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April 6 Syracuse Opera: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess

Syracuse Opera’s ‘Porgy and Bess’ Got Plenty O’ Plenty

The company ends its 2013-14 season on a high note with a staged performance of Gershwin’s theatrical masterpiece 

By David Abrams

Syracuse Opera returned to the grandeur of the 2,117-seat Crouse Hinds Theater Sunday for its 2013-14 season-closing production of an adaptation of Gershwin’s theatrical masterpiece, Porgy and Bess.  (The company’s two earlier chamber-sized productions, The Tragedy of Carmen and Maria de Buenos Aires, were housed at the more intimate Carrier Theater.)  

Proponents of The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess champion the truncated version as a vehicle better suited to live theater, which may be true — although purists are likely to disagree.  But judging from the over-the-top ovation by the near-capacity crowd at curtain call, I’d say this version appears to be perfectly sufficient.  Moreover, Sunday’s performance was, by any measure, an artistic success.

Syracuse Opera had been publicizing this one-time only event (there was no repeat performance) as a “semi-staged” production.  Come curtain time, however, the audience discovered that it ain’t necessarily so.  This performance had the look and feel of a full-blown staged production, complete with costumes and stage action.  If it didn’t capture the substance of Catfish Row, at least it captured its essence — and soul.  Except for the placement of the orchestra at the back half of the stage (instead of in the pit) and a static set that did not change, this was a complete operatic experience.  And a handsome one, at that.

One reason for the success of this production was Syracuse Opera’s decision to engage Hope Clarke, the first African-American to direct and choreograph Porgy and Bess both here and abroad.  Clarke’s directorial touches included enlisting the 44-member Syracuse Opera Chorus as active participants in the musical numbers.  The chorus, well prepared under the direction of Chorus Master Joseph Downing, swayed, danced and waived their arms high into the air during numbers such as Oh, I can’t sit down — at times resembling a revivalist church gathering.   Clarke’s ensemble spirituals and laments were handsomely composed on the stage, and her poignant staging of Robbins’s wake was truly touching.

Another reason for the company’s success was the direction of the singers and instrumentalists by Douglas Kinney Frost.  Conducting the orchestra with his back to the singers, Frost — aided by display screens strategically placed at various parts of the stage — managed to juggle competing forces with no major mishaps.  (It customarily takes a performance or two to work out the kinks.)  Frost had just one shot to get it right — and he did.  

Perhaps the single greatest reason for the production’s success was the quality of the acting and singing.  Ironically, it was the supporting roles that impressed me the most — particularly Michael Redding (Crown), Aundi Marie Moore (Serena), Brittany Walker (Clara) and Jorell Williams (Jake).  The performances by the principals were strong, but uneven.
Laquita Mitchell is no stranger to the role of Bess, having sung (with Eric Owens as Porgy) in the 2009 Francesca Zambello production at San Francisco Opera.  Mitchell looked the part from the moment she took stage — drugged out and slinking across the floor much like the way Maria describes her: a “liquor guzzlin’ slut.

Mitchell was in excellent voice throughout the afternoon, using her darkly tinged soprano to great effect in What you want wid Bess, sung while trying to get out of the clutches of the abusive Crown.  Mitchell’s acting, however, was less persuasive.  She could not project her character’s agonizing ambivalence in choosing between the man who accepts and loves her and Sportin’ Life’s happy dust.

As the proud cripple, Porgy, Gordon Hawkins sang with a hefty baritone that easily projected throughout the large hall.  Like Mitchell, Hawkins had performed the role in a Zambello production (Chicago Lyric Opera, 2008).  He forged a commanding stage presence from his very first entrance and his acting skills were thoroughly convincing.  But Hawkins’s vibrato Sunday was uncomfortably wide — especially when singing in full voice or at the top of his range.  This in turn muddied his words and rendered his diction virtually unintelligible, as was evident in his third act lament, Bess, o where's my Bess.

Victor Ryan Robertson fashioned a suitably flamboyant Sportin’ Life, Catfish Row’s friendly neighborhood drug pusher who presses Bess to come with him to Harlem and live the high life.  Looking especially unctuous in Costume Designer Jodi Luce’s colorful three-piece brown suit (with ample pockets to hold his stash of happy dust), Robertson tickled the crowd with his cunningly innocent revision of Biblical history in It Ain’t Necessarily So.  Robertsons pleasant tenor, though not strong, was always enjoyable.  He was the only singer whose diction remained crystal clear throughout the performance.

Baritone Michael Redding as the villainous Crown gave a standout performance in this production.  The Atlanta native used his entire body to craft a believable character who was both fearless and frightening.  (His menacingly diabolical laugh alone was enough to terrorize the God-fearing denizens of Catfish Row — and the listener.)  Redding’s voice is strong, richly hued and attractive to the ear — as was clear from his cocky number, A red-headed woman and his duet with Mitchell at the conclusion of What you want wid Bess (which for me was the highpoint of this production).  At curtain call, Redding seemed surprised when the resounding applause at his entrance soon turned to boos (the ultimate compliment for a villainous role such as Crown).

Soprano Aundi Marie Moore delivered a strong and commanding vocal effort as Serena.  This is a role Moore knows well, having sung the part at the Virginia Opera and Atlanta Opera, and it showed.  Her superb delivery of the lament My man’s gone now — sung with great depth of feeling at the wake of her character’s husband, Robbins (killed at the hands of Crown during a craps game) — engaged the listener in a true “lump-in-the-throat” moment.

Among the minor roles, Brittany Walker’s Clara delivered the spiritual Summertime in a clean lyric soprano darkened with some pronounced mezzo timbres, although she tended to end her phrases somewhat abruptly.  As the fisherman, Jake, Jorell Williams sang with a strongly defined baritone in the rowing song It take a long pull to get there.  Larry D Hylton, who did double-duty as Serena’s husband Robbins and the Crabman, hammed it up to perfection in the comedic “Vendors Trio.”

As a conductor, Frost found tempos that were mostly on the mark and well-suited to the abilities of the singers.  The effervescent Overture bubbled with joy, and the opera’s signature duet Bess, You Is My Woman came off splendidly.   I was disappointed, however, with his lethargic tempo in the otherwise snappy There's a boat dat's leavin' soon for New York, which all but drained the pizazz out of Sportin’ Life’s splashiest number.

The instrumentalists from Symphoria navigated Gershwin’s demanding musical score with precision and maintained an excellent balance with the singers and chorus at all times. The pernicious xylophone solo at the beginning of the Overture (and several places later on) was played in dazzling fashion by percussionist Ernest Muzquiz.  

Those listeners who entered the theater wondering why an opera in English required projected supertitles soon got their answer.  In DuBose Heyward’s novel, Porgy, from which the libretto is taken, the characters in Catfish Row speak the Gullah dialect (English, with Western and Central Africa inflections) common in South Carolina and other parts of the South.  It’s difficult to follow this dialogue intelligibly without the supertitles, especially when diction is muffled as was the case here.

I’ve long wondered why a work with such a parade of catchy tunes and colorfully orchestrated accompaniments would not have been a hit during the composer’s lifetime.  It wasn’t until 1976 that the full-score version of Porgy and Bess was mounted (by Houston Grand Opera Company), and the work never made it to the Metropolitan Opera stage until 1985 — some 50 years after the opera’s premiere (on Broadway).  

I attended the uncut Houston Grand Opera version on Broadway in 1976, and I can tell you that next to Le Nozze di Figaro, it was the best four hours of musical theater I can remember.  But I don’t mind admitting that I enjoyed this shortened version of Porgy.  Regardless of the size of the hourglass, Gershwin’s tunes still reach the ears from top to bottom.

Details Box:
What: The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess, directed by Hope Clarke
Who: Syracuse Opera
Language: sung in English with projected titles
Manner of performance: Semi-staged (staged action, costumes light scenery)
Where: Crouse Hinds Theater, John H. Mulroy Civic Center, 411 Montgomery St., Syracuse
Performance reviewed: 2 p.m. Sunday, April 6, 2014 (no repeat performances)
Length: About 3 hours and 10 minutes, including intermission

April 4 Syracuse Stage: The Glass Menagerie

Syracuse Stage’s ‘The Glass Menagerie’ returns to the roots, and vision, of the Tennessee Williams classic

But it takes an open mind to reap the rewards of this engaging ‘memory play’

By Malkiel Choseed

Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie opens to a dimly lit stage.  Windows and fire escapes hang suspended in air, creating an illusion that we are peering into the side of an apartment building in 1930s St. Louis.  With the rest of the stage dark, the character of Tom — dressed in the distinct navy blue of a merchant marine — proceeds to address the audience.  

“The play is memory, he tells the audience.  Being a memory play, it is dimly lighted, it is sentimental, it is not realistic.”  

Williams broke from convention with the introduction of this new genre, called “memory play.”  By breaking the fourth wall (the imaginary wall at the front of the stage separating the actors from the audience) and instructing the audience to set aside its expectations, Williams put viewers on notice that this play was unlike others.  Timothy Bond and the Syracuse Stage cast and production team have embraced this unconventionality in The Glass Menagerie, giving a contemporary audience a taste of what Williams had wanted in the play’s original 1944 run.  

To be sure, the “taste” offered by Bond and company might not suit everyone’s palate: Audience members must enter Williams’s world with an open mind if they expect to be rewarded with an engaging and moving theatrical experience.  But if you like Tennessee Williams, you’ll no doubt love this production.

The plot of this American classic is relatively simple.  Amanda Wingfield (Elizabeth Hess) is a domineering, aging southern belle who — like the flowers on her dress — is fading.  Inextricably stuck in the past, Amanda constantly worries about the future of Laura (Adriana Gaviria), her painfully shy and partially disabled daughter who walks with a limp and is described as “crippled.”  Afraid of the outside world, Laura retreats ever further into fantasy, armed with her Victrola and collection of miniature glass figurines in the shape of animals.  Laura’s brother Tom (Joseph Midyett) works to support the family in a warehouse but is a frustrated poet, chaffing at his familial responsibilities.  In an effort to appease his mother and provide a gentleman caller and potential suitor for Laura, Tom invites co-worker and former schoolmate Jim O’Connor (Michael Kirby) to dinner.  

The drama that ensues focuses less on whether Laura can charm Jim and more on the ways in which these characters will or will not come to grips with reality — accepting it, or fleeing even further into fantasy.  This central conflict is complicated by the fact that The Glass Menagerie is explicitly a “memory play.”  As Director Timothy Bond explained in a press release:

With The Glass Menagerie especially, Williams pushed the American theatre in a new and less realistic direction … His [Williams’] original vision for the play called for projections of words and images, elements rarely if ever used in productions of the play, and for the use of music.  For this production, I’ve embraced and have been inspired by Williams’ original vision.
All the production elements — from costumes to lighting to the musical score — work together seamlessly to help Bond achieve this vision.  Scenic Designer William Bloodgood’s highly stylized and starkly beautiful set underscores the premise that the scenes presented are viewed through the lens of memory.  Kate Freer’s attractive projection design also deserves special mention.  At one point, the entire stage (actors included) is washed in images of blue roses — which is visually breathtaking and highlights the poetry, and the symbolism, of Williams’s dialogue.     

The acting is purposefully hyperbolic.  The action is, after all, taking place in the realm of the memory.  To audience members expecting something more concrete, it can be somewhat disconcerting to see characters as exaggerated as this.  To their credit, the actors bring both life and truth to what could easily be reduced to simple caricatures.  Gaviria, Hess, Kirby, and Midyett use their voices in convincing fashion (Midyett’s closing monologue is especially appealing) and use body language in ways that further their characters and the plot.  

The Glass Menagerie is required reading in many high schools and college literature classes, but to see it acted so well adds an important dimension to one’s appreciation of Williams’s classic.  For example, Midyett’s body language, shrinking and growing depending on his proximity to his mother, illustrates his character’s conflicted relationship.  Casting Kirby (who stands almost a full head taller than the other actors) as the gentleman caller also illustrates his “outsized” expectations, both with respect to himself and Amanda Wingfield’s overblown hopes for a man capable of saving Laura.  

Tom and Amanda dominate the first act, and Jim and Laura are given center stage in the second.  Generally speaking, all the actors in this production are excellent.  But Elizabeth Hess steals the show as the over-the-top, borderline histrionic Amanda Wingfield.  Hess’s sweeping graceful gestures, as she figuratively (and sometimes literally) dances across the stage, grab the attention of audience at every turn.   

The strength of the present Syracuse Stage production is that it returns to the roots Tennessee Williams’s original vision.  Bond and his cast and crew combine to make this 70-year-old play as relevant, and moving, as it was in 1944.    

Details Box:

What: The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams 

Who: Syracuse Stage

Where: Archbold Theatre, Syracuse Stage Complex, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse
, NY

Performance reviewed: 8 p.m. Friday, April 4, 2014 (opening night)

Remaining performances: Plays through April 27

Length: About 2 hours and 30 minutes, including 15 minute intermission 

Tickets: $30-$52; $18 children under 18 and SU students; $35 under 40

Call: 315-443-3275 or
Family guide: Appropriate for all ages

Mar. 28 SU Drama: The Good Woman of Setzuan

‘The Good Woman of Setzuan’ a serious exploration of serious issues that never takes itself too seriously

SU Drama’s production provides a rollicking good time — and remains true to Bertolt Brecht’s theatrical vision

By Michael O’Connor

Upon entry into the cozy confines of the Loft Theater on the second floor of the Syracuse Stage/Drama Complex, I was immediately struck by the music being lightly played over the loudspeaker as audience members took their seats.  After a few moments I was pretty sure I was listening to Yat-Kha — a band that mixes heavy metal and hard rock with traditional Tuvan-style “throat singing.”  

The sound was other-worldly and provided a perfect segue to Director Felix Ivanov’s vision of The Good Woman of Setzuan as relevant and up-to-date with contemporary cultural forms — using musical instruments and props to advance Brecht’s ideas about alienation and Epic Theater to the sensibilities of a 21st-century audience.

To Brecht, theater was not an art form to be enjoyed passively.  His goal was to create an explicitly political theatrical form that forced the audience to do the intellectual work required to recognize problems inherent in the structure of the modern world — which to Brecht meant the inequalities and injustices of capitalism.  Yet despite his trenchant political goals and avant-garde theatrical structure, Brecht produced plays that are wonderfully enjoyable as well intellectually challenging.  I was impressed and pleased that the Syracuse Drama’s current production was successful on both counts.   

For Brecht, setting was one of the first steps in this process. These should appear strange and unfamiliar to the audience, which he often accomplishes through settings foreign to his native Germany.  The China presented in his play is not a realistic rendering of any actual place, but rather a foreign space that allows the audience to the see the action and society being presented in a new light.  The current production, which runs through April 13, accomplishes this goal through a mix of set design, costuming and sound design.  

Leanna Barlow’s set was an enigmatic mixture of urban detritus and recognizably far-Eastern iconography.  So too was Kevin O’Connor’s sound, which like the music played at the start of the play captured a mixture of far-eastern gongs, world music styled percussion, Casio keyboard, religious sounding ethereal singing — and rap.  The striking costumes designed by Jess Feder were also a mélange, comprising Chinese silken jackets, Western business suits, theatrical masks and rags.  Taken together, the space created for the play was largely unrecognizable and destabilizing to the audience.  

Brecht felt strongly that actors should remain recognizably separate from the roles they played.  Actors should narrate rather than inhabit their roles.  He did not want the audience to suspend their disbelief and passively consume the play.  Brecht, rather than creating distance between the character and the actor, hoped to keep viewers aware that they were watching a play purposefully constructed for them.  With this goal in mind, the acting was, by and large, marvelous.  

The exaggeratedly athletic acting of Craig Kober (Wong), Seth Landau (Shu Fu), Thomas Countz (the Carpenter) and Melissa Beaird (Nephew and Old Lady) struck a near-perfect pitch.  Their overly expressive body positions, movements and stances struck a balance whereby the audience became hyper-aware of their acting and movements, but never quite able to connect them seamless with their roles.  I was forced to constantly think about how they were representing their characters and what each role might suggest about the world being presented.  Indeed, their gestures provided the audience with insights that would have been inexpressible through words alone.

The lion’s share of praise for this performance belongs to Jesse Roth, who plays the roles of Shen Te and Shui Ta.  As Shen Te, Roth plays the eponymous good woman: a young prostitute that is the only person in Setzuan willing to extend hospitality to a trio of roaming gods.  The gods reward her for this goodness by providing her money to start a tobacco shop.  

Once the shop opens, though, Shen Te’s goodness gets in the way of her success.  She is repeatedly taken advantage of by impoverished locals, her landlord, the man she falls in love with and others.  To protect herself and survive, Shen Te impersonates a fictional cousin: the ruthless businessman, Shui Ta.  Herein lies the core of Brecht’s critique of modern society.  To Brecht, the very structure of society under capitalism makes it impossible to be a good person (or even a complete person in touch with her or his humanity).  

The only way that Shen Te can survive is to split into two separate people — and this requires deft acting.  As Shen Te, Roth presents a sweet and caring character whose capacity to love is virtually boundless.  She knows that her lover Yang Sun (Andrew Garret) is a scoundrel, yet she also realizes it is only through her love for him that she can grab a snippet of joy and human connection.  Roth manages to convey without allowing the audience to fully identify her with her character.  She is able to portray the image of an individual exploited by the cruel systems of the surrounding world (be it the misogyny of Yan Sun, the empty religiosity of the gods or the cruel practices of the business world).  

Once Roth’s character puts on the mask of Shui Ta (her transformation is marked by donning a literal mask), she is transformed into a marker of ruthless and uncaring business.  The body language of her stance becomes domineering, the inflection of her voice becomes powerful and manipulative, and her movements become authoritative and controlling.  Roth seamlessly transitions between these seemingly incompatible roles with aplomb.  

As the action of play pushes toward its conclusion (a trial to decide the fate of Shui Ta), it is punctuated regularly by song, dance and comedic moments.  In typical Brecht-ian fashion, the song breaks give the viewer pause to contemplate the issues presented in the play.  The women’s song (a song about the dangers of love sung by all the female cast members) clearly notes the particular ways in which women are disproportionately disempowered by the structure of the modern world.  This song comes right after Shen Te and Yang Sun have begun their relationship, and provides a still-relevant critique of gender relations in the modern world.  

Near the end of the play the three gods (Adam Segrave, Brian Sandstrom and Sam Odell) perform a song full of empty platitudes.  This provides a vicious critique of the self-serving and clueless religiosity represented by the gods.  This song is especially notable because of the powerful singing voice of Adam Segrave, whose ethereal voice would be welcome in any church choir. The style of the song, coupled with Segrave’s voice, give the critique it renders an even stronger impact.  

It would be easy to assume that this production — with its political critiques, experimental acting and avant-garde staging — would be inaccessible to many, or at the very least, a purely cerebral theatrical experience.  It is, however, anything but that.  

The performance is punctuated by numerous (and uproarious) outbursts of laughter from the audience.  As narrator, Ben Odom delights the audience at the beginning of the play delivering a comical rap version of the typical theater instructions (turn off your electronic devices and note the exits).  After opening the curtain, we see the characters in freeze frame, and — in a brilliant updating of Brecht’s use of multiple forms of media — uses his remote control to “start” the play.  (The remote control will be a repeating gag that is used to great effect throughout the play.)  Odom ends the action of the play by “pausing” it in the middle of a tense crowd scene in the courtroom, thereby forcing the audience to draw their own conclusions.  

SU Drama’s The Good Woman of Setzuan is not without its flaws.  There were several dropped lines and not all the actors appeared comfortable with Brecht’s notion of distancing and estrangement with respect to the acting.  I found myself occasionally thinking that a few of the actors were too seamlessly into their roles.  But these are small quibbles that only briefly detracted from a wonderful theatrical experience.  

For those looking to appreciate this play to the fullest, and better understand Brecht’s ideas about theater, I suggest arriving a few minutes early to read John Whalen’s informative article (“It’s Nor Easy Being Good”) in the printed program.

The Good Woman of Setzuan provides a serious exploration of serious issues that never takes itself too seriously, and I greatly enjoyed watching this play performed so vibrantly in the intimate setting of The Loft.  

It is an experience not to be missed.

Details Box:
What: The Good Woman of Setzuan by Bertolt Brecht
Who: Syracuse University Drama Department
Where: The Loft Theatre, SU Drama Theater Complex, 820 E. Genesee Street, Syracuse

Performance reviewed: 8 p.m. Friday, Mar. 28, 2014 (opening night)
Remaining performances: Plays through April 13
Length: About 2 hours and 30 minutes, including 15 minute intermission
Tickets: $19, $17 Students; call 315-443-3275 or
Family guide: Adult humor, adult situations, adult themes

Mar. 21 Redhouse Theater: Hamlet

Redhouse’s ‘Hamlet,’ set in the 1980s, is relevant, engaging — and fun

But the humor in the company’s unusual setting of Shakespeare’s celebrated tragedy comes at a cost to the play’s raw emotion and pathos

By Malkiel Choseed

What is the difference between tragedy and comedy?  The differences, while meaningful, are not as pronounced as one might think.  In both types of play, a conflict threatens to disrupt the extant social order or status quo.  

In a comedy the conflict is resolved, and the characters and their social bonds, threatened but ultimately safe, are left whole.  (Mr. Roper threatens to kick Jack out of the apartment, but Chrissy and Janet find a way to change his mind before it is too late.)  With Shakespearean comedy, this is often symbolized in a marriage.  In a tragedy the conflict is unresolved, and the individual, family, or society is torn asunder — usually represented by the death of one or more of the main characters.  (Jack sacrifices himself to save Rose as the Titanic sinks.)  

Hamlet is, of course, a tragedy, and as the final curtain falls, four main characters lie dead on the stage with a host of others having been killed onstage and off in earlier scenes.  What happens leading up to the ending, though, is not strictly defined.  Can a comedy have tragic elements?  Can a tragedy have comic elements?  This raises the question: If Hamlet is a tragedy, can it still be funny?  This is the challenge that Director Stephen Svoboda and his cast and crew have taken up in the present Redhouse production.

Even though this version of Hamlet is set in America sometime in the 1980’s (in what is assumed to be the royal palace under construction), it is essentially a faithful version of the celebrated Shakespearean tragedy.  

The dialogue, though the source of the power of the Bard’s plays, can also be a barrier for an audience.  It is up to the actors and director to interpret and make meaningful what could otherwise be a mass of iambic pentameter lines and affected, English accents.  To their credit, the troupe of professional, semi-professional, and community actors in this production has done a good job in this regard.  

While there were a few rough spots which will undoubtedly work themselves out, each of the 22 different actors in the 33 different roles delivered their lines not only in a rhythm and pacing that respected the beauty of the language but — through body language and eye contact — made it intelligible to an audience, as well.

Historically, Hamlet presents several difficulties for a director and company.  How old is Hamlet?  How should one depict Ophelia’s madness?  What is the relationship between Hamlet and Gertrude?   Director Stephen Svoboda has made some interesting choices — some conventional and some not.  For example, Rosencrantz (Marguerite Mitchell) and Guildenstern (Leila Dean), Hamlet’s childhood friends employed by the Claudius to spy on Hamlet, are women.  The women, dressed provocatively, introduce an element of sexuality to Hamlet that is not suggested in the text of the play itself.    

The six principal actors, Adam Perabo as Hamlet, Steve Hayes as Polonius, Rachel Torba-Grage as Gertrude, Nathan Faudree as Claudius, Katie Gibson as Ophelia and Michael Raver as Laertes, are solid in their performances.  Each of them brings intensity, emotion, and humor when it is called for.  Steve Hayes risks stealing the show with his over-the-top portrayal of Polonius, getting laughs from the audience with just a well-timed glance.  In addition to reliable acting, Katie Gibson distinguishes herself with a beautiful singing voice.  

The stage design is interesting in that there is one set throughout the entire play, with small props brought in as necessary to indicate scene changes.  A construction scaffold dominates the stage, providing for a multi-layered scene.  This simple backdrop allows the audience to focus on the actors and their words rather than a set.  The costumes and soundtrack work well and places this production squarely in the 1980s.  From King Claudius’ Miami Vice style clothes to Hamlet’s singing of U2’s With Or Without You to the explicit invocation of John Cusack’s character of Lloyd Dobler in Cameron Crowe’s 1989 Say Anything, this production practically screams the ‘80s.

All of this begs the question, though, as to why set this in the 1980s?  What does it bring to the play?  In the “Director’s Note,” Svoboda writes that he wanted to invoke the angst ridden, alienated teen characters of 1980s films to highlight the maturation process of Hamlet, who is, according to Svoboda, an alienated teen himself — seeking meaning and self-determination in the face of an uncaring system.  

