious. Add to this Adès’s dark and brooding (and brilliantly orchestrated) score and you’ve got a riveting piece of theater that engages the eyes and ears with great intensity.
Adès (pronounced ADD-iss) was in his early 30s in 2004 when his opera premiered at London’s Royal Opera House (Covent Garden). After several revivals (including the American premiere at Sante Fe Opera in 2006) The Tempest made its way to the Met in this Lepage version, a co-production of the L'Opéra de Québec and Wiener Staatsoper.
It’s not easy to make sweeping generalizations about Adès’s musical style in this opera. The continuous music and strongly independent orchestral writing give The Tempest the look and feel of a “music drama,” as championed by Wagner. But the work’s busy and thickly orchestrated writing, particularly its angry and abrupt staccato outbursts in the brass section, pays homage to Alban Berg’s expressionist masterpiece, Wozzeck. Unlike Berg, however, Adès — in spite of some harshly dissonant sections — never quite abandons tonality in The Tempest.
Beyond the brassy moments of anger (often associated with the courtiers of the Milanese Court) are sections of serene musical delight that suggest the innocence and unspoiled beauty of the island and its surroundings. Included here is the love duet between Miranda and Ferdinand where the writing for winds and strings is especially lovely, as the pair walks off into David Leclerc’s inviting video image of rippling sea waters. Still, such moments of aural relief are all too rare in the thickly textured scoring in this work — which like many music dramas drives the full sound of a large orchestra with relentless perseverance.
The storyline centers on Prospero (Simon Keenlyside), who has been deposed from his throne as Duke of Milan by his brother Antonio (Toby Spence) and the King of Naples (William Burden). Prospero and his young daughter Miranda (Isabel Leonard) are then cast out to sea, where the pair eventually settles on a mysterious island. Prospero quickly learns the art of sorcery, which among other things empowers him to manufacture a storm that later shipwrecks his helpless rivals onto the island. Among the shipwrecked is the King’s son, Ferdinand (Alek Shrader), who meets and falls in love with Miranda. The couple’s strong bond of innocence and righteousness eventually persuades Prospero to forgive his enemies. He renounces his magical powers and returns to his rightful throne in Milan.
The role of Prospero calls for a high baritone, which is well suited to Simon Keenlyside’s vocal strengths. Keenlyside “owns” this role, having sung the part in the original 2004 Royal Opera House premiere and several times thereafter.
In his opening duet with Miranda detailing the pair’s banishment from Milan, Keenlyside takes his cue from Adès’s wide-intervals and choppy, disjointed phrases and forges a character whose irritable disposition and pent-up vengeance strikes terror in the heart of his terrified daughter. Keenlyside plays his character stoically and enigmatically, so much so that I found it difficult to decide whether to fear or pity him. I eventually opted for the latter.
Adès makes no excuses for his musical treatment of the high-flying Ariel, a bizarre part representing a male spirit played here in masterful fashion by coloratura soprano Audrey Luna. Flying up and across the stage under TV Director Gary Halvorson’s close-up camerawork, Luna’s wide-eyes and large mouth evoke the image of Carol Burnett playing Peter Pan during one of her television skits. (Credit Halvorson for not revealing the hidden wires that kept Luna airborne through much of the production.)
It’s rare that coloratura sopranos are abused in such a manner as in the role of Ariel. Mozart’s Queen of the Night and Offenbach’s Olympia require singers who can reach high Es and Fs effectively, but they are asked to do so only sparingly. Adès writes a pernicious part that demands considerably more screeching than singing. The one moment where Ariel sings in what might be considered a soprano’s normal range comes during the line, “If I were human” — a clever touch, indeed.
When asked why he made such stratospheric demands on Ariel, Adès answered simply “because that’s where he lives.” By this reasoning, the part of Mephistopheles — were Adès ever to write such a role — would require a sub-contra bass of extraordinary depth. Let’s hope that Luna has enough voice left to continue her career once this production runs its course.
Isabel Leonard captures a sense of innocence and beauty in her role as Miranda, and her exquisite voice brought some much needed contrast to the opera’s other roles requiring exaggerations both of register and vocal timbre. Curiously, the part of Miranda calls for a mezzo — but aside from the love duet with Ferdinand at the end of Act 2, Miranda sings in the higher (soprano) register.
Those watching the opera in HD simulcast and close-up camerawork are likely to have noticed that Leonard’s beauty reaches beyond just her voice. Dressed in a low-cut gown (there’s no dress code on this island), Leonard makes it abundantly clear to the listener why the monster Caliban is in a constant state of lust for the girl (Miranda is just under 15 years old in the Shakespeare original) and why the King of Naples’ son Ferdinand falls in love with her at first sight.
As Ferdinand, Alek Shrader looked the part of the earnest and handsome suitor to Miranda and his command of the high register was as delicate and pure as his well intentioned character. Adès keeps the part high, as if to project the full-strength virtue of the man worthy of marrying Prospero’s daughter. William Burden, as Ferdinand’s father, also maintained a solid upper vocal register and was convincingly heartbroken when faced with the prospect of his son's apparent drowning during the shipwreck.
In both looks and voice, Alan Oke projected a magnificent image as the savage Caliban and delivered one of the most convincing vocal efforts of the production — spitting out Adès's jagged lines with all due vengeance as the rightful heir to the island before Prospero had arrived to enslave him. Oke’s character lusts for Miranda the way Monostatos salivates for Pamina in Die Zauberflöte, and is costumed like a grotesque Papageno in a blackbird outfit.
As Prospero’s nefarious brother Antonio, Toby Spence (who played the role of Ferdinand in the original 2004 production) appeared less comfortable in the high register than the other male singers.
The incongruent pairing of voices in the roles of Trinculo and Stefano (Countertenor Iestyn Davies and bass-baritone Stefano Kevin Burdette, respectively) provided much of the comic relief in this production as the imbibing dynamic duo who, along with Caliban, aspire to usurp Prospero as ruler of the island.
I thought Lepage’s setting of the three acts as different views from the La Scala Opera House in Milan — an obvious allusion to Prospero’s nostalgic yearning for home — was a clever and welcome touch to the production’s set design concept. Act 1 takes place on the theater’s stage looking out into the auditorium and iconic box seats; Act 2 takes place backstage, while the action in Act 3 unfolds on the floor of the auditorium with the characters facing the stage.
Diction throughout the production was a problem, as Meredith Oakes’s rhymed couplets were all but impossible to decipher. Adès’s wide-intervalled, angular melodic lines that routinely dwell in the singers’ high-registers keep intelligibility of diction within a very narrow range — from what I’d call “somewhat distinguishable” to WTF?
Adès led a well-prepared Met Orchestra that navigated the composer’s busy and thickly textured musical score with no apparent signs of fatigue or loss of stamina. This is demanding writing, particularly with respect to the brass writing (which is on par with many Strauss operas). During intermission Adès hinted, ever so gently, that not all in the pit went as he had hoped. But then, how many composers are totally satisfied with any public performance of their works?
Costume Designer Kym Barrett indulges Lepage’s fairylike concept of his very own Fantasy Island, dressing the spirit Ariel in purple-colored tights with matching purple lipstick (creating a sort of birdlike “Papageno” image), and casting Caliban as an outlandish blackbird. Why Barrett thought it necessary to carve so much body art onto Prospero’s upper-torso with gothic tattoos is anybody’s guess — although the intricate ink pattern invites an unintended pun when Caliban tells the sorcerer, “Your art makes me bow to you.”
The quote may apply equally well to Messrs. Adès and Lepage.
What: Thomas Adès’s The Tempest, Simulcast Live in HD
When: November 10, 2012
Who: Metropolitan Opera
Running time: About three hours, including intermission
Where: Metropolitan Opera House, New York
Encore performance: 6:30 p.m. EST Wednesday, November 28
Covey Company’s ‘Playing God’ a provocative amalgam of drama and comedy
Imaginary characters come to life in Garrett Heater’s insightful new “dramedy” about three writers attempting to co-author a novel
By Laurel Saiz
Garrett Heater is turning out to be the local theater community’s Renaissance man. He is the artistic director of the Covey Theatre Company, which he also directs. He is an engaging actor and singer, most recently in Covey’s summer production of Avenue Q. He’s also an up-and-coming playwright with local awards to his credit.
Heater’s most recent work is Playing God, now premiering at Covey, which displays his ability to craft a well-written, coherent and creative play.
I must admit, when I first read about the Heater’s concept it sounded dreadful. Playing God is about three different authors who have been contracted to co-write a novel. The ultra-serious title Playing God makes it sound as if the authors will be self-important and histrionic, talking laboriously about the meaning of “art.” The intense-looking poster for the production features the three characters’ faces in stark half-shadow, along with the catchphrase “Three authors. Three egos. One book” — making this look like an intense psychological drama along the order of Equus.
My misgivings were erased after seeing the opening night production. Far from being a ponderous, stilted examination of a faux literary dilemma, much of Playing God is actually rather tongue-in-cheek and quite funny. In fact, it would probably best be called a “dramedy,” with its artful blend of serious insight into human pathos and perfect comic phrasing and timing, poking fun at the ridiculous.
Part of what was off-putting about the concept was just pondering the result. Writing by committee, as we all know from various experiences in our work environments, has to be the worst process to go through and generally results in obtuse material. Yes, it has been done in the real literary world — most recently the 2011 serial novel No Rest for the Dead by Alexander McCall Smith, Sandra Brown, R.L. Stine, and Jeffery Deaver (among numerous others). To me, that sounds gimmicky at best. How could such a book possibly hang together?
To his credit, Heater allows his own characters to approach this inexplicable task with the cynicism that it warrants. They are equally perplexed as to why they have been talked into doing this project. They share an agent and muse aloud to each other as to what her reasoning could possibly be. Is it is a nod to “two washed up hacks trying to rejuvenate their careers?” Is it, as the character Ken Prescott notes, comparable to “lashing together pieces of driftwood to make a better raft?” Or, in another, related nautical metaphor, are two of them being used as a “human buoy” in a desperate tactic to fend off a potential disaster that might befall the third author?
The answer isn’t clear either to the three writers or to the audience — which raises the ante and makes the play immediately provocative and engaging. For you see, the three characters are on completely different arcs in their lives and literary careers. Prescott (played by Louis Balestra with neediness shielded by a patina of dignity) is the older, revered writer of serious merit. He is past the prime of his career and is reduced to living alone and talking to his possibly fatally ill cat, incongruously providing some hilarious moments.
Ann Jackson (played by the classy yet down-to-earth Karis Wiggins) is a former best-selling author of thrillers. She has been suffering from writer’s block for 36 months — also known as three years (a running joke in the play that shows what a slump she has been in). Her marriage isn’t giving her much sustenance either: She and her husband communicate by email in the same house. Into this demented menage á trois enters Paul Caine (played by Covey newcomer, Darian Sundberg). Caine is either a brilliant, inspired wunderkind with a phenomenal career ahead of him, or a total jerk. He is insufferable. (One example: “No one is as interesting as me.”)
Part of Heater’s creativity is evident in how he has the three characters engage with one-another. They never meet face-to-face as a threesome; they live in different places. Their interactions and the narrative thread move forward via their conversations through 21st century communication technology and social networking, demonstrating that Heater is up to speed on current trends. While Prescott talks to the others with a cordless telephone, Jackson has a hands-free miniature device hung perpetually over her ear, and Caine — the Gen-Xer that he is — has a smart phone, naturally. In addition, Wikipedia has a few key moments in the play that are quite droll and contemporary.
The set depicts the three different personalities of the authors very clearly. Prescott’s work desk is mahogany, covered with several old and perfectly aligned books. His chair is sturdy, classic black leather. It evokes the aura of an academic, esoteric person. Jackson’s desk has clean lines with lovely cherry wood, glass and chrome. Fittingly, the most prominent book on her desk seems to be one of her own earlier successes — the one with a younger picture of herself on the jacket. And Paine’s is a complete mess, much like the young author himself, haphazardly strewn with crumpled up papers, off-kilter CD covers and other detritus. Hats off to the properties designer Susan Blumer for making the characters’ respective parts of the stage so clearly an extension of their personalities.
Playing God has another dimension, as well. Two additional characters — The Woman (Julia Berger) and The Man (Jordan Glaski) — are the protagonists in the authors’ evolving novel. We first see The Woman sitting alone in a café in the beginning passage of the book as written by Prescott. The Man enters later, and their storyline is added to incrementally.
Having imaginary characters come to life as a plot device is not unprecedented. Sometimes this is done brilliantly, as with Woody Allen’s 1969 Broadway play and 1972 hit movie, Play it Again, Sam — in which none other than Humphrey Bogart (in his Casablanca persona) crosses into the plane of reality to offer romantic advice to a neurotic movie critic. Sometimes it’s done dreadfully, as in the completely forgettable 2003 Kate Hudson and Luke Wilson film Alex and Emma, where they are simultaneously writing and acting as the characters in the novel being created.
Some of the most hilarious scenes in Playing God occur as the Jackson-Prescott-Caine (or is it Caine-Jackson-Prescott?) novel jolts from author to author in this game of literary Post Office. Is The Man loving and heartbroken? Or is he a dangerous, vengeful killer? Is The Woman a demure lady or a seductress? Berger and Glaski are called upon to change tempo and mood in rapid-fire fashion as the words on the authors’ computer screens are crossed out and rewritten again and again. The “play-within-the play” sparked some of the biggest laughs from the audience.
However, the real action isn’t in the pretend novel the writers are hacking out. In an interview with The Post-Standard, Heater said, “This play has to do with the concept of creating characters and playing God. You’re dealing with three authors who are playing God. And you have three people who are trying to manipulate the people around them.”
It seems to me that the play isn’t about writers manipulating the book’s characters like marionettes. The true action seems to be in Jackson’s, Caine’s and Prescott’s internal passage — how they see some things and recognize some truths in themselves, when held up to the unvarnished mirror of their publishing-world competitors. This fitful journey on the part of three main characters is what makes this comedy-drama have a real heart.
It’s not just a gimmick, like the one conjured up by the offstage literary agent. It’s something much better: a new, good play.
What: Playing God, written and directed by Garrett A. Heater
Who: The Covey Theatre Company
Where: Bevard Theater, John H. Mulroy Civic Center, Syracuse
Date of performance: November 2, 2012
Remaining performances: 8 p.m. November 9 & 10
Length: Two hours, with one intermission
Ticket: $21. Call 315-420-3729 or http://www.thecoveytheatrecompany.com
Family guide: Some profanity.
The Met’s chilling ‘Otello’ all you could ask for, and Moor
Falk Struckmann’s commanding performance as Iago a show-stopper in this historically informed production set in 15th century Cyprus
By David Rubin
The chilling Credo Verdi wrote at the start of Act Two of Otello to introduce Iago presents a blunt and brutal philosophy of life. “I believe in a cruel God who has created me in his image,” Iago snarls. “I am evil because I am a man.” And when he dies, he believes there will be “nulla.” Nothing. “Heaven is an old wives’ tale.”
This Iago — a master puppeteer who uses jealousy to bring down Otello — is no stock operatic villain. The role has drawn most of the great baritones of the last 125 years, including Leonard Warren, Robert Merrill, Tito Gobbi, and Sherrill Milnes. Now add to that list the German baritone Falk Struckmann, who is singing the role in the revival of Elijah Moshinsky’s lavishly traditional production of Otello at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York.