In this he is successful, but there is another, unspoken, element at work here.  While many modern productions ignore the comic elements of Hamlet, Svoboda and his actors succeed in making Hamlet fun.  And in doing so, they also make it relevant and engaging.  

Historically, this is appropriate and true to Shakespeare’s time and intention. We do Shakespeare’s work a disservice by approaching it too seriously, by putting it on a pedestal.  This version certainly does not do that.  The costumes, the soundtrack, the knowing glances and comic pauses, all contribute to this.  This is the first production of Hamlet I have seen that regularly brought out belly laughs and guffaws.  For this, they should be applauded.  

The difficulty with “fun” Hamlet, though, is that when you emphasize the humor and silliness it is hard to swing the pendulum back the other way, and fully engage with the pathos and raw emotion in the play.  It was hard to know when we were being set up for a joke and when we are supposed to take it seriously, or whether Hamlet or Claudius was being sincere or snarky.  True, both these characters consciously assume masks and false personas.  But if drama’s job is to reveal human truth and show the character in some real way, this production falls short.  

Even with this weakness, however, the play is still fun and it works.  The small size of the theatre (just under a 100 seats) helps ensure that an audience member is in for a unique experience.  Even those in the last row are only 5 rows away from the stage.  When Perabo delivers his many monologues, interrogating his own motives and hesitancies, he moves about the stage locking eyes with every audience member for at least a moment or two.  The duel between Hamlet and Laertes in the final scene is done with full-size rapiers and large, athletic movements.  Imagine being in the front row, eye-level, five feet from the action.
Any theatre company that takes on Hamlet has its work cut out for it.  This is an extremely challenging and ambitious play in its own right, and is made more so because of its long history, varied past productions both on stage and screen, and the various cultural associations (both good and bad) it carries with it.  The Redhouse’s most recent staging is an enjoyable and engaging, but ultimately limited, Hamlet.  You’ll leave smiling — which is in itself, perhaps, a reason to go.
Details Box:
What: Shakespeare's Hamlet at the Red House Arts Center

Who: The Red House Arts Center, 201 S. West St., Syracuse 

Performance reviewed: 8 p.m. Friday, Mar. 21, 2014 (opening night)
Remaining performances: Plays through April 5
Length of performance: About 2 hours and 15 minutes, including intermission
Tickets: $30 general admission, $20 Red House members, call (315) 362-2785 or
Family guide: Adult themes, violence

Mar. 15 Met (Live): Werther

The Met’s ‘Werther’ a tasty mix of singing, staging, acting and orchestral splendor

Visual elements in Richard Eyre’s striking production offset Massenet’s melodic shortcomings

By David Rubin

Massenet’s Werther is a soufflé.  If all the ingredients — sets, direction, singing, conducting — are perfectly blended, it will stand up just fine.  But if anything is amiss, it will collapse.

Fortunately all the ingredients were tastily in place in the Met’s new production that featured the overdue house debut of mezzo Sophie Koch as Charlotte and tenor-du-jour Jonas Kaufmann as Werther, all blended by British director Richard Eyre and conductor Alain Altinoglu.

Based on Goethe’s 1774 novel The Sorrows of Young Werther, this is, at heart, a two-character opera.  The melancholy (or simply depressed) poet Werther is besotted by the virtuous Charlotte, who is betrothed to the dull Albert.  Charlotte is quietly passionate about Werther, but she won’t yield to him or to her own desires because she promised her dying mother she would marry Albert.  

Despairing, Werther leaves her, then returns on Christmas Eve, is rejected (after a single passionate kiss), borrows Albert’s pistols, retreats to his garret, and commits suicide.  The distraught Charlotte runs to the garret, arrives too late to save him and, in this production, contemplates using the pistol on herself as the stage lights dim.

All the important action is between these two.  Charlotte’s teenage sister Sophie flits in and out of the opera exhibiting her own crush on Werther and adding some light-hearted relief.  Charlotte’s father, siblings, husband and some townspeople make appearances, but they provide little more than dramatic and musical padding.

It is hard to imagine two performers more persuasive in these roles than Koch and Kaufmann.  Eyre has directed them to accentuate their differences.  She is cool, distant, and manipulative.  He is manic, ardent, and menacing. She is costumed elegantly in late 19th century fashions.  He is, at first, quite proper in a floor-length dark formal coat with a white waistcoat, tie or scarf.  But as his mental state deteriorates, so does the outfit.

Eyre has provided a wealth of directorial touches to keep this melodrama afloat.  Although only married to Albert for three months, Charlotte, in her body language, makes it clear that the relationship is joyless for her.  She sits rigidly near him on a bench, just far enough to signal her emotional distance.  Sophie exhibits her attraction to Werther by rubbing up against him on that same bench, only to see Werther jump away as if stuck by a hatpin.  When Werther shoots himself, great globs of blood not only cover his white blouse, but also splatter the wall behind him and stain the bed coverings.

Special praise goes to Video Designer Wendall K. Harrington for projections that were constantly imaginative.  Flocks of ravens roosted in trees when Charlotte’s mother was buried in a pantomime during the overture.  The snow at the winter burial scene visually melted into a verdant spring filled with images of leafy trees.  When Charlotte and Werther were dancing at a ball between Acts One and Two (which is when they fall in love), projections created the illusion they were whirling around the dance floor.  Charlotte ran through a video of city streets and a snowstorm to reach Werther’s garret.

Equally impressive were the set designs of Rob Howell.  Act One opens outside Charlotte’s house in a lush, pastoral setting complete with little walking bridges and gentle hills.  Act Two is a quaint town square with benches and a shaded table.  Act Three is a dramatic library and music room in Albert’s house, where Charlotte reads Werther’s crazed love letters, and where he confronts her and threatens suicide.  Act Four, Werther’s garret, first appears at the back of the Act Three set as a distant box within the stage picture.  Imperceptibly the garret moves forward and replaces the Act Three set, concentrating the audience’s attention on his suicide in this small space, which is now at the center of the stage.

These visual elements are essential to the audience’s appreciation of this opera because Massenet is no tunesmith.  Just when the action begs for a melody from an Offenbach or Gounod, Massenet fails to deliver.  Yes, there are some celebrated arias — Werther’s Invocation to nature in Act One, his Lied to Ossian in Act Three, Charlotte’s letter scene in Act Three — but even these, to my ears, lack a distinctive melodic profile.  

As critic and musicologist Rodney Milnes writes in The New Grove, Werther is a “through composed conversation piece.”  Massenet is a colorist with the ability to match any mood or action in the orchestral writing.  He provides a river of perfumed music that is always beguiling but hard to remember.  His writing for woodwinds is magical.  The overall tint of the orchestral writing is dark, as befits the subject.  It’s masterful in its way, but faceless.

Without choruses or familiar arias, the opera will only work if the audience is totally invested in the fates of the two main characters — and this the Met production achieved.

Koch and Kaufmann have sung these roles in major houses all over the world.  The music is clearly in their bones, and throats.  

In this run of performances, Koch joined the group of golden age mezzos currently at the Met: Joyce DiDonato, Susan Graham, Stephanie Blythe and others.  She has a voice that easily carries throughout the large auditorium.  She is always on pitch.  The sound is pleasing in all its registers.  She demonstrated enormous volume in her farewell cry to her sister in Act Three, and tenderness in ministering to her younger siblings in Act One.  She was thoroughly convincing in the Act Three letter scene as she re-reads Werther’s desperate pleas and realizes he has settled on suicide.  Emotionally she held herself in reserve (no doubt at Eyre’s urging) until she cradled the dying Werther in Act Four.  She is a tall and handsome woman who acts in a modern style.  No diva antics for her.  She is more an Eboli than a Carmen in temperament.  Her voice may lack the sort of immediately identifiable characteristics of the stentorian Blythe, but Koch is a true artist nonetheless.

At first I thought Kaufmann was too much the heldentenor for the tormented poet, more a Tannhäuser than Werther.  But the Met’s program note makes clear that the role was created in 1892 by Ernest Van Dyck, who also sang Lohengrin and Parsifal.  So Kaufmann’s often ringing and aggressive tone must have been what Massenet wanted.  Kaufmann has a well-controlled head voice to complement his golden top notes.  At times I thought I was listening to a voice that would be more congenial as Samson (in the Saint-Saëns opera) but it worked, particularly in his lengthy demise in Act Four.

(According to both The New York Times and my friends in Syracuse, New York and Portland, Maine who were watching the live HD relay in movie theaters, the audio cut out for seven minutes of Werther’s death scene, causing much annoyance and yielding refunds.  The Met blamed satellite problems.)

Baritone David Bizic was convincing as both a hearty Albert and then an aggrieved Albert, once he suspects his wife still loves Werther.  He managed the transition from one to the other in just a few notes with a hardening of his voice as he willingly gave his pistols to Werther.        

Soprano Lisette Oropesa was a sparkling Sophie, at her best when trying to cheer up her sister with an aria about birds.  Jonathan Summers was a bit underpowered as Charlotte’s widowed father.

Conductor Alain Altinoglu seems to be a natural Massenet conductor.   He kept the perfumed waters rolling, building tension along the way, relaxing where possible, and delivering an emotional conclusion.  The Met Orchestra responded well to his leadership.  He should have a bright future in the house.

This was the last performance of the season for Werther.  Surely the Met will bring it back, and I urge you to see it, even if Kaufmann and Koch do not repeat their roles.  Eyre’s overall conception, Harrington’s projections, and the Met Orchestra’s playing are worth the hefty price of admission.  

Details Box:
What: Werther by Jules Massenet
Who: Metropolitan Opera

When: Saturday matinee, March 15, 2014


Where: Metropolitan Opera House, New York

Time of performance:  About 3 hours and 15 minutes, including intermission

Mar. 7 CNY Playhouse: Death of a Salesman

CNY Playhouse’s ‘Death of a Salesman’ rings up an impressive sale

A handful of gripping performances drill to the core of Arthur Miller’s emotionally draining classic

By David Abrams

It’s getting increasingly difficult to justify the term “community theater” when describing CNY Playhouse productions. 

The area’s newest community theater troupe, which during its modest two-year history has already produced such gritty warhorses as the Jerome Lawrence/Robert Edwin Lee collaboration of Inherit the Wind and the stage version of Quentin Tarantino’s bloody Reservoir Dogs, has now tackled Arthur Miller’s masterpiece of American theater, Death of a Salesman

CNY Playhouse pulled off an artistic coup at Friday’s opening night performance, such as one might have expected from a troupe twice its size and perhaps quadruple its budget.  When this Death of a Salesman ended, the phrase on people
’s lips was not “What happened in Boston, Willy,” but rather “What’s happening at Shoppingtown, Dustin?”

Miller’s play, whose accolades include a Pulitzer Prize and five Tony Awards, chronicles the last 24 hours in the life of Brooklyn-based aging salesman Willy Loman.  Miller takes the audience on a disturbing journey into this troubled man’s life and his disturbed psyche, and then has them watch helplessly as Loman’s dysfunctional household implodes under the weight of the sum total of its failed dreams, busted expectations and unfulfilled promises.  In short, it’s a typical day in Brooklyn.  (I should know, I was born and raised there.)

Although the center of attention rests squarely on Willy Loman and his rollercoaster relationship with his favorite son Biff, Director Kasey McHale shifts a good deal of the weight of this drama upon the shoulders of Willy’s wife, Linda — played in masterful (if not virtuosic) fashion by Kate Huddleston.  Her gripping portrayal as the caring and excessively devoted wife to her loser husband is one of the highlights of this production. 

The role of Linda is largely subordinate to the men in this play.  She serves as the Loman family’s moral compass, yet her purpose here seems more akin to a Greek Chorus from a classical tragedy — explaining her husband’s predicament, recounting his personal odyssey and describing his pain and suffering.  “He's a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him,” Linda reminds her two sons and the audience.  “So attention must be paid.”  

Attention was paid by Friday night’s audience, all right — much of it over Huddleston’s performance. Her transition from the quiet and submissive mother of two to the angry and fiercely protective guardian of her husband’s reputation and dignity was well paced and convincing.

Expectations run high for those brave enough to step into the iconic role of Willy Loman, and Keith Arlington has big shoes to fill including those of Lee J. Cobb (original 1949 Broadway production), George C. Scott, Dustin Hoffman, Rod Steiger, Brian Dennehy and Philip Seymour Hoffman.  To his credit, Arlington crafted a believable and largely convincing character that can stand tall alongside the good ones.

Loman, a 60-year-old sad-sack salesman looking to get a piece of the elusive “American Dream,” personifies those who preach that the journey to riches and success is a lot quicker on the express train than the local.  It’s the familiar Dollar and a Dream pitch, only Loman, perennially high on dreams but low on dollars, stubbornly waits at the platform for a train that has never stopped at his station and never will.  (His train runs not on electric power or coal, but hot air.) 

In Loman’s myopic vision of success, what it takes to get ahead in the world is good looks, likeability and charm.  Talent and ability are much further down the list.  If this seems like a failed model, Loman has yet to learn this.  Nor does he learn from his never-ending loop of repeated mistakes.  Loman stays the course and sticks to the dream even after his company eliminates his salary, leaving the aging salesman helplessly dependent on commissions only.  Worse still, he doubles-down and bets that the same strategy that has failed him miserably will somehow work for his elder son, Biff.  

Using stage mannerisms and vocal inflections that oftentimes reminded me of the grouchy but feisty Lionel Barrymore, Arlington crafted a sympathetic but captivating character whose mere presence on stage — aided by a double-breasted suit that seemed to grow shabbier with each passing minute — made it difficult to take my eyes off him.  And although Arlington occasionally overdid the vocal interjections and word-sighs suggested by Miller (“Oh boy, oh boy”), he conjured up a range of body language and stage deportment that at all times kept his Willy Loman thoroughly in-character.

The real tension in Death of a Salesman centers on the troubled relationship between Willy and Biff — and the denouement of their mighty struggle late in Act Two reached a level of artistic success far beyond expectations.

A good deal of the credit goes to J. Allan Orton, as Biff.  Orton’s character, once a promising high school student athlete on his way to the University of Virginia on a football scholarship, represents the sum of Willy’s hopes, dreams and expectations.  But Biff, though handsome and charismatic, is neither smart nor especially gifted.  When he fails to graduate after flunking math class, he loses his scholarship — and with it, Willy’s dream for his son’s success.  Biff spends his life aimlessly living in the shadows of his father’s unreasonable expectations, leading to bouts of kleptomania.   

The challenge in this role is transitioning from a smothered life full of inadequacy and failure into an awakening that in Act Two will signal acceptance of his own limitations.  Biff’s emancipation begins midway through Act Two (Scene 8), where with great shame and humiliation he recounts to his brother the disastrous job interview and how he stole a pricey fountain pen from his interviewer (a subliminal grasping of a symbol of wealth).  But now, having reached rock bottom, Biff emerges a new man.  He abandons altogether the fantasy of a life built around father’s expectations, and at last accepts himself for who he is.

 “I realized what a ridiculous lie my whole life has been,” he tells his brother Happy prior to his father’s arrival at the restaurant for a dinner intended to celebrate Biff’s successful interview. Now empowered to stand up to Willy, yet torn to pieces by the prospect of extinguishing his father’s last hope for vindication from a failed existence, Orton’s performance crescendos to a tour de force that culminates in the cathartic confrontation with his father in Scene 13.  The floodgates are open at last — Biff denounces Willy as a hypocrite and announces that he will make a clean break from the family. 

When he breaks down and cries, the weight of the world now removed from his shoulders, we cry along with him.   

Another strong performance comes from Bill Lee, as Charley — the Lomans’ next-door neighbor who makes sense as often as Willy makes non-sense.  Though Willy is jealous of Charley (for daring to succeed as a self-employed businessman), Charley is, next to Linda, the only friend Willy has in this world.

Lee fashions a character that is at once credible and genuine.  I especially enjoyed his gripping scene with Arlington in Act 2 (Scene 6), where Charley gives an ungrateful Willy money to pay his overdue insurance payment and offers his now-unemployed friend a job that would not involve travel.  It’s clear that this is Willy’s last chance to save himself, but Willy cannot overcome his jealousy and turns down the offer — and in doing so places the final nail in his coffin.

“…For a salesman, there is no rock bottom to the life,” Charley tells the Loman family at the gravesite during the final Requiem scene.  “He’s a man… riding on a smile and a shoeshine… And then you get yourself a couple of spots on your hat, and you’re finished.”   

As Biff’s younger brother Happy (short for Harold) Loman, Patrick Kelly forged a believable character as the shallow and aimless womanizer who continues to believe his father’s pipe dreams, to the point where he vows to continue the “fight” after Willy has departed this life.  Kelly, who maintained a suave and self-assured manner around the women, projected a look of comfort in this role that never wavered.

The ghostly image of Willy’s well-to-do brother, Ben — who appears as flashbacks in Willy’s memory and vivid imagination — worked beautifully in William Edward White’s all-white three-piece suit illuminated by a white spotlight.  Curiously, White is dressed as a gentleman from New Orleans, and even speaks with a Southern accent (unusual for a character who lived in Alaska and South Africa).  

The smaller roles in this production also clicked, led by Austin Arlington (Keith’s son in real life) as Charley’s son, Bernard; and John Krenrich as Loman’s ungrateful boss, Howard.  Navroz Dabu’s colorful set, comprising images of tall apartment buildings on all sides of the Loman house, is faithful to Miller’s description of the “towering, angular shapes” and adds credence to Willy’s constant complaining that their Brooklyn house is being swallowed by the expanding urban surroundings.

CNY Playhouse’s impressive production of Death of a Salesman will put you through the emotional wringer, just as Arthur Miller had intended when he penned this masterpiece some 65 years ago.  I’d gladly return to Shoppingtown Mall to catch another performance — only it reminds me just a bit too much of Brooklyn…

Details Box:

WhatDeath of a Salesman by Arthur Miller, directed by Kasey McHale 

Who: Central New York Playhouse 


Where: Shoppingtown Mall, Dewitt NY (2nd floor, next to Macy’s)

Performance reviewed: Friday, March 7, 2014 (opening night) 

Remaining performances: Plays through March 22 

Ticket information: Call 315-885-8960 or  

Length:  About 3 hours and 10 minutes, with one intermission

Tickets:  $15 to $20; dinner and show $34.95 (Saturdays only)
Family guide: Adult themes, but suitable for all ages

Mar. 1 Met simulcast: Prince Igor

Borodin’s music triumphs over dramaturgical problems in the Met’s newfangled ‘Prince Igor’

12,500 red poppies can’t be wrong

By David Rubin

The eminent musicologist Richard Taruskin has called Alexander Borodin’s opera Prince Igor a “magnificent farrago.”  The magnificence is in the music: mighty Russian choruses, passionate arias and perfumed orientalism.  The farrago is the story.  Prince Igor is crippled by a libretto as lame as one can imagine.

The Met’s new production of this opera — which had not been seen in this house since December of 1917 — rides on the shoulders of director Dmitri Tcherniakov and conductor Gianandrea Noseda.  They produced a new performing edition of Prince Igor, culling from what Borodin left incomplete at his death as well as from all the editing, arranging and composing undertaken by his colleagues Nicolai Rimsky-Korsakov and Alexander Glazunov.  They finally brought the work to the stage of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg in 1890.  

Tcherniakov and Noseda deserve great credit for allowing Met audiences to hear this absorbing and highly entertaining music.  But if this is the best they could do to fashion a workable dramatic vehicle, then Prince Igor, sadly, will never join the three other Russian operas that have a strong hold on the standard operatic repertoire in the West: Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin and The Queen of Spades, and Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov.

A short recounting of the “plot” of the Tcherniakov-Noseda Prince Igor will make its many shortcomings clear.

Act One, Scene One: Prince Igor, despite the bad omen of a solar eclipse, sets out from his hometown of Putivl in Russia to whip the Polovtsi, who are harassing Russian trade routes.  (I saw this performance when Prince Vladimir Putin invaded Crimea to keep his hold on Ukraine and its gas pipelines.  Some things never change.)

Act One, Scene Two:  Igor has been soundly defeated by Khan Konchak and the Polovtsi.  We see his slaughtered army only in projected videos.  Now a captive of the Khan, Igor wanders bloodied and in confusion through a field of red poppies (12,500 of them), as a modern dance troupe of Polovtsi maidens and young gentlemen frolic among the flowers.  His son Vladimir and the Khan’s daughter fall in love.  Igor refuses to align with the Khan and rejects his offer of mercy.

Act Two, Scene One.  Igor’s wife Yaroslavna waits Penelope-like for his return.  She meets with local women who report that her brother, Prince Galitsky, has abducted a maiden and is behaving very badly in the absence of Igor.

Act Two, Scene Two.  Galitsky and his men, quite drunk, plot to seize power in Igor’s absence.

Act Two, Scene Three.  Bombs lobbed by the invading Polovsti land on the roof of the public building in which Galitsky and his men are carrying on.  The roof collapses in a magical Met stage moment.  Galitsky ends up dead, as do many of the other Russians.  The Russian defeat is complete.

Act Three, Scene One.  Igor makes it back to Putivl without his son, who has married the Khan’s daughter, although the pair does appear in flashback for a splendid trio with Igor.  Igor’s beaten people, rather than turn on him for the failed military leader he is, welcome him back and begin to rebuild their society, board by board (literally).

The dramaturgical problems here are many.  

Tcherniakov has moved the story from 1185 and the mists of the Russian past to the 20th century.  This renders the clash with the Khan and the famous come-hither dancing of the Polovtsi absurd.  

Igor disappears entirely from Act Two.  Throughout the opera he is a cipher, a weak fool, a character impossible for an audience to like.  The Khan himself appears only in the poppy field scene, in which he has one great aria with a low note that puts Sarastro (Die Zauberflöte) to shame.  

Galitsky and Igor’s wife Yaroslavna have little to do in Act One; then they dominate Act Two.  Igor never reconciles with the long-suffering Yaroslavna in Act Three.  Igor’s son and the Khan’s daughter have small parts and barely register as characters. 

The villain Galitsky is the focus in much of Act Two, picking his teeth and strutting about the stage.  But he has only a cameo in Act One and is dead before Act Three.  Why the battered citizens of Putivl would welcome back the disgraced Igor is unclear. 

And so it goes.

Beyond this, the music of Prince Igor — a mix of Russian and Oriental sounds — is well worth experiencing.  (Imagine the choruses and the tint of Boris Godunov, the orientalism of the Polovtsian Dances, Borodin’s Second String Quartet and Second Symphony all mashed together and you will have some idea of the musical riches.)  Noseda chose not to use the famous overture, which may have been written by Glazunov (according to the musicologist Levashov).  But its themes show up often in various arias, duets and trios.  Thus the music is more familiar than one would think.  

These themes from the overture show up in Igor’s aria in the poppy field as he despairs about the catastrophic defeat he has brought on his people.  They also appear in Yaroslavna’s aria at the beginning of Act Three when she believes Igor is dead.  The trio in that act for Igor, his son and his daughter-in-law also contains themes from the overture.

The writing for male chorus is glorious — if you like that sort of thing, which I do.  The Met chorus performed at its usual stellar level.  Chorus Master Donald Palumbo told the HD audience that it was the hardest score his chorus had to master because it includes so much unrepeated text, in Russian.  They had been working on it since the summer.

Galitsky is given a rousing aria similar in rhythm and spirit to Varlaam’s ballad from Boris about Czar Ivan attacking Kazan.  Igor’s wife, Yaroslavna, has a melting lament about her absent husband.  The young lovers in the poppy field have an effective duet.  In Act Three they join in a memorable trio with Igor after which they decide to abandon him and remain with the Polovtsi.

Musically, there is never a really dull moment — although the inspiration is uneven.  How could it not be, given that Borodin worked on the opera between 1869 and 1887 and never had the chance to organize it into a whole by cutting and pruning?

That field of red poppies in Act One was indeed a visual treat, if somewhat problematic as a stage for the Polovtsian dancers.  The rest of the opera, however, was drably set in some sort of public building in Putivl, with benches or food or chairs brought on and off to adapt to the action.  It was as visually dreary as the poppies were vivid.  

Tcherniakov might have spent more time directing his characters.  The grieving Yaroslavna largely poses, arm outstretched, her face a mask.  Igor wanders around in a daze, his face bloody.  Galitsky, as noted, is a stock villain.  While Igor prepares to depart for war, he fusses endlessly with the uniforms and hats of his troops — a tired gesture.

As Igor, Ildar Abdrazakov offered a honeyed baritone without much individual profile.  The Galitsky from high baritone Mikhail Petrenko was on the light side, more vinegar than honey, but he managed to snarl and sing at the same time.  The most impressive male singing came from Stefan Kocan as the Khan.  He has a Fafner-type black bass voice, perfectly suited to the role.  The veteran bass Vladimir Ognovenko (who has a resemblance to Nikita Khrushchev) was a powerful Skula, a traitor to Igor who plots with Galitsky to overthrow the prince.

On the female side, Oksana Dyka was a stoic Yaroslavna, with a rock-solid technique, appealing high notes, and an impressive range.  Anita Rachvelishvili was a beguiling daughter of the Khan, with blue eyes and wild black hair.  She will make a good Carmen — a part for which she has already received acclaim.

All of the smaller parts were delivered with skill by this almost entirely Slavic cast.  

When I read that Met General Manager Peter Gelb was going to ask the company’s unions for cuts in the next contract negotiations because of financial woes, I thought of the 12,500 red poppies and what they must have cost.  I’ll bet the unions took note, too.  

Still, I was glad to have seen them, and even more glad to have heard Borodin’s music.  I would gladly sit through it again, if the Met ever brings it back.

Details Box:

What: Borodin’s Prince Igor, Simulcast Live in HD 

When: Saturday, Mar. 1, 2014


Who: Metropolitan Opera

Time: Approximately 4 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission

Where: Metropolitan Opera House, New York

Next HD Simulcast: Massenet’s Werther, Mar. 15, 2014 at 1 p.m. EST

Feb. 27 Syracuse Stage: Chinglish

‘Chinglish’ parlays cultural misunderstandings into a hilarious theatrical experience

But David Henry Hwang’s cross-cultural comedy, smartly set in this Syracuse Stage production, could have been so much more...

By Michael O’Connor

The difficulty in crafting translations extends far beyond merely substituting a word from one language with a corresponding word from another.  Translations require knowledge of the entire context: communicative, textual, as well as cultural and historical.  While this is complex and difficult enough when one is merely translating street signs, it becomes significantly more challenging when one is trying to translate ideas, intentions, emotions, actions and practices.  

It is this difficulty of communicating across differences that stands at the center of David Henry Hwang’s bi-lingual play, ChinglishThe current Syracuse Stage production yields a highly enjoyable comedy with wonderful humor that never quite manages to fully translate the experiences it explores.  

In the play’s primary plot, American businessman Daniel Cavanaugh (Peter O’Connor) is in China trying to revive his family business (and his own disgraced career) by selling his services to not only produce Chinese signs but also properly translate them into English.

Cavanaugh engages the services of self-proclaimed business consultant and translator Peter Timms (Jeff Locker), a man who has exaggerated the scope of his experience.  Together, the two attempt to navigate the serpentine path of conducting business in China — a place that not only has few formal rules and significant corruption, but also relies upon numerous unwritten codes of behavior.  While Peter’s knowledge of convention and the language is impeccable, we quickly learn that he lacks any real business sense.  Moreover, what limited expertise he does posses is seriously outdated now that China has transformed herself into a global market player.  

Chinglish gets going in earnest when Cavanaugh and Timms meet with local government officials Cai Guoliang (Jian Xin) and Xi Yan (Tina Chillip).  The events from this meeting culminate in an extramarital affair between Cavanaugh and Yan, Guoliang’s complete loss of status, and Cavanaugh’s revelation of his own insignificance.  

These events occur at a breakneck pace throughout the play.  One of the most impressive aspects of the present production is Stage Manager Laura Jane Collins’s orchestration of the many complex set arrangements that accompany the 17 scene changes over the course of the play.  This is accomplished by a fairly simple set wherein a sense of place is created through the use of a few key pieces of furniture that could quickly be carried on and off a relatively bare stage. Credit Scenic Designer Timothy Mackabee with constructing the set that allows for these quick changes without disrupting the play’s flow.  

The set’s most remarkable feature is the use of a blank section of the wall above the stage for English translation projections of the lines spoken in Mandarin Chinese. (This feature allows English-speaking audiences to follow along a play whose dialogue is half English and half Mandarin.)  The projected text provides the vast majority of humor in this play, as the audience hears the lines spoken in English while seeing English translations of the Mandarin mistranslations provided by governmental translators.  The results are often hilarious.  

These misunderstandings also raise larger questions about human relationships.  During the love scenes with Cavanaugh, Yan’s inner thoughts (spoken in Mandarin so her lover will not understand them) are projected for the benefit of the audience.  The result here is not hilarity, but recognition that despite their physical attraction and real affection Yan and Cavanaugh are unable to connect and understand one-another. 

The poignancy of this barrier to communication and connection is further developed as O’Connor and Chillip display believable chemistry and intimacy as their characters develop into lovers battling the inevitable language and cultural barriers.  The pair’s thoughts, as revealed to the audience through projected translations, belie any appearance of a transcendent human connection.  It is hardly surprising, then, that their conflicting cultural assumptions soon bring the affair to a screeching halt.  

While O’Connor and Chillip connected well during their scenes together, there were a few moments that were not entirely satisfying.  Chillip’s role is especially challenging, as it requires her to speak in a heavily accented English replete with atypical sentence construction and word choices.  This she managed admirably, conveying the intelligence and wit of her character in spite of the language barrier.  Her accent however occasionally morphed into a more typically American accent and inflections. While it did not occur enough to detract significantly from the performance, it was nevertheless noticeable and a bit distracting.

O’Connor never really exuded the business acumen and interpersonal skills one might reasonably expect from a businessman of his character's considerable experience. When we learn Cavanaugh’s backstory as a part of the infamous Enron scandal, the thought of a small town businessman overwhelmed by the situation in which he finds himself rings a bit false.  

I had the exact opposite experience upon learning the backstory of Jeff Locker’s character, Peter Timms.  Locker was immediately more believable, and his portrayal had a greater sense of nuance.

Near the end of the play, Locker has a brilliant scene with Guoliang.  While the two bemoan the loss of their China (in pre-market reform), Locker’s portrayal clearly shows his character’s anger with Guoliang beginning to shift into a desire for acceptance within China.  The audience can now see the similarity between the positions of Timms and Guoliang: Both love China, but China has no longer has any need for them — a point driven home by Guoliang’s suggestion that they are each like the workers whose bodies became incorporated in the great wall when they died building it.  

In spite of their growing camaraderie, Guoliang and Timms remain somewhat stilted in their interactions when they recognize that they are becoming obsolete. While this is no happy ending for either of these men, they are nevertheless able to salvage some sense of dignity through their human connection with one-another.

As the play came to an end I found myself wishing there had been more scenes like the one between Timms and Guoliang.  The strength of their connection provided the viewer a window into the complex issue of human relationships that cross barriers, either linguistic or cultural. Their final scene lingered on the human experience of that disconnect, and did not shy away from the pain and heartache of that experience.

The problem with Chinglish is that the pervasive feeling of dislocation and cultural misunderstanding too often culminates in a punch line.  The play opens up important and interesting questions about the experience of cultural differences in a globalized world, yet it seems to actively discourage any attempt for a nuanced connection with that experience. 

The break-up of Yan and Cavanaugh due to the inevitable cultural misunderstandings is never really explored.  Instead, the play concludes with a three-year jump into the future, where we learn that Cavanaugh and his wife have reconciled and visit China regularly even staying with Chillip and her husband. As such, the issues explored by the play are given a hollow resolution (and a trite, happy ending) without any real exploration of how such a conclusion is possible.

That leaves the viewer to enjoy the play only as escape and spectacle — a shame, because Chinglish could have been so much more.


WhatChinglish, by David Henry Hwang, directed by May Adrales

Who: Syracuse Stage
Where:  Archbold Theatre, Syracuse Stage Complex, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse
, NY
Performance reviewed: Thursday, February 27 (final dress rehearsal)
Performance run:  Plays through March 16
Length:  About 1 hour and 50 minutes, with one intermission

Tickets:  $30-$52; $18 children under 18 and SU students; $35 under 40
Call: 315-443-3275 or 

Family guide:  adult situations, profanity

Feb. 21 SU Drama: Speed the Plow

SU Drama’s ‘Speed the Plow’ takes the audience on a rollicking ride through frenetically paced dialogue

Despite some unevenness, SU Drama’s mounting of David Mamet’s satire of Hollywood comes off as timely and relevant as its 1988 debut

By Michael O’Connor

On the surface, Speed the Plow appears to explore the incompatibility of art and commerce. But much like the façade of naiveté worn by the play’s temporary secretary Karen and the callous exterior of the Hollywood executive Bobby Gould, something more complex is lurking beneath the surface.  The present SU Drama production of David Mamet’s satire on Hollywood forges a credible exploration of power, performance and masculinity within the interpersonal and professional relationships of two men.  

Mamet’s play centers on a long-term friendship and professional relationship between newly promoted Hollywood executive Bobby Gould (Alex Thompson) and his coattail-riding underling Charlie Fox (Tyler Wiseman).  Their long history and close relationship is evidenced by the comfortable banter they engage in throughout the first scene, as an ebullient Fox arrives at Gould’s office to tell him that actor Doug Brown is interested in directing one of Fox’s film scripts.  

The film, a prison/buddy story described with a formulaic mish mash of big budget cinema tropes and no coherent storyline, is paired against The Bridge: or Radiation and the Half-life of Society — an art house project from an “eastern sissy writer” for which Gould has agreed to a courtesy read (meaning he has no intention of producing it).  The choice between these two projects boils down to a choice between artistic worth verses commercial viability.  

The play is at its best during the scenes between Thompson and Wiseman. The action and motion of the play are provided by frenetically paced and expletive-laced dialogue between these two men, who frequently cut each other off mid-sentence — all we have come to expect and love from a Mamet play.  Their conversation has the rhythm and cadences of everyday speech, heightened to fevered pitch by Fox’s cocaine-fueled excitement and Gould’s macho bravado.

Wiseman’s Fox captures his character’s excitement, greed and lust for power while subtly noting the real affection he feels for his counterpart.  And Thompson’s Gould performs a masculine sense of privilege to mask underlying fears of inadequacy subtly asserting his power over Fox through a locker-room camaraderie that is only possible between close male friends.

Codes of hyper masculinity make it impossible for the two to show their genuine affection for each other, so they resort instead to sexualized (and often misogynistic and homophobic) repartee.  When the two eventually come to blows over the course of power shifts within the relationship, the battle has impact precisely because the relationship and history displayed in this scene transcends the surface-level discussion of crass commercialism and Hollywood power.  

Scenic designer Alex Peterson heightens the play’s motifs of male bonding, sexual innuendo and masculine privilege through a masterful use of set construction.  

Throughout this scene the left side of the stage is dominated by a sepia screen that acts as a room divider between Gould’s office and that of his temporary secretary Karen (sensuously played by Hannah Daly).  By backlighting Daly the audience sees a clearly defined shadow of Karen pantomiming the stereotypical actions of the sexualized secretary.  She puts on make-up, thumbs slowly through a book, leans forward and arches back like a shadow play of a scene from the hit TV show Mad Men — a cultural reference further heightened by costume designer Alexander Koziara’s use of a short tight skirt and high stiletto heels.  

All these actions are performed at a slow, exaggerated pace that renders even the most prosaic actions sexually suggestive.  Rather than providing a counterpoint to the testoserone-charged banter between Gould and Fox, this shadow is the absent presence of sexualized femininity that undergirds their conversation.  When Daly steps out onto the stage near the end of the first scene, she has already been cast as an icon of female sexuality.  We are not surprised, then, when Gould bets Fox he will succeed in seducing her.

The wager sets in motion not only the conflict between Gould and Fox, but the development of Karen from a symbol into a character (though tellingly her lack of a last name suggests she will never fully reach this individuation.)  In the second scene Karen takes the sexual initiative and turns the tables on Gould both professionally and personally.  She plays on his fears of inadequacy until he agrees at last to produce the art house project instead of the surefire Hollywood blockbuster.  As the third scene plays out we find Gould torn not just between Karen and Charlie (and related feelings of loyalty and love) but also between the desire for artistic and commercial success.  Along with heightened self worth and social power.  

The field on which the two principal characters struggle is one already determined by the codes of masculinity used to interact with one other. That the climactic violence and ensuing revelations bring about only a reversal of individual power and a reassertion of the underlying structure is hardly surprising.  Though Fox describes Gould as the titular turtle from Dr. Seuss’s Yertle the Turtle, Mamet’s Speed the Plow ends with a mere substitution of turtles at the top — not a toppling of the tower.  Turtles will, it appears, continue to be turtles.  

While admirable in many ways, this SU Drama production feels a bit unfinished and unpolished. Though Wiseman’s Charlie Fox was the most engaging and nuanced performance of the production, his fidgeting and pacing throughout the play was over-the-top and distracting.  Throughout the nervous excitement and cocaine-fueled energy, this was a young actor still honing his craft and learning how to move about the stage.  

The role of Bobby Gould requires a more understated performance than that of Charlie Fox, and when paired with Wiseman, Thompson did a fine job as Gould — holding up his end of the verbal sparring and delivering his lines with the speed necessary to drive the momentum of the play.  When Wiseman was not on stage, however, Thompson was required to shoulder more of the burden of the drama and his portrayal sagged.  (Scene two, the only scene without Wiseman, was noticeably less engaging than scenes one and three.)  

The production also had difficulty in transitioning Karen from a symbol to an actual character.  Though Daly’s portrayal captures symbolic sensuality in the first scene, it does not translate convincingly to Karen’s emergence as an individual.  This difficulty was partly due to direction and partly due to portrayal.  Daly’s performance is torn between representing the male sexual fantasy of a secretary and representing a fully developed person with her own agenda and agency.

On multiple occasions, Karen professes naiveté.  But this professed innocence belies her image as a sexual symbol, both behind the screen and when out from behind it.  The coquettish body language Daly employs as she performs her duties of secretary is too stylized for her claimed cluelessness about the workings of the world, and the costume she wears is overly sexualized for the ingénue she supposedly portrays.  As a result, her transition to sexual aggressor appears less than surprising, and the revelation that she was manipulating Gould lacked all credibility.  

Perhaps the least convincing moment in the production is the fistfight in Scene Three.  The physical altercation as Charlie challenges Bobby’s power, which this production chose to portray as a fistfight, involved a stage punch that was poorly executed, thus spoiling the power of the moment.  A less difficult to choreograph fight might not have been as spectacular, but would have been far easier to execute.   

As the production moves through its run I expect many of these issues will be resolved.  But even as it stands now, this SU Drama effort keeps the audience entertained and excited through its use of biting humor and verbal gymnastics.  The biggest surprise to me though was how timely and current the play felt.  This contemporary feel to Speed the Plow lies not in its critique of Hollywood’s vacuity, which has become a well-traveled road in the 25 years since this play debuted, but in the play’s careful dissection of the coded interpersonal interactions between the two men.   

Despite the need for a bit more polish, Syracuse University Drama’s Speed the Plow is a rollicking ride that remains meaningful and relevant to contemporary audiences.   

Details Box:
WhatSpeed the Plow by David Mamet, directed by Rob Bundy

Who: Syracuse University Drama Department 

Where: Arthur Storch Theater/SU Drama Theater Complex, 820 E. Genesee Street, Syracuse

When:  February 21, 2014

Remaining performances
: Through March 2

Length:  About 2 hours and 5 minutes, with one intermission

Tickets: $19 ($17 students)
Call 315-443-3275 or
Family guide:  Adult themes, frequent profanity

Commentary: Single-gender productions of Shakespeare

Shakespeare on Stage: Separating the women from the men, and the men from the boys

Is there any merit to todays popular and trendy all-men and all-women Shakespeare productions?

By Wayne Myers

As the Globe’s Twelfth Night/Richard III double bill ends its Broadway run later this month, I’d like to congratulate the Globe and Mark Rylance, who plays Olivia in Twelfth Night and Richard of Gloucester in Richard III, for two things.

First, for doing what I never dreamed was possible — turning William Shakespeare into Neil Simon. And second, for the 54 year-old Rylance inspiring male actors in their 50s everywhere who always wanted to play female Shakespeare characters in their 20s or younger.

Personally, I think I’d make a terrific Ophelia. Just slap some breasts on me, and I’m “Globe-ready.” But I don’t expect for a minute that audiences and critics would love my Ophelia more than that of, say, Pippa Nixon or Mariah Gale.

No other playwright’s works have been routinely subjected to such banal and bizarre permutations than those of Shakespeare. Now the Globe’s Broadway success — with all-too-easy-to-please audiences — has set the stage for American and Canadian theater companies to mount all-men Shakespeare productions of their own.

Many stateside companies have long looked to the British stage for the best examples of Shakespeare production, from companies such as the National Theatre, the Royal Shakespeare Company, the Globe, the Donmar Warehouse, Theatre Royal Bath and Dundee Rep.  But the all-men Shakespeare production is one example that should not be followed.

If I think (and I don’t want to give Broadway producers any more ideas here) it would be ridiculous for grown men to play Blanche DuBois in Tennessee Williams’s A Streetcar Named Desire and Maggie and Big Mama in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, why would I make an exception for Shakespeare’s women such as Tamora in Titus Andronicus, Titania in A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Queen Margaret in Henry VI, Part 1, 2 and 3?

I did happen to see a man play Queen Margaret in Edward Hall’s slaughterhouse-set Rose Rage, his adaptation of the Henry VI plays, with an all-men Chicago Shakespeare Theater cast at the Duke on 42nd Street, in October 2004. It was a riveting production, just as it was when the all-men Propeller Theatre Company premiered it in London in 2002. But I found a man in the role of Margaret persistently jarring. And I didn’t really think anything was gained by it. Lost instead was something greater — Shakespeare’s “she-wolf of France,” in full battle gear, castrating, disemboweling and beheading the Duke of York after the disastrous Yorkist defeat at Wakefield.

In the Globe’s Richard III, a grown man plays Anne, whom Richard brazenly seduces over the corpse of her father-in-law King Henry VI, whom Richard murdered. But I can’t imagine that any man as Anne could produce something as sexually-searing as Antony Sher’s Richard poking his crutch between Penny Downie’s Anne’s legs in the 1984 Royal Shakespeare Company production.

The Shakespeare landscape has been altered. At no other time in the more than 400-year history of Shakespeare performance has gender been as diffuse and as liberally flipped as it has since Shakespeare created Julia, Portia, Rosalind and Viola — with boy actors in the roles. Today men are cross-cast as Shakespeare’s women and women are cross-cast as Shakespeare’s men.

Sometimes the genders of the characters are changed. In Julie Taymor’s 2010 film adaptation of The Tempest, Prospero became “Prospera,” with Helen Mirren. In the Philadelphia-based Curio Theatre Company’s fall 2013 production of Romeo and Juliet, Romeo was a teenage girl in a same-sex relationship with Juliet. More and more, directors of Twelfth Night, or What You Will are changing the character of Antonio to “Antonia,” a woman of action, significantly altering the Sebastian-Antonio relationship. I know it may be fun for some to see a woman as a swash-buckling pirate taking on men. But is it Shakespeare?

What this says about the gender-swapping issue is that while it may be fine to alter a character’s gender, it has to be carefully worked out so as not to create a character Shakespeare never wrote.

This current peculiar British predilection for the all-men Shakespeare production had its roots in Cheek by Jowl’s 1991 all-men production of As You Like It. Edward Hall’s all-men Propeller Theatre Company launched in 1997 with a production of Henry V. (There was not a corresponding rise of the all-women Shakespeare production in the United Kingdom, which I will get to.)

A neat term to capture elements of early Shakespeare production and to legitimize, or rationalize, the all-men cast trend was coined —“original practices,” so chosen since no claim to authenticity could ever be made as to how things were precisely done on the Elizabethan stage, only approximations.

Only the all-men production is not an approximation of how Shakespeare’s plays were performed in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras — not even close. Those who stage all-men productions tend to talk around this fact. But it’s lazy critics and bloggers who continue to spread this distortion of “that’s how it was done in Shakespeare’s day” that do the real damage.

So let’s call the all-men Shakespeare production and the all-women Shakespeare production what they really are: late 20th century trends that are now more popular than ever.

I can understand women wanting to do more Shakespeare, given the paucity of roles for them — even fewer, as men appropriate the female roles (opportunities for women to play seven female characters were lost to men in the Globe double bill) in an increasing number of productions. The Los Angeles Women’s Shakespeare Company and Hawaii Shakespeare Festival have been staging all-women Shakespeare productions for years, and the Butterfield 8 Theatre Company in 2011 gave audiences not only an all-men Twelfth Night but an all-female one too, with alternating casts. But it was the Phyllida Lloyd-directed all-women Julius Caesar the Donmar Warehouse brought to St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn in late 2013 that grabbed wide-spread attention — simply, I suspect, because it was a U.K. theater doing it.

Expect to see more all-female productions in the United States and Canada. (Indeed, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival will stage an all-female Two Gentlemen of Verona in June).

Theater companies like Propeller uniformly stage all-men productions, while the Globe only does so sporadically. In the United States, the American Shakespeare Center in Staunton, Va., is committed to original practices, but — and this says a lot — does not stage all-men productions (although it does cross-cast both men’s and women’s roles).

The Globe, meanwhile, has missed a genuine original practices opportunity to use boy actors age 18 to 22, which is really how it was done in Shakespeare’s day, by choosing instead to go with commercially viable burlesque with grown men in the Twelfth Night and Richard III women’s roles.

In his 2005 Shakespeare Survey, Volume 58, article titled How Old Were Shakespeare’s Boy Actors? David Kathman concluded that “until the early 1660s, female roles on the English stage (including the most demanding, complex parts) were played by adolescent boys, no younger than twelve and no older than twenty-one or twenty-two, with a median of around sixteen or seventeen,” and not the children eight to 12 years old that some critics have wrongly assumed they were.

Critically, the age range of boy actors also would have corresponded to the age range of the majority of Shakespeare’s female characters such as Rosalind, Celia, Phebe, and Audrey in As You Like It.

How might boy actors in the roles of Viola, Olivia and Maria have informed Twelfth Night, or What You Will on the Elizabethan and Jacobean stage? For boy actors playing Viola and Olivia, their actual ages would have fallen into what I believe are the true age range of these Twelfth Night characters — 16- to 21-years-old. The cast of characters, in fact, is nearly uniformly young, giving special emphasis to the warning Shakespeare has Feste deliver with the line “Youth’s a stuff will not endure.” This was too true in Elizabethan London, where the average life expectancy of a well-off Londoner was 30-35, while poor Londoners could expect to live between 18 to 20 years.

The plague was a constant threat, with major outbreaks occurring in 1563, the year before Shakespeare was born, 1593, and 1603. Brothels filled London’s Bankside, where the Globe Theatre was located, and venereal diseases were rampant. The Thames was both the city’s sewer and water supply. Shakespeare worked graphic references to the many dreaded aspects of daily life in London into his plays. In King Lear, Lear compares being the father of Goneril to having the plague: “Thou art a bile, a plague-sore or embossed carbuncle, in my corrupted blood,” he rages at her. At the end of Troilus and Cressida, Pandarus promises to infect the audience with his venereal diseases.

More importantly, a boy actor would have given Viola the androgyny Twelfth Night critically turns on.

Yet audiences and critics have found the Globe’s Twelfth Night entertaining. Even London Guardian theater critic Michael Billington, who in his Nov. 18, 2012 review of the production at London’s Apollo Theatre, wrote that “In general, I am against the idea of adult males playing Shakespeare's women: it is hardly authentic, as the parts were written for teenage boys. But it does yield a very funny performance from Paul Chahidi, who turns Maria into a roguish figure forever eyeing Sir Toby with lascivious enthusiasm.”

But for those who cringed at the grown men playing young women in the production, it may not be over when the double bill closes. Twelfth Night may win a Tony Award for Best Revival of a Play. Meanwhile, expect to see more self-serving all-men and all-women Shakespeare productions in the United States and Canada.
Can men play Shakespeare’s women and women play Shakespeare’s men? Of course they can. And it probably will fill a lot of seats.

But what does it do for Shakespeare? 

Jan. 31 Syracuse Opera: Maria de Buenos Aires

Piazzolla’s ‘Maria de Buenos Aires’ dances around the issue of what constitutes ‘opera’

Got tango? Sí.  Got story? No.

By David Abrams

It takes two to tango.  And if you want to do it right, you’ll need a bandoneón (a keyless, button-operated accordion popular in Argentina), as well.  

Syracuse Opera does it right in its new production of Astor Piazzolla’s tango opera Maria de Buenos Aires, the company’s second production of its 2013-2014 season.  Friday night’s opening performance provided a thoroughly entertaining evening of stylized dance music (mostly tangos and waltzes), set to the sultry choreography of Anthony Salatino and accompanied by a stellar ensemble of 10 instrumentalists spearheaded by a professional bandoneónista from New York City.

That’s entertainment, all right.  But is it opera?  That is to say, is there a valid plot in Piazzolla’s tango opera to string the dance music together into a coherent, compelling story?  And should it matter?