Struckmann delivered the Credo so effortlessly, with such power and venom, that he took over the performance from that point to the end. (The audience broke into applause for the Credo despite the fact that Verdi offers no break in the music that invites it.) Struckmann went on to overpower Otello in the vengeance duet that concludes Act Two. He demonstrated surprising agility in the Falstaff-like scherzo and trio with Cassio in Act Three that convinces Otello of Desdemona’s betrayal. When he puts his booted foot on the chest of the prostrate Otello at the end of that act to proclaim him, sarcastically, the “Lion of Venice,” his triumph as Iago was complete in every way.
Struckmann easily has the volume to reach all 4,000 of the Met’s seats. He can float a lovely head tone. The bottom of his voice goes into bass territory — the proof being that he has also sung Hans Sachs in Die Meistersinger and Wotan in Wagner’s Ring abroad. By turns charming, oily, hearty but always deeply evil, Struckmann dominated the stage. I admit I was rooting for him as, spider-like, he trapped Otello in his web of jealousy. When he was not on stage, I missed him.
The part of Desdemona still suits Renée Fleming’s creamy voice and innocent good looks. She embodies the virtuous, wronged wife. Her Willow Song and Ave Maria in the Fourth Act were achingly beautiful. The top of her voice is now a bit over-bright, but she phrases beautifully, and the middle of her voice is as lush as ever. Her pitiable cry for Emilia, her attendant, just before the Ave Maria was heart-stopping. “How my eyes burn! It bodes weeping,” she tells Emilia, knowing she will never see her again.
In this starry company it was a challenge for tenor Avgust Amonov to replace an ailing Johan Botha in the title role. He has been singing at the Mariinsky Theater in Russia for more than a decade in such roles as Herman in The Queen of Spades, Don Carlo, Calaf, and Cavaradossi. His opening Esultate, as hair-raising an entry for a tenor as one can imagine, rode over the orchestra — but was not thrilling, as it must be. The love duet with Desdemona that ends the First Act lacked the floated high notes and the delicacy suggested in the orchestral accompaniment. He seemed to force his delivery during the first two acts, his voice taking on an acidic tinge on top. While Struckmann has limitless reserves of vocal power, the music flowing out of him, Amonov was singing on the edge.
Amonov settled down in the last two acts and provided an exciting impression of the unhinged Otello who collapses in a fit at the end of Act Three. He was properly menacing to Desdemona in Act Four, and his own suicide was powerful. However, Amonov’s voice lacks an essential Italianate quality. He doesn’t have the throb of a Jon Vickers, or the power and steadiness of a Plácido Domingo, to name two great Met Otellos. He got the job done, at times quite well, but this was a performance better titled Verdi’s Iago.
Michael Fabiano as Cassio, Eduardo Valdes as Rodrigo, and Renée Tatum as Emilia all created memorable characters. James Morris, who has also sung Iago at the Met, appeared as Lodovico, the diplomat from Venice who is shocked at how Otello treats Desdemona. He added a patrician, sonorous presence.
Semyon Bychkov whipped up a big sound in the storm scene and pushed heavily on the brass and tympani throughout. At times the tempo flagged. The brindisi in Act One, in which Iago launches his plot by goading Cassio into a drunken brawl, needed more swagger and energy. The “flame” chorus in Act One was stolid.
This is a splendid production for those who like opera presented in the historical period for which it was written. We are back in Cyprus in the 15th century. Costumes are lush and realistic. Eight immense marble columns on stone pedestals frame the playing space. In a theatrical coup in Act One, the chorus is massed on top and in front of ramparts that drop out of sight and into the basement once the storm has subsided, creating a new space for the brindisi and the balance of the act. An enormous Renaissance painting was effectively employed to define interior and exterior spaces in Act Three.
A tighter directorial hand would have helped in a couple of places. Otello’s movements as he enters Desdemona’s bedchamber were not well coordinated with the music, which suggests a more furtive Otello than Amonov provided. In Act Three, Otello was placed so far away from Iago and Cassio that it is impossible to believe he could have overheard them discussing Cassio’s love life, which is supposed to feed his jealousy.
But these were small matters in a production that was gripping from the beginning to Desdemona’s alarming tumble from her bed and down the stone stairs after she has been strangled.
The audience gave Fleming and Struckmann the huge ovations they deserved. They were respectful of Amonov and Bychkov.
Now, why isn’t Struckmann singing Wotan and the Wanderer in the Met’s Ring?
What: Verdi’s Otello, Live at The Met
When: Saturday matinee, October 20, 2012
Who: Metropolitan Opera
Where: Metropolitan Opera House, New York
Time of performance: about 3½ hours
HD Live Simulcast: 12:55 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012
Ying Quartet, pianist Elinor Freer give SFCM crowd a taste of Skaneateles
The stimulating three-work program, anchored by Shostakovich’s treasured Piano Quintet, included the premiere of a promising new work by American composer Kenji Bunch
By David Abrams
Saturday’s Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music program proved a homecoming of sorts for Rochester-based Ying Quartet and pianist Elinor Freer.
As co-artistic directors of the Skaneateles Festival, Freer and cellist-husband David Ying made the drive from Rochester to Skaneateles countless times since taking the reins of the summer music festival in 2005. This time they kept heading east and drove into the welcome arms of an enthusiastic Syracuse audience well versed in the ensemble’s work.
When the three-work program came to a close with a persuasive performance of the Shostakovich Piano Quintet in G minor, one thing was clear: The road connecting Western and Central New York runs through Skaneateles.
The Ying Quartet has much of what the SFCM crowd has come to expect, including a dependable first violinist (Ayano Ninomiya) who hits all the right notes, plays in-tune and with a phrases handsomely. The other players are second violinist Janet Ying, violist Phillip Ying and, of course, cellist David Ying.
They are also fun to watch — particularly David Ying, who swayed left and right and seized the moment several times throughout the performance. And while the group’s sound may lack the penetrating resonance of SFCM’s prior guest, the Tokyo Quartet, it produces a warm and malleable blend of tone that maintains its quality both in the softest passages (the whisper-quiet opening of the Intermezzo from Mendelssohn’s Quartet in A minor) and the loudest (the Scherzo of the Shostakovich Quintet).
Written in 1940, Shostakovich’s Quintet is uncharacteristically tame, both in its demands on the pianist (Shostakovich wrote the part for himself) and with respect to the composer’s controlled temperament, which unlike his later chamber works reveals little of Shostakovich’s frustration with the oppressive regime that stifled his every turn towards creative self-expression and growth. The work nevertheless allows ample room for intense expression and introspection, beginning with the opening piano solo entrance that sets the work’s contrapuntal wheels in motion before methodically building to a full-blown catharsis by movement’s end.
Freer’s cleanly articulated lines in the Bach-like stately introduction, and in the “walking bass” line at the beginning of the section that follows, set the tone for the good playing to come throughout the five-movement work. I especially enjoyed David Ying’s emotionally charged high-register solo that follows the piano introduction, which soared powerfully above the collective sound of the four other players.
Although the wild scherzo movement was just a bit slow for my tastes, there’s little doubt that the ensemble came out smoking — hammering out the dense chordal string accompaniment to Freer’s widely-spaced (and equally relentless) pounding octave passages. Ninomiya captured the ethnic flair of the Gypsy-like middle (Trio) section that followed with grace and élan, and her command of the altissimo register in the final movement was outstanding.
The ensemble’s handling of Shostakovich’s unusual Finale, a constrained and gentle movement that threatens to break into a march at a moment’s notice, was truly a delight — from the dreamy opening to the stormy sections that demanded (and received) fingers of steel from Freer. The ethereal ending was especially lovely as the players massaged the tranquil final chords so adroitly, the audience (convinced that no Shostakovich ending could possibly be this polite) withheld its applause for what seemed like an embarrassing period of time.
The novel work on the program was the world premiere of Kenji Bunch’s Concussion Theory, whose title — Phillip Ying explained in his talk from the stage — refers to the “science” of using a series of explosions designed to disturb the equilibrium of the atmosphere in order to induce rainfall.
This is the composer’s second string quartet, and from the absence of program notes (other than a small disclaimer that the work was still in progress at the time of the booklet’s publication) I would imagine that the ink on the pages was still wet when the Ying Quartet sank its teeth into this work.
The four-movement work is programmatic, with a descriptive title accompanying each movement: No Man’s Land; Black Sunday; Concussion Theory; A Gentle Rain. Insofar as it aims to examine (and at times mimic) these violent disturbances in the atmosphere, Concussion Theory makes use of a variety of disquieting contemporary sound techniques such as altissimo harmonics and glissandi, and gritty bowing techniques such as sul ponticello, sul tasto and col legno.
The overall effect is dramatic and often shocking, in spite of the fact that the listening experience remains wholly accessible. Still, the piece ultimately succeeds largely because of its vivid musical imagery. The impression of the dry and barren farmlands in No Man’s Land is captured by the instruments’ soft harmonics, gentle cello pizzicatos and glissandi (one can almost see the tumbleweed blowing across the stage). The strains of church hymns in Black Sunday are juxtaposed with disturbing bowing techniques — strongly reminiscent of the striking opening of Krzysztof Penderecki’s Threnody to The Victims of Hiroshima — that portends disaster soon to come.
The atmospheric explosions in the brief but mighty third (Concussion Theory) movement are mirrored in the relentless 16th-note figures and sextuplet triplets. The elegiac opening to the final (Gentle Rain) movement crescendos sharply to a loud and intense climax punctuated by slow, scalewise passages in the cello — suggesting perhaps that this “science” comes at a terrible cost — before giving way to a soft ending that I interpret as sorrowful resignation to forces beyond one’s control.
Concussion Theory was well received by the large crowd in attendance, and rightly so. This is bold and effective writing that, like Penderecki’s Threnody, never strays far from the composer’s intent to connect with the audience.
The program opened with Mendelssohn’s Quartet in A minor Op. 13, which although satisfactory was the least convincing of the Ying Quartet’s efforts that evening.
Most of the problems fell early on, during the opening movement — where pitch on Ying’s cello during the slow introduction remained slightly but doggedly sharp on the vital half-step intervals, which affected the harmonic foundation of the four-voice texture. At first I thought this was an aberration, given his excellent intonation elsewhere on the program. But the identical pitch problem reoccurred when the introductory theme returned at the close of the final movement.
There were, to be sure, several memorable moments in this performance, particularly in the quartet’s warm phrasing and homogeneous blend of tone in the sweet Adagio non lento movement. And then there was that precious moment in the Intermezzo when Ninomiya’s violin sang sweetly and ever so delicately over synchronized tutti string pizzicatos on the three other instruments — which gets my vote for the singular most breathtaking moment of the evening.
What: The Ying Quartet, with pianist Elinor Freer
Ticket prices: Regular $20, Senior $15, Student $10
Information: call (315) 682-7720
Rarely Done Productions’ rollicking ‘The Musical of Musicals’ a ‘comedy of comedies’
Can’t pay the rent? Rarely Done Productions has just the ticket for you
By Laurel Saiz
If you want a musical that is corny and homespun, over-the-top and melodramatic, edgy and a bit sordid, twisted and discordant, flashy and larger than life, then The Musical of Musicals is for you.
If you’re wondering why it has such a broad array of qualities it’s because, as the name implies, it’s not one musical at all. In fact, this is five different musicals. But there’s a clever conceit: five hilarious variations of the same story, told in styles parodying the greatest musical theater composers and lyricists.
And what a parody it is. This Rarely Done production is rollicking and outstanding from start to finish — from the Rodgers and Hammerstein-inspired Corn to the Kander and Ebb-satire Speakeasy.
Directed by Dan Tursi with musical direction by Michael Copps, The Musical of Musicals was first done by Rarely Done in 2007. Tursi, the company’s artistic director, wisely uses three of the four original players from that great production, and the new addition is a brilliant choice.
The story is simple and has been told numerous times before — in Puccini’s La Bohème, the rock opera/Broadway play Rent, Baz Luhrmann’s Nicole Kidman-star vehicle Moulin Rouge!, and in any number of Silent Era Nickelodeon features. A lovely ingénue cannot pay her rent. She is beset by a rapacious, greedy landlord/villain and seeks true love in the form of a romantic, handsome leading man. The Musical of Musicals adds a key fourth figure to this dynamic: a trusted woman to whom the sweet innocent turns for guidance — with comical results.
The four versatile performers move dexterously from musical to musical and from character to character. What is especially intricate about Musical is that each role in the mini-musicals is an amalgam of various characters from that particular composer’s oeuvre. As such, the quickly paced show is probably most enjoyable to those Broadway aficionados familiar with the original musicals and who recognize the many allusions.
Take Peter Irwin’s character, Jitter, in A Little Complex — done in the style of Stephen Sondheim. He’s crazed and threatening in a white artist’s smock dabbed in paint that easily doubles as a butcher’s jacket splattered in blood. His songs quickly move from references to pointillist painter George Seurat, from Sunday in the Park with George, to the lead character in Sweeney Todd. In Getting Away With Murder, this Jitter also evokes Fredrik Egerman’s dilemma in A Little Night Music. In that play, Egerman is torn between his wife and his mistress. Here, Irwin’s character, á la the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, is torn between his preferred methods of murder: “Hemlock is easy, but too Socratesy. Hat’s off to decapitation!”
The Big Willy character from Corn is also a hysterical blend of the Rodgers and Hammerstein leading men. Greg Halpen was in the 2007 Rarely Done production and was admirable. The new Big Willy (a.k.a. Billy, Bill, William and Villy) is a stunningly good addition to the cast. In Corn, he is a combination of the vain King of Siam from The King and I (“Is a puzzlement!”), the hayseed Curly from Oklahoma and the tortured carnival barker from Carousel. Why, he even has Billy’s obligatory “Soliloquy” from the latter musical. Curtin, like all four actors, is uniformly good throughout — but he does have another show stopping number as one of the “slutty dancing girls” in Speakeasy, the send-up of both Cabaret and Chicago.
Aubry Panek plays the sometimes ding-batty ingénue in the plays. Her character also takes a turn as both an Evita-like Eva Perón and a Sunset Boulevard-like diva in Aspects of Junita, drawing on Andrew Lloyd Webber. There are allusions to both Webber’s hits (Phantom of the Opera, of course) and his flops, the silly and widely trashed musical Starlight Express (where the cast performed on roller skates) and Aspects of Love, which lost a reported $8 million in its limited New York run.
Aspects of Junita also has a sly putdown in the lyrics, “It might just sound a teeny like something by Puccini. But no, it’s all brand new. In fact, so new that who would sue?” Webber paid an undisclosed sum to the Puccini estate, which brought suit for alleged musical plagiarism in Phantom from the Italian composer’s horse opera, La Fanciulla del West.
Panek is a great comedian and excels in all incarnations of June, Jeune, Junie Faye, Juney and Junita. The most sidesplitting part of Friday’s show came at an unplanned moment when one of her costume pieces in Aspects of Junita went awry. Panek, a consummate professional, kept her cool — but the wardrobe malfunction led the audience into hysterics. If the props crew offstage could somehow manage that “accident” again, it would not be a bad addition.