Certainly, one can argue that what’s needed to accompany 75-minutes of Argentinian dance music is not so much a good storyline as a good bottle of tequila.  This isn’t Wagner, after all, and the title role of Maria was intended for a folksinger, not a dramatic soprano.  But even a tango operita (Piazzolla’s term) must somehow tether the music to a plausible story — and that’s nowhere to be found in this silly and needlessly obtuse libretto by Horacio Ferrer.  Mired in incoherent metaphors and incongruous allusions, the bizarre plot to Maria ends with more twists and turns than the production’s sure-footed troupe of tango dancers.  

There’s a saying in show business: When all else fails… dance.  And that pretty much describes the sum total of this Piazzolla-Ferrer experience.  It’s dance.  Show business.  The surreal-symbolist plot that chronicles the life and death of the prostitute Maria, “born on a day when God was drunk” and later giving birth to herself after being resurrected from the dead, is fodder for Alban Berg’s musical language of expressionism — not Piazzolla’s tangos.   

This is one opera where you may be better off ignoring the projected supertitles altogether.  Just sit back, relax and enjoy the music and dance.  And the tequila.

Although Piazzolla calls this a tango operita, the term “tango” must be taken with a grain of salt since much of the music (both here and elsewhere in the composer's works) are not technically tangos but rather a composite of several popular idioms, including American jazz.  This amalgam of styles is better described as nuevo tango  the musical language of Maria de Buenos Aries.

The vocal roles in this one and only opera of Piazzolla, dating from 1968, are rather minimal: Two singers and a speak-only narrator, the latter of whom represents the spirit El Duende (Milton Loayza).  The mezzo-soprano role of Maria in this production is sung (and spoken) by Catalina Cuervo, with Luis Orozco in the baritone role of El Payador.  The balance of the cast includes a small ensemble of handsomely coordinated dancers (Luba Lesser, Lisa Mattes, Juan Penaloza and Mark Tubolino), along with an assortment of seedy characters from the Buenos Aires underworld.   

Cuervo crafts a worthy heroine (or anti-heroine), with an attractive soprano rich in expression and color that was especially effective in her signature number, Yo soy Maria.  The Colombian soprano has performed this role quite a number of times with other production companies, and her level of comfort in this performance was obvious.  Although the role presents little in the way of technical challenges for the singer, Cuervo — as a soprano singing a mezzo role — had to work the deep colors of her lower register, which she did with no signs of discomfort either when singing or speaking.  

Beyond the singing, Cuervo’s character (which by metaphor represents the spirit of the tango) must maintain sufficient charisma to command attention whenever she comes on stage (which is a good deal of the time), and this she does quite well.  Whether dressed in a red gown as a lady of the evening, or outfitted in white as the Virgin Mary upon her reincarnation, all eyes were upon her.   

As the itinerant singer El Payador, Luis Orozco sang with the large vocal presence one might expect from one whose prior experience includes such operatic roles as Papageno (The Magic Flute) and Marcello (La Bohème).  The Mexican-American baritone overcame some tightness in his voice early on to blossom into a rich and hefty baritone.  His was a well acted performance, steeped in convincing hand and body gestures, and his strong voice carried well even during the first half of the program when his microphone quit working.  (The technical glitch was later corrected.)

Though a speak-only role, Loayza’s character El Duende is responsible for narrating the storyline and as such he is rarely out of sight.  He is a fine actor, capturing and holding the attention of the listener, and his vast experience as an actor was evident from the level of comfort in his manner of delivery.

This Syracuse Opera production relies heavily on visuals, and Anthony Salatino’s attractive choreography, along with Barry Steele’s shrewd video designs, forged a worthy complement to the music.  

Salatino’s stylized dance numbers maintained the sense of dignity and nobility we associate with ballroom dancing.  (Among the capable cast of dancers, Luba Lesser stood prominently as the most poised.)  Serving as stage director as well as choreographer, Salatino squeezed the most out of the small Carrier Theater stage, with precious little room going to waste.  I enjoyed his touch of levity in Scene 12 (Aria de los analistas), where a trio of white-coated psychoanalysts muttering psychobabble prance about the stage in a doomed effort to analyze Maria.
Barry Steele’s video design, comprising projected images set against the backdrop of a mesh curtain, provided a clever and effective illusion of set and scenery that complemented the chairs and tables on stage.  Steele, who also handled the lighting in this production, achieved some intriguing effects projecting image reflections off the costumes of characters moving about the stage.

I can’t say I approve of the curious decision to use amplification of the singers in the chamber-like confines of the intimate Carrier Theater.  Such amplification in opera (widely considered taboo) was singularly unnecessary and distracted from the otherwise good quality of singing.  Moreover, watching characters trekking across the stage with microphones wrapped around their heads evokes the unwelcome image of Justin Bieber.

Beyond the confusing plot and curious use of amplification, almost everything else in this production clicked.  Piazzolla writing is immediately attractive and accessible to the listener, and though his music tends to rely on the same stock chord progressions, Piazzolla does have his moments of musical daring such as an occasional use of counterpoint.  (Once you hear a fugue whose subject starts with bandoneón and answered by a guitar, it’s hard to return to the music of Bach.)

For my tastes, I find that Piazzolla’s best writing in this work comes in the instrumental numbers at the beginning of the work, including some saucy writing for the guitar (played superbly by Ken Meyer) as well as some dazzling opportunities for the bandoneón, played Friday by J.P. Jofre a specialist on this instrument imported from New York City (and who plays frequently alongside Latin jazz great, Paquito D’Rivera).

The bandoneón was the instrument favored by Piazzolla, and he was by all accounts a virtuoso on this colorful, ethnocentric instrument.  Throughout his life, Piazzolla squeezed lots of soul and passion from the instrument’s bellows and buttons.  And he might have squeezed as much from his tango operita, had there been a better story to guide the juice. 

Details Box: 

WhatMaria de Buenos Aires, a tango opera by Astor Piazzolla with a libretto by Horacio Ferrer

Language: Sung in Spanish, with projected English titles

Who: Syracuse Opera 

Performance reviewed: 8 p.m. Friday, Jan. 31, 2014
: Carrier Theater, John H. Mulroy Civic Center, 411 Montgomery St., Syracuse, NY 
Time of performance: Approximately 75 minutes, performed without intermission

Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Feb. 5; 8 p.m. Feb. 7; and 2 p.m. Feb. 9

Tickets: $19 to $81 

Contact: Box office, (315) 47-OPERA or
Family Guide:  Adult themes, but nothing objectionable

Jan. 31 Syracuse Stage: The Whipping Man

‘The Whipping Man’ a beautifully rendered portrait of three men bound together by a shared history

The play, set in the days following the end of the American Civil War, takes the characters — and audience — on an engaging journey of self-discovery

By Malkiel Choseed 

Most Americans know something about the Civil War.  They may have studied the dates and names of important battles, or they can recall key figures like Abraham Lincoln, Robert E. Lee, or Ulysses S. Grant.  The sorts of things we learned in school compete for space in our memories with enduring images from popular culture, like those from Gone With the Wind, Glory and other movies and television programs.  

What is often missing in these depictions, though, is the real human story underlying the events.  Given the distance in time and space, it is easy to loose sight of the human element.  Who were these men and women?  What were their stories?  How did these events impact their lives and the lives of their children?  Focusing on the complex relationship between two former slaves and their former master in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, The Whipping Man powerfully gives voice to these stories, affording us a profound insight into these historical events and characters.  

Set a few days after Lee’s surrender to Grant at Appomattox, the play opens with a badly wounded confederate officer, Caleb De Leon (Gregory Perri) returning under cover of darkness to his childhood home in Richmond, Virginia.  Most of the occupants and their slaves and servants have fled, and the neighborhood is largely deserted.  The once grand house is now in ruins, badly damaged by looters, fire, and incessant rain.  Caleb is discovered by Simon (Jonathan Peck), a former slave who has remained at the house waiting for Caleb’s parents to return with Simon’s wife and daughter.  Shortly thereafter, we are introduced to John (Biko Eisen-Martin), another former slave who has left but returned to the house for reasons that are not entirely clear to the two other men.  

Caleb is suffering form an infected leg wound that in the absence of treatment
will surely kill him, yet he refuses to go to the Union-run military hospital in town.  Simon determines that Caleb’s only chance to survive is to have the leg amputated, but he needs John’s help. Newly freed, John is ambivalent about helping the man who has kept him in bondage for most of his life.  As the story unfolds, the motives, fears, and secrets of each man are exposed, revealing the complex web that connects them all.  The stage is set for an exciting and dramatic evening of storytelling.

Playwright Matthew Lopez introduces another element into the mix.  The De Leon family is Jewish and has passed on their religious customs and faith to their slaves.  Simon and John are Jews.  In 1865, Passover began shortly after Lee surrendered at Appomattox, ending four years of war.  Although they are reduced to utter scarcity, forced to eat horsemeat (which as John points out is hardly Kosher) just to stay alive, Simon is determined to hold a Seder — the ritual meal that marks the beginning of the Passover season.  

Why make these characters Jewish?  Why make them hold a Seder?  While history shows us that there were some Jewish families who owned slaves, Jews in southern states were themselves a very small minority of the overall population and did not comprise the majority of slave owners.  (Rabbi Dalin, who wrote one of the program notes, says that in Charleston, South Carolina more slaves were owned by “free blacks” than were owned by Jews.)  The desire to have his characters hold a Passover Seder may offer an explanation.   Passover, marking the journey from bondage into freedom that serves as a central metaphor for the story, provides the characters and audience a backdrop by which to ponder the events unfolding in the play.

According to Jewish tradition, Passover commemorates the Exodus from Egypt, when God (through his servant Moses) led the chosen people out of slavery to embark upon a new life of freedom.  The ritual is structured so as to encourage participants to see themselves as the direct beneficiaries of these miracles.  During the Seder, participants are instructed to say “God led our fathers out of Egypt and if he had not done this, we would still be slaves.”  It is a masterful stroke on Lopez’s part to put these words into the mouth of a newly freed slave sitting across from his former master.  This potent scene bursts with tension and irony.   

To the production’s credit, the Seder scene is beautifully done and punctuated by the striking singing of Jonathan Peck.  His voice, rich and deep, at once expresses joy, longing and deep sadness capturing the essence of the Seder experience.  

But Lopez could have used another vehicle to tell this story.  Indeed, the end of the war and the effective liberation of millions of slaves would have been enough.  What is gained from a storytelling perspective by making these characters Jewish?  By choosing a particular family in a particular place and time, with its own history and traditions, Lopez opens up a window into what it means to be a human being — with all its potential and deep flaws.  His characters are fully realized human beings, not simply dramatis personae.

Eisen-Martin and Perri are technically excellent, and their interaction on stage (both with Peck and each other) is truly gripping.  These are very young men — perhaps in their early to mid-20s — and both show the intemperance of youth in their words, tones, and actions.  From a technical standpoint, Perri might have the biggest challenge in that he is lying on the floor in more or less the same position for 95-percent of the play, yet manages to keep the audience focused on him at all the right times.  

But the real center of the play, both dramatically and morally, is Peck’s character, Simon.  Here is a man who has lived a long time, having served Caleb’s grandfather and father, and his difficult experiences have earned him hard-won wisdom.  Perhaps Peck’s greatest tool in this production is his voice.  He commands the stage with it, and when he sings (a deep rich baritone) the audience is moved.  This is why I was a bit disappointed when Peck would drop his lines — not in every scene, certainly, but enough to distract from the dramatic action and timing.  Given Peck’s credentials and extensive experience, however, I expect this will work itself out after another performance or two.

Scenic Designer William Bloodgood had his work cut out for him, considering that the entire action of the play takes place in the ruined foyer of an antebellum-style mansion in Richmond.  We see the crumbling grand staircase, the partially caved in roof and broken windows.  The once formal chairs have been disassembled for firewood; the once beautiful china is now chipped; the crystal chandelier is gone — all symbols of the destruction that war has wreaked on this place (and by extension the people and culture that once inhabited it).  Bloodgood has done an incredible job of crafting the production’s visual details to evoke the proper sense of place and a time.  The incessant rain that falls through the broken roof and which can be seen and heard through the windows during the play is masterfully done.

Since the majority of the story takes place at night, Lighting Designer Darren McCroom had to find a way to evoke the soft, flickering nature of candlelight.  Indeed, lighting (which when done right should be virtually unnoticed by the audience) plays an essential part in forging the emotional backdrop to any play.  McCroom succeeded admirably in creating such an atmosphere for these actors, enabling their characters to blossom.  The same can be said for the work of Costume Designer Gretchen Darrow-Crotty and Composer Michael Keck.

Director Timothy Bond has done a masterful job in bringing all these elements together into a cohesive and engaging whole.  A three-man play set in a single location presents many challenges.  How do you keep audience interest without the visual appeal of an ensemble cast and set changes?  Bond has managed to make the play, split into four scenes, fast-paced and tightly knit.  Though very little “action” happens on stage (one of the actors, remember, is laying on the floor through much of it), I found myself on the edge of my seat for most of the evening.  Just as the playwright had found a natural rhythm for his dialogue, Bond has found a rhythm for his actors.  Everything in this production feels natural and real.  Through the interaction of these characters, Bond takes his audience on an engaging journey of self-discovery.

All in all, this play is a beautifully rendered portrait of three men bound together by a shared history.  And it is this history that connects a contemporary audience to this story.  Not only are Americans still living with the aftermath of this war and the pervasive injustices that had led up to (and indeed followed) it, but we are still making choices.

I encourage theater goers to arrive a little early in order to see the photo exhibit prepared by the Onondaga Historical Association, titled “Syracuse Reflections on Slavery and The Civil War.”  The exhibit educates its viewers on the history of slavery in Onondaga County and the role that Jewish families and soldiers played in the war effort.  Though only three panels of text and photographs, this beautifully presented exhibit adds another layer to the audience’s understanding of these complex historical issues.  

Details Box: 

WhatThe Whipping Man, written by Matthew Lopez, directed by Timothy Bond
Who: Syracuse Stage

Where: Archbold Theatre, Syracuse Stage Complex, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse, NY 
Performance reviewed:  Friday January 31, 2014

Remaining dates: Plays through February 16

Length: About 2 hours, including a 15 minute intermission 

Tickets: $30-$52; $18 children under 18 and SU students; $35 under 40
Information: Call (315) 443-3275 or

Family guide: Adult language and themes, violence

Jan. 19 Civic Morning Musicals: Kathleen Roland and Daniel Faltus

CMM presents a very pleasant ‘Afternoon of American Song’

Kathleen Roland and collaborative pianist Daniel Faltus team up for a handsome pairing of art songs and cabaret tunes

By David Abrams

On the heels of Civic Morning Musicals’ impressive season-opening program last month featuring the Vonsattel Trio, the company’s Live! At The Everson series continued with an engaging program of American Songs delivered by soprano (or is it mezzo-soprano?) Kathleen Roland and collaborative pianist Daniel Faltus.  

It’s clear from the past two programs that CMM set the bar high in its signature Sunday recital series.

Roland, whose impressive credentials include a doctorate in vocal performance from USC and a Fulbright Scholarship that took her to Sweden, is now in her second year on the music faculty of the Setnor School of Music at Syracuse University.  The singer-scholar’s eclectic career, which includes a variety of operatic and musical theater roles, also includes clinics, master classes and performances in the more intimate realm of the art song, for which Roland on this occasion demonstrated she is particularly well suited. 

The program of songs by several American composers included works by mainstreamers Copland, Barber and Bolcom, as well the lesser-known (though equally impressive) Ricky Ian Gordon.  Also included were three songs by German-turned-American tunesmith Kurt Weill.  

Among Roland’s strong points is her crisp and articulate diction, which all but obviated the need for listeners to take their eyes off the stage to consult the text, which was provided as an insert to the handsomely printed program.  Intelligibility of words is particularly important in the Everson’s Hosmer Auditorium, where the live acoustics tend to muddy the clarity of melodic lines — both vocal and instrumental.  

Roland’s diction excelled in the non-English songs, such as Weill’s French cabaret song Youkali and the German Denn wie mann sich Bettet (from The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahogonny).  And no less impressive was her intelligibility of words in the numbers performed in English — enabling Emily Dickinson’s shrewd aphorisms in Aaron Copland’s Twelve Poems of Emily Dickenson, the program opener, to come through loud and clear.

Few poets have stirred the creative juices of American composers as had Dickinson, the reclusive 19th-century American poet whose strong imagery describing universal themes of love, nature, illness and death stirs the imagination as does few others.  Roland made each word count in the three songs she and Faltus chose from the Copland set, capturing the many nuances in these songs — from the peaceful and idyllic mood of the opening Nature, the gentlest mother, to the tongue-in-cheek rhetorical Why do they shut me out of heaven?

Roland and Faltus followed the Copland with a heartfelt blend of nostalgia and longing in Samuel Barber’s wistful Knoxville: Summer of 1915.  This one-movement work, with text culled from James Agee’s short story Knoxville, unfolds prosaically as the narrator recounts a fond childhood memory of a summer evening in Knoxville with his mother and father.  Barber, who dedicated the work to his father (who was in failing health at the time), connected deeply with Agee’s longing, as is immediately apparent at the mesmerizing lyrical opening of the song.  He scored the work originally for soprano and chamber orchestra, and later crafted a piano reduction that was used in this performance.

Barber treats Agee’s improvisational and unpolished writing (Agee penned this in just 90 minutes) in the manner of a rhapsody, weaving in and out of starkly contrasts moods throughout the 16-minute work.  The performers negotiated Barber’s changes of musical mood in seamless fashion, and their musical storytelling maintained a continuous sense of spontaneity throughout the piece.  

Roland used the darker hues of her low register to good effect in capturing Barber’s use of tone-painting and text depiction.  At times I wondered whether she might lean more towards a mezzo than soprano (as labeled in the printed program), despite a high register that was consistently solid throughout the afternoon.  Still, Roland’s obvious level of comfort in the cabaret tunes on the second half of the program, all deeply weighted in the lower register, along with past operatic roles that include such strongly defined mezzo characters as the title character in Carmen, suggest that the jury is still out when it comes to classifying this singer’s voice.  

If there was room for improvement in the pair’s interpretation of Knoxville: Summer of 1915 it was surely the choice of tempos, particularly with respect to Barber’s relaxed, idyllic opening (and recapitulation of that opening at the end), which I felt the performers took too fast to capture the pensive nostalgia of either poem or music.  Certain things in life — like treasured memories of a cherished time gone by — ought not to be rushed.

Following intermission, the program of American songs turned to a smoke-filled room for a couple of tangos by tunesmiths Ricky Ian Gordon and Kurt Weill.

Weill’s Youkali is a tango-hanañera whose irresistible tune captures the imagery of Roger Fernay’s poem about the folly of a “land of our desires.”  Faltus’s own arrangement of the tango for piano and singer (without the customary accompaniment of accordion or lone string bass pizzicato) is sufficiently potent to evoke thoughts of despair, where “life, tedious and banal, drags us along.”  Roland’s sultry delivery of the song conveyed the proper mood and feel of the piece, although here too I wish the tempo had been a bit more relaxed.  Gordon’s playful tango, Coyotes (set to words by Ray Underwood), with its Liberace-inspired piano introduction, was also satisfying, although I wished Roland had abandoned her trained voice and, well, slipped into something a bit more comfortable.

Those in the audience unfamiliar with Gordon’s writing must have wondered where he’d been all their lives.  The New York-based composer of opera and musical theater, though hardly mainstream, has had his songs championed by such singers as Renée Fleming, Dawn Upshaw, Frederica Von Stade, Nathan Gunn and Audra McDonald.  And with good reason.  His setting of Emily Dickenson’s Will there really be a morning, a tender lullaby using a recurring interval of a rising Major-7th, gets my vote for the singular most beautiful work on the program.  The tender collaboration between Roland and Faltus in this plaintive song placed a lump in my throat.  Similarly, The Red Dress — Gordon’s poignant setting of the Dorothy Parker poem — reveals a sweet and tender gift of melodic invention that recalls the melodic genius of Richard Rogers.  

Pulitzer Prize-winning William Bolcom, a widely admired American composer, pianist and teacher whose works include symphonies and operas, has spent many years collaborating with wife Joan Morris on cabaret songs, show tunes and parlor music.   Bolcom’s Cabaret Songs, written with lyricist-collaborator Arnold Weinstein, are widely performed today and available on the Centaur label.  

Among the Cabaret Songs is the tongue-in-cheek Song of Black Max (As told by the Kooning boys), which Roland and Faltus chose for this program along with Oh Close the Curtain.  With its OOM-pah accompaniment and daring harmonic shifts, Song of Black Max is a well-crafted piece of storytelling that has the listener hanging on every word (aided by Roland’s crisp delivery).  Oh Close the Curtain opens with a decidedly more abstract harmonic framework but then soon settles into the more familiar ambiance of a cabaret song.  Weinstein’s unexpected dropping of the F-bomb near the end of the song may have had some wishing Roland’s diction was not quite that good.

Kurt Weill, who fled the Nazis in 1935 for New York and ultimately became a U.S. citizen in 1943, all but abandoned his former musical identity and adopted a style better suited to American musical theater.  Ironically, of the three Weill songs on the program, only I’m a stranger here myself (from the 1943 Broadway musical comedy One Touch of Venus) was written after arriving in this country.  The foot-tapping syncopated tune, set to the immensely clever lyrics of Ogden Nash, is among Weill’s best for the theater — and Roland’s demonstrative delivery brought words and music to life.

Balance between Roland and Faltus throughout the 12-work program was outstanding, even at the loudest and softest sections.  A program of art songs suggests a more intimate level of singing, but Roland — with her considerable experience on the opera stage — at times unleashed the full power of her voice.  Finding the proper place for piano lid to accommodate the wide range of dynamics in this acoustically live hall must have been a challenge.  

The performers opted for opening the piano lid to its first peg — which worked rather well.  The instrument never overshadowed the singer during the soft passages, even at the most delicate moments such as in Gordon’s Will there really be a morning.  For the louder sections, such as the emphatic ending of Weill’s Denn wie mann sich Bettet, the credit for good balance belongs to Faltus — whose powerful touch was able to match stride-for-stride the splendor of Roland’s powerful chest voice during the high-notes, as if the piano lid had been fully raised.  

Credit Faltus with providing a level of artistry that allowed Roland to sing with nuanced phrasing that is only possible with a capable and reliable accompanist.  Or rather, collaborative pianist.

Details Box:

What: Civic Morning Musicals Live! At the Everson recital series: “An Afternoon of American Song”

Who: Soprano Kathleen Roland and pianist Daniel Faltus 

When: January 19, 2014

Where: Hosmer Auditorium, Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse

Tickets: $15 at door, students free 


Next concert: Pianist Steven Heyman, music of Mozart, Schumann, Prokofiev and Debussy, 
 Sunday, Feb. 9, 2014 at 2 P.M.

Dec. 14 Met simulcast: Falstaff

From bard to baby boomers, The Met’s ‘Falstaff’ stands as a timeless masterpiece

Director Robert Carsen transposes the story’s Elizabethan setting to the 1950s in this
 delightful production featuring Ambrogio Maestri

By David Abrams

It seems ironic that Giuseppi Verdi, the undisputed master of Italian tragic opera, chose to end his lengthy and dignified career with a comedy.  

Perhaps the composer, 80 years old when he wrote Falstaff and still in the grips of the intensity and despair of his Otello a half-dozen years earlier, felt it was time to lighten up.  Or perhaps Falstaff’s revelation at the very end of the opera, when he declares, “Tutto nel mondo è burla” (the whole world is a joke), summed up the feelings Verdi had harbored all along.   

Whatever his reasons, it’s comforting to know that Verdi chose to end his creative life not with a tear, but with a smile.

The worldwide audience at the Met’s Dec. 14 live simulcast of Falstaff had good reason to smile, as well.  Canadian director Robert Carsen’s novel production, which premiered last year at Covent Garden and came to New York earlier this month as the Met’s first new Falstaff since the 1964 Franco Zeffirelli version, is thoroughly entertaining and a joy to watch.  

Arrigo Boito’s libretto, which takes substantial liberties with the plots of Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor and Henry IV, traditionally places the story in late 16th-century England.  Carsen, however, updates the setting to the 1950s — a fresh approach that if nothing else delighted the baby boomers in attendance.  

Carsen’s production staff charmed the audience right from the opening curtain.  Set Designer Paul Steinberg’s classic ‘50s hotel interior and authentic period props captured the look, feel and taste of Falstaff’s suite at the Garter Inn — with several white table-clothed room service trays carrying leftovers of what looked to be one helluva party the night before, and countless bottles of wine (all empty) strewn across the room.  

Costume Designer Brigitte Reiffenstuel’s stylishly retro dresses placed the four female characters squarely in the era of Ozzie and Harriet.  When we first see Meg Page she looks like Pat Nixon — complete with the first-lady’s pillbox hat and “good Republican cloth coat” (a line made famous in her husband’s iconic Checkers Speech).  Nannetta’s pink dress with matching shoes and hairband gives this teenybopper the look of “Babs,” a character from any number of ‘50s American sitcoms.  

Reiffenstuel wisely keeps Falstaff firmly rooted in England — whether dressed appropriately in country gentleman attire when he’s courting Alice Ford or, as is more often the case, wrapped slovenly in an oversized (and overly stained) undergarment better suited to imbibing from the comfort of his rumpled bed.

A details-oriented production such as this requires a large number of props, and many of these are to be found in Alice Ford’s magnificent, full-sized kitchen — the singular most impressive part of the set that looks as if modeled after a mid-1950s issue of House Beautiful magazine.  In this amazing kitchen a fresh roast turkey goes into the oven, and a succulent cooked one (real, not faux) comes out.  (Falstaff carves it while singing Quand’ero paggio del Duca di Norfolk.)  The authentic props accommodate those who don’t eat meat, as well.  When vegan soprano Lisette Oropesa (Nannetta) goes to the fridge and eats ice cream out of the container, she indulges herself with a non-dairy substitute.  (At least that’s what the prop-master tells her.)

Attractive as the visuals may be, this production will ultimately be remembered for the strength of its singing.  And Ambrogio Maestri steals the show.

I’ve been eagerly awaiting Maestri’s take on Falstaff since marveling at the basso buffo’s deliciously devious “doctor” Dulcamara in last year’s Met Opera production of L’Elisir d’Amore.  Then, as now, Maestri’s powerful bass-baritone soared through the air with the ease of a whistle sounding from a mighty locomotive — with no loss of steam even in the sustained high notes.  But his mastery of this role goes well beyond the singing.  Saturday’s performance marked Maestri’s 202nd for this role, and it’s safe to say that somewhere along the way he got it right.  Very right.

Standing at 6 feet 5 inches tall and carrying a weight Im not at liberty to divulge, Maestri easily captures the visual sum total of Shakespeare’s commanding comic character in all its, well, ernormity. 

Whether angry, happy, self-content, self-deprecating or just plain thirsty, Maestri’s character drew laughs from an audience that seemed delighted with his every movement.  We chuckle when Maestri scolds Bardolfo and Pistola for daring to evoke “honor” as justification for refusing to do Falstaff’s bidding (L’onore! Ladri!).  When he counters Mistress Ford’s observations on the girth of his stomach, Maestri draws tears of laughter recounting his (grossly distorted) memory as a young, handsome and svelte Duke of Norfolk (Quand’ero paggio del Duca di Norfolk).  And when Maestri’s eyes light up at the prospect of a ménage a trois after Alice innocently remarks that Meg is following her, the hilarity approaches the threshold of pain.  

It’s always a treat to hear Stephanie Blythe and her richly hued mezzo-soprano, although this was my first time seeing her in a comic role.  Beneath her stately and majestic demeanor, however, lay a surprising layer of levity that proved a worthy complement to Maestri in the pair’s many comic exchanges.  Blythe works her magic as the conniving Mistress Quickly with consummate ease, and captures a good share of the laughs.  When she describes to Alice and Meg her conversation with Falstaff that sets the trap in motion (Giunta all’Albergo della Giarrettiera), Blythe uses her deep mezzo to great effect when mimicking Falstaff’s imposing baritone.
This was the first occasion I’ve had to hear Lisette Oropesa and observe her acting abilities.  She is impressive on all counts.  The attractive Cuban-born soprano (a product of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program) forged the classic teenybopper image as Alice’s daughter, Nannetta — bubbling with joy and anticipation whenever boyfriend Fenton (Paolo Fanale) came within kissing range.  Dressed as the Queen of the Fairies, Oropesa delivered the gentle Act 3 Sul fil d’un suffio etesio with a meringue-like soubrette that, along with her virginal white gown and veil, encapsulated the innocence of the love-struck teen’s character.  Oropesa returns to the Met later this season as Sophie in Werther.

In his Met debut as Fenton, young Palermo-born tenor Paolo Fanale looked and acted like a credible paramour to Nannetta.  Fanale sang his lovely third act serenade (Dal labbro il canto estasïato vola), where he expresses his yearning for Nannetta, with a pleasant and effortless lyric tenor.

As the object of Falstaff’s lusty intentions, Angela Meade as Alice Ford makes good use of her handsome lyric soprano in her character’s rousing second act salute to the shrewd and merry wives of Windsor (Gaje comari di Windsor!).  Moreover, she appeared thoroughly at ease exacting her revenge on the hapless, bewildered Falstaff.  Meade, who stepped in for Sondra Radvanovsky in the title role of the Met’s Norma earlier this season, drew enthusiastic attention at the curtain calls.

As Alice’s husband, Ford, Milano baritone Franco Vassallo all but owns the first scene in Act 2, and he does not disappoint.  Posing as the wealthy “Messer Fontana,” with five cases of fine wine in tow, Vassallo captures the laughs as he worms his way into Falstaffs’s quarters looking like a wealthy Texan gambler on a weekend jaunt to Vegas.  Vassallo’s mighty monologue preceding Scene 2 (È sogno? O realtá? Due rami enormi) gave the listener a taste of his attractive lyric baritone.

In the smaller roles, Jennifer Johnson Cano as Meg Page sang with an attractive but modestly sized mezzo-soprano that, in the simulcast at least, was overshadowed by the larger vocal presences of her three female counterparts.  Cano nevertheless held her own consistently during the busy ensemble numbers.  As Bardolfo, American tenor Keith Jameson — sporting a nose that Jimmy Durante might have envied — was full of playful mirth as Falstaff’s sidekick, while Christian Van Horn, making his Met debut as Falstaff’s other cohort, Pistola, impressed the listener with his imposing bass-baritone.  The tall and handsome Van Horn will sing Colline early next year in the Met’s rotating cast of La bohème. (Keep an eye out for this promising young singer.)  

Carson, working with Lighting Designer Peter Van Praet, created several impressive visual effects in Scene 2 of the final act, from the star-filled sky to the double-shadow effects of the elk horns projected on the walls of the gates to the Oak.  The haunting image of Nannetta’s brightly lit white dress and veil set against a dark sea of elves and forest sprites, evoked the iconic vision of Disney’s Snow White.  

The Met Opera Orchestra responded alertly to James Levine’s generally quick tempos.  The violin section kept pace with the maestro’s “take-no-prisoners” tempo in the ensemble finale at the end of Act 2, whose pernicious rapid 16th-note runs recall the outrageous bowing demands made by Prokofiev in the “Death of Tybalt” scene from his Romeo and Juliet ballet.  The distant sounds of the four hunting horns in Act 3, signaling the dreaded presence of the mythical “Black Hunter,” came off in a perfect balance of Verdi’s part-writing.
Donald Palumbo’s Met Chorus comprising townspeople and masqueraders sounded wonderful and forged a magnificent presence in the Windsor Park scene in the final act, poking and prodding a terrified Falstaff during the ticklish Pizzica, pizzica, pungi, spilluzzica, thus completing the wives’ elaborate revenge.

Falstaff is an ensemble opera whose success depends largely on the musical interaction (and good ensemble skills) of the cast.  And don’t let the comical elements fool you: Verdi’s writing here is altogether serious, with precious little wiggle room for errors in counting, entrances and cutoffs.  Among the greatest challenges in this score is the mixed meters of the Del tuo barbaro diagnostico near the end of Act 1, where the male characters sing in 4/4 time while the women join in with a compound, 6/8 meter.  This is no easy task, even for experienced singers.  Credit Levine, happily back at the podium for this his 55th performance of Falstaff, for preparing the singers and keeping them in-sync with the orchestra.  

It’s obvious that Levine remains immensely popular with the Met faithful, as could easily be seen from the extended ovation given both before and after intermission, and again at the final bows.  Although years of chronic back and spine problems require the maestro to use a motorized wheelchair (possibly for the remainder of his career), it was nevertheless abundantly clear from this performance that Levine continues to stand tall as one of the great interpreters of Verdi.

Details Box:

What: Verdi’s Falstaff, Simulcast Live in HD

When: Saturday, Dec. 14, 2013

Who: Metropolitan Opera

Time: Approximately 3 hours, including intermission
Where: Metropolitan Opera House, New York

Next HD Simulcast: Dvořák's Rusalka Feb, 8, 2014, 12:55 pm ET

Dec. 15 Book review: Song of Spider-Man

‘Song of Spider-Man’ a tale of a Colossus of Rhodes-sized mess

Insider Glen Berger recounts the story of the calamitous Broadway spectacle

By Wayne Myers

The producers of the Broadway musical Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark should have left Spider-Man as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon. And they should have asked Glen Berger, one of the musical’s writers, to sign a confidentiality agreement.

These are two conclusions one might reach after reading Berger’s Song of Spider-Man, the American playwright’s crackling first-person account of the $75 million Colossus of Rhodes-sized mess that became Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark, whose producers recently announced would close Broadway Jan. 4, 2014 and depart for Las Vegas. (A better fit, in all likelihood.)

Berger’s book is a tell-all, although you might get the impression he’s not always telling all — especially when it comes to his own involvement with Julie Taymor, who directed the Tony Award-winning stage adaptation of the animated film, The Lion King.

The mythology monomaniac, puppet-and-mask addicted Taymor hired Berger to contribute to Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark’s book on the strength of a scene he submitted to her depicting the Green Goblin (Spider-Man’s nemesis) sending a grand piano off the stainless steel spire of the Chrysler Building to the Manhattan street below. The Goblin, however, fails to notice that he’s been affixed to the piano with Spider-Man’s webbing, and so plummets to his death along with the piano — a scene reminiscent of the 1990 Tim Burton film Batman, in which Jack Nicholson’s Joker plunges to his death from atop the towering Gothic Gotham Cathedral.

Berger without question had access to, and was in the position to observe much of, what was or wasn’t happening concerning the musical. But there was at least one other source at work, an anonymous one, feeding information to New York Post theater columnist Michael Riedel, who quickly became the bane of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark’s creative team and producers.

Things started to go wrong as early as 2005, years before the first of several show-related injuries New Yorker Magazine lampooned on the cover of its Jan. 17, 2011 edition, depicting a hospital ward filled with injured Spider-Men.

Technological demands unprecedented for a Broadway show necessitated reconfiguring the Foxwoods Theatre on West 42nd Street for the musical, at an astronomical cost. But glitches would still dog the show, which the cover of Berger’s book memorably evokes with Spider-Man helplessly snared in his own webbing, dangling in mid-air. This would happen at the worst possible time, during the Feb. 7, 2011 preview performance (unilaterally declared “opening night” by exasperated New York critics after repeated opening night delays). The reviews were predictably bad, with The New York Times’s Ben Brantley calling the musical a “national joke.”

How did things get this way? Early in the book there’s a strong sense of the self-congratulatory at work among the creative team, without anything tangible really having been achieved. A certain detachment from reality, especially on the part of Berger, begins to pervade the book.

Berger writes that playwrights Tom Stoppard (Jumpers, The Coast of Utopia) and Tony Kushner (Angels in America, Caroline or Change) were considered early on as candidates to write the musical’s book, but were dropped. There is no further explanation. When Berger writes that even Marvel Comics’ Stan Lee and Steve Ditka had a falling out (over-dramatizing his own eventual break with Taymor), Berger — whose most significant professional credits are, along with this book, regional theater-commissioned works — brazenly inserts himself in the class of those icons of the comic book world.

The musical was, at one time, something many would have loved to have their names attached to. Evan Rachel Wood (who starred in Taymor’s 2007 Beatles-inspired film Across the Universe) and Alan Cumming (the Emcee in Sam Mendes’s revival of Cabaret at London’s Donmar Warehouse) were to join the show as Peter Parker’s girlfriend Mary Jane Watson and the Green Goblin, respectively — loading the musical with even more marquee-name talent. But they never did. Yet if the musical’s producers had expectations that seemed unrealistic (if not at times even ridiculous), they did get U2’s Bono and The Edge to compose the musical’s score and write the lyrics. And they got Taymor to direct.

Berger’s detachment is at its height deep into the book, when he gushes over a “positive” review the post-Taymor retooled Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark received from the Kansas City Star titled Spider-Man Vastly Entertaining on May 18, 2011. That’s right: the Kansas City Star. Except that Robert Trussell, the Star’s theater critic, didn’t actually call it a review because, he wrote, “the producers wouldn’t like that.” It was a puff piece of the worst sort that reads as if a Broadway tourist wrote it. Trussell described how appreciative the audience was and how it often “roared its approval.”

Berger creates an image of a project with no discipline and no strong guiding hand, in which gossip is rampant. “Flop” is written all over it. Riedel entered the story with his May 2, 2007 column when he took aim at the profligate Taymor. What came to be known as the “Taymor Effect,” an emphasis on stunning visuals and attention to detail, came with a hefty price tag: The musical’s cost at the time was estimated at $30 million.

Berger meanwhile is caught in the ancient world thrall of Taymor. During a creative meeting with Bono and The Edge in Dublin, Ireland, he writes:
Julie and I killed time the next morning taking a too-long walk down Vico Road in the blustery wind to Dalkey. I lent her my scarf, which she wrapped like a babushka to protect her freezing ears, and we were exchanging grins and gazes, and I didn’t know what to make of any of this. She was too young to be my mother, too old to be — what — I didn’t know what, but this was getting heady. A maternal, powerful, alluring artist recognized a kindred spirit and they met on a dream-plane outside the workaday world.
Berger casts Taymor as happiest when crafting puppets and masks at her upstate New York country house. But he also writes that she is unapproachable and unwilling (until much too late) to alter the “uncompromising vision” that had brought her past success.

Taymor also terrifies Berger, and he desperately tries to avoid what happened to the unfortunate America Olivo, Natalie Mendoza’s understudy for the character of Arachne, Spider-Woman of Greek-Roman mythology who seduces Peter Parker and turns him into Spider-Man in Taymor’s version. During the musical’s first preview on Nov. 28, 2010, something hit Mendoza in the head and she temporarily left the show after the second preview. When she returned for her third preview performance she was in the pit when a body fell from somewhere above, narrowly missing her. (It was dancer Brian Tierney, who was seriously injured in the fall.) The badly shaken Mendoza had had enough, and left the show. Olivo took over the role, and during her third performance dropped several lines and botched the lyrics.

When, after the final curtain, Taymor followed her into her dressing room and shut the door, it was not to give her a shoulder to cry on. Berger described what happened next:
Thunder from a chthonic weather system rumbled through doors,
through walls, through doors.
We aren’t told how Olivo came through it.  

When Taymor finally gets around to Berger, he describes a scene out of a Stephen King book or John Carpenter’s 1982 science fiction-horror film The Thing:
It was finally me—after over five years of watching from a safe
distance as her weather systems turned folks into debris—it was
my turn. I looked at her face. There was no sign that we were
chums. No sign that she even recognized me. And I didn’t see
the woman I knew either, as I peered through the bolts of crackling
flame coming straight at me; as I dodged her black cloud of
sharp-taloned crows, her fang-bearing hounds made of hellfire,
In the book’s first chapter, Berger places the blame for what happened between him and Taymor squarely on Taymor, herself. Taymor, you see, wouldn’t “collaborate” with him. It is fair to ask then, just what did Taymor hire him for? The question is never answered, and only Taymor can answer it. Riedel, who continued his attack on the musical in his Dec. 3, 2010 New York Post column titled Spidey Book Doesn’t Fly, called Berger just “another one of Taymor’s puppets.” Berger rages and rants over the insult, but the devastating description is an accurate one. (In fact, other than underestimating the musical’s longevity, Riedel will get a lot right about what’s really going on behind the scenes of the musical.)

When Berger first interviews with Taymor at her Union Square office in New York City, he writes: “I didn’t want to have to leave this world where spring breezes wafted in through loft windows.” That would prove too true, as he tenaciously fought to stay in it. But it’s a world he hasn’t yet earned the right to live in, even looking like he was photo-shopped into the book’s sole photograph — a hip publicity shot of Bono, Taymor, Berger and The Edge in their halcyon days.

Berger is not the hero of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark: He’s too canny to even try to cast himself as that. There are no heroes in the book. Well, maybe there was one — producer Tony Adams, the project’s Merlin, who secured for his Hello Entertainment the stage rights to Spider-Man from Marvel Entertainment. In 2005 Adams had just signed rocker The Edge onto the project when, at Edge’s SoHo apartment, he suffered a stroke and died two days later. He would be missed some black days years hence.

There are some moments when you do feel sympathy for the attention-starved Berger. When he returns home to upstate New York after receiving a call from his wife that his beloved dog Crumby is dying, I thought of Ulysses returning home after 20 years to find his dog Argus (whom he had last seen as a very young dog) overjoyed to see him, only to die a few seconds later — just as Crumby does.  
Taymor is eventually isolated and fired despite how everyone on the creative team “adores” her. But she wasnt quite finished. She returned with a lawsuit, which Riedel described in his Nov. 11, 2011 New York Post column, “Hell hath no fury like a Taymor lawsuit.” In that column he parodied Dante’s Inferno with a Taymor Effect-like ninth and deepest circle of hell:
Here, frozen in her lake—represented by a giant circle of ice-blue colored silk, hand-sewn in Indonesia—are straw puppets doubled over like ‘bows bent tight.’ They are her producers: Michael Cohl, Jeremiah Harris and the hapless David Garfinkle.
At the lake’s center is the face of Scar, looking very much like Jeremy Irons with fangs. Dangling from two of his three mouths are Bono and The Edge, ‘their backs being skinned so as to leave not a patch.’
In the third mouth, being ground head first, is the greatest traitor of all — Taymor’s co-writer, Glen Berger.
Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark finally opens on June 14, 2011, but by then you’ve stopped caring: You feel nothing — not relief, not triumph. Which is why Berger was very smart to launch his tale before curtain on opening night in the Foxwoods Theatre’s lobby, crammed with A-list personalities — and the uninvited Julie Taymor.

Berger’s punchy writing style helps the book, but in certain ways he is an immature writer. He uses “theatre” (the art form) throughout the book, when “theater” is the preferred American usage (with the exception of “theatre” as the preferred use among American undergraduate theater majors). He sometimes is sloppy with use of the wrong words — such as writing of Spider-Man’s “swooping through the caverns of lower Manhattan” when he means “canyons.” Still, it is refreshing not to read a PR garbage-loaded book.

As for the musical in its “frozen” state, only too late do Berger, Bono and The Edge learn the true cost of Taymor’s departure. Originally conceived as a darker musical, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark has now become a “family friendly” one — a sad commentary on how much Broadway has changed. Marvel, alarmed over the Taymor version’s sexuality and “extreme adult themes,” was pleased at last.

It’s hard to sympathize with Berger. And he does want sympathy, even as he writes that he does not. (You do wonder how he managed to last so long without being fired.) He frequently agonizes over what he could have done differently during what became a six-year period, but his self-deprecation is really self-flagellation.

The nearly invisible Berger is just one of many avoiders in the story who seem incapable of giving anyone a straight answer. Or any answer at all. He relies mostly on email to communicate with others. (Six-years worth of emails along with hand-written notes were the primary sources for his book, and if it weren’t for these e-mails you might not even realize he existed.) When he sends Taymor a critical email he never bothers to ask her if she’d seen it. Rather, he looks for “signs” that she had. Signs in her face. Signs in her eyes. Signs in her body language.

Yes, he concludes, she has seen it. Only she hasn’t. It’s maddening.

Maybe this book is really about Glen Berger. He wants you to admire him. But you probably won’t.

Yet give the man some credit. He managed to turn his shortcomings into a pretty good (to a point) read, and maybe one day he’ll deserve to live in that world  “where spring breezes wafted in through loft windows.”

Details Box:
Title: Song of Spider-Man, by Glen Berger
Subtitle: The Inside Story of the Most Controversial Musical in Broadway History
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, $25.00
Language: English
Format: Hardcover, 384 pages
ISBN-10: 1451684568
ISBN-13: 978-1451684568
Product Dimensions: 8.8 x 6.3 x 1.3 inches

Dec. 5 Redhouse Theater: The Music Man

Redhouse’s collaborative production of ‘The Music Man’ full of surprises

Despite its shortcomings, this handsome and joyful collaboration between amateurs and pros exceeds all expectations

By David Abrams
Redhouse Director Stephen Svoboda had a few words of caution for the “preview audience” at Thursday’s final dress rehearsal for the company’s new production of The Music Man.  “You’re going to see a wide variety of performance experiences tonight,” he advised.  “Be prepared for anything.”  

Svoboda was referring to Redhouse’s “Theater Experience Program,” an outreach initiative designed to give local performers from middle school to middle age the chance to perform side by side with seasoned professionals from New York City.  On the local end of this collaborative effort are the enthusiastic young men and women of the Hillside Family of Agencies and Community Folk Art Center, who played their parts with boundless enthusiasm.  

Svoboda’s caveats aside, I couldn’t help but marvel at how much of the singing, acting, choreography, costumes and stage action did in fact capture the meaning and color of Meredith Willson’s slice-of-life tale set in the fictitious Midwestern town of River City, Iowa in 1912.

The story centers on a slick traveling salesman who hops from town to town carrying a large suitcase that reads “Professor Harold Hill,” peddling musical instruments and band uniforms under the ruse of establishing a marching band in the community.  He then absconds with the receipts before the townspeople realize this “professor” can’t even read music.  When Hill reaches River City, however, he falls for the town librarian, Marian — a real music teacher who cannot be fooled.  But when Marian sees her shy, introverted younger brother come out of his shell after Hill hands him a shiny cornet, she concedes that that this faux professor has somehow succeeded in creating “harmony” in River City after all, and destroys the evidence that would have exposed him.      

The 1957 Broadway hit, which ran for 1,375 performances and garnered five Tony Awards including “Best Musical” (beating out West Side Story), is a favorite among community theater troupes due to its irresistible music, variety of colorful folk-like characters (many of whom look like they’ve just left Floyd’s Barber Shop in Mayberry) and abundant roles for children — which all but guarantees success at the box office.

Among the pleasant touches in the current Redhouse production are the colorful costumes assembled by veteran Costume Designer Nikki Delhomme, and the smartly prepared choreography staged by Andrea Colabufo and Stephond Brunson during the dance numbers.  

Delhomme, who this year completed her MFA in drama at Yale, outfitted the barbershop quartet of formerly argumentative school board members in handsomely matched red-striped vests, red bow ties and straw hats.  For the inseparable gossips known as the Pick-a-Little ladies, Delhomme chose complementary ensembles of turn-of-the-century dress and feathered bonnets that merged their prim and proper characters into a team of virtual synchronized swimmers.  The colorfully homespun assortment of townsfolk and farmers looked like they just came off the set of Hee Haw.  

The dance numbers and coordinated stage movement of the large cast spanning different ages, sizes and shapes must have been challenging, but the routines came off extremely well and are likely to grow better as the run continues.  Shipoopi, led by Stephond Brunson (the choreographer who also plays Hill’s cohort, Marcellus Washburn), is the show’s biggest dance number and proved a treat for the eyes.  The delightful scene in the town library (Marian, The Librarian) where children dance with their faces buried in large open books, and the soft-shoe dance routine that follows, was clever and amusing.

The cast was led by NYC based actor/singer Caitlyn Oenbrink, whose three-dimensional portrayal as the homely but shrewd librarian Marian Paroo, was alone worth the price of admission.  The attractive Charleston, South Carolina native stole the show with her handsome stage presence, graceful body movement and convincing gesticulations that engaged and held the audience’s attention whenever she came into view.

Oenbrink’s pleasant soprano — a polished vocal timbre with an attractive vibrato and a firm command of pitch — was at once evident in her first number during the piano lesson, and made for some memorable moments in Goodnight My Someone and My White Night, where the reluctant spinster reveals the qualities in a man she is holding out for.  I especially enjoyed Oenbrink’s tenderly delivered Till There Was You, one of the show’s most memorable tunes, which she sang with deep feeling.

As Marian’s Celtic-centric mother, Mrs. Paroo, Kathy Egloff captured lots of laughs trying to arrange a match between her priggish daughter and the handsome Professor Hill, and stunned the crowd with her thick Irish accent whenever her character became angry.  Egloff, who off the stage is a flutist and elementary band teacher, also forged a worthy vocal addition to the two ensemble numbers in which she appears, the Piano Lesson and Gary, Indiana.

Tamar Smithers drew laughs aplenty as the mayor’s wife, Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, and before long had the audience in her pocket to the extent that even a raised brow would provoke uncontrollable laughter.  The Syracuse University drama graduate’s authoritative speaking voice served her well when she directed the Pick-a-little ladies’ ballet movements at the beginning of Act 2, and her Native American shtick with the “Wa-Tan-Ye” girls at the July 4th celebration had the audience in stitches.