The program notes that Jodie Baum won a Syracuse Area Live Theatre (SALT) award for her first turn in Rarely Done’s The Musical of Musicals. She may want to clear a space on her shelf right now for another award. Her sardonic character Fraulein Abby in Speakeasy is ever so funny when she suggests that Juny take to streets to raise the money for the rent. Baum has what may be the most humorous line in the show in her song, Easy Mark.
Elsewhere, Baum is an Auntie Mame-like Aunt Abby in Dear Abby, in the style of Jerry Herman — also known for Hello Dolly! and La Cage aux Folles. And yes, there is a reference to the need to “put a little more mascara on.” She’s a neurotic Abby in A Little Complex and also channels Gloria Swanson as Abigail Von Schtarr in Aspects of Junita.
Baum is most impressive in the campy Corn, in which her Follow Your Dream is the dark incarnation of the Mother Abbess’ inspiring anthem Climb Every Mountain from The Sound of Music. Can the phrasing Follow your dream! Chin up! Belly High also be a tongue-in-check reference to South Pacific’s Bali Ha’i? Baum’s performance, mining the schmaltz for all its worth, is no less a master class in vocal power, range and control.
The play itself starts with the entire cast singing a nonsensical number offstage, along the lines of “It’s a musical of musicals. We’re singing because it’s a musical!” As with any Broadway musical, they keep on singing and singing once they enter the spotlight.
And while they are singing, the audience just keeps on laughing.
What: The Musical of Musicals, music by Eric Rockwell, lyrics by Joanne Bogart
Who: Rarely Done Productions
Where: Jazz Central, 441 E. Washington St., Syracuse
When: October 19, 2012
Next: 8 p.m. Oct. 20, 26, 27, Nov. 2, 3
Length: One hour and 45 minutes, one intermission
Ticket: $20. Call 315-546-3224 or http://www.rarelydone.org
Family guide: Nothing overtly offensive, but heavy on satire
The Met’s L’Elisir d’Amore mixes a potion better suited to singing than staging
Director Bartlett Sher’s bleak staging burdens Donizetti’s comic book-like pastorale with needless weight, but this new production will ultimately be remembered for its magnificent singing
By David Rubin
Gaetano Donizetti’s The Elixir of Love is a delicious comedy of unending melody and fun. The young composer dashed it off in 1832 in a mere six weeks, and it quickly became a staple of the repertoire. Between 1838 and 1848, according to the New Grove Dictionary of Opera, it was the most performed opera in Italy.
For years the Met offered Elixir in a bright, cartoonish production that caught the silly mood of the piece. The love-struck peasant Nemorino pines for the wealthy and cultured landowner Adina, who won’t give him the time of day. But when she learns that Nemorino is so stuck on her that he bought a love potion from the mountebank Dr. Dulcamara, she melts and performs a neat 180 in the last ten minutes of the opera. Nemorino’s surprise inheritance from a dead uncle of millions of scudi — or lira or euros — pushes Adina to the altar.
The opera offers a great basso buffo role in Dulcamara and a sweet tenor part for Nemorino that includes the famous aria Una Furtiva Lagrima that helped launch Enrico Caruso’s career in 1900. Adina is the standard soprano minx. The required baritone is the swashbuckling egotistical soldier Belcore, who thinks he can win Adina with testosterone.
Once this happy but slight work was selected to open the Met’s 2012-13 season, the old comic book set apparently had to go. Director Bartlett Sher, perhaps to justify the opera’s exalted opening night status and the presence of the bankable Anna Netrebko as Adina, found a heretofore hidden dark side to this pastorale. The antics of Dulcamara aside, the laughs in this new production are few. In their place we have some gratuitous violence with Nemorino being punched by Belcore and another soldier. Adina parades around in a top hat, illustrating her dominatrix side. The timid Nemorino is pushed totally out of character when brandishing a rifle and smacking Adina on the rump. How dare he! Lighting, by Jennifer Tipton, is dark and darker.
While Sher managed to impose his grim will on most of the cast, Ambrogio Maestri, the Dulcamara, resisted the conceit and brought what laughs there were to the piece. A mountain of a man with a big nose and a fleshy, rubbery face, Maestri has the buffo style down pat. He is a natural for Rossini’s Dr. Bartolo, which he has never sung at the Met but should, immediately. (Oddly, he lists no Rossini in his repertoire.)
When Dulcamara arrived in the town square in his carriage and stepped out wearing a wine red cape and bright red vest, a grey fright wig parked on his head, the production came alive. His famous patter aria Udite, udite, o rustici was a hoot as he sold his patent medicine to the rubes in the crowd. His diction was impeccable (he was the only Italian in the cast) and he articulated most of the many notes without barking or sliding, as is often the case with less talented basses.
Overall the vocalism was at a very high level. The temperature really heated up in Act Two when Belcore convinces Nemorino to enlist in order to get bonus money to spend on more of the magic love potion. As Belcore, Mariusz Kwiecien ripped off the notes in Venti scudi like a comic veteran. This was followed by a delightful duet between Maestri and Netrebko when the doctor offers to concoct a potion for her so she can now attract Nemorino. Then came tenor Matthew Polenzani’s Una Furtiva Lagrima, delivered with such sweetness and purity that the audience begged for an encore. Polenzani, who should be better known, seemed inclined to deliver it, but the Met frowns on such pandering to the audience. Do they really deserve it if they only paid $250 for an orchestra seat?
Netrebko’s voice is a bit heavy for Adina, and her sunny nature doesn’t fit Sher’s conception of Adina as the ice princess Turandot. (When she finally took off her top hat and let her long black hair down to embrace Nemorino, I wondered if Sher was channeling the Puccini opera. If so, it’s an odd model for this innocent comedy.) Netrebko handled the coloratura well and her basic sound is as ravishing as ever. She and Polenzani meshed well and demonstrated considerable stage chemistry. But it’s hard to imagine her singing this role much longer.
Conductor Maurizio Benini, who looks like an Italian banker, led the Met Orchestra with zip and provided the proper Italianate style. Catherine Zuber’s costumes seemed to be a realistic representation of the 1830s Italian countryside.
The HD production was, as always, maddening in its relentless close-ups and fast cuts. Even in duets and trios where it is essential to see the characters interact, the producers generally declined to put two faces on the screen together, or pull back to show the whole stage. The reigning aesthetic seems dictated by music videos.
Despite Sher’s efforts to produce a weighty Elixir, two images remain of this production that have nothing to do with his concept. One is Polenzani’s face as he basked in the waves of applause that greeted his Una Furtiva Lagrima. The other is Maestri jamming has fists into a huge bowl of pasta at the wedding banquet, pulling out handfuls of spaghetti to eat without benefit of a fork, spoon, or napkin. At least he got the point.
What: Donizetti’s L'Elisir d'Amore, Simulcast Live in HD
When: October 13, 2012
Who: Metropolitan Opera
Running time: Three hours and 2 minutes, with intermission
Where: Metropolitan Opera House, New York
Encore performance: 6:30 p.m. Wednesday, November 7, 2012
Syracuse Stage harpoons a whale of a tale in bare-stage adaptation of ‘Moby Dick’
Nine talented performers and imaginative minimalist staging bring scenes from Melville’s anthropomorphic masterpiece to life, in spite of the disappointing ending
By Barbara Haas
“Call Me Ishmael.” Syracuse Stage opened the celebration of its 40th anniversary season with what is probably the most recognizable opening line in Western literature.
Surprisingly, Herman Melville’s huge, sprawling novel Moby Dick sparked little interest during the author’s lifetime. Electricity was on the way, whale oil was becoming expendable, and few were interested in reading everything you could possibly want to know about whales.
It wasn’t until after World War I that a few influential critics resurrected the tale of Captain Ahab’s monomaniacal pursuit of The Great White Whale, and Moby Dick entered the pantheon of American literature as The Great American Novel.
It’s an exciting tale, and adaptations began at once. In a 1926 silent movie, John Barrymore’s Ahab kills the white whale and — not quite what Melville intended — comes home to the woman he loves. There have been cartoon versions: Woody Woodpecker was shanghaied onto the Peapod by its nefarious captain to go after the whale that bit him. In one of several TV versions, Patrick Stewart played Ahab with smoldering intensity. Then, of course, there is John Huston’s classic 1956 film starring the terrifically handsome Gregory Peck as Ahab, with Orson Welles giving the sermon on Jonah and the Whale in what has got to be one of the great dramatic orations of all time. (You can catch it on YouTube.)
For the Syracuse Stage production, Director Peter Amster and his versatile cast of nine must have had a wonderful time recreating Julian Rad’s adaptation. Okay guys, we can imagine them saying, “We’ve got nine actors on a (mostly) bare stage. How do we give the illusion of setting out on a rowboat to harpoon a whale? How do we recreate a typhoon at sea? How do we show the meeting of two ships at sea?”
Of course, Amster and his cast had the assistance of Syracuse Stage’s first-class artistic/technical team to support them. Together they achieved some remarkable effects, such as when six men with straining muscles set out for a whale pod, the savage Queequeg (Antoine Pierre Whitfield) in the prow, harpoon raised on high, grimacing as fiercely as an aboriginal war god. When he sends his harpoon down the trap door, a red glow spreads out on the stage — and our imaginations do the rest. For the typhoon scene, a row of swaying lanterns helps create the illusion of a ship pitching so violently that one of the sailors is nearly knocked off his high lookout perch.
The beginning of the show is particularly engaging — but then that’s true of the novel, too. Erik Hellman makes an appealing young Elijah, cautiously making his way among the rough-and-ready old salts in the whaling harbor of New Bedford. In the lively scene at the Inn we hear first of the sea chanteys that effectively punctuate the play. When Elijah and his new-found pal Queequeg set sail on the Pequod, there is a lovely moment when a huge white curtain descends across the back of the stage as if inflated by sea breezes.
Again as in the novel, there is a long build-up before we meet the awe-inspiring Captain Ahab, described by Melville as a “grand, ungodly, godlike man.” Big shoes to fill. Kurt Ehrmann looks the part and speaks Melville’s Shakespeare-influenced speeches with a commanding presence and richly rotund voice. We can understand why Starbuck (David Studwell), the sensible man who wants to fill the ship’s hold with oil and get back home to his family, finally yields to Ahab’s idée fixe. But there’s a problem built into Ahab’s role. Since he is either shouting commands to his crew or railing against the forces of nature, most of his lines are necessarily delivered fortissimo.
Alas, just when the Pequod finally catches up to the Great White Whale they have been seeking all along, this production loses its impetus. It’s as if the director and cast lost their creativity out of sheer exhaustion. At this most climactic moment, all they could think of to represent the destruction of the boat by the thrashing whale is to have that area of the stage go dark. Ishmael gives us Melville’s description of the scene, but nothing very dramatic is happening on stage. It’s a disappointing ending.
A note for trivia fans: Yes, the international coffee firm got its name from the Melville character, but only after “Pequod” was rejected by one of the co-founders. “Let’s meet for coffee at Pequod’s?” No, I don't think so either...
What: Moby Dick, adapted for the stage by Julian Rad from the book by Herman Melville
Who: Syracuse Stage
Where: Archbold Theater, 820 East Genesee Street, Syracuse
When: through November 4
Length: about 2 hours and 30 minutes, with 15-minute intermission
Tickets: $30 to $51; various discounts available: Call (315) 443-3275 or www.SyracuseStage.org
Family guide: a few suggestive bumps and grinds from raunchy sailors, but nothing to worry about
Fuggedaboutit: ‘Jersey Boys’ a nostalgic, jukebox musical that will take you back to the ’60s
The 2005 Tony Award winning Best Musical, featuring music of The Four Seasons, has enough foot-tapping tunes to give baby boomers restless leg syndrome
By Laurel Saiz
I often laugh at pharmaceutical ads on television touting Madison Avenue-named prescriptions for disorders most people do not even recognize as actual medical syndromes.
I think I can ignore those commercials for the dreaded condition of inadequate eyelash growth. However, I do think I have come down with a case of restless leg syndrome: My feet want to keep tapping and my legs want me to get up and move. This condition has even spread up my body. My torso is swaying and my head is bobbing up and down.
This all started Friday night when I saw a production of the national tour of Jersey Boys, presented by Famous Artists at the Landmark Theater. From the first bars of music (the French version of Oh, What a Night!) to the last rousing number (Who Loves You?), I seemed to have been possessed by an external power: the music of the timeless group, The Four Seasons.
The Four Seasons’ songs are more than catchy or “ubiquitous,” as one of the original group members Tommy DeVito (Colby Foytik) says at the beginning of the show. Those of us who are old enough to notice those pharmaceutical commercials have loved these songs for years: Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Let’s Hang On (To What We’ve Got), C’mon Marianne, Walk Like a Man and more. All The Four Seasons classics are here. They bring back both memories and reinvigorate — hence my restless, dancing legs.
Jersey Boys opened on Broadway in 2005, winning eight Tony Awards including Best Musical. Still going strong in New York, it now has six international productions (Jersey Boys Singapore anyone?) and two national touring companies performing throughout the U.S. and Canada. The music is, of course, incredible. But Jersey Boys has legs because it has a powerful story, as well.
It is a fully developed Broadway musical and not just a revue with a sketchy framework on which to hang the songs. (Other similar attempts, such Rain: A Tribute to the Beatles on Broadway, failed for that reason.) The “book” part of Jersey Boys provides substantial detail for a captivating narrative arc, with telling moments of both humor and tragedy. We learn about the early run-ins with the law on the part of DeVito, Nick Massi (Brandon Andrus) and Frankie Valli (Brad Weinstock). There’s an incredible back-story involving little Joey Pesci. Yes, that Joe Pesci of Goodfellas fame. And who knew that Bob Gaudio (Jason Kappus) wrote the silly but successful (Who Wears) Short Shorts when he was only 15 years old?
The behind-the-scenes tale also includes off-stage rivalry, music business maneuvering, romances and failed marriages. Foytik, Andrus, Weinstock and Kappus are not just superb singers — they are capable actors, embodying the original Four Seasons performers themselves.
Four talented young women play a variety of roles, such as girlfriends and back-up singers. Most notably, Natalie Gallo plays Mary, Frankie’s first wife, who urged him “ya gotta end your name in a vowel,” changing Vally to Valli. Alas, Valli’s first marriage did not run smoothly and had more than its share of pathos, as depicted in the play.
The touring show, directed by Des McAnuff, has strong production elements, as well. The physical set is spare, beginning with a chain-link industrial look. It quickly becomes apparent that the key motif of the stage design is a constantly changing video “billboard” that moves up and down at regular intervals. At times it flashes the name of a season in jumbo letters, evoking the name of the group and the passage of time in their lives. In other scenes it projects Roy Lichtenstein-like massive comic book images. The lighting design won the production one of its Tony Awards, although some viewers with sensitive vision might be overwhelmed by its eye-popping brightness.
The play spends a lot of time on the financial troubles that almost brought the group under. The reference to a debt of $150,000 may seem piddling now, but in 1963 this could have been catastrophic. A quick visit to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics’ online inflation calculator shows that amount is comparable to a whopping $1,129,308.82 in today’s dollars. Amazingly, that figure is almost exactly the gross revenue brought in by the Broadway production of Jersey Boys for the week of October 7 — that’s right, in one week. (Check out the grosses at Internet Broadway Database, the official website of the Broadway League.)
Could those guys who started singing under a street lamp and in shady, marginal venues possibly have foreseen this kind of success back then?