As the creepy whistle blower who can’t wait to foil the elusive professor, Trevor Hill as Charlie Cowell (an anvil salesman) appears only at the beginning and end of the show, which is a shame.  The experienced local actor has a magnificent speaking voice that projects effortlessly, and his commanding stage presence and good body language made me anxious to see more.  

Twelve-year-old Nancy O’Connor, a 7th grader at Jamesville-Dewitt Middle School, was perfect for the role of Marian’s piano student, Amaryllis.  With her red hair and contagious smile, O’Connor was not difficult to pick out of the largely populated scenes, and along with Juliet Nabinger carried a look on her face that all but shouted “I’m so excited to be here!” 

Kai Gesek, as Marian’s young brother Winthrop Paroo, carried himself well as the shy little boy with the lisp and appeared genuinely excited when handed a new cornet (Gesek, in real life, plays trombone).  The role does, however, call for a boy whose voice has not yet changed, which is not the case here.  (Although it may have when rehearsals began.)

Dan Tursi, as the stuffy and malapropism-prone Mayor Shinn, played his part as the straight man in this cornucopia of comedic characters with a good sense of timing that maximized the laughs.  As the love-struck eldest daughter of the mayor, Tajanae Lane (a Junior at Henninger High School) as Zaneeta Shinn played her small part with the convincing outrage of a typical teenage daughter.  Her love interest, Tommy Djilas (played by Jamaal Wade, a Junior at Liverpool High School) showed some fancy legwork in the dance number Shipoopi.

The one role that did not work especially well was the male lead, Harold Hill.  As an actor, Josh Rodriguez appears miscast in this role as the unctuous snake oil salesman who, prior to his redemption at the hands of Marian, has lived his life on the strength of his wits and ability to con all of the people, all of the time.  Rodriguez looks like the all-American “good guy,” and neither his onstage demeanor nor his acting abilities can shake that image.  Moreover, his singing voice is not well suited to the tessitura (range of pitches) of the musical numbers assigned to his character.  

The production’s other problem lay in its instrumental accompaniment.  The modest five-piece band comprising piano, trombone, a single reed part, bass and drums was simply too sparse to carry Willson’s magnificent music to the listener.  A second brass instrument (trumpet) and an additional reed part might have worked wonders for the ensemble.  There were also several places during the final dress rehearsal where the band was not in-sync with the singers and dancers — such as in the signature number Seventy Six Trombones, which all but fell apart.  (I suspect that the ensemble problems will iron out after another performance or two.)    

The ensemble numbers (Barbershop Quartet and Pick-a-little ladies) were excellent, and buoyed the quality of this production considerably.  The Barbershoppers (Dan Williams, Aaron Ruiz, Kevin Necciai and Kevin Spencer) managed a good sense of intonation throughout their many numbers, particularly in Lida Rose.  The ladies, dressed in matching white shirts and long ties, collaborated handsomely with the quartet in It’s You.  While all the Pick-a-little ladies were a pleasure to watch, Jessie Dobrzynski (who also excelled in the dance numbers) and Elaine Koh stood out for the levels of enthusiasm they exuded.  

Last but not least, the proud ensemble of kids with band instruments (kazoos, actually) in the final scene where they play the Minuet in G using the professor’s controversial “Think Method,” presented a true Kodak moment.

The audience response to the final dress rehearsal was enthusiastic, and rightly so.  Whatever its shortcomings, this The Music Man is a bold and daring collaboration that will ultimately be remembered as having exceeded all expectations.  

Details Box: 

What: The Music Man, music & lyrics by Meredith Willson, directed by Stephen Svoboda 

Who: Redhouse Theater, in conjunction with Hillside Family of Agencies and Community Folk Arts Center

Where: Redhouse Arts Center, 201 S. West Street, Armory Square, Syracuse 

Performance reviewed: Dec. 5, 2013 (final dress rehearsal)

Remaining performances: Opens Dec. 6, plays through Dec. 21
Length: About 2 hours and 45 minutes, including one 15-minute intermission
Tickets: $30, $20 for members and $10 for students.
Call: (315) 425-0405 or
Family guide: Suitable for all ages

Dec. 1 Civic Morning Musicals: Sarah Crocker Vonsattel & Company

CMM opens ‘Live! At The Everson’ series with outstanding program of piano trios

Syracuse’s oldest arts organization brings violinist Sarah Crocker Vonsattel back to town — with husband-pianist Gilles and cellist Ani Kalayjian in tow

By David Abrams

Sunday afternoon was a homecoming of sorts for Sarah Crocker Vonsattel, the Elbridge-born-and-raised violinist and Juilliard grad who since 2008 has been a member of New York City’s prestigious Metropolitan Opera Orchestra.  

Sarah’s Syracuse appearance was made possible by Civic Morning Musicals (CMM), the area’s oldest musical organization that heralds itself as the third oldest arts organization in the country.  CMM, which soon will be celebrating its 125th anniversary, is an all-volunteer arts organization that sponsors dozens of yearly concerts and music competitions.  Its high-profile Sunday afternoon series, Live! At The Everson, targets successful performing artists who have connections to Central New York. 

The daughter of Syracuse pianist Susan Crocker, Sarah has already distinguished herself as a solo performer and orchestral musician.  But she is hardly a stranger to the world of chamber music.  The young violinist, whose soft-spoken demeanor belies her mighty musical delivery and Herculean tone, was a founding member of the Verklärte Quartet that was Grand Prize Winner at the 2003 Fischoff National Chamber Music Competition.  

CMM chose to open this season’s Sunday recital series with a chamber ensemble of Sarah’s own choosing, and the violinist opted for a piano trio that included husband-pianist Gilles Vonsattel and cellist Ani Kalayjian.  The three young but already accomplished performers teamed up for a rousing program that showcased their formidable talents and ensemble savvy, forging a memorable experience that will likely resonate with the large crowd in attendance at the Everson’s Hosmer Auditorium for some time to come.   

Things got off to a good start with Haydn’s playful Piano Trio in A Major (Hob XV no. 18), written at the time of the composer’s final six “London” symphonies.   The players took the opening Allegro moderato in the relaxed tempo Haydn had indicated, with clearly defined dotted eighth-note figures that were crisp and polished.  The passing of the triplet figures between Vonsattel and Sarah bounced back and forth in seamless fashion.  

Vonsattel’s grace notes and turns in the slow movement sicilienne that followed were well placed, and the ornamented melodic lines were full of elegance and charm.  This is a lovely movement whose treatment of the piano functions much like a Chopin nocturne — with an ornamented bel canto aria spinning out in the right hand (at one point a group of 17 notes appears over a span of three beats) over a steady beat in the left hand.  It’s a beautiful effect, and under Vonsattel’s delicate touch it sounded that much more enchanting.  Although I wished the three players would have taken more time between phrases, all of which begin on the upbeat (beat six), the overall delivery was quite charming.

The buoyant rondo tune in the final allegro was suitably effervescent, and in spite of the ambitious tempo the ensemble-work among the players was clean and precise.  Sarah’s pitch during the syncopated melodic lines that Haydn doubles in the piano part was right on target.  Indeed, her command of intonation throughout the three-work program was outstanding.  

Robert Schumann’s Piano Trio No. 1 in D Minor (Op. 63), which dates from 1847, was likely inspired by the composer’s fascination with Mendelssohn’s Opus 49 Piano Trio (also in D minor) that Schumann had long admired and championed.  

The mournful stately theme of the opening movement sounded all the more somber under the dark tone of Sarah’s violin, which several times throughout the movement projected the dark timbre of a viola.  This movement is memorable for its unusual (if not striking) aural effect at the nur ruhiger section — where the piano plays a steady series of stately staccato notes holding the una corda pedal while the two string instruments play hushed notes sul ponticello (near the bridge of the instrument).  The effect, through brief, is ethereal.   

The strings achieved a good synergy during the heavily dotted motifs spaced an octave apart in the Lebhaft movement that followed, though the insipid Trio section — with its tiresome rising and falling scalewise passages — can hardly be counted among Schumann’s best.  The slow movement Langsam gave listeners a taste of Kalayjian’s precision in the high register, and both violin and cello shined in their respective solo passages.  

The final movement (Mit feuer), like the final movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, “overcomes” its original minor key to end in the parallel major 
yielding a triumphant finale to an otherwise dark and brooding composition.  The three players opened throttle at the concluding coda, where the tempo grows increasingly faster, reaching a tremendous climax on a magnificent D Major Chord that drew shouts of approval from a clearly delighted audience.

The first half of the program was not without some logistical problems.  Balance in the Haydn and Schumann trios seemed heavy in violin and piano and light in the cello from where I was sitting at the back of the auditorium.  Indeed, the live acoustics in Hosmer Auditorium make it difficult for the performers onstage to gauge how the music carries to the audience.  Judging from the improved blend of tone following intermission in the Brahms Piano Trio No. 2 in C Major (Op. 87), however, I suspect the ensemble had figured this out and made the necessary adjustments.

Brahms’s chamber music has a unique tendency to sound larger than its number of players: Trios sound like quintets, quartets sounds like octets and sextets sound like string orchestras.  Yet this trio, which dates from 1882, works quite in the reverse in that it reduces the three voices to two.  The string instruments play together, an octave apart, throughout much of the work (each of the four movements in fact begins with long sections of violin and cello in octaves) — with a resulting texture of a single string sound pitted against the piano in the manner of a sonata.  Such an arrangement places the pianist at the center of attention, and Gilles Vonsattel — a winner of the 2008 Avery Fisher Career Grant and now an artist member of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center — proved worthy of the added exposure.

Vonsattel is an exciting performer to watch, as he is clearly absorbed in the music-making process.  And he appears thoroughly at home playing Brahms.  The Swiss-born pianist showed great patience in the opening Allegro, timing his rubatos (give-and-take of pulse) to allow the composer’s lush, expansive melodic lines to breathe and reach the listener’s palate only after being properly aged.  Though Brahms’s unidiomatic writing for piano presents formidable challenges for the performer (at times the composer treats the instrument like a full symphony orchestra), Vonsattel’s expert delivery suggests he has found the answers to many of these challenges.

The poignant slow movement, with its aching folk-flavored tune in the strings sounding two octaves apart, is a sublime set of variations — deeply introspective, and with a sense of longing and melancholy.  Kalayjian, the Armenian-American cellist of the New England-based Sima Trio, phrased well in this movement, delivering her lyrical solos with grace and charm and playing the double-stop passages effortlessly.  Aided by some sumptuous playing here by Sarah, this alluring movement gets my vote as the artistic highpoint of the program.

I suspect the quick tempo of the third movement Scherzo, taken here as a true presto (as Brahms had indicated), was adopted largely because of Vonsattel’s ability to play at this speed.  The pianist’s delicacy of touch in the muted rapid sextuplet figures here was in fact breathtaking.  The well-shaped string lines in the Trio section were clean and polished.  

Brahms’s Finale was suitably joyful (giocoso), and the three players forged a brilliant coda that brought the work to a triumphant conclusion — and the crowd to its feet.  

Details Box:
What: Civic Morning Musicals Live! At the Everson recital series
Who: Sarah Crocker Vonsattel, Gilles Vonsattel and Ani Kalayjian

When: December 1, 2013

Where: Hosmer Auditorium, Everson Museum of Art, Syracuse

: $15 at door, students free
Next concert: An afternoon of American song, with Kathleen Roland and Daniel Faltus
 Sunday, Jan. 19, 2014 at 2 P.M.

Nov. 9 Met simulcast: Tosca

The Met’s revival of Luc Bondy’s provocative ‘Tosca’ worth a second look 

The director’s controversial production of the beloved Puccini opera has not mellowed, but the audience may very well have

By David Abrams

It’s hard to believe that four years have passed since Luc Bondy’s controversial production of Tosca, which many had reviled as blasphemy. The boos and hisses have long since faded, along with the aspersions cast across social media sites venting outrage at Bondy’s lack of respect for Puccini’s (if not Zeffirelli’s) wishes.

But along with the passage of time has come a reexamination of the once-beleaguered director’s vision and methods. And judging from the positive response from Saturday’s audience, both at Lincoln Center and at my local theater where the performance was simulcast, it appears that the traditionalists are ready to take a second look.

The Bondy production, which in this revival maintains the original three sets and a good deal of its staging, focuses largely on the mood — though not the glamor — of Puccini’s tale of love, jealousy and betrayal during the political turmoil that pitted the Bonapartists against the monarchists in Rome at about 1800. Where Zefferilli had provided the spectacle of Rome and invited the listener to see it, Bondy provides the climate of political oppression and invites the listener to live it. A different perspective, to be sure, but equally valid.

I liked Bondy’s production four years ago, and I still like it now — though I found the quality of singing this time around somewhat less fulfilling. Still, those looking for a vocal performance potent enough to knock you out of your seat are not likely to be disappointed.

Someone must have put a tiger in Roberto Alagna’s tank Saturday afternoon. The popular French tenor delivered a high-octane performance as Cavaradossi with a voice that roared and volume that soared deep into heldentenor territory. Alagna explained to host Renée Fleming at the first intermission that his next gig will be the title character in Otello — his first attempt at this epic role. This no doubt helped explain the tenor’s weighty vocal delivery, though I oftentimes wished he had kept his character squarely in Rome, not Venice.

The sheer force of Alagna’s voice at times had some unintended consequences with respect to pitch. He was rather careless during his Act 1 duet (Non la sospiri la nostra casetta) with Patricia Racette (Tosca), and he overshot the high notes when assuring Angelotti that he’ll hide the fugitive even at the cost of his own life (La vita mi costasse, vi salverò!).

Still, one had to admire Alagna’s spunk in his first number, Recondia armonia, and the way in which he shifted into overdrive for the second act trio L’alba vindice appar, after the badly beaten Cavaradossi learns that Bonaparte had defeated General Melas at Marengo. It is well to remember, too, that Alagna’s singing, though loud, never sounded forced or strained. His richly shaped third act E lucevan le stelle was bold and yet expressive, with secure high notes that speak to his great confidence as a singer in his prime. The audience, clearly impressed, showered Alagna with deafening applause — both here and at the curtain calls.

Were Alagna’s acting abilities as strong as his singing, he’d be a candidate for the Tenor Hall of Fame. (I doubt there is such a place, but there ought to be.)  But his acting leaves much to be desired.  Racette and George Gagnidze (Scarpia) used every part of the face to convey moods and motivation, whereas Alagna’s face was pretty much limited to two expressions: smiling and not smiling. Even after his character had been tortured at the hands of Scarpia at Farnese Palace, Alagna’s face reveals little sign of pain and distress. And when Tosca appears unexpectedly at the prison prior to his execution, instead of genuine surprise we see only his familiar boyish grin, as if Tosca had handed the lad an Oreo cookie.

Patricia Racette fashioned a Tosca whose seesaw emotions ranging from love, jealousy and resolve to self-destruction appeared believable. To be sure, the American soprano takes her acting seriously. She prepared for the suicide scene as Cio-Cio San in the Met’s 2007 production of Madama Butterfly by going to Japan to study the ancient Samurai ritual of seppuku (self-disembowelment).

As Tosca, Racette used her entire body from brows to eyes to lips to torso to convey her character’s wide-ranging moods. Under the weight of Scarpia’s relentless torment and manipulation in Act 2, her character morphs convincingly into states of anguish, agony and ultimately complete resignation. In this scene I felt her pain more than I did the man next door (Cavaradossi) undergoing physical torture.

Racette was somewhat uneven in her singing, and her wide vibrato which comes at the expense of delicacy and nuance of delivery takes some getting used to. She struggled to maintain pitch during her high notes throughout the first act, as well as the second act Vissi d’arte, where her voice could not quite muster sufficient strength to support the high A-flats. Racette’s signature aria was nevertheless full of expression and convincing body gestures. And her Il tuo sangue o il mio amore volea, where she recounts to Cavaradossi her horrible ordeal with Scarpia, gets my vote for the most convincing moment in the performance.

Reprising his role from the 2009 production, George Gagnidze continues to command attention as the quintessential villain, Scarpia. Although we don’t actually see Rome’s dreaded Chief of Police until late in the first act, his presence is felt from the very beginning of the opera as the four trombones sound the chilling three-note “Scarpia” motif. And when we do finally get to see Gagnidze, there’s no denying that the face matches the motif.

The imposing baritone from the Republic of Georgia forged an intimidating stage presence that lent credence to his persona as a ruthless tyrant who keeps Rome in a constant state of fear. This is a man who clearly loves his job, and it shows: Gagnidze’s maniacal facial expressions include eyes that look as if ready to explode from their sockets, and a mouth that appears to be on the verge of snorting fire.

Gagnidze voice, which is most persuasive in its middle and lower registers, managed to integrate his character’s arrogance in the boastful second act aria Ha più forte sapore. And although his voice began to tighten in its higher register during the self-congratulatory Va, Tosca in Act 1, it easily soared over the orchestra’s repeated two-note ostinato patterns, supported by chorus, in the Te Deum at the end of Act 1.

As the escaped political prisoner, Angelotti, a disheveled Richard Bernstein (outfitted here in a dirty white shirt that along with his beard and hairy chest gave an appearance more of a pirate than a revolutionary) looked like what you might expect from a man on the run. An able and reliable contract singer at the Met for the past 19 years, Bernstein made good use of his handsome and vibrant bass-baritone, which remained secure well into its high register, to capture a sense of impending doom as he implores Cavaradossi for sanctuary.

John Del Carlo, as the confused church Sacristan, sang with a deeply weighted bass-baritone whose low register continues to make the walls of the Met pulsate, although the high notes reveal some signs of strain. Now in the twilight of his long and industrious career, Del Carlo can still evoke laughter with just a simple roll of his eyes or a quiver of his jaw — as he had done so often as Doctor Bartolo and Don Pasquale.

Paula Williams’s staging retains the memorable scene at Farnese Palace where Tosca plunges the knife repeatedly into Scarpia’s chest. “Here is Tosca’s kiss,” she declares. Luc Bondy’s decision to ignore Puccini’s detailed instructions placing candles and a crucifix around the corpse did not appear as blasphemous as it did at last time around. Perhaps the passing of time has tamed the once-outraged audience long accustomed to this familiar, if not sacrosanct, ritual. I also recall Cavaradossi’s giant portrait of Mary Magdalene that hangs on the interior wall, her left breast fully exposed. (I never forget a face.)

Among the differences in the staging for the current production, Spoletta (Eduardo Valdes) this time around shows no signs of fear or intimidation or for that matter, reverence when he addresses his abusive boss, Scarpia. This may go a long way in explaining the patch over Spoletta’s right eye. And at the end of the Te Deum, Scarpia does not fondle the statue of Magdalene as he did earlier in the current production’s run he just stares at it. I can understand Peter Gelb’s wish not to offend any audience in any of the 64 countries receiving the simulcast, but it’s difficult to understand why the priests and choirboys turn their heads in horror at such a “sacrilege.” 

Among the changes I thought worked well was the opening scene in Act 3, where Cavaradossi and the Jailer whittle away the time leading up to the execution by playing what looked to be a serious game of chess. From the way Cavaradossi flung the pieces off the chessboard, I suspect he lost the game — a real shame, considering his chances for a rematch were not at all promising.

I wish the current production had done more with the lighting effects in the third act. Puccini had indicated in his libretto that the execution scene atop Castel Sant’ Angelo prison in Act 3 was supposed to take place as dawn was approaching, so it’s unfortunate that Cavaradossi had to face a firing squad in the dark. This could have been a moment for the Lighting Director Max Keller to shine (no pun intended), as did Jeff Harris in creating an ever-so-gradual sunrise in Ned Canty’s 2010 Glimmerglass Opera production of Tosca.

In spite of one or two shaky ensemble moments between the singers and orchestra, Conductor Riccardo Frizza kept the 18 scenes flowing seamlessly throughout the production and found the right tempos to fit the comfort level of the singers.

The Metropolitan Opera Orchestra was once again outstanding, especially the brass section which is the blood and guts of this work. The ominous three-chord “Scarpia” motif that opened the performance, stated boldly by three tenor trombones and a bass trombone, was a harbinger of the good orchestral playing to come. The quartet of four cello soloists in the third act was particularly impressive — especially the first-chair part, played by Jerry Grossman, which soars into the altissimo register on the treble clef. Last but not least, Anthony McGill’s lugubrious clarinet solo that introduces E lucevan le stelle set the perfect mood for Alagna’s mournful aria.

The chorus of children and adults were well in synch during the Te Deum, both with Scarpia and with the orchestra.

Although the final scene where Tosca jumps from the tower could use some tweaking (was that a dummy or a very shoddy body double?), the opera ended on a high note for the entire production staff. Unlike the hero and heroine of this opera, there’s lots of life left in this Bondy production.

Details Box:

What: Puccini’s Tosca, Simulcast Live in HD 

When: Saturday, November 9, 2013

Who: Metropolitan Opera

Time: Approximately 3 hours and 20 minutes, including two intermissions

Where: Metropolitan Opera House, New York

Next HD Simulcast: Verdi’s Falstaff, Dec. 14, 2013

Nov. 1 CNY Playhouse: Reservoir Dogs

CNY Playhouse’s ‘Reservoir Dogs’ not quite ‘Best in Show’

The young company may have bitten off more than it could chew in tackling Quentin Tarantino’s violent, character-driven film noir classic

By David Abrams

The Central New York Playhouse celebrated its one-year anniversary Friday evening with a tribute to Quentin Tarantino’s American film noir classic, Reservoir Dogs — the controversial 1992 film that shocked audiences with its graphic violence and profanity.  The film went on to become a cult classic, having provided the blueprints for Tarantino’s even more violent works that followed, including Pulp Fiction, Natural Born Killers, Kill Bill (Vols. 1 & 2), Inglourious Basterds and Django Unchained.  

That CNY Playhouse mounted this ambitious undertaking comes as no surprise to those who have experienced the company’s hearty appetite for stimulating repertory since forging a presence as Central New York’s newest theater troupe.  But in tackling a work as challenging (and audacious) as this, the young company may have bitten off more than it could chew.  

Tarantino uses violence and profanity much the same way Alfred Hitchcock uses anticipation and suspense: as tools to shock, and manipulate the sensibilities of, the viewer.  But the graphic nature of Tarantino’s violence extends well beyond the discomfort of watching the iconic shower scene from Hitchcock’s Psycho.  To stage Reservoir Dogs as Community Theater, the company had to balance the story’s raw graphic content with the tolerance levels of the community it serves.  And that’s a tough balancing act.  

The present CNY Playhouse production, directed by J. Brazill, preserves the film’s profanity-laced dialogue but sanitizes much of the graphic violence and bloodshed.  But there’s no sitting on the fence when it comes to this story: Either make your “Reservoir Dogs” a pack of wolves, or settle for a litter of Pomeranian Poodles.  Trying to temper the film noir’s objectionable and controversial components is like trying to re-work HBO’s The Sopranos for re-broadcast on The Disney Channel.  

The other problem with this production is its inequality of acting efforts.  Tarantino’s films are character driven, requiring an ensemble of strongly defined and believable characters who can remain convincingly in-character while interacting with others.  The film version gives us this, and more.  For example, the fast-tongued verbal assaults between Mr. White and Mr. Pink (played magnificently in the film by Harvey Keitel and Steve Buscemi, respectively) grabs the viewer’s attention and, like a championship tennis match, turns their heads back and forth with each new volley.  But the sparks never really fly in the current production, largely because there’s too little chemistry between the actors to keep viewers glued to their seats.  

The plot of Reservoir Dogs centers on a motley crew of eight gangsters brought together by crime boss Joe Cabot for the purpose of pulling off a jewelry store heist.  Except for Joe and his son Eddie, the gangsters are known to each other only by fictitious names assigned to them: Mr. White, Mr. Pink, Mr. Orange, Mr. Blonde, Mr. Brown and Mr. Blue.  The audience first sees the characters as they make insipid (though relentlessly profane) conversation at a diner immediately prior to the heist.  The remaining scenes take place only after the robbery, which as we soon learn has gone terribly wrong.   

Typical of Tarantino films, the action in this drama unfolds not as continuous events over time but rather as a series of non-linear, interrupted episodes that slowly begin to fill in the dots on how the present situation has arisen.  But while this flashback device may work well on the screen  where the camera’s cutting away to starkly different surroundings, dress and places can be processed rather quickly  it can be confusing in a live play, where the demands of staging require time to re-set and frame the action for flashbacks.  

Another Tarantino trademark is the incorporation of pop culture.  Reservoir Dogs uses music from the 1970s, delivered to the audience as part of K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the Seventies (narrated in the film by comedian Steven Wright, in familiar deadpan style).  Before long, the music interlaces seamlessly with the story itself.  The Gerry Rafferty/Joe Eagan song Stuck in the Middle with You may forever be associated with the film’s notorious torture scene, where the psychopathic Mr. Blonde dances to the tune while calmly severing the ear of the bound-and-gagged cop.