In the musical, DeVito tells the audience that there were only three choices for blue-collar guys growing up in Jersey: “Get mobbed up, join the Army or become stars.” Hoboken’s Frank Sinatra and Asbury Park’s Bruce Springsteen certainly did the latter. And for decades of music lovers, we’re glad that these four Jersey boys did, too.
What: Jersey Boys, music by Bob Gaudio and lyrics by Bob Crewe; book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice
Who: Famous Artists Broadway
Where: The Landmark Theatre, 362 S. Salina St., Syracuse
When: Through October 28
Length: Two hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission
Ticket: $128 for premium; $65 to $75, orchestra; $30 to $60, balcony; student rush tickets $28. Call (315) 424-8210 or http://www.famousartistsbroadway.com/
Family guide: Repeated profanity, some sexual references
Redhouse Theater’s production of ‘Assassins’ hits target
Stephen Sondheim's brazen black comedy about actual (and wannabe) presidential assassins will simply kill you
By Laurel Saiz
Stephen Sondheim’s Assassins is a raucous, often hilarious and constantly entertaining musical romp through U.S. history, as well as a profoundly incisive and chilling look at the dark side of the American spirit.
Redhouse is audaciously presenting the 1990 Off-Broadway musical, a rouges’ gallery of presidential assassins, in an election year. It’s a vigorous production, directed by Stephen Svoboda, and the big names here are: Charles Wilkes Booth and Lee Harvey Oswald. They are joined by lesser eccentrics who either succeeded or failed at hitting their intended targets. The Proprietor (Alex Levin) serves as a barker in a crazy carnival booth atmosphere, tallying the prizes. Abraham Lincoln? Shot and martyred. James Garfield? Ding! William McKinley? Another ding.
Dan Williams is hilarious as the overweening, posturing and preening Charles Guiteau. To Guiteau, it is of no consequence that all his endeavors have come to naught. He’s failed at everything — whether being an insurance salesman or even a free-love advocate. (He spent time Central New York’s very own utopian society, the Oneida Community.) Who cares if no one sees his innate potential and isn’t rapturously following his self-published opus? He will be Ambassador to Paris, after all! For Guiteau, it’s always “morning in America” in terms of his vapid self-expectations.
The most intense and realistic portrayal of the evening (and perhaps on any local stage in recent months) was that of Brian Detlefs as Giuseppe Zangara. Zangara is bent over in apparent anguish for much of his time on stage, as he suffers from unrelenting stomach pain. Alas, nothing helps (poor Zangara was 50 years too early for the Nobel-Prize winning discovery that ulcers are actually caused by a fairly easily-treated bacterial infection).
Ah, but there is a solution for “trouble in your tummy.” Wilkes suggests that killing Franklin Roosevelt may not help — but “it can’t hurt.” The scenario of someone trying to assassinate a revered political leader because of a glorified stomachache is ridiculously incongruous. But don’t laugh at this assassin. Detlefs may meet your eyes with a glare that, at that moment, makes you believe he is Zangara himself.
Detlefs, like the other capable community and Equity actors, enables you to develop empathy (dare I say sympathy) for this motley crew. While you can be repulsed by their actions, the characters in Assassins compel you to comprehend why they attempted (and occasionally succeeded) in their single-minded deeds. Everything has context and cause for action.
Leon Czolgosz, expertly played by David Cotter, has truly suffered in the bowels of America’s Industrial Age factory system. You can sense the injustice of what he has gone through when Czolgosz explains what it’s like to tend the fiery furnace in a glass bottle plant, earning six cents an hour — less if a bottle is accidentally broken. You recoil when you see the evidence of horrific burns, as much as you jump at the report of the gun when he shoots William McKinley. Big Bill—he loved beef!
Can we doubt that John Hinckley, still being held at St. Elizabeth’s Psychiatric Hospital in Washington, singularly believed that Jodie Foster would be impressed by his assassination of Ronald Reagan? Anthony Malchar is earnest and impassioned as he sings a truly beautiful love song to Foster, “Unworthy of Your Love,” joined by another would-be assassin proclaiming what she would do for love.
We know Charles Manson was a swastika-adorned, delusional cult leader who led his followers to kill a lovely Hollywood actress and six others. (Manson, now 78, remains in prison.) To an entranced Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, played winningly by Marguerite Mitchell, Manson is first a “dirty-looking little elf” and ultimately the Son of God. Manson has saved her and she will attempt to repay him by trying to kill President Ford.
Sara Jane Moore is a hot mess with her five husbands, obnoxiously whiny son (Kyle Johnson, in one of several roles in the ensemble) and inability to fire a weapon (or for that matter find anything) in her handbag. From the first glance at Laura Austin Moore’s darting, bugged-out eyes, she appears totally off her rocker even as she exclaims that things are “groovy” and “far out!”
The cuckoo meter also ramps up whenever John Bixler is on stage as Samuel Byck, the chap who protested in front of the White House in a Santa suit and later tried to kill Richard Nixon. Bixler portrays Byck as a zany “every man,” beaten down by a world going bad (pollution, the economy, etc.) His rant is absolutely hysterical — that is until you hear his plan to hijack a 747 and crash it into the White House. Can anything make your blood run colder than to be reminded of the other group of single-minded fanatics who did hijack planes? They, too, fully believed their cause as real and righteous.
September 11 prompted composer and lyricist Sondheim and Assassins book author John Weidman to add an additional song for the play’s highly successful Broadway revival in 2004. In the CD liner notes, Weidman writes that the song “Something Just Broke” allows the audience to “express the simple, uncomplicated grief that we all experience in response to these vicious, horrific attacks.” Krystal Scott (elsewhere playing Emma Goldman) is moving as the lead singer in this meaningful song. The musicians, Zach Orts, Rob Kronen and Kelly Covert, beautifully accompany this and the other ten numbers. Also relevant is that the Redhouse program fittingly notes that “in an effort to keep with the original intention of the show, this evening will not have a bow at the end of the show.”
But before the poignant finale, we have the Big Act. All of these characters are being propelled to the real crescendo of Presidential assassinations: the events in Dallas on a November afternoon in 1963. Here, Wilkes — the aggrieved Southern patrician actor — pops up again as the evil Genie. In a reimagining of Oswald’s final moments in the Texas Book Depository, Wilkes (archly and charismatically played by Chris Baron) convinces Oswald (Jacob Sharf, in a dual role as the Balladeer) that in order to take all of the Presidential killers to the next level he has to take out the Big Fish himself — John F. Kennedy. Without Oswald, Czolgosz, Guiteau and crew are just pathetic “footnotes in a history book.” Oswald can be their rock star. With him, they can enter the pantheon of antiheroes in infamy — and, for Oswald, ever-unfolding conspiracy theories.
Their argument is realized in “Another American Anthem,” which points out clearly that for all the numerous people in our country who “make it,” there are others who fail miserably and are beaten down by the system and life. In the closing number, “Everybody’s Got the Right,” they sing, “Everybody's got the right to some sunshine. Not the sun, but maybe one of its beams.”
One by one, these assassins — blinded by their own vision — tried to ride a beam of light and change history.
What: Assassins, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by John Weidman, presented by Redhouse.
Where: Redhouse Arts Center, 201 S. West Street, Armory Square, Syracuse
Next: 8 p.m. October 6, 10, 11, 12, 13
Length: About two hours, no intermission
Ticket: $25, $15 for members and $10 for students. Call 315) 425-0405 or http://www.theredhouse.org/
Family guide: Multiple gunshots, profanity
Tokyo Quartet returns to Syracuse, bids farewell to some old friends
Now in its final season, the venerable ensemble plays SFCM for the last time — ending a remarkable 44-year journey with flashes of brilliance… and signs of fatigue
By David Abrams
No sooner had the final two chords of Schubert’s massive G-Major String Quartet sounded than the oversized audience packing the Lincoln Middle School Auditorium Saturday evening jumped to its feet with vociferous shouts of approval.
It couldn’t have ended any other way.
The Tokyo Quartet’s farewell concert marked the end of a lengthy and rewarding association with Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music — an ongoing love fest that first bonded the two organizations in 1974 and stretched on for more than a dozen visits afterwards. And while the level of Saturday’s performance may have fallen somewhat short of the bar set by this ensemble over the course of its three decade-plus history, this was a concert worth remembering, if only for its parting image: four distinguished and beloved performers taking bows as they prepare to ride off into the sunset of chamber music immortality — a true Kodak moment.
Tokyo’s warm and amiable blend of tone was at once evident during the opening Allegro di molto of the Haydn Quartet in D Major, Op. 20 no. 4 that launched the three-work program. Such homogeneity of tone is no doubt due in part to the matching set of Strads that the four players have been using since 1985. (The instruments are on loan from Japan’s Nippon Foundation.) But it takes more than great equipment to produce great sounds.
A professional string quartet’s tone is developed, cultivated and refined over a period of years — which explains why so many great quartets, past and present, have a distinctive uniqueness and consistency of tone that set them apart from the others. And few string quartets can stand up to the cohesive blend and uniformity of sound heard Saturday from the Tokyo Quartet. The ensemble’s sumptuous tone was not enough however to bring this Haydn Quartet to life. Despite some impressive individual efforts and a technically tidy ensemble, the performers never quite captured the magic of the moment.
To be sure, Tokyo enjoys an outstanding reputation for its stylistic interpretations of “Papa” Haydn. (Their recording of the Opus 76 Quartets remains the benchmark against which I measure any quartet’s ability to play Haydn.) And in the Quartet in D Major, the players seemed to do most everything right. At least on paper. Tempos in the final (Presto scherzando) movement were brisk and the 16th-note runs cleanly articulated; the highly syncopated Menuetto was snappy and rhythmically secure (and buoyed by Clive Greensmith’s lovely cello solo in the Trio section); and the slow movement (Un poco Adagio affetuoso) variations were agreeable enough.
So what could possibly have been missing? Inspiration. Chemistry. The spontaneity of ensemble that makes the whole greater than the sum of the individual parts. For whatever reason, the players never appeared to open throttle, let go and join in the fun. It’s not that this was a poor performance of a Haydn quartet; it was actually perfectly acceptable. But acceptable doesn’t measure up to what we’ve come to expect from the Tokyo Quartet.
Whatever magic may have been lost on the Haydn reappeared for Anton Webern’s Fünf Sätze (Five Pieces) Op. 5, a complicated and thorny work the players appeared eager to sink their teeth into — and deeply, at that.
Dating from 1909, this set of pieces that string together as a quartet is not dodecaphonic, although the writing here makes free use of atonality (Webern didn’t use pitch serialization until 1925). And typical of the composer, these pieces are brief and the feelings muted — as if the profuse emotions of late German Romanticism had been drastically reduced to a finely distilled essence of musical timbre, devoid of any degree of sentimentality.
Tokyo gave an alert, faithful and determined rendition of these expressionistic miniatures — making the most of Webern’s angry pizzicatos, tremolos, harmonics, sul ponticello and muted strings effects. They faithfully observed Webern’s expansive dynamic spectrum that runs the gamut from exaggerated fortissimos to “barely audible.” And while this work may hardly be described as a crowd pleaser, listeners appeared attentive and in-sync with the players, who cut deeply into the core of the abstract writing to capture the composer’s anguish, urgency and grief (this was written in the aftermath of the death of his mother).
I had high hopes for a tour de force (or at least a second wind) in Schubert’s mammoth Quartet in G Major D. 887, coming as it had after the resolute performance of the Fünf Sätze. But if the performance of the Haydn was less-than-inspired, the players in this warhorse appeared fatigued — as if the jam-packed schedule of The Tokyo Quartet’s final season were beginning to take its toll.
Ensemble among the four players was not especially tight in the weighty and dramatic opening movement, as the players tended to rush the strongly over-dotted rhythmic motifs that permeate the movement. A cautious tempo in third movement Scherzo (hardly the Allegro vivace indicated by the composer) dampened an otherwise exciting movement, and the reliable and dependable first violinist Martin Beaver experienced some pitch problems in the altissimo register passages during the first three movements.
There were nonetheless the familiar flashes of brilliance we’ve come to expect from the Tokyo Quartet, such as Greensmith’s sinuous cello solo in the lyrical Andante movement and a well executed final movement Allegro assai — which generated the first-rate playing we’ve come to expect from this ensemble.
While this may not have been The Tokyo Quartet's finest two hours, they remain a class act — and the model upon which other such ensembles may be judged. And they will sorely be missed.
What: The Tokyo String Quartet
Next: Ying String Quartet with pianist Elinor Freer, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, Oct. 20
Ticket prices: Regular $20, Senior $15, Student $10
Information: call (315) 682-7720
SU Drama’s ‘Merrily We Roll Along’ breathes new life into a Sondheim flop
A strong cast of SU Drama students led by Avery Bryce Epstein overcomes the problems endemic to reverse chronology narratives
By Laurel Saiz
Merrily We Roll Along may be one of Stephen Sondheim’s biggest flops, but it is an excellent vehicle to showcase the prodigious talents of the Syracuse University Drama Department in the current production directed by Professor Brian Cimmet. The ensemble of 23 talented students hailing from across the United States speaks to the depth of SU’s musical theater program.
The wide-open set designed by Sang Min Kim and the brilliant lighting by Allison P. Shumway, both students, are absolutely stupendous. The set is versatile — large, rolling staircases whose lighting along the risers changes in key scenes. The lighting gives depth to the horizon behind the beautifully realized Manhattan skyline.
The costumes by recent SU drama graduate Danielle Hodgins represent a formidable accomplishment, as well. Designing costumes for such a huge cast that must evoke different time periods and meet the specific demands of each musical number is no easy task. The hard work that went into the design and construction of the dozens of costumes was clearly evident.
The play itself is known in the annals of theatre as a massive misfire. Sondheim, the Broadway legend whose credits include West Side Story, Gypsy, A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, Company, and Follies (along with multiple revivals of those masterpieces), had his share of theatrical disasters. The worst may have been 1964’s Anyone Can Whistle — which closed after only nine performances. Merrily did not fare much better, playing for only 16 performances in 1981. The then-New York Times drama critic Frank Rich wrote, “To be a Stephen Sondheim fan is to have one’s heart broken at regular intervals.”
Such a provenance may make this seem like an unusual choice for SU’s Drama Department. However, the basic flaw with the original production (admitted by Sondheim himself) becomes irrelevant in this student production.
The conceit of the musical (not really a musical comedy) is the reverse chronology of the narrative. It starts out in 1976 in the opulent Southern California mansion of the commercially successful composer Franklin Shepard (played by senior Kyle Anderson). With scenes set at two to five-year intervals moving backwards in time, we learn that Frank has let his personal and musical integrity slip away. He has left his two dearest friends in the wake of his pursuit of success.
The play ends 19 years earlier on the rooftop of a cheap New York City flat, where we see Frank with those two friends at their first heart-felt encounter as a threesome. Frank and his lyricist Charley Kringas (played by junior Dan Reardon) are struggling but inspired musical collaborators. A neighbor, Mary Flynn (played by junior Avery Bryce Epstein), is starting out as a magazine copywriter. She has heard — and adores — Frank’s music through the open window and becomes their biggest cheerleader and mainstay.
In Finishing the Hat, Sondheim’s collection of lyrics and commentary, he writes of the Merrily Broadway production: “What we envisioned was a cautionary tale in which actors in their late teens and early twenties would begin disguised as middle-aged sophisticates and gradually become their innocent young selves as the evening progressed. Unfortunately, we got caught in a paradox we should have foreseen: Actors that young, no matter how talented, rarely have the experience or skills to play anything but themselves, and in this case even that caused them difficulties.”
That problem doesn’t arise here. It isn’t discordant to have twenty-ish actors plays people in their 40s because audience members come expecting to see student cast members in their late teens and early twenties. And, unlike Sondheim’s rather disparaging words about the original cast, these young performers are impressive and adroit as they negotiate the getting-younger-as-the-musical-moves-on challenge of Merrily We Roll Along.
Epstein is a standout among the three leads. As the play opens, her character is rather frumpy as a cynical drama critic far too much in her cups. She sheds the weight of world by stages, revealing the joyful young woman she once was. Can this ingénue at the end (1957) be that same hard-edged figure we see in in the first scene in 1976? Epstein makes it compellingly believable.
The play includes several other key characters who figure prominently in Frank’s life. SU junior Danny Harris Kornfeld as Joe Josephson is pitiful at the beginning, begging for a handout. In other scenes, Kornfeld skillfully shows him as a crass power player. Senior Olivia Gjurich is Frank’s ex-wife, who also started out with high hopes but who also suffers the consequences of Frank’s bad decisions. Another victim of Frank’s wrong turns in life is his young son, beautifully portrayed by a Cortland fifth-grader, Seamus Gailor. (Gailor is no theater newbie: He wowed local audiences last year in Syracuse Stage’s Caroline, or Change.)
Sophomore Callie Baker has the showiest (albeit the most thankless) role in Merrily. She plays Gussie Carnegie (a contrived name, if ever there was one), who has parlayed her looks into Broadway stardom. Baker is gorgeous and embodies Gussie with a full measure of bravura. Unfortunately, Carnegie’s character is too much of a cliché. She’s not only blond and buxom but also somewhat of a bimbo. Example: She wants to redecorate her home in the “hues of anemones.” Not only that, she is cruel — making her the transparently obvious villain of the piece. It’s far too easy to blame her as the other characters’ lives get more muddled.
If Gussie Carnegie seems contrived, the entire plot itself seems tired. Haven’t we seen this same story before? A group of small town friends pledge to remain true to each other and not forget their roots. One achieves fame and forgets his or her salt-of-the-earth origins, leaving the “true friends” behind. There have been many variations of this story. One notable one is the tear-jerker film Beaches, with Bette Midler as the star and Barbara Hershey as the forgotten friend. Myriad screenwriters probably owe this story line to the original Merrily We Roll Along — not the 1981 musical but the 1934 non-musical, written by two other Broadway legends: George S. Kaufman and Moss Hart.
Merrily We Roll Along has its place in theatre history: It’s part of Stephen Sondheim’s unparalleled oeuvre. Unfortunately, the songs — with the exception of “Old Friends” — are not among Sondheim’s best. As a musical, Merrily We Roll Along will interest you, but probably not transport you.
SU Drama’s version, however, may be the very best production of a Broadway flop you’re likely to see.
What: Merrily We Roll Along, music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim, book by George Furth, presented by the Syracuse University Drama Department
Where: Storch Theatre, Department of Drama/Syracuse Stage Complex, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse
When: Through October 7
Length: Two and a half hours, one intermission
Ticket: $16 to $18; $8 rush tickets available at the door one hour before curtain. Call 315-443-3275 or http://vpa.syr.edu/drama
Family guide: A mildly risqué dance number
Rarely Done Productions paints a picture perfect ‘Pinkalicious’
The popular children’s musical looks and sounds pretty in pink
By Laurel Saiz
“I love this play!” exclaimed Arielle Sheedy, my seven-year-old technical consultant, at the first performance of Rarely Done Production’s children’s musical, Pinkalicious. The fact that Arielle’s stamp of approval came five minutes before the play began is a testament to the kids-friendly atmosphere the theater is achieving with its newly inaugurated Dormouse Series.
Arielle, her younger sisters and the numerous other children in the audience (mostly girls) could have easily exclaimed “I love this play!” at any point during and after the production. It is a whole package of family fun, as compact and bright as a pink-frosted cupcake.
As discerning theatergoers, Arielle and her sisters Madalyn and Kaylie had different critical impressions of the play. One said her favorite part was when Pinkalicious turned pink. Another said it was when Pinkalicious turned normal again. And — spoiler alert! — another said her favorite part was when Pinkalicious’ brother turned pink.
They might have favorite moments, but the entire show was a positive experience reinforced by the great perks offered by Rarely Done Productions. Before curtain, the children were handed colored construction paper and crayons and invited to draw pictures to be brought backstage for Pinkalicious to admire. After the curtain call, Pinkalicious herself answered questions from adoring fans, posed for pictures and signed autographs. In the lobby were cupcakes by Kathryn Woods and family, and flowers and animal-shaped balloons by C.J. Young.
The musical, with book and lyrics by Elizabeth Kann and Victoria Kann and music by John Gregor, is based on the first of what proved to be a series of successful children’s books by Victoria Kann. Starting with Pinkalicious, the bestselling books now include Purplicious, Silverlicious and Goldilicious. You get the idea.
Pinkalicious Pinkerton, played by (grown-up) actress Sara Weiler, is an adorable, lively “child” who has a preternatural obsession with all things pink. She’s also a little bit naughty — particularly with her bad habit of sneaking into the kitchen to eat more cupcakes. They’re so delicious, and the pink frosting is so enticing.
The child’s mother and father, played by Sarah Elmer and David Witanowski, are hard working, caring adults who are beside themselves when faced with Pinkalicious’ pink-centered habits. Alas, they spend so much time worrying about their daughter they tend to ignore their son, Peter — played by a tall and gangly Jon Basla. Peter himself is hiding a bit of a secret. He, too, has a fondness for the color pink and a palpable fear of catching a football. (Was Jerry Falwell in his waning years as concerned about Peter’s color-orientation as he was about poor, purple Tinky-Winky?)
Rounding out the cast is Ceara Windhausen, who plays both Pinkalicious’ fast-talking friend, Alison, and Dr. Wink, the physician to whom the Pinkertons take their daughter when her pinkness takes a dramatic turn. Not to fear: Dr. Wink knows the cure for the dreaded pinkatitus and is experienced in treating this dreaded (if all-too-rare) malady. The good doctor has already cured one poor soul of this disease and knows that the remedy lies in eating nutritious, vitamin-filled food — all in the hue of green. Guacamole-dipped Brussels sprouts, anyone?
Directed by David Cotter and choreographed by Jodi Bova-Mele, this production is a joyful romp through a variety of musical styles — torch song, blues, and typical Broadway show tunes, to name a few. The numbers are fast-paced and entertaining and the entire cast is consistently diverting. The centerpiece, of course, is Weiler’s performance. She may be the hardest-working local performer in recent months. By day she is a pink-loving, spunky child; by night she is a besotted Manhattan bride (at least in the first weekend’s overlap with Covey Theater Company’s Barefoot in the Park). A couple of months ago, Weiler was a blue, furry monster — or at least her puppet persona was, in the sweetly raunchy Avenue Q.
Weiler is not just pinkatastic. She is just plain fantastic.
What: Pinkalicious, by Elizabeth and Victoria Kann
Who: Rarely Done Productions
Where: Jazz Central Theater, 441 E. Washington St.
When: Sep. 22, 2012
Next: 11 a.m. and 2 p.m. on Sep. 29 and Oct. 6; 2 p.m. and 4 p.m. on Sep. 30 and Oct. 7
Length: Just under one hour, no intermission
Ticket: $10 age five and under; $12 ages six through 12; $15 ages 13 and up. Call 315-546-3224 or http://www.rarelydone.org
Family guide: Family-friendly, preferable for pre-school and primary pupils
Syracuse Stage’s ‘Cry for Peace’ a declamatory chorus of horrific tales too easily ignored
No actors to be found here — just real people recounting real atrocities in a real world far from the comfort of our own
By Barbara Haas
Timothy Bond, artistic director of Syracuse Stage, has often expressed his belief in the community-building power of theater — the belief that when people sitting together in the same space share a response to the same story, fellow-feeling is strengthened.
It’s little wonder then that Bond greatly admires the work of Director Ping Chong, who has gone to communities around the country to create oral-history theater works in which real people, not actors, tell their own stories. Participants have included Native Americans, people with disabilities, children who witnessed civil disorder or domestic violence, and — here in Syracuse three seasons ago in Tales from the Salt City — stories of people from other cultures who have made Central New York their home. “We’re all insular,” Chong said then, “but in the end we come to realize that all humanity is the same. All islands connect under water.”
In Cry for Peace: Voices from the Congo, at Syracuse Stage through September 23, five people share their personal experiences. The three men (Cyprien Mihigo, Emmanuel Ndeze, Kambale Syaghuswa) are from the Congolese community of about 300 people who have found political asylum here in Syracuse from the tribal warfare that has ravaged their country. Beatrice Neema, also from the Congo, is a surrogate for another woman who wanted to share her story but wished not to appear in person. Mona de Vestal, of African-Belgian parentage, has a very different, but related, story to tell.
Syracuse Stage Dramaturg Kyle Bass worked over a period of years with Chong and assistant Sara Zatz to craft a script that combines the personal histories of these five with the underlying history of the plundering by Western nations of their vast, resource-rich country.
Naturally, the stories these people have to tell are pretty horrific. They speak of abandoning family and village to avoid being forced to serve in the army, of running for your life to reach the comparative safety of a neighboring country, of imprisonment, of years in a refugee camp, of atrocities witnessed and suffered — stories that elicited sympathetic gasps from the audience.
It’s kind of a shock, then, when stories of such people whose experiences seem worlds away from our own snug little lives are transposed to our own home town. And how does it feel to be living in America? For a few, the sense of insecurity follows them here. They are separated from family, from village, from all that is familiar. They worry, and with good reason, about those left behind in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They are unwilling to let their tribal identities be known to other Congolese here, and resist the efforts of Cyprien Mihigo to pull the Congolese community together. The most hopeful sign has been that in choosing teammates for a soccer match, they chose the best players rather than members of their own tribe.
Chong allows his five narrators to tell their story simply, seated with their scripts before them in a semi-circle. He evokes the beauty of Africa at peace through occasional songs and projected images. But his way of organizing these people's stories has a curiously alienating effect. All five participate in each other's stories in a declamatory way we used to call choral speaking. They punctuate the narrative with simultaneous clapping and shout out the year together, as if the chronology is what really matters. That works fine for important historical events, such as 1960, when the Congo won independence from Belgium. But is it of prime importance to establish whether the year was 1995 or 1996 when the woman telling her story was gang-raped? Somewhere along the way from lived experience to prepared script, the emotion has vanished from the telling.
The narrators recite the words in their scripts with varying degrees of dramatic flair in a language that doesn't always fall comfortably from their tongues. Because Mona de Vestal speaks so well (she came to America as a youngster), hers is the story that emerges most clearly. Unlike the others, her struggle is within herself, since as a Belgian-African she incorporates both the oppressor and the oppressed. A student at NYU when the bloodshed was at its height in the Congo, Vestal was hurt to see New Yorkers going about their daily lives, oblivious to what was happening in her mother's country.
But then, that’s why all five of these people are willing to share their stories: They want us to know.
What: Cry for Peace: Voices from the Congo, at Syracuse Stage
Where: Archbold Theatre, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse
When: Sep. 15, 2012
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Sep. 20; 8 p.m. Sep. 21; 3 and 8 p.m. Sep. 22 and 2 p.m. Sep. 23
Length: 1 hour and 20 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $20 general public; $15 for subscribers and flex pack holders. Call (315) 443-3275 or visit SyracuseStage.org.
Family guide: Adult themes, disturbing accounts from the Congolese Civil War
Covey Company’s ‘Barefoot in the Park’ keeps the gags fresh — and the laughter continuous
Neil Simon’s classic comedy, while somewhat dated, stands up well in this effervescent ensemble effort directed by Garrett Heater
The Covey Theatre Company’s Barefoot in the Park is a charmingly acted artifact of another era in American theater… and American life.
Barefoot in the Park, Neil Simon’s first huge theatrical success, opened on Broadway in 1963 and ran for more than 1,500 performances, launching the career of Robert Redford in the romantic male lead. It was a successful movie in 1967, starring Redford and pre-Hanoi sex kitten Jane Fonda, and featured the memorable Johnny Mercer and Neil Hefti theme song by the same name.
The romantic comedy is set in 1962 and centers on the first few weeks of married life for Paul and Corie Bratter. Paul is somewhat insufferable and straight-laced. Corie is an effervescent and joyful new bride. They’ve just moved into their first apartment — a small, ill-equipped flat on 48th Street in New York City that’s five flights up (six, if you count the stoop). In his 1998 memoir Rewrites, Simon wrote that every play, comedy or tragedy, has to be about “an event. Like the first time ‘something’ has ever happened.” For Barefoot in the Park, that event is moving into the new apartment — which becomes a comic foil and character in its own right, causing much of the conflict between the protagonists and the ensuing highjinks among the entire ensemble.
Paul, played with deadpan seriousness by J. Allan Orton, is trying to buckle down as a newly hired lawyer, reminding his wife repeatedly that he has a court case to attend in the morning. Corie, played with delightful and sweet aplomb by Sara Weiler, has gone directly from her childhood home to this first apartment as a married woman — with just a six-day honeymoon at the Plaza Hotel in between. She spends every day on the phone calling Paul at work because she’s bored. When he’s home and flees to the bedroom to prepare his case, Corie pleads, “Can’t I come in to watch you?”
Corie’s identity is “Mrs. Paul Bratter” — as she proudly exclaims to Harry Pepper, the Bell Telephone installer played by Bill Hughes. And having “my very own phone!” is a milestone for her. Did Corie go to college? We don’t know. Has she contemplated doing something other than paint all the walls an overly pastel blue? We also don’t know. When Corie’s mother Ethel Banks (hilariously played by Karis Wiggins) comes to visit, we learn that at the ripe old age of 50 she too can’t imagine entering the workforce.
At this point, even if you’ve seen all five seasons of Mad Men, you may want to pinch yourself as a reminder that this really was the norm in the pre-Feminine Mystique era. In 1962, only 30 percent of married women worked. The General Social Survey (GSS), an annual survey of social attitudes among the American public conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, found that as late as 1977 “more than half of respondents felt that mothers working was harmful to children.” Times have changed. Barefoot in the Park may be a Neil Simon classic, but it is dated.
What doesn’t change is that people love to laugh. And like so many Neil Simon plays, this one delivers. With spot-on direction by Covey Artistic Director Garrett Heater and great performances by the entire cast, Barefoot in the Park provides continuous opportunities for raucous laughter.
One of the greatest catalysts for laughter in this play is the aforementioned flight of stairs, which every character treats as if he or she has just climbed all 102 floors of the Empire State Building. One by one, they stagger and wheeze their way through the front door of the apartment, occasionally needing assistance to be pulled in the rest of the way, like dead weight. As a device, this shtick never gets stale at the hands (or perhaps feet) of this strong troupe of comedians.