Director J. Brazill (nobody seems to know what the “J” stands for, and his mother, who sat at my table, steadfastly refused to reveal it) added a few directorial touches that worked rather well.  As the eight gangsters left the diner en route to the heist, each stood and faced the crowd, then ceremoniously fitted sunglasses on his face as a warrior might don a shield of armor.  Brazill’s staged of the flashback scenes that take place inside cars symbolically, with rapidly flashing strobe lights.  Also prudent was his decision to remove the film’s racial insults (such as the frequent use of the N-word and unkind references to Jews), none of which is germane to the plot.  

Among the things that did not work especially well was the decision not to show blood during the torture scene, which had unintended consequences with respect to the staging.  For example, after Mr. Blonde mercilessly whacks the face of the bound-and-gagged cop, he then uses the cop’s shirt to wipes his hands.  But in the absence of blood, what is it exactly he’s wiping off?  The absence of blood when Blonde slashes the cop’s face repeatedly with a box cutter removes all sense of reality (and brutality) of this act of violence.  And little effort was made to make the punching and kicking look real — rendering it difficult for the audience to believe these criminals are as loathsome as Tarantino had intended them to be.

There were several problems with the props as well, such as guns that refused to fire on cue.  When Mr. Orange empties his clip into Mr. Blonde’s torso after the latter douses the cop with gasoline and prepares to set him on fire, there are lots of clicks but only two shots sounding.  And when Eddie finally kills the cop with three shots to the chest, only one sounded.  The guns did however work properly when they absolutely had to, at the climactic finale where four characters are shot simultaneously.

While the acting in this production was generally uneven, with actors focused more on acting than on interacting, there were nevertheless some solid individual efforts most notably by Jordan Glaski.

Glaski captured all aspects of Mr. Orange’s character and projected these into a three-dimensional realm of credibility.  The role of Mr. Orange demands greater versatility than the other roles, and Glaski demonstrated a thorough mastery of his character's different faces.  Moreover, his acting didn’t stop when his lines ended.  After Mr. Orange has been shot in the belly and laid to rest on the floor of the warehouse, Glaski writhes in pain and agony and the contortions continue, in silence, as the others converse. 

Dan Rowlands delivered a strong performance as the mercurial Mr. Pink.  Rowlands’s Pink is a stark departure from the highly caffeinated, off-the-charts neuroticism of Steve Buscemi in the film version, but Rowlands nevertheless forges a self-confident character who is wholly believable, and he stands up well in the prolonged tug-of-war (of words) with Mr. White.

Jim Uva, though a good actor, appears miscast as the ultra-cool Mr. White.  Unlike his film counterpart, the resolute Harvey Keitel, Uva fashions his character as one often confused, and exudes more self-pity than self-confidence. 

Also miscast is Andrew Brazill as the unpredictable sociopath, Mr. Blonde — a role that appeared singularly unsuited to him.  Played properly, Mr. Blonde should be the most frightening of characters because he, unlike the others who are interested in a clean robbery and getaway, craves violence.  Even the other gangsters loathe him.  (In the course of play we learn that the mentally unbalanced Blonde summarily executes the hostages at the jewelry heist after one of the employees trips the alarm.) 

Mr. Blonde is the one who tortures the cop, mercilessly, at the warehouse.  The spine-chilling performance of Michael Madsen in the Tarantino film will forever be etched on my psyche, and comparisons to Madsen’s chilling performance may be unfair.  Even so, Brazill comes off neither scary nor mentally unbalanced  he’s just a soft-spoken, smug, wisecracking thug.  

As the crime boss’s son, Eddie, Joel Miscione captured the moment with his sudden scary outbursts of anger, and he played his part with the right touch of craziness for us to believe he’s capable of drastic action at any given moment.  The anger peaks when he confronts Mr. Pink and Mr. White over the execution of Mr. Blonde, and again when defending his father at the story’s dramatic final confrontation.  Miscione does however have a tendency to mumble from time to time, such as during the flashback scene with the just-released-from-prison Mr. Blonde at his father’s office.

As Marvin Nash, the hapless captive cop kidnapped by Mr. Blonde, Patrick Kelly commands great sympathy from an audience forced to watch helplessly as the poor man suffers, horribly, at the hands of the psychopathic Mr. Blonde.  Although Kelly’s cries are curiously muted during the early part of the torture scene, he jacks up the volume to proper decibel levels when Blonde attacks him with the box cutter (a straight-edged razor in the film version), sending chills though still no sign of blood  into the crowd.  Kelly teamed up with Glaski for what proved to be the singular most powerful dramatic scene of the production, as the two doomed men begin to discuss (and perhaps accept) their likely fate.

John Brackett as Joe Cabot looked the part of a crime boss and handled himself well in the final scene, where he tells Mr. White that his “intuition” has fingered the informer whom he now intends to kill.  (Turns out, Cabot’s intuition was right on the mark.) 

The choice to cast Navroz Dabu as Mr. Brown is a curious one.  His character’s presence in the story is limited to the opening scene at the diner, where he airs a singularly raunchy interpretation of the meaning of the lyrics in Madonna’s 1984 hit song, Like a Virgin.  The magnificent set designer for this and other CNY Playhouse productions, however, speaks with a thick accent — making it necessary to suspend all belief that this man is your quintessential American gangster.  There is no such disconnect however with Dabu’s set, whose large ladder, tools and storage boxes faithfully captures the look and feel of the warehouse in the Tarantino film, supposedly set at the back of a funeral parlor.

The present CNY Playhouse production ends November 9.  If you decide to go, be prepared for a steady diet of profanity: There are 272 occurrences of the F-bomb in Reservoir Dogs.  (I hardly noticed, having been born and raised in Brooklyn.)

Of course, if you find the profanity offensive you can always opt to wait until the show airs on The Disney Channel.

Details Box:

WhatReservoir Dogs, directed and adopted for the stage by J. Brazil
Who: Central New York Playhouse 

Where: Shoppingtown Mall, Dewitt NY (2nd floor, next to Macy’s)

Performance reviewed: Friday, Nov. 1, 2013 (opening night) 
Remaining performances: 8 p.m. Thursday Nov. 7, Friday Nov. 8 and Saturday Nov. 9
Ticket information: Call 315-885-8960 or 
Length:  About 2 hours, with one intermission

Tickets:  $15 to $20; dinner and show, $34.95 (Saturdays only)

Family guide: Profanity; disturbing themes; cigarette smoking; loud sound effects

October 26 Met simulcast: The Nose

Met Opera’s ‘The Nose’ is up to snuff

Visual artist William Kentridge’s surreal sets mirror Shostakovich’s wild, if not altogether insane, musical score  

By David Abrams

Shostakovich’s Nose ran non-stop for two hours at the Metropolitan Opera House Saturday literally and figuratively.  But the real drama behind the Met’s production of The Nose has more to do with the eyes and ears.

Sitting through a 120-minute demonstration of bizarre orchestral writing can prove taxing to the listener’s sensibilities, even to the most avid fans of the composer’s music.  But what Shostakovich gives to the ears, William Kentridge gives to the eyes: a phantasmagoria of surreal eye candy that tempers the frenzy of the music.  And that’s what brings this Nose up to snuff.

Based on the absurdist mid-19th century short story by Nikolai Gogol, Shostakovich’s first opera is a farce about a nose that frees itself from the face of an unsuspecting, low-ranking bureaucrat named Kovalyov.  The nose soon grows in size to that of a human being and ultimately receives an appointment as a high-ranking official of the State.  The allegory lampoons the inept bureaucratic society and tangled social structure of Gogol’s time, which Kentridge in this reprisal of the 2010 Met production then transposes to the Soviet Union under Stalin.

It’s easy to understand why Kentridge, when asked by Peter Gelb in 2006 to come up with a selection for the Met’s 2010 season, opted for this particular opera.  Written between 1927 and 1928, when the composer was barely in his 20s, this brash and imaginative score seemed like a worthy complement to the Gogol play.  Moreover, it fit the bill for Kentridge’s surrealistic conception of the collaboration — a co-production with the Festival d’Aix-en-Provence and the Opéra National de Lyon, France.

But like the nose in the Kafkaesque tale that grows and takes on a life of its own, Shostakovich’s musical score does not function merely as an appendage.  It snorts the entire production whole.  

Kentridge’s set displays an odd assortment of Soviet road maps, newspaper articles and a typewriter keyboard with Cyrillic letters pasted together haphazardly, resembling a kidnap ransom note.  Against this incongruous backdrop of reading material, projected images of actual films are superimposed — including a young Shostakovich hammering away at the piano keyboard.  

While the surreal imagery of Kentridge’s avant-garde inspired visuals provides some degree of relief (or at the very least, a diversion) from Shostakovich’s busy score, the listener is still faced with two straight hours of near-continuous musical hysteria.  I count myself as a great fan of Shostakovich’s music, but by the second act I had grown weary of the busy, dissonant writing.  And while we can admire the young composer’s virtuosic orchestral writing for its boldness and technique, too much of this score is loud and brash — leaving the ear little time to recuperate from the near-constant pounding.  

During a point in Act Two, where the composer leaves us in the throes of cacophony, I began to appreciate how Charles Ives at the climax to his The Fourth of July achieved the same effect but only after careful preparation and patience.  That’s what’s missing in this score: patience.  There’s too much busywork crowded into too little time, with too little contrast of material.  (Think of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck, only without the lyricism and tightly knit compositional structure.)  The good news is you’ll hear snippets of musical material here that reappear in the composer’s later works, such as the Symphony No. 9 and Festive Overture.

The Nose calls for a large cast, some 30 singers covering close to 70 different characters, and the demands made on the voice are formidable.  Bereft of traditional arias, singers have to settle for short vocal outbursts and spoken dialogue, with only occasional lengthy monologues.  The vocal lines here are widely spaced, with jagged intervals and exaggerated contours that take the singers through a maze of registers some of which are extreme, such as in the voice-busting role of the Police Inspector sung by Andrey Popov.   

Popov, whom many will remember as the captivating “Holy Fool” in the Met’s production three years ago of Boris Godunov, immerses himself in the role and gives it his all.  Still, during this, the final performance of the run, there were clearly signs of fatigue and strain in the tenor’s voice throughout this suicidal role, which hovers stubbornly high above the staff.  Shostakovich is no doubt looking to lampoon this important figure of authority, but he should have considered the consequences to the singer of continuous screaming in the high register.  Popov, who uses a full chest voice in this role, no falsetto, risks damage to his vocal chords — and with it, his promising career.

Reprising his role as Kovalyov from the 2010 production, Paulo Szot — as the unfortunate low-ranking bureaucrat whose emancipated nose is the basis of the story — forged a sympathetic character whom you wish you could console, despite his ridiculous predicament.  The Brazilian baritone is no stranger to New York audiences, having won a Tony Award for his role as Emile in the Broadway revival of South Pacific.  And while he doesn’t sing anything that even remotely resembles Some Enchanted Evening, Szot captures the listener’s attention at most every turn, both as a singer and actor, and resists the temptation to overact.  (His monologue of woe at the end of Act 2 was touching, not maudlin.)

The closest thing to a traditional aria comes in the form of a handsome number by Madame Podtochina’s daughter, sung beautifully by Chinese soprano Ying Fang, who makes her Met debut in the current production run.  Fang also stands out beautifully atop the ensemble of singers during the Kazan Cathedral scene.  Another of the (precious few) memorable singing moments in the opera comes from Russian tenor Sergei Skorokhodov, as Kovalyov’s servant Ivan, who sings a charming number accompanied by balalaika.

As the personification of Kovalyov’s nose, tenor Alexander Lewis — a graduate of the Met’s successful Lindemann Young Artist Development Program — sang his one aria (for lack of a better term) with just the right touch of mirth.  Since the character of the nose is largely a visual presence projected as a giant papier mâché nose with legs, we don’t get to see much of Lewis.

The true standouts in this production, however, are the musicians of the Met Opera Orchestra, who adroitly handled everything Shostakovich asks of them in this brutal score.  There are lots of exposed passages in exaggerated and uncomfortable registers for E-flat piccolo clarinet, contra-bassoon and string basses, and frequent use of grotesque effects such as abrasive glissandos in the trombone parts.  At one point Shostakovich throws a wild orgy for percussion ensemble.  Each part, in each family of instruments, was played with confidence and panache.

Conductor Pavel Smelkov, who split the conducting duties during the production run with Valery Gergiev, conducted without a baton as far as I could tell — which couldn’t have made it easy for the instrumentalists to follow him during this incredibly complicated musical score.  The well prepared offstage men’s and women’s choruses in the first act, and especially the difficult a cappella chorus near the end of the opera, were sung magnificently by the Metropolitan Opera Chorus.   

Though begun in 1927, The Nose was not premiered in its staged form until 1930, and then to generally poor reviews.  (Following its initial run the work was not again performed until 1974.)  The opera gained attention in the USA only after Francesca Zambello directed it at Bard College in 2004, coming to the Met in Kentridge’s highly acclaimed 2010 production, reprised here.  

Whether the opera will continue to enjoy repeated productions in this country remains to be seen.  Beyond the challenges of staging the work, you’ve got to have an orchestra that can cut the part.  But after hearing the present Met version of The Nose, one thing seems clear: The Met Opera Orchestra is the best of the best.

It’s as plain as the nose on your face.

Details Box:
What: Dmitri Shostakovich’s The Nose, Simulcast Live in HD 

When: Saturday, October 26, 2013

Who: Metropolitan Opera

Time: Approximately 2 hours, with no intermission

Where: Metropolitan Opera House, New York

U.S. Encore broadcast: Wednesday, October 30, 2013 at 6:30 pm EST
Next HD Simulcast: Puccini’s Tosca, 12:55 p.m. November 9, 2013

October 25 Syracuse Stage: Scorched

Syracuse Stage’s ‘Scorched’ an emotional journey through tragedy that will leave you feeling whole

In the process of self-discovery a pair of twins rip open old wounds to learn the truth about their mother — and ultimately, themselves

By Malkiel Choseed

Scorched is an intense and moving play that explores a variety of themes: love, friendship, the impact of violence from one generation to the next, and the power of truth.  To its credit, the play does not fall prey to sentimentality or to cliché.  Yes, truth has the power to set you free.  But in this play it also has the power to wound to the core and put you on your knees.  

The drama begins in front of a sparse stage, with Monsieur Alphonse Lebel (Tuck Milligan) speaking directly to the audience.  He invites us into his notary office and tells us about his relationship with Nawal.  After a few minutes, the perspective changes and two other actors come onstage.  Lebel, it turns out, is talking to a set of twins, Janine (Soraya Broukhim) and Simon (Dorien Makhloghi), about the puzzling last will and testament of their recently deceased mother who had remained completely silent for the last five years of her life.  

Each child has been left a letter sealed in an envelope, and an object (a red notebook with a weathered jacket labeled “72”) that holds some as yet undiscovered meaning for both mother and children.  Janine must deliver her letter to her father, who she thought had died years ago.  Simon must deliver his letter to a brother he never knew existed.  The opening of the last will and testament sets into motion a series of events culminating in a journey across time and space — physical, emotional and spiritual — for this brother and sister and, by extension, the audience.

Given the temporal, spatial and emotional shifts of the play, Scorched is a tough play to watch and to stage.  Director Marcela Lorca (Caroline, or Change) arranges her nine actors to populate the sparsely decorated stage with 22 separate characters.  Each actor (with the exception of Nadine Malouf) plays at least two characters.  Leopold Lowe plays four.  The choices made by Lorca and casting director Harriet Bass are intriguing in and of themselves.  This sort of doubling has a long tradition in Western drama, going as far back as the first theatre troops, and is often done for practical (and economic) reasons.  The casting choices in this production draw connections between the various characters, as well as the plot points and themes the characters are working through.

Kenya Brome (Sawda) and Nadine Malouf (Nawal) deserve special mention not just for their acting skills but for also their singing skills.  These actors use their voices throughout the play in hauntingly beautiful ways, adding emotional depth and resonance to several scenes.  Tuck Milligan (Lebel) and René Millán (Nihad) offer much needed comic relief during this gut-wrenching play.  Yet while the acting was on the whole quite good, several of the supporting actors dropped their lines at the opening night performance.  Not enough perhaps to shatter the mood that the play works so hard to build, but enough to be noticed.  

The present Syracuse Stage production succeeds in managing the formidable difficulties this play presents.  Lorca handles the flashbacks, crowds, quick jumps through time and scene changes with a deft hand.  The fact that the action appears seamless and unfolds logically is a testament to the skill not only of the actors but also the direction and production staff.

For a serious drama such as Scorched, the music, costumes and sets need to work as a cohesive ensemble to connect the action and dialogue to the play’s emotional appeal to the audience. The musical score, performed by the world-famous Kronos Quartet, does just that — complementing the work of the actors and highlighting the suspense of the drama.  

Before the lights came up, as the audience was filing in, the looped score sounded oddly reminiscent of the opening theme to the suspense-filled television series, Alfred Hitchcock Presents (Gounod’s Funeral March of a Marionette).  Surely this is more than a coincidence.  

The costuming, a mix of contemporary Western and Middle Eastern garb painted in a subtle and muted color palate of reds and browns, helps the audience keep track of the various characters —which considering the multiple roles of the actors is most helpful.  

The minimalist sets are simple, practical and movable, and underscore the highly stylized nature of this production.  Two tall and bare trees, each made of boughs lashed to one another with heavy rope, frame the stage.  Occasionally, a picture or backdrop is projected onto the back curtain to enhance the mood and give the audience sense of place.  The abstract nature of the staging helps navigate the viewer through the taxing emotional experiences within the play.

The difficulty in staging this play extends beyond the technical issues.  Advertisements for Scorched describe it as a “thriller.”  This may be true in the sense that the play moves quickly, carrying the audience along a journey whose hints and bits of information crescendo to a climax.  But Scorched is hardly a “thriller” in the traditional sense of the word, and if you go expecting one you are likely to be disappointed. 

It is clear that Mouawad looked to ancient Greek tragedy for inspiration.  The characters’ journeys of self-discovery and the types of truths they discover could have come from Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex.   What is important about this play for the audience is not that a mystery gets solved, although this does happen.  What is important about this play, and what ultimately makes it worth seeing, is the emotional journey through tragedy that these characters go through.  True, they emerge battered and bloodied at the other side.  But they emerge whole — perhaps for the first time in their lives.  

Some truths are so terrible that they can destroy a person, a family or a country.  In the process of learning the truth of their identities the twins rip open old wounds, exposing almost inconceivable horrors.  In learning the truth about their mother, and ultimately about themselves, Janine and Simon are able to finally understand and accept her.  In this way, the play touches on a universal theme: “Who am I?”  Sometimes knowing is more devastating than not.  Truth can, however, redeem — if not heal.  It is this redemption motive that defines the true power of Scorched.    

As beautiful and moving as this play may be, it has its share of problems that cannot be overlooked.  

Part of this has to do with the writing itself, which is translated from the French.  Among the lines that do not seem to translate especially well into English is when one grieving character tells another she can “begin to swallow her saliva now.”  Maybe this was poetic in the original French, but to an English-speaking person it may sound rather strange.  The play is full of lines like that.  Simon, the male twin, is an amateur boxer who cannot win a fight.  His sister, Janine, is a mathematician who studies unsolvable problems (heavy-handed symbolism, to say the least).  Some of the dramatic disclosures and pieces of evidence seem to come out of nowhere, and could have been handled more adroitly by the playwright.

These minor difficulties, however, are not enough to derail what is overall a successful and moving production. 

Details Box: 

WhatScorched, written by Wajdi Mouawad with translation by Linda Gaboriau, directed by Marcela Lorca

Who: Syracuse Stage

Where: Archbold Theatre, Syracuse Stage Complex, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse

Performance reviewed
:  Friday October 25, 2013

Remaining dates
: Plays through November 10

Length: About 2 hours and 45 minutes, including a 15 minute intermission
Tickets: $30-$52; $18 children under 18 and SU students; $35 under 40
Information: Call (315) 443-3275 or
Family guide
: Adult language, disturbing themes, violence

October 19 Trio con Brio Copenhagen

Trio con Brio Copenhagen: The best things in life are ‘three’
The outstanding piano trio dazzles the Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music audience with its adrenaline-charged tempos and polished ensemble

By David Abrams

Whoever coined the phrase there’s strength in numbers may have been unaccustomed to the extraordinary world of chamber music, where a reduction in forces — especially at the hands of great composers — can possibly heighten the power and weight of the performance.

Trio con Brio Copenhagen, one of the hottest piano trios on the circuit today currently on its latest North American tour, stopped by Syracuse Saturday evening for the second concert of Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music’s 2013-14 season.  The force of three then overwhelmed the sizeable crowd in attendance with consistently outstanding playing throughout the engaging three-work program.

As its name suggests, the ensemble is based in Copenhagen — although the players first joined forces in 1999 in Vienna, where in 2002 they sprang to fame after winning the ARD-Munich International Music Competition.  Several additional first-place finishes followed, including the coveted Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson International Trio AwardTrio con Brio Copenhagen is also a family affair.  

The two Korean string players (violinist Soo-Jin Hong and cellist Soo-Kyung Hong) are sisters, and pianist Jens Elvekjaer is the husband of the cellist (a fact made obvious by his absentminded walking offstage ahead of his wife following the group’s bows).  But although sisters, Soo-Jin and Soo-Kyung look nothing alike at least while playing.

Soo-Kyung sits directly facing the audience, her cello positioned perpendicularly to the center of the auditorium as if about to perform a concerto.  Although the music stand sits unobtrusively off to her right, Soo-Kyung rarely looks at the music.  She gazes instead into the crowd, or into the eyes of the other players when beginning or ending a phrase.  Soo-Kyung’s shapely tone, while not especially large, is well-suited to chamber music, and her melodic lines maintain a sense of direction at all times.

In contrast, Soo-Jin stares fixedly at the printed music as if in a state of total absorption and sheer determination.  (Watching her play, I wondered whether she would so much as flinch if someone in the crowd were to heave a chair in her direction.)  Yet while her head remains fixed on the music, her soul roams freely within the texture of the music-making going on around her.  

Soo-Jin produces a large and daring tone on her 17th century Guarneri violin.  The boldness of her sound, combined with her intrepid delivery, at times recalls that of Hilary Hahn.  At other times, however, her robust delivery appears better suited to solo concerto playing, with orchestral accompaniment, than it does chamber music.  Either way, one has to marvel at her formidable performance skills, including phenomenal technical and rhythmic skills.   

I’ve always maintained that musicians, by and large, tend to look like practitioners of the instruments they play — and this is especially true of Elvekjaer.  Tall, lank, handsome and slender-fingered, this man could easily be picked out of a police lineup as “the pianist.”  (Not that I’m suggesting that playing a piano is a crime, of course.)  

As a performer, Elvekjaer is fearless.  He seized the moment and headed straight into battle during the busy finger-busting sections of the music  as if prepared to perish in a blaze of glory rather than play it safe and hit all the right notes.  Elvekjaer in fact missed very few notes, even during the pernicious 16th-note passages of the opening Allegro con brio of the Beethoven Piano Trio and the tricky octave passages in the Scherzo movement of Mendelssohn’s Piano Trio.  Beyond his formidable technical skills, Elvekjaer possesses a convincing Mozartean touch, as he frequently demonstrated during the course of the evening.

For all its impressive individual skills, Trio con Brio Copenhagen built its well-deserved reputation as a tightly knit chamber ensemble, one whose whole is greater than the sum of its parts.  It is an exciting group to watch, in part due to the exciting tempos that at times border on the wild  which was at once apparent with the ambitious tempo of the opening movement (Allegro con brio) of Beethoven’s early Piano Trio No. 3 in C minor, Op. 1, No. 3 that opened the program.

Published in 1795, this trio was the third and final work in Beethoven’s first published collection of works (opus means “published work”).  The trio reveals the assimilation of Viennese classicism that characterized the composer’s early style, although the work’s daring key structures look ahead to his middle period, for which he is better known.  This third trio remained Beethoven’s personal favorite among the set, with dramatic writing that presages his more famous works in the key of C minor: the Pathétique Sonata and Fifth Symphony.

The players handled the opening movement’s delicate turns and grace-notes with great warmth and charm, and delivered the themes of the exposition in playful, Haydnesque fashion.  I was especially impressed with the frequent octave passages between violin and cello, whose seamless blend of tone reminds us that these two are indeed siblings.  The heavily syncopated third movement Menuetto came off with a firm sense of pulse that heightened the underlying rhythmic tension, and the rapid passage-work throughout the final Prestissimo was dazzling. 