A lot of the pratfalls are sparked by a second continuing catalyst: the abundance of liquor all are sloshing down. Corie mixes up knock-em-dead cocktails in her ill-equipped apartment with as much frequency as Don Draper in the ad man’s Madison Avenue office. One of the funniest scenes in the entire play follows an evening at an Albanian restaurant on Staten Island (where all have had just a bit too much Ouzo), as Paul at last loses control, flailing and flopping on the couch with his equally impaired mother-in-law — who had compounded things by her copious use of “little pink pills”).
The restaurant (and Ouzo) came recommended by Paul and Corie’s upstairs neighbor, Victor Velasco — a gourmand of indeterminate origin (and accent) who helped the young bride pick out chotskies for the apartment while introducing the group to some rather daring foreign culinary items.
Ed Mastin is superb as Velasco, and his ensuing encounter with Corie’s mom is a highlight. At the beginning of the play, Banks’s role in life appears to be sending Corie daily wedding presents (all carried up the stairs by the Delivery Man, played by Bernard Kaplan — who like the others milked the ordeal for all it’s worth). Velasco proceeds to open up Banks to new realms of experience.
As contrived as parts of the plot to this story may sound, theatergoers should know that there were real newlyweds living in this improbable Manhattan apartment.
Neil Simon adored — truly adored — his first wife Joan Baim, who tragically died of cancer in 1973 after 20 years of marriage. The Rewrites narrative of Simon’s first days of marriage to Baim, a former actress and dancer, reads like a plot summary of Barefoot in the Park. The ridiculously small bedroom was true: “One could open the window by standing on the bed, but opening the small closet on the opposite wall was another matter. What we did was walk across the bed, [and] pull the closet door open about three inches, a major feat in itself.” The same for the large hole in the skylight fourteen feet above, the bain of Paul’s existence in the play: “Unfortunately, this also permitted rain, sleep, and snow to fall gently and otherwise on the sofa, the only good piece of furniture we had.” Despite the holes in the ceiling, telephone booth-sized bathroom and impossible bedroom, they were “gloriously happy” in their cheap, multi-flight walk-up. Their young love is what he remembered, treasured and set down for posterity.
Barefoot in the Park might be a sociological artifact, but it is also the lasting valentine to the true love of a real-life couple. And, yes, Joan did like to walk barefoot in Washington Square Park.
What: Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park, by The Covey Theatre Company
Where: Bevard Theater, John H. Mulroy Civic Center
When: Sep. 14, 2012
Remaining performances: 8 p.m. September 21, 22
Length: Two and a half hours, with two intermissions
Ticket: Purchased at door, $20; purchased online, $21. Call (315) 420-3729 or http://thecoveytheatrecompany.com
Family guide: Nothing objectionable
Always a pleasure to hear this celebrated pianist, but Serkin's overly meditative and contemplative delivery tests the listener's patience
By Kevin Moorehttp://cnycafemomus.com/Kevin_Moore.html
Contrary to the popular view of Beethoven as composer of primarily dramatic and powerful works such as the Eroica, Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, Appassionata Sonata or Coriolan Overture, the predominant character of his piano music is joyous lyricism and expressive beauty. It appears to me that Peter Serkin is by nature a deeply thoughtful, somewhat introverted pianist with an intellectual bent. Especially in a program consisting mostly of works from the composer’s late period, all of this would appear to make the ideal combination of pianist and music. Yet on Thursday evening this was only occasionally true.
Beginning with the Eleven Bagatelles, Op.119 the pianist seemed to impose a concept of pure meditation on the music. Most of these were played softly and slowly — allegretto became andante, andante became adagio, forte became mezzo-forte, piano became pianissimo, etc. The musical flow was so attenuated that the listener was kept at arm’s length from Mr. Serkin’s private meditation. It made me, as well as several younger listeners around me, impatient.
It is true that he played with a wonderful clarity of texture, immaculate pedaling, consistently beautiful tone and beautiful and detailed attention to melodic figuration, but all within an apparently meditative limitation. For my taste in Beethoven, that was a bit frustrating. When Beethoven wrote forte it must mean something comparative. Despite some very beautiful moments, the performance overall simply lacked contrast.
The same limitation applied to the Piano Sonata no.31 in A-flat major, Op.110. This is one of the “eternal verities” of music and there is a tendency to deify the music. That often involves over-doing every little nuance in the name of “expressiveness.” The short second movement Scherzo did have a bit more muscle although the trio was somewhat mangled. That’s no crime, however. All pianists who play this piece, even the greatest ones, have such moments with that perilous passage. In the third movement’s “Sorrowful Song” section there was some beautiful and expressive playing, and again the meditative predominated. Even the final fugue seemed to take forever to develop into that scintillating and joyous ending. Yet by that point it just seemed too little too late.
Serkin’s performance of this work reminded me of a story told by the pianist’s good friend, Richard Goode. Like Serkin, Goode studied with the distinguished Mieczyslaw Horszowski at Curtis. The gist of Goode’s story was that when he first learned the A-flat Sonata he worked exceptionally hard on it and was pleased with the results. He couldn’t wait to hear what Horszowski would say. Goode played the work for him and thought to himself that surely no one had ever played it as emotionally as he. When the playing stopped there was silence for a few moments. Horszowski then walked over to Goode and slowly put his hand on his shoulder. “Richard,” the teacher said quietly, “this sonata is for piano, not for pianist.” Goode said he never forgot that.
The point, of course, is that it’s often too easy and tempting to “gild the lily” and run the risk of overbearing Beethoven’s sometimes very direct message. This is an interpretive choice, and the results of such choices may vary from night to night. Last night I don’t think those choices worked particularly well in these opening works.
On the other hand, the Six Bagatelles, Op.126, which opened the second half of the recital, were a very different story. The word “bagatelle” may translate as “trifle,” but there is certainly nothing trifling about these pieces. And Peter Serkin made the most of these profound pieces with a flowing, natural exposition of pieces that revealed Beethoven’s basic humanity as clearly as anything he had written. Along the journey were some wonderful and vivid contrasts that made the music come alive. I enjoyed it immensely.
The recital ended with the deservedly popular Sonata in E-flat major, Op.81a, subtitled Les Adieux, or Das lebewohl in the German editions. The slow opening of the first movement was serious and touching at the same time, as it should be. However, the allegro seemed eccentric and jagged to me, and the pacing seemed discontinuous as if Serkin was attempting to characterize every little detail. I didn’t find it particularly convincing.
The rest of the sonata was played for all it was worth. The vivacissimamente finale was exactly that — very fast — and captured perfectly the exuberance and joyous character of the work, even if not quite every note (which really doesn’t matter when the music itself comes across so vividly). The pianist complied graciously with an encore, the fast, witty, short and catchy Finale from the Sonata no. 25 in G major, Op.79.
Serkin drew a full house for this recital, with overflow folding chairs all around the outside and in the back of the sanctuary. I was sitting in one of them against the wall on the non-keyboard side. However, the acoustics are such that I could hear perfectly, and honestly — I prefer not to watch pianists: I’d rather listen and not be distracted by the physical details of what they’re doing. I believe it’s more important to hear the music than to see the musician.
The Skaneateles Festival deserves praise for sponsoring Peter Serkin. Events like this are all too rare in Central New York, and despite my interpretive quibbles, hearing such a wonderful and interesting artist play great music is a real pleasure.
What: All-Beethoven recital by pianist Peter Serkin
When: August 23, 2012
Who: Skaneateles Festival
Where: First Presbyterian Church, Skaneateles, NY
The move towards a more eclectic variety of programming, which last season precipitated a change in the festival’s name from the Cooperstown Chamber Music Festival to the Cooperstown Summer Music Festival, reflects the group’s willingness to experiment with expanded musical styles in the hopes of attracting a larger audience with increasingly wider interests.
What: Cooperstown Summer Music Festival
Program: The Horszowski Trio
Where: Otesaga Resort Hotel, 60 Lake St., Cooperstown, NY
When: August 5, 2012, 7:30 p.m.
Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission
Information: call 1(877) 666-7421
Ticket prices: Regular $25, Students (6-18 yrs.) $15
Order tickets by phone: 1(800) 838-3006, open 24/7
Next: Tierney Sutton Band, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, 8/12, Otesaga Resort Hotel, 60 Lake St., Cooperstown, NY
Glimmerglass’s ‘Armide’ a lavish courtship of music and ballet fit for a king
But French Baroque opera is an acquired taste that can tickle your sensibilities — or test your patience
By David Abrams
“It’s good to be the king,” says a smug Mel Brooks famously while dressed as Louis XVI in the 1981 film comedy, History of the World, Part I. But for listeners brought up on a steady diet of da capo and bel canto arias from 18th and 19th-century operas, the seemingly endless drone of récitatifs and airs endemic to 17th-century French Baroque opera may not turn out to be an entirely “royal” experience.
Credit Glimmerglass Festival for staging its first-ever production of an opera from the French Baroque era, in keeping with its mission to produce new and little-known works. Its production of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s last completed opera, Armide (1686), shined impressively both visually and aurally, particularly in its charming choral and dance numbers.
Still, French Baroque opera, like French Vieux Boulogne, is an acquired taste that may take some warming up to. And while Saturday’s audience at the opening premiere of Armide included a large number of enthusiastic champions of the tragédy-lyrique (Lully’s term for opera), there were plenty of empty of seats to be found in the Alice Busch Opera Theater. And more following intermission.
The current production is a joint collaboration with the Toronto-based Opera Atelier, whose co-directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeanette Lajeunesse Zingg directed and choreographed the present Glimmerglass effort, respectively.
The plot, a convoluted story set to a libretto by Phillippe Quinault (after Torquato Tasso's epic poem, Gerusalemme liberata), is set against the backdrop of the early Crusades and centers on two principal characters: the Muslim sorceress-princess, Armide, and the undefeated Christian warrior-knight, Renaud. Although sworn enemies, these two are swept into a stormy relationship that pits love against duty and wisdom.
The often-stagnant drama is livened considerably by frequent divertissements — stylized ballet-dance episodes that were required fare for composers serving the dance-happy French monarchy. Far from superfluous interruptions to the action, these “diversions” were designed to enhance the mission of the actors and actresses.
In his lively and informative pre-concert talk, Pynkoski likened the actors to storytellers and the audience to participants — which was an agreeable arrangement to the aristocratic circles of the absolute monarchy during the reigns of Louis XIV to XIV. Still, ballet-operas found only limited acceptance outside of France, and up until recently were largely ignored by mainstream opera companies.
Opera Atelier is largely responsible for the renewed interest in Armide, and was recently invited to reprise its Toronto performances at the Opera Royal of Versailles. Heading the cast of singer-actresses in those performances was Peggy Kriha Dye as the title character — who is cast in that role for this Glimmerglass production. Dye’s character proved a fireball of unrelenting hate, anger, scorn and frustration. And this after she falls in love.
Dye captured the listener’s attention early on, beginning with the Act One Je ne triomphe pas du plus vaillant de tous, in which she reveals the mighty range of her fury and frustration. And when she sang the dramatic recitative Enfin, il est en ma puissance, as she hovers — dagger in hand — over the sleeping Renaud, one can she how deeply she reaches into the core of the her character’s agonizing ambivalence between feelings of love and hate.
As a singer, Dye’s supple soprano is rich in nuance of expression and she uses her entire body in bringing her troubled character to life — inviting the audience to feel, and not just hear, Armide’s agony.
Still, the character of Armide does not invite any appreciable degree of sympathy. By the time this sorceress gets to her last number, Le perfide Renaud me fuit, I had already lost all patience with the non-stop agonizing and lugubrious self-pity. By the fifth act I seriously contemplated rising from my seat and shouting, “get over it, witch!” Or something to that effect.
As the mighty warrior Renaud, Colin Ainsworth captured the persona of the mighty Crusader who ultimately chooses honor and duty over love and self-indulgence.
Ainsworth has a pleasant tenor that maintains its luster in the higher registers — although on this occasion his voice seemed a bit raspy at times, as if singing through a cold. One of the bright spots of his vocal efforts was the second-act air Plus j’observe ces lieux, an exquisite sicilienne sung as the warrior prepares for a lengthy sleep, that Ainsworth delivered with lavish expression, buoyed by the tender gestures of his hands, arms and body.
Next to Dye, Canadian soprano Meghan Lindsay is the production’s standout singer in the dual role of Sidonie and the Water Nymph. Athough minor characters in this opera, Lindsay’s roles delighted the crowd with her sweet and sinuously expressive vocal delivery, made all the more meaningful through the enhanced movement of her hands — which generally resembled those of a ballerina. The fact that she is a Glimmerglass Young Artists speaks volumes about the depth of this program.
Lindsay was paired with fellow Young Artist Mireille Asselin (in the dual smaller of Phènice and Lucinde) who also possesses a lovely voice, although I wished she had projected a little more strongly early on.
The competing themes of love and hatred in this drama are personified respectively by a winged dancer resembling Cupid (Love) and and a fiery character resembling the Devil (Hatred).
As Love, Rennie proved a first-rate dancer and gifted athlete whose character sports a large (and I imagine somewhat heavy) pair of wings upon his back at all times. When the sorceress Armide places Renaud into a magical state of unconsciousness, Love hovers over the sleeping warrior’s body performing gentle, ceremonial-like hand gestures that looked like an ancient version of a Reiki treatment.
But when fighting the demons unleashed by Love’s nemesis, Hatred, Rennie twisted and turned his way across stage in a series of acrobatic gyrations — charging his body, wings and all, through the crowded troupe of dancers onstage like a bull in china shop. Had he been dancing like this on the Thruway, Rennie would surely have gotten pulled over.
As Hatred, Curtis Sullivan cuts a menacing (if not somewhat campy) figure, standing in front of a “ring of fire” intended to intimidate but looking hardly more menacing than a hoop through which animals jump at the circus.
Aaron Ferguson and Olivier Laguerre, as the goofy pair of knights dispatched to break Armide’s spell over Renaud, provided a much-welcome dose of comic relief to the otherwise solemn dramatic action in the final act. The pair worked well together with respect to the timing and execution of their moves onstage. Still, Young Artist Ferguson’s tentative tenor still has a way to go — as does his French diction.
As Hidraot, João Fernandes (listed in the program as a bass but leaning a bit closer to the timbre of a baritone) began singing slightly under-pitch early in the first act but soon warmed up and delivered a worthy performance as Armide’s nefarious uncle.
The troupe of dancers (which included choreographer Zingg) looked spectacular onstage in their colorful attire and moved about the stage with grace, poise and a finely tuned ensemble of movement. I enjoyed the ballet divertissements at least as much as the singing, and had it not been for this visual phantasmagoria I don’t know if I could have lasted through some two and one-half hours of récitatifs and airs.
The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra, while hardly what may properly be labeled a “period ensemble,” responded willingly to the urging of conductor David Fallis. The instrumentalists faithfully executed the highly stylized writing of the French Baroque — from the over-dotted rhythmic figures of the overture to the deeply ornamented melodic lines figures in the airs, and finally to the fury of the relentless ostinato rhythms during the title character’s angstful Venez, venez, Haine implacable.
Fallis used a wide arsenal of hand motions to mold the sound he wanted from the singers, instrumentalists and chorus, while the continuo (consisting here of harpsichord, cello, bassoon and a pair of theorbos) conducted the lion’s share of the accompanying responsibilities.
The orchestra pit was raised rather high in this production (it’s important to maintain a firm sighting of the singers and dancers in such dramatic works), and this afforded listeners a birds-eye view of Fallis’s shapely cues. His delicate hand gestures in the choral numbers in particular drew some incredibly lovely singing from an ensemble clearly eager to please him.
Since precious little of Lully’s original choreography has survived, Zingg had to fashion a series of stylized Baroque dances that remained faithful to the performance practice and the spirit of late 17th-century France. Her graceful, tasteful and often athletic dance numbers were among the highlights of this performance.
David Moody’s magnificent Glimmerglass Festival Chorus — perched high stage right in the third-tier loft — provided some of the most emotionally convincing and musically engaging moments of this production.
The opulent, multicolored removable pastel flats by set designer Gerard Gauci were visually alluring, resembling something of a cross between the Met’s The Enchanted Island and a Disney fantasy film.
Dora Rust D’Eye’s richly colored costumes channeled all eyes squarely on the dancers during the handsome ballet numbers, although I felt the full-length Renaissance dresses robbed the audience of the opportunity to see what I imagine was some fine legwork on the part of the female dancers. Curiously, Armide wore the identical red gown throughout the entire opera — a decision possibly intended to underscore the sorceress’s unwavering sense of fiery anger and frustration.
Glimmerglass’s production of Armide will either transport you to a time of opulence, elegance and polish — or have you looking impatiently at your watch. But if you agree that it’s good to be the king, you ought to do what Mel Brooks did and see for yourself.
What: Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Armide
When: July 21, 2012
Who: Glimmerglass Festival
Where: Cooperstown, N.Y.
Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission
Call: Glimmerglass Box office: (607) 547-2255
Ticket prices: $26 to $132 weekends; $26 to $112 weekdays
(discounts for students, educators and seniors)
Remaining performances: July: 29m; July 31m; August: 5m, 9, 10, 13m, 18, 23 (m=matinee)
Eric Owens shines in Glimmerglass’s emotionally charged ‘Lost in the Stars’
But Weill and Anderson’s theatrical adaptation of the compelling Alan Paton novel about South Africa in the 1940s gets ‘lost in translation’
By David Rubin
Lost in the Stars, Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s adaptation of Alan Paton’s powerful novel of South Africa in the 1940s (Cry, The Beloved Country) is an unusual work in the history of American musical theater. It is really a stage drama with music, containing only 60 minutes or so in a show of more than two hours’ duration. Weill offers many musical styles to the audience — embracing blues, folk, Tin Pan Alley and occasionally opera. It was written for Broadway. It opened at New York’s Music Box Theater in 1949 and managed a respectable run of 281 performances.
While it is not an opera, it is surely operatic in its demands on the lead character. That character is the black clergyman Stephen Kumalo, a man of such dignity, charity, and nobility that he is, for Weill and Paton, all that is good in the native South African people.
The character of Kumalo delivers many of the important songs in the piece. These include the famous title song in which he fears that his god has left him and his people to wander lost in the stars; his decision to travel to Johannesburg to find his lost son Absalom (Thousands of Miles); and his appeal to his god Tixo for guidance as he struggles to decide how to help Absalom — who has murdered a white man and faces hanging for it (O Tixo, Tixo, Help Me).
It is hard to imagine Lost in the Stars succeeding without a towering Kumalo. In bass-baritone Eric Owens, Glimmerglass has one. While a bit young for the role and not quite world-weary enough (at least as Paton created Kumalo), Owens brings Kumalo to life. His rich, warm, magnificent voice is just right for the clergyman. He projects every word of his songs and considerable dialogue clearly. (Only the songs receive supertitles.)
Owens is also singing Amonasro in Glimmerglass’s Aida this season, and he will be giving a solo recital of music made popular by Billy Eckstein on July 27. Given that he is also a superb Wagnerian (he sang Alberich in the Met’s Ring Cycle), his range is impressive.
Owens is a special artist, with a long career ahead of him. His Kumalo is not to be missed.
The chorus is the second most important character in Lost in the Stars, sometimes commenting on the action as spectators and sometimes interacting with Kumalo as his parishioners. The chorus was particularly persuasive in singing about traveling to Johannesburg (Train to Johannesburg) and reacting to news of the murder (Murder in Parkwold).
Sean Panikkar, with a lithe tenor voice like clear water, was a sympathetic Leader or Narrator. He begins the work with his description of Kumalo’s little rural village and the surrounding countryside (The Hills of Ixopo). Panikkar was a constant welcome presence as he commented on the action.
The role of Absalom’s pregnant girlfriend, Irina, was sung by mezzo Brandy Lynn Hawkins — a member of the Young Artists Program. Hawkins has a voice of warmth and strength. She portrayed Irina as older and wiser than the naïve girl in Paton’s original. As the prostitute Linda, Chrystal Williams was entirely convincing in her song of double entendre, titled Who’ll Buy? Amos Nomnabo was expert in the small role of John Kumalo, Stephen’s sleazy brother. Both Williams and Nomnabo are also in the Young Artists program.
A special place in the pantheon of child singers/actors goes to little Caleb McLaughlin in the role of Alex, the nephew of Stephen Kumalo — who has come to live with him in the countryside. McLaughlin stopped the show late in the second act with Big Mole, ostensibly a child’s song about a big black mole digging ever deeper into the earth. I took it as a song about the lost potential of South Africa’s young black population, but also its resiliency. McLaughlin’s pitch was close to perfect, his diction clear, and his manner beguiling. I laughed and cried at the same time. The audience loved him.
Lost in the Stars is a problematic work for many reasons. Paton’s novel is almost as much about the journey of the white father James Jarvis as it is about Stephen Kumalo. But in Lost, the murdered son of James Jarvis — named Arthur — barely registers as a character, and James Jarvis is a stick figure of a South African white racist. How he eventually overcomes his racism to embrace the native cause and Stephen Kumalo — so moving and credible in Cry, The Beloved Country — is entirely lost in Lost.
Weill and Anderson didn’t even give James Jarvis anything to sing. It is a speaking part, delivered in predictably nasty fashion by Wynn Harmon. Indeed, the only whites permitted to sing are in the chorus. As a result, Jarvis’s embrace of Stephen Kumalo and his parishioners at the very end of the opera are neither sung nor credible. Indeed, it deflates what should have been a moving close to the piece. If ever a plot cried out for a duet between Kumalo and Jarvis, this is it. Weill and Anderson clearly had their reasons for keeping the whites from singing, but those reasons hurt the dramatic potential of Lost in the Stars.
Given the dramaturgical shortcomings of the piece, director Tazewell Thompson did a solid job. Set designer Michael Mitchell presented the audience with a spare wooden box divided into two playing levels separated by a low step. It was filled, as necessary, with tables, chairs, a lamp, and other props. Thompson expertly moved from scene to scene within this simple box, sometimes by dropping wooden slats to separate front from back.
He created some startling stage pictures. Especially noteworthy were the citizens of Johannesburg as they read their newspapers about the murder; and the pregnant Irina surrounded by glowing white sheets — hanging on lines to dry in the breeze — as she sang of her affection for Absalom.
Anthony Salatino provided choreography to heighten the sense of place.
John DeMain conducted the small orchestra (no violins) expertly. He is also conducting The Music Man this summer, so he seems to have become the company’s Broadway maestro.
By bringing back Lost in the Stars and putting its famous title song into context, Glimmerglass has done a service. The audience reacted with great enthusiasm and emotion — not to mention some tears — at the curtain. Now, for the full story of the Kumalo-Jarvis relationship, read the book.
What: Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars
When: July 22, 2012
Who: Glimmerglass Festival
Where: Cooperstown, N.Y.
Time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, with one intermission
Call: Glimmerglass Box office: (607) 547-2255
Ticket prices: $26 to $132 weekends; $26 to $112 weekdays
(discounts for students, educators and seniors)
Remaining performances: July: 28m; July 28; August: 3, 7m, 11, 16, 18m, 20m, 25m (m=matinee)
Glimmerglass’s provocative ‘Aida’ combines great singing, shocking images
No room for elephants or camels on Zambello’s daring geopolitical stage
By David Rubin
Francesca Zambello, the artistic and general director of the Glimmerglass Festival outside Cooperstown, New York, plants her artistic stake in the ground early in her provocative, updated, and often brutal staging of Verdi’s chestnut, Aida.
Immediately following the dying notes of the overture, an enormous explosion rocks the 900-seat auditorium as the audience is plunged into a contemporary Middle East conflict. Soldiers rush in to what looks like the bombed-out shell of a former government palace. Perhaps Sadaam Hussein lived here, or Muammar Gaddafi, or Bashar al-Assad.
Verdi’s Egyptians have become Kalashnikov-toting, combat-boot wearing militiamen or terrorists. Forget the sandals and spears. The chorus in Act One, Scene One, calling for a victorious return from battle against the invaders (Ritorna vincitor) was bloodthirsty and raucous. I expected a CNN journalist to provide a voice-over commentary.
Zambello incorporated other post-9/11 references. In Act One the soldiers studied their laptop computers. In Act Three, in which Aida tricks her beloved Radames into revealing his battle strategy, the action was played in and around a military jeep. In the Judgment Scene in Act Four, Radames refused to answer the charges of treason even though he is being subjected to waterboarding in a most terrifying manner. I doubt I will ever see this scene again divorced from that image of Radames bound to a chair, gagging, feet twitching, as he experienced the sensation of drowning. In the final scene, Radames was injected with a paralyzing nerve drug by his captors, then strapped to a gurney in a vertical position and left to die.
When this opera is set in the historical mist of ancient Egypt it is easy for the audience to ignore the creaky geopolitical overlay and focus instead on the love triangle of the captured Ethiopian princess Aida, the Egyptian military hero Radames with whom she is in love, and the Egyptian princess Amneris, her rival for the affections of Radames.
In this production, however, televised images in our heads of the very real brutality that has been raging for more than a decade in the Middle East limit any American’s interest in this trivial love affair. Who cares about Amneris’s jealousy when Zambello makes the audience recall waterboarding?
She made it even easier to forget the rivalry between Aida and Amneris by dressing them — particularly Amneris — in glamorous gowns that would be appropriate at a $10,000-a-ticket fundraiser at the Temple of Dendur in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Why is a Muslim girl in the middle of a 21st-century war zone in the Middle East dolled up in slinky green, gold, and peach confections, acting like a spoiled party girl? No wonder Radames spit in her face—truly—as she tried to save him from his fate.
And why were Verdi’s ancient Egyptian priests not converted into mullahs with beards and turbans? Why dress them in old-fashioned robes straight out of a 1950s Met production? Why not go all in and dress Aida and Amneris in burqas?
Still, it was a pleasure to be challenged this way by Zambello. The elephants were gone. The triumphal parade was little more than the display of a few prisoners and some looted antiquities.
As one of my Welsh colleagues suggested, the production was a “dog’s breakfast.” Zambello offered too many ideas, many of them not fully worked out. But she did have the audience on the edge of its collective seat wondering what was coming next. Would Dick Cheney show up?
It is quite astounding how young singers can cope with any staging and deliver the vocal goods, and such was the case here. The announced Aida was replaced by the young American soprano Adina Aaron, a product of young artist programs in Santa Fe and Seattle. She has sung Aida extensively abroad at Finland’s Savonlinna Festival, in Marseilles, and in Busseto, Italy (a performance that was televised and recorded). In short, she was not a substitute but rather an Aida of considerable experience.
This showed in her performance, which was engaging on every level. She has a beautiful upper register with the ability to float soft notes and hold them forever. She has the volume to ride over the orchestra, which, under conductor Nader Abbassi, was occasionally overpowering and inconsiderate of the singers.
Aaron is a fine actress, emphasizing the vulnerability of Aida and her inability to cope with the violence around her. She is due to be replaced later in July by the singer originally cast, Michelle Johnson — but Aaron is worth seeing here, or elsewhere.
Radames was performed by the young tenor Noah Stewart. Born and raised in Harlem, Stewart is a product of the Fiorello LaGuardia High School and Juilliard, with additional training as an Adler Fellow at the San Francisco Opera. The opera world is lucky not to have lost him to other musical genres that are a lot more popular with his age group.
Stewart has buckets of talent. His voice has heft and an attractive vibe. He forced a bit on the high notes, and the end of Celesta Aida in the first scene of Act One was too blunt. But most tenors sing it that way. He already seems comfortable on the stage.
He has the physique of an Olympic sprinter, with six-pack abs. Stripped to the waist for the Judgment Scene, he was something to behold. This is by far the biggest vocal and dramatic challenge he has accepted. He made the most of it.
Amonasro was sung by baritone Eric Owens. Those who saw the Met’s recent Das Rheingold will vividly recall him as an Alberich of venomous intensity whose baritone easily plunges to bass depths. However, Owens scaled back his voice for Glimmerglass and blended well with his daughter, Aida. His appeal to her in Act Three to aid her people in exacting revenge on the Egyptians (Rivedrai le foreste imbalsamate) had fatherly intensity and reminded listeners that Aida is more about fathers and daughters (a favorite Verdi theme) than about war in Egypt.
The character of Amneris suffered most in this staging, in part because she was so out of place in her various glamorous gowns. She seemed to have wandered in from some other opera, perhaps Fledermaus. For the role, Zambello selected the young Greek-American mezzo, Daveda Karanas, with whom she had worked in San Francisco in her full Ring cycle in the summer of 2011. There she sang a solid Waltraute, among other Ring roles. Karanas was also an Adler Fellow at San Francisco Opera. (Clearly Zambello is drawing from a specific network of talent in her casting of young singers.)
Karanas’s mezzo is a bit brittle, without the plummy depths of some, but she projects well with considerable volume. She didn’t really command much attention until Act Four in her confrontation with Radames, when she offers to save him if only he will give up Aida. Here she sang with intensity and showed considerable dramatic skills.
Both the High Priest Ramfis (bass Joseph Barron) and the King (bass Philip Gay) were uncommonly well cast, Gay in particular. Both are members of the Glimmerglass Young Artists Program. Both are ready for successful careers.
Another Young Artist, Lenora Green, was cast in the small role of the High Priestess, and she, too, contributed to a performance of great vocal beauty.
At times conductor Abbassi unleashed more sound than I have ever heard from chorus and orchestra in the Alice Busch Opera Theater. Aida is among the grandest of operas ever presented here and an unusual departure for the company. It was exciting, for sure, but as noted above, Abbassi was not always kind to the young singers. Balances were off, with the brass overpowering the strings most of the time. But Abbassi had the measure of the score, which he has conducted often. His tempos made sense, the performance never lagged, and he moved along the final death scene, which can seem endless.
The male chorus in particular deserves special phrase for the delicate control they exhibited in hushed moments, and for the power they unleashed in saluting the Golden Kalashnikov as they headed for battle.
The bombed-out palace, which was either the location for the action or the frame for other scenes, was designed by Lee Savage and worked well enough. Some of the lighting, by Robert Wierzel, was provided by portable spots on tripods lugged on and off by performers.
This Aida suggests what Zambello intends to offer her audience when she programs an opera from the basic canon: highly talented young singers in a production that will strike you either as involving and intelligent, or unnecessarily provocative and unfaithful to the original. While she did not fully work out her modern setting, Zambello deserves credit for some striking stage images, and for assembling a terrific young cast.
What: Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida
When: July 15
Who: Glimmerglass Festival
Where: Cooperstown, N.Y.
Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission
Call: Glimmerglass Box office: (607) 547-2255
Ticket prices: $26 to $132 weekends; $26 to $112 weekdays
(discounts include: 50% students, 30% educators, 10% seniors)
Remaining performances: July: 23m, 27; August: 4, 9, 11m, 14m, 17m (special matinee featuring members of Young Artists program), 17, 25 (m=matinee)
Glimmerglass hits all the right notes in ‘The Music Man’
Singing, dancing and comedic acting all gel nicely in this rare acoustical production of the famed Broadway musical
By David Abrams
Composer Meredith Willson was so worried his listeners might miss words during the briskly paced patter (“talk-song”) sections of The Music Man, he rigged a string of microphones that spanned the entire front floor of the stage. Too bad he never got to hear his Broadway masterpiece in the listener-friendly venue of the Alice Busch Opera Theater — whose strict policy forbidding amplification is something I expect he could have lived with. And rather happily, at that.
The cast of Glimmerglass Festival’s opening-night performance Saturday spoke in strong, booming voices that in the acoustical splendor of this theater came across in crisply articulated syllables that drew attention to Willson’s crafty, mostly-unrhymed lyrics. Between sections of dialog, large ensembles of colorfully outfitted singing-dancing actors and actresses (comprised largely of Glimmerglass Young Artists) sang and danced their way gleefully across the stage and down the aisles.
All in all, this Glimmerglass production directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge was as visually appealing as it was vocally gratifying. And fun from start to finish.
The Music Man is, from soup to nuts, a product of Willson’s own cooking. He wrote the story, lyrics and music, and tinkered with the project for eight years and some 30 revisions. When finished to his liking, the musical comedy became an unqualified success, running for 1,375 performances and winning five Tony Awards including “Best Musical” of 1957 (beating out the mighty West Side Story).
Yet for all its popular appeal, The Music Man contains precious few tunes (notably Seventy-Six Trombones and Till there Was You) capable of lingering in your musical memory long enough to hum back on the trip home from the theater. And in spite of such stand-alone hits as It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, Willson can hardly be considered a tunesmith along the lines of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin or Jule Styne. If he was going to make a hit on Broadway, he would have to find an alternate musical route to get there.
In The Music Man, Willson arrived at a novel technique whereby spoken dialog — delivered in a catchy rhythmic pattern — continues alongside a melodic instrumental accompaniment until the spoken words “catch up” to, and join with, the melody line. This technique is taken to the extreme in the musical’s opening number, Rock Island — a pitchless, spoken-only rhythmic number delivered by travelling salesmen on a moving train that calls for rapid dialog set to relentless 16th-notes that mimic the “chug-a-chug-a” motion of the train. No melody, no pitches, no problem: The era of rappers had begun.
The storyline, set in River City, Iowa in 1912 (shifted in this production to 1946), centers around a slick traveling salesman and inveterate con man, Harold Hill. “Professor” Hill travels from town to town carrying a large suitcase and lots of moxie. He sells musical instruments and marching band uniforms to schoolchildren’s parents under the guise of establishing a “boys band” in their community, but after collecting the money he skips town before they realize he can’t read music. When the “professor” reaches River City he soon falls for the town librarian, Marian — a real music teacher who can see through the scam. Through flattery and praise, Harold endears himself to River City’s students, parents and school board — all of whom begin to shed their drab lives and reinvent themselves into the beautiful images of their dreams. When Marian sees her shy, introverted younger brother come out of his shell after Harold hands him a shiny new cornet, she recognizes that the faux professor who can’t read music somehow brought harmony to River City after all, and decides not to expose him.
Dwayne Croft forged a Harold Hill who is as lovable as he is unctuous. No easy task. Aided by his solid vocal presence and a wardrobe that includes a slick double-breasted suit with spats, Croft is a confidence man who oozes confidence. All eyes are on him when he takes stage, pitching his instruments and sermonizing the crowd about the dangers of the town's new pool table. When Croft sheds his plaid jacket, dons a drum major’s cloak and gets the townspeople marching to Seventy-Six Trombones, the image of the Pied Piper is unmistakable. By the beginning of Act Two, I was ready to buy a used car from this man.
Croft was less credible as the love interest to Marian, principally because his Harold Hill remains a one-dimensional character who cannot switch gears and show any appreciable degree of vulnerability. When at the end of the show he fesses up to the boy Winthrop and admits he’s a liar and a fraud, there’s little indication of contrition or introspection.
There was nothing to doubt about Croft’s singing. His operatic baritone was sufficiently malleable to reshape itself to the demands of Broadway, as he so aptly demonstrated in Ya Got Trouble and Marian Librarian. And his attractive speaking voice was invariably clean and articulate.
As Marian, Elizabeth Futral has a well-trained operatic voice as well, but unlike her male counterpart, the soprano could not muster a stylistic switch from polished to pop. The timbre of Futral’s high register in particular reveals the unmistakable signs of her extensive training, and when she reached for the top register it sometimes sounded as if she were on the verge of switching roles to Violetta in La Traviata.
Beyond the apparent identity crisis, Futral’s soprano is lovely to listen to. I especially enjoyed Till There Was You and her touching duet with Croft at the reprise of Goodnight my Someone. And Futral’s speaking voice, while not perhaps as crisp in diction as the male leads in this production, remained pleasant and intelligible.
The standout minor character in this production was Josh Walden, a gifted singing-dancing comic who played the role of Harold Hill’s accomplice, Marcellus Washburn, to perfection. Waldron’s enthusiastic delivery made for some hilarious sight gags, and his fancy legwork in the dance numbers was a howl. He all but stole the show.
As Marian’s excitable Irish mother Mrs. Paroo, Cindy Gold fashioned a strong-willed character who played matchmaker to Marian and her would-be suitor, Professor Hill. Her duet with Futral in the clever song that spins out of rising perfect-fourths during Amaryllis’s piano lesson (If You Don’t Mind My Saying So) was alone worth the price of admission.
Glimmerglass Young Artist Megan Ort, as the mayor’s older daughter, Zaneeta, catches the eye immediately and stands out from the rest of the ensemble dancers at the school gymnasium during the rousing Seventy-Six Trombones. As an actress, Ort handsomely projects the image of the love-struck teen to fellow student and town prankster Tommy Djilas, played by Allan K. Washington.
The Pick-a-Little Talk-a-Little ladies, cohorts of the mayor’s wife comprising Glimmerglass Young Artists Samantha Korbey, Lisa Williamson, Stephanie Lauricella and Amanda Opuszynski, proved a hilarious assortment of village gossips. When Harold Hill inquires about the town librarian, Marian, they waste little time bending his ear about her shameful promotion of “dirty books,” which turns out to be Chaucer and Balzac — or as the mayor’s wife is fond of pronouncing it, BAAAAL-zac. The five ladies sang with crisply articulated diction that rendered their rapid-fire lines intelligible.
The four ubiquitous school board members who under the spell of the slick professor morphed from a bickering assortment of adversaries to an inseparable barbershop quartet (played in appropriately syrupy fashion by Glimmerglass Young Artists Eric Bowden, Adam Bielamowicz, John David Boehr and Derrell Acon) provided a steady diet of laughs and moans throughout the show. The four devoted singers rehearsed extensively with a barbershop coach to capture the proper cornball demeanor of this type of ensemble, both in vocal technique and in manner of onstage deportment. Still, by the quartet’s final number, Lida Rose, I was fighting the urge to hurl tomatoes at them.
The roles of the children — Amaryllis (Marian’s young piano student, played by Aria Maholchic) and Winthrop (Marian’s lisping younger brother, played by Opie Taylor look-a-like, Henry Wager), boosted the “cuteness factor” of the production considerably. Maholchic played the piano without benefit of a stand-in, while the listeners all but adopted Master Wager after he ignited the crowd in Gary Indiana.
Among the non-singing roles, Jake Gardiner, as the town’s overly pompous Mayor Shinn, drew a steady stream of chuckles from his near-constant state of outrage over the rapidly changing state of affairs in his otherwise sleepy hometown of River City since the arrival of the mysterious newcomer. As the “straight man” in this cornucopia of comedic characters, Gardner spoke in a boisterous, authoritative voice that commanded attention.
Director and Choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s dance numbers were appropriately snappy and extrovert but included more subdued routines as well, such as the quiet soft-shoe in the town library during the crafty Marian the Librarian. “What do you want to take out?” an impatient Marian asks Harold at the checkout desk. “The librarian,” he answers. The most visually appealing dance number came during Shipoopi — the name given to a new dance Professor Hill introduces to the students that in the current production leads to a rousing, cowboy-style square dance.
Dodge’s stage direction included lots of sight gags, and during the singing numbers she invariably kept the background characters in-motion. Her decision to update the action from 1912 to 1946 (in order, she writes, “… to access a closer nostalgia”) nevertheless creates some unintended paradoxes. The year of Hill’s supposed graduation from the (fictitious) Gary Indiana Conservatory, identified several times throughout the show as having occurred in 1905, would have brought the good professor to about 62 years of age — hardly a credible romantic interest to Marian.
James Noone’s clever yet economical mobile sets were ingenious, taking the listeners on a journey through River City that included the town’s main street intersection, train station, school gymnasium, beauty parlor, library, and surrounding farmlands. Changes in location were accomplished by sliding panels left and right and raising backdrops up and down — none of which impeded the action onstage.
Leon Wiebers’s colorful costumes were hardly confined to Dodge’s vision of the 1940s, and often transcended the boundaries of the “swing era” to suggest 1950’s rock and the iconic Mayberry of Andy Griffith fame.
Conductor John DeMain’s mostly vivacious tempos kept pace with the kinetic stage action and kept the tightly knit chorus of townspeople and schoolchildren in-sync with the pit orchestra during larger ensemble numbers such as Seventy-Six Trombones, Wells Fargo Wagon and Shipoopi. A full strength Glimmerglass Festival pit orchestra — a rarity in revivals of Broadway shows — was up to task in Willson’s strongly rhythmic musical score.
Audience reaction to the production was overwhelmingly enthusiastic, and rightly so. I wouldn’t mind seeing it a second time — even if it means buying yet another cornet from Professor Hill.
What: Meredith Willson’s The Music Man
When: July 14
Who: Glimmerglass Festival
Where: Cooperstown, N.Y.
Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission
Call: Glimmerglass Box office: (607) 547-2255
Ticket prices: $26 to $132 weekends; $26 to $112 weekdays
(discounts include: 50% students, 30% educators, 10% seniors)
Remaining performances: July: 20, 24m, 26, 28m, 30m; August: 2, 4m, 6m, 12m, 19m, 24 (m=matinee)
Covey Theatre’s ‘Avenue Q’ a raunchy but endearing production that will have you laughing, blushing
Here’s one “block party” you’re not likely to forget anytime soon
By Laurel Saiz
The most entertaining local address is not Carousel Center Drive, soon to be renamed DestinyUSA Drive. It’s Avenue Q. That’s not a street in a neighborhood in the City of Syracuse or the environs of Onondaga County, but the locale of the hilarious production playing at the Bevard Theatre downtown.
Avenue Q beat out the megahit Wicked for the Best Musical Tony Award in 2004. It also trumped the witches by winning Tony Awards for best book and best original score. This catchy, top-notch production by the Covey Theatre Company, directed by Susan Blumer and Garrett Heater, certainly shows why. Avenue Q is clever and constantly engaging, with an accessible story, laugh-out-loud lines and memorable Broadway songs.
As the poster clearly shows, and most theater fans by now know, Avenue Q is a send-up of every Sesame Street trope—from oversized hand puppets in eye-popping colors to the “educational” videos explaining important learning concepts. It is by turns raunchy and endearing, ribald and touching. Like the 2011 Tony Award winner The Book of Mormon, Avenue Q includes things you never thought you’d see or hear on a musical theatre stage. Like Book of Mormon, it’s both wildly irreverent and sweet to the core.
The heart of the play and of this production are the on-again, off-again couple, Princeton—a recent college graduate with a “useless” bachelor’s degree in English; and Kate Monster—a furry, nicely coiffed substitute kindergarten teacher. They are played by standouts Sara Weiler and Heater (also the Covey’s artistic director). Weiler is just plain adorable and Heater has true stage presence. (Not to keep bringing up Mormon, but Heater would be incredible in the lead role of Elder Kevin Price.)
The denizens of Avenue Q are a mish-mash of eccentrics, including the unemployed comic Brian (played by Josh Mele); Brian’s Japanese-American—not “Oriental”—girlfriend, Christmas Eve (played by Sunny Hernandez); the Cookie Monster-inspired Trekkie Monster (played by Josh Taylor) and the Bert-and-Ernie pairing of Nicky and Rod (Rob Lescarbeau and David Cotter, respectively). When seeing Nicky and Rod’s interaction it certainly makes one wonder how many children asked their parents, “Why are Bert and Ernie always together and why do they sleep in the same bedroom if they’re not brothers?”
The superintendent of the somewhat seedy block of flats is none other than Gary Coleman, down on his luck after the demise of Diff’rent Strokes and selling off all his possessions on eBay to stay afloat. As in the original Broadway production, Gary Coleman is played by a woman—in this case Syracuse’s local treasure, Karin Franklin-King. A Miss Piggy-style temptress Lucie the Slut (played by Jodie Baum) arrives on Avenue Q to shake things up a bit, as she shakes her maracas, so to speak.
The entire cast is uniformly strong and credit must also be given to the supporting puppeteers who ably assist in the portrayal of the puppet and “monster” characters. The puppets’ eyes are fixed, yet their faces impart much nuance of expression merely by a slight angle of the head, posture of the body or position of the hands. At the same time, some puppeteering is not subtle at all. (Have reviewers ever before had to include the disclaimer “graphic puppet sex” as a guide to family viewing?)
Some of the tongue-in-cheek “lessons” depicted in Avenue Q are the reverse of those imparted by The Children’s Television Workshop’s long-running series. If you work hard and do well in school you might just end up unemployed, living on a dead-end street in an outer-borough. Instead of staying home to do your homework, why not have an excessive number of Long Island ice teas? People may not always be supportive and kind, but may relish when you have flopped, engaging in some musical “Schadenfreude.” And instead of a happy Reading Rainbow kind of world, it turns out that “Everybody is a Little Bit Racist,” as another one of the irresistible songs proclaims.
With the downturn in the economy in which college graduates are unemployed and living in less-than-ideal circumstances, it could be that Avenue Q resonates more with audiences today than it did when originally conceived in 2002 by Robert Lopez and Richard Marx as a potential television series. Rather than becoming a hit TV show, it was developed Off-Broadway and shortly moved to Broadway to its well-earned and lasting acclaim.
In Syracuse, the opening night show was sold-out, as was the Saturday, July 14 performance. The Covey Theatre Company webpage posted an additional performance in its two-weekend run, which is likely to be a best seller. With the strength and popularity of this delightful production, it’s too bad that Avenue Q couldn’t be a more extended destination.
What: Avenue Q
When: July 13
Who: The Covey Theatre Company
Where: Bevard Theater, John H. Mulroy Civic Center, Syracuse
Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
Ticket prices: $26. Call (315) 420-3729
Remaining performances: 8 p.m. July 19, 20, 21
Family guide: Graphic puppet sex, strong language
Next: Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, 8 p.m. Sep. 14, 15, 21, 22