Curiously, this Finale movement ends softly and gently — a rarity indeed for the irascible composer’s fast movements.  Audience members unfamiliar with the work refused to believe the piece had ended, applauding only after an uncomfortable silence had run its course.

The playful Beethoven Trio gave way to the flamboyant and action-packed Piano Trio in C Major by early 20th-century Spanish cellist-composer Gaspar Cassadó.  

The Barcelona-born Cassadó, a student of the great Spanish cellist Pablo Casals, was known during his lifetime principally as a cellist who, like Casals’s contemporary the violinist Fritz Kreisler, also dabbled in musical composition.  Cassadó’s highly stylized music peaked in popularity during the 1920s and ‘30s but fell largely out of favor following World War II  after Casals and others accused him of being a fascist, or fascist sympathizer, during the 30 years or so he spent in Italy.  The four-movement Piano Trio was written in 1926.

As was true of the prior work on the program and the Mendelssohn Trio that followed, Trio con Brio Copenhagen delivered no talks from the stage, even though a few words about this rarely heard and largely unfamiliar work might have been welcome by an audience eager to learn more about it.  The three players simply took a deep breath and dove headfirst into the ethnocentric Spanish music — creating a sudden splash of exotic Flamenco and Gypsy colors that sprayed the crowd clear through the last row of the auditorium.

The ear-popping opening Allegro risoluto immediately recalls the thick and splashy instrumental colors of Maurice Ravel and Manuel De Falla, couched in a busy atmosphere that could rival the opening carnival scene of Stravinsky’s Petrushka.  Add to this mix a touch of Liberace in the piano part and you pretty much get the idea. The Gypsy-ish second movement and opening of the third movement, with its touches of Flamenco guitar alternating with mournful repeated ostinatos, had me longing to hear the voice of Ricardo Montalban chanting “Cordoba!”  The sprightly dance-like part of the final movement, with its whole-tone scales and Spanish inflections brought the piece to a rousing conclusion, followed by shouts of approval from a clearly delighted crowd.  

Written only two years before his death in 1847, Felix Mendelssohn’s weighty Piano Trio No. 2 in C minor, Op. 66 remains my personal favorite among the composer’s many outstanding chamber works.  A piece such as this can rightly come only at the end of a multi-work program, as it did here — forging a much needed anchor to the fluffy divertissement of the prior Cassadó piece and providing the meat and potatoes of the evening’s fare.

The C Minor Trio opens in dramatic fashion with all the gravitas of a major piano chamber work of a Brahms or a Dohnányi.  One could easily lose oneself in this movement (the work’s weightiest), carried away by the intense power of the profoundly nostalgic writing.  Trio con Brio Copenhagen reached deeply into its bag of tricks to deliver the depth of expression necessary to pull the notes off the page and project them into the soul of the listener.

The ensemble shaped the amiable phrases of the slow movement (Andante espressivo which in many ways resembles the composer’s Songs Without Words  with tender affection and warmth of expression.  The two string players were especially impressive in their delicate phrasings here, and helped guide the movement to an ethereal, whisper-quiet conclusion.

The three players took a wickedly fast tempo for the third movement Scherzo that I suspect raised my blood pressure to dangerous levels.  This über-exciting movement demands razor-sharp ensemble interplay, with no time to catch your balance if so much as a single note goes amiss.  Yet in spite of the take-no-prisoners tempo, ensemble never sounded unbalanced or rushed. 

The work’s final movement is noteworthy for the incorporation of a chorale tune, Vor Deinem Thron (Before Your Throne), which Mendelssohn first weaves into the piano part before passing it along to the strings.  Like the opening movement, this weighty Allegro appassionato has the feel and substance of Brahms’s mighty chamber works.  And like Brahms’s First Symphony and Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony, Mendelssohn’s Trio begins in C Minor but ends triumphantly in C Major.  When the final glorious C Major chord sounded, the audience rose to its feet in an immediate (and thoroughly well deserved) standing ovation.

Count Saturday’s Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music program among those memorable performances that, were you to experience it even once in a season, would bring enough personal fulfillment to last clear until the following fall.

But looking at the remaining SFCM schedule, I don’t expect we’ll have to wait quite that long.   

Details Box:

What: Trio con Brio Copenhagen
Who: Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music

Where: Lincoln Middle School, 1613 James Street, Syracuse

When: October 19, 2013

Time: One hour and 45-minutes, including intermission 


Next concert: Miró Quartet, 7:30 p.m. Saturday, November 23
Tickets:  Regular $20; senior $15; student $10 (available at door)

DVD reviews: Much Ado about Nothing

Shakespeare on DVD: At last, a go-to ‘Much Ado’

Joss Whedon’s film adaptation of ‘Much Ado about Nothing’ was well worth waiting for

By Wayne Myers

Has it really been 20 years since the 1993 release of Kenneth Branagh’s fulsome, overpraised film adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing — Shakespeare’s 1599 play about things misread and misheard?

With its dangerous sexual corners, a villain that anticipates Edmund in Shakespeare’s 1606 King Lear, a pair of lovers in denial that delight in verbally abusing one another as a substitute for sex, and a virgin on her wedding day accused by her fiancé of being a “rotten orange,” Much Ado about Nothing came near the end of a prolific period in the Bard’s career, on the brink of his fervent middle period that includes such dark and sexual plays (all masterworks) as Twelfth Night, or What You Will, Troilus and Cressida, Measure for Measure and Othello.

Much Ado about Nothing was a delicious taste of things to come.

You don’t get any of this with Branagh’s disappointing 1993 adaptation, undermined by marquee-name miscasting that did more for the film’s box office than it did for the film itself, as well as Branagh’s own cloying misreading of the play as a “light” comedy (despite a scene in which Borachio and Conrade are clearly shown to have been tortured for information at the hands of Dogberry’s men). The film began on an extraordinary high note, with the poignant use of the song Sigh No More, Ladies, nicely grounding the Beatrice-Benedick relationship by suggesting an earlier failed romance, but aside from Emma Thompson’s wonderful Beatrice, what followed never really matched that engaging beginning.  

Beatrice and Benedick, one of Shakespeare’s most loved couples, are far more sophisticated than their damaged predecessors, lovers Kate and Petruchio from Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew. Branagh was not necessarily miscast as Benedick, but his too-large-for-film performance, in contrast to Thompson’s more subtle portrayal, made it seem so. The arbor scene in which Don Pedro, Claudio and Leonato trick the concealed Benedick into believing Beatrice loves him madly (they don’t know how close to the truth they really are!) was simply unfunny. Michael Keaton’s strange Dogberry (he rides an imaginary horse) was not Shakespeare’s “fellow that hath had losses.” And one of the play’s best lines, the treacherous Don John’s “Would the cook were a’ my mind” (i.e., he would poison the food to be served at that evening’s banquet) was cut.

Many of the characters constantly laughed throughout the film’s first 30 minutes or so — at least making it understandable why Don John despises them so. Who wouldn’t under these circumstances? The film was also over-scored, and some critics who reviewed the movie favorably made much of its Tuscany setting. Too bad the Tuscan sun wasn’t a blistering one, or that the Messina nights weren’t steamier.

With opportunities for a great film adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing squandered in 1993, we were left to wait another 20 years for a film adaptation of the play — which is not that unusual, as this is the world of Shakespeare on film. You get used to disappointment. Many continue to rave about rare exceptions like Franco Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet, but that was produced 45 years ago. There’s been little to rave about since when it comes to film versions of Shakespeare, although Baz Luhrmann in 1996 directed the very popular modern Romeo + Juliet, starring Claire Danes and Leonardo DiCaprio, a year which saw another disappointing Shakespeare film adaptation released, Trevor Nunn’s Twelfth Night.

As we entered the second decade of the 21st century it was only a question of who would make the next attempt to successfully adapt a Shakespeare comedy for film. On the strength of his stage and film work, Sam Mendes seemed to be the best candidate, having directed for stage noteworthy productions of Othello, Troilus and Cressida, and in 2012, Richard III (starring Kevin Spacey as Richard) as part of the Bridge Project — a transatlantic collaboration between Spacey’s Old Vic, Mendes’s Neal Street Productions and the Brooklyn Academy of Music.

Also in 2012, Mendes directed the atmospheric James Bond film Skyfall, with a cast that had solid Shakespeare credentials, including Ralph Fiennes, Judi Dench, Helen McCrory and Rory Kinnear (who was an excellent Angelo to Anna Maxwell Martin’s Isabella in the 2010 Measure for Measure at the Almeida in London). The prior year, Mendes had staged for the Bridge Project a much darker than usual As You Like It.

So it must have come as a shock in insular Shakespearean circles that when a long-awaited film adaptation finally arrived, it came not from one steeped in Shakespeare (or for that matter Sondheim) like Mendes, but an American film director much better known as a comic book author and for his television work such as Buffy the Vampire Slayer and the 2012 summer blockbuster film The Avengers.

Shot at his Santa Monica home in just 12 days, Joss Whedon’s film adaptation of Much Ado about Nothing grew out of the series of Sunday afternoon Shakespeare readings he held at his home.

Much Ado is very much about innuendo, especially sexual, and Whedon’s choice to shoot the film in black and white (for economic reasons) gave the film a racy pre-Code Hollywood feel such as that found in the 1932 Ernst Lubitsch film Trouble in Paradise, also filled with sexual innuendo.

Whedon’s film boasts several fine performances, but the success of any Much Ado lies with its Beatrice and Benedick, and the director has cast exceptionally well here with Amy Acker and Alexis Denisof, respectively. Acker is the Beatrice whose heart “keeps on the windy side of care,” and her physical comedy makes the character utterly endearing. The entry into their private world was especially good, with their initial exchange revealing how they really feel about each other almost immediately:

Beatrice: I wonder that you will still be talking, Signior Benedick. Nobody marks you.

Benedick: What, my dear Lady Disdain! Are you yet living?


Fran Kranz’s Claudio and Jillian Morgese’s Hero made a sweet match — not the usual awkward couple upstaged by Beatrice and Benedick. We see Hero’s bedroom filled with stuffed animals, and that makes it a little more heart-breaking when she’s accused at the altar of being a slut.

Sean Maher’s Don John captured an innate sense of isolation and bitterness, perhaps from having a brother who always wins and gets the best of everything, but Reed Diamond as Don Pedro really didn’t give him much to work with — which is to say Diamond’s Prince of Arragon was the standard Don Pedro often seen in productions of Much Ado.

A rare departure from the way the character is usually played was seen in Peter Hall's Theatre Royal Bath 2005 production, with Charles Edwards's Don Pedro having an unacknowledged attraction to Claudio. In his July 8, 2005 review, London Guardian critic Michael Billington calls attention to the pleasure Don Pedro takes in helping to wreck Claudio and Hero’s wedding. At the play’s end Don Pedro is left alone, as his now married friends go off to new lives.

Nathan Fillion delivered the perfect Dogberry, chief of the politician Leonato’s security team, for the celebrity culture. He exudes an authoritative bearing — that is, until he opens his mouth, mangling word meanings and hilariously misusing legal terms, calling defendants “plaintiffs” (one gets the feeling he received his college degree in criminal justice from a diploma mill). When Dogberry rages over Conrade’s calling him an ass, it’s both sad and hysterical watching him struggle to put on his suit jacket, not realizing he’s putting on Verges’s jacket, which is much too small.

Whedon composed the music for Sigh No More, Ladies, but here it’s more a tongue-in-cheek riff on love than it is a commentary on Beatrice and Benedick’s relationship. To ground that, Whedon begins the film with a scene that’s not in Shakespeare’s play — the last minutes of an earlier sexual encounter between the pair. It’s a coupling that neither is really ready for, and we see Beatrice already raise her defenses. She may be in love with Benedick even then, but she’s determined to show him he’s just another lay.

The arbor scene with Benedick, Leonato, Hero’s father, Claudio and Don Pedro still lacks subtlety. Don John’s line “Would the cook were a’ my mind!” was again cut, but not the fun line he delivers as he chastises Hero at her wedding, “Thus, pretty lady, I am sorry for thy much misgovernment,” suggesting bad parenting.

The wedding sequence was “Philadelphia Story gone awry.” You could envision the fiasco quickly becoming a TMZ breaking story, and the anguish of Leonato and his daughter splashed on the pages of the New York Post and the Internet for the whole wide world to see.

There seemed to be little reason other than the opportunity for some boy-girl sex in making Conrade (Riki Lindhome, as one of Don John’s cohorts), a woman, and I would have liked to have felt more of an undercurrent of potential violence, but these are small sacrifices considering the many other good things Whedon’s film contains.

This is the go-to Much Ado about Nothing film adaptation. Three and a half stars out of four.   

Details Box:
What: DVD: Shakespeare’s Much Ado about Nothing, film adaptation
Who: Directed by, and original score by, Joss Whedon
Released by: Lionsgate and Roadside Attractions, $19.95
Cast: Amy Acker (Beatrice), Alexis Denisof (Benedick), Reed Diamond (Don Pedro), Nathan Fillion (Dogberry), Clark Gregg (Leonato), Fran Kranz (Claudio), Sean Maher (Don John), and Jillian Morgese (Hero)
Running time: 107 minutes
Rated: PG-13 Some sexuality and brief drug use
DVD special features: Much Ado about Making Nothing and Bus Ado about Nothing featurettes, and Sigh No More music video.

October 11 Syracuse Opera: The Tragedy of Carmen

Carmen Lite: Singing shines in Syracuse Opera’s pocket-sized ‘The Tragedy of Carmen’

But the production’s austere minimalist set and Peter Brook’s condensing of Bizet’s magnificent operatic score may not suit every listener’s tastes

By David Abrams

The story of Carmen has been told countless times in countless ways — from the original novella by French author Prosper Mérimée that formed the nucleus of Bizet’s opera to the cinema (The Loves of Carmen with Rita Hayworth) to Broadway (Carmen Jones), and from ballet to Bugs Bunny cartoons.  But few settings have captured the drama surrounding a proud soldier self-destructing over his relentless obsession with a gypsy femme fatale with as much emotional power and lyrical passion as Bizet’s Carmen.  

Syracuse Opera’s season-opening production of The Tragedy of Carmen, a scaled-down but dramatically intense adaptation of Bizet’s opera by Peter Brook, gave listeners a taste of the story many had not experienced before and did so with some strong individual singing efforts.  And although some listeners expecting to re-live the splendor of Bizet’s Carmen may have left the theater disappointed, the broad shouts of approval at the production’s conclusion suggests that great drama, expressed unconventionally, may merit a look.

Brook, the British-born theater and opera director widely respected for his productions of Shakespeare, offers much to contemplate in this boldly edited distillation of the Bizet masterpiece.  Gone are the choruses, ensemble numbers (other than the duets) and several of the characters.  Brook gives Carmen a second life, reworking Bizet’s music and libretto into a highly concentrated and emotionally intense reduction of the composer’s original.

At one-third the length of Carmen (the opera), The Tragedy of Carmen is an 80-minute product perhaps best labeled as Carmen Lite.  And like Bud Light, Brook’s version is less filling.  But whether the new product also tastes great depends on each listener’s palate.

I have to go on record admitting that I don’t much care for the Peter Brook version.  I applaud his vision in focusing on and intensifying the dramatic aspects of Carmen, even though that means trimming away the fat.  But it is well to remember that reducing fat also compromises taste.  And for those like me who have spent many happy years basking in the sheer beauty and power of Bizet’s dazzling score, it’s difficult to embrace an alternate version that pares its music to Reader’s Digest proportions while reducing a full-size orchestra to a 15-piece chamber ensemble.  

A second problem for Bizet enthusiasts is the depressing set used for the current production of The Tragedy of Carmen — which may have had some listeners wondering whether they took the wrong door and ended up at an Ingmar Bergman film festival.  

Certainly, the set has to remain faithful to Brook’s dark, desolate and nightmarish drama in which all four characters are doomed.   But Syracuse Opera’s ultra-bare minimalist set — a large circular carousel with a small black table and chair — captured the expressionistic atmosphere of the drama with uncompromising sterility.  Eighty minutes of despair in a dark room is hard to take.  When I left the theater I was ready for light therapy.   

But whatever your feelings on the Brook setting and austere set, there is much to love in the singing here, and Ola Rafalo — singing her first-ever role of Carmen — deserves the lion’s (or should I say tigress’s) share of the credit.

Rafalo’s dark and richly hued mezzo soprano during the sultry Habanera established her character immediately as a seductress par excellence, and her pitch in the devious Seguidilla was incredibly accurate — with no sign of seams when navigating through vocal registers during the spacious octave leaps that permeate this demanding aria. 

Rafalo’s acting skills are quite satisfactory in this role, buoyed by her good looks and attractive figure that breathe life into her persona as a deadly siren.  When Rafalo performed the Castanets Dance in front of Don José, the poor soul remained frozen like a deer caught in the headlights.  I especially loved her rendition of the famous Triangle Song, which she delivered in bravura fashion  although I wish she had danced this, as is customary, instead of simply twirling around a shawl.

We only hear the role of Micaëla at the beginning and end of the Brook version and that’s a shame, because soprano Colleen Daly’s silky and deeply penetrating soprano provided a treat for the ears I wish did not have to end.  Daly’s duet with Don José at the smugglers’ camp was full of expression and nuance, and she projected well throughout the performance, with credible French diction.       

As the doomed soldier Don José, Brent Reilly Turner overcame some tightness in his throat early on in his duet with Daly and found his voice, in all its glory, during the magnificent Flower Song (La fleur que tu m’avais jetée), which he delivered with great depth of feeling.  The role of Don José in the Brook adaptation does not garner the same degree of sympathy as in the Bizet opera.  The troubled soldier comes across here as little more than a cold hearted, cutthroat murderer — having killed his captain (Zuniga), Carmen’s husband García (a character in the original novella who does not appear in Bizet’s opera), and ultimately Carmen herself. 

Had the bull not killed Escamillo, Don José may very well have obliged him, as well.  

Turner, whose acting Friday left something to be desired, nevertheless forged a character that appeared believably disillusioned with his life and his continuous spiral downwards into the depths of despair.  Still, his exaggerated sobbing and uncontrollable cries of anguish at the end, as he kills Carmen, was over-the-top and unconvincing.       

Like Turner, Wes Mason as the toreador Escamillo needed some time to shift his pleasant baritone into “drive.”  He clipped his phrases in short staccato spurts at the at the beginning of his signature Toreador song before expanding the melodic lines into a smoothly sustained legato that laid bare the handsome quality of his voice.  His baritone carried easily throughout the theater, and his high notes were solidly on-pitch.  Mason, who raised eyebrows in the crowd when he removed his shirt, made the cover of the Barihunks blogspot — which touts itself as showing off “The Sexiest Baritone Hunks from Opera.”  There may be a promising career ahead for this man — either as a singer, or a Chippendale.

The 15-piece orchestra, all of whom except the pianist comprises Symphoria musicians, provided excellent instrumental accompaniment in this newfangled chamber transcription provided by Brook’s musical collaborator, Marius Constant.  Because the performance started some 25-minutes late (due to an unspecified “technical glitch”), intonation among the wind and brass instruments began slightly off-kilter, but the seasoned musicians brought pitch under control sooner than the crowd could say “Habanera.”  The Entr’acte music with flute (Deborah Coble) and harp (Ursula Kwasnicka) was especially lovely.

Conductor Douglas Kinney Frost, Producing and Artistic Director for Syracuse Opera, followed the singers faithfully and maintained a proper balance between singers and instrumentalists that was well suited to the live acoustics of the Carrier Theater.  

For this production, Syracuse Opera chose to use French, the language of Brook’s original, even though a perfectly adequate English translation by Sheldon Harnick (Fiddler on the Roof) is available and widely used in this country.  I applaud Syracuse Opera for sticking to the original language for the arias and duets.  But there’s no good reason why the spoken dialogue couldn’t have been delivered in English, the way the company had done in past productions of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.  As it was, Bruce Paulsen (as Lillas Pastia) was the only one of the three speak-only roles whose French was even remotely intelligible.  Common sense dictates either using English for the spoken dialogue, or else hiring actors whose résumés include French 101.    
Stage Director Jeffrey Marc Buchman’s antics ranged from the daring (simulated sex scene between Carmen and Don José) to the dangerous (choreographed knife fights).  The fight sequence between Don José and Escamillo conjured a convincing sense of realism and danger that had me wondering whether Workers Comp covers opera-related injuries.  I especially liked Buchman’s clever and audacious touches during Carmen’s Habanera scene, as the seductress appears to fondle Micaëla from behind, then raises the girl’s arms and begins to work her as one would a marionette.  

Buchman’s use of an orchestra recording of the Toreador section in the Overture to Bizet’s Carmen during Escamillo’s nightmare sequence — where he foresees his impending death at the bullfight ring — proved a double-edged sword.  On the one hand, I appreciated this clever touch and the pantomime that accompanied it.  On the other hand, hearing this excerpt from the full-orchestra version made me long that much more for Bizet’s original score.  

The barren set demands suitable compensatory lightening effects, which were craftily managed by Christopher Ostrom’s spotting on the characters at the proper moments.  The stage remains dark and gloomy throughout the performance, so lighting is limited exclusively to spotlighting characters at dramatically opportune moments.  For example, when Micaëla pleads with Don José to return home to his dying mother, only Carmen is illuminated  suggesting that Don José’s infatuation will prevail over dear old mom.

The present Syracuse Opera production, which runs through Oct. 20, signals a return to Carrier Theater at which the company routinely performed in its earlier years.  The theater, which can accommodate about 463 listeners, allows an ease of projection on the part of the singers and instrumentalists that is flattering at even the softest dynamic levels.  Moreover, there’s not a bad seat (either aurally or visually) in the house.  On the other hand, the size of the orchestra pit is limited, which may affect the company’s choice of repertory.  Even with a pit of only 14 instruments, the piano used in this production had to be positioned outside the pit (and out of sight), stage left.

I’m glad I saw this production of The Tragedy of Carmen.  Even beyond the fine singing (and in particular the memorable performance of Ola Rafalo) there’s merit to seeing an old favorite rebottled as new product.  To be sure, Peter Brook provides an interesting brew in this Carmen Lite

But in this case, one drink is my limit.

Details Box:
What: The Tragedy of Carmen, adapted by Peter Brook from the opera by Georges Bizet
Language: Sung in French, with projected English titles
Who: Syracuse Opera
Performance reviewed: 8 p.m. Friday, October 11, 2013 (opening night)
Where: Carrier Theater, John H. Mulroy Civic Center, 411 Montgomery St., Syracuse, NY
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Oct. 15; 8 p.m. Oct. 18; and 2 p.m. Oct. 20
Length: One hour and 20 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $19 to $81
Contact: Box office, (315) 47-OPERA or
Family Guide:  Simulated sex scene, adult themes

October 9 CNY Playhouse: Inherit the Wind

Trial by fire and brimstone: CNY Playhouse’s ‘Inherit the Wind’ takes religious fundamentalism to court

Even firm believers in evolution can agree that the company’s well-staged production is a result of ‘intelligent design’

By David Abrams

It’s been close to 90 years since the infamous “Scopes trial,” named after John Scopes  the public school teacher arrested and put on trial for violating Tennessee’s “Butler Anti-Evolution Law” forbidding the teaching of evolution in the schools.  But the clash of science and religion, brought to life in the 1955 play Inherit the Wind, is far from settled.  School boards continue to crusade for banning public school science textbooks that do not give equal credence to creationism and intelligent design as they do evolution.  And the intolerance goes all the way to Washington.  (Raise your hand if you remember the 2008 Republican presidential debate, where three GOP candidates raised their hands asserting they do not believe in evolution.)

CNY Playhouse tackles the issues raised in the celebrated play by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee and does so in light-hearted fashion — with a wink and nod to the play’s touches of levity.  The authors’ message still comes through loud and clear in this production directed by Sharee Lemos, but the journey is as amiable as it is meaningful.  

Inherit the Wind is based loosely on the Scopes trial of the mid-1920s town in Tennessee at which Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan (personified in this play as Bryan Henry Drummond and Matthew Harrison Brady, respectively) squared off famously in what the press touted as “The Monkey Trial.”  Lawrence and Lee completed the play in 1950, although it was not actually staged until January 1955.  The authors’ immediate intention was to combat the pervasive atmosphere of anti-intellectualism fostered by the anti-communist, fundamentalist hysteria of the McCarthy era.  

Mounting Inherit the Wind is no easy task, especially for a newcomer such as CNY Playhouse.  The play calls for a large cast, with the drama resting on the shoulders of two strongly defined characters, Matthew Harrison Brady and Henry Drummond.  These two titans will battle each other in a colossal matchup of wits that, if we substitute a boxing ring for the courtroom, is worthy of the mighty Ali-Frazier heavyweight championship fights.

Ideally, these two characters should be evenly matched.  After all, there’s not much drama in a first-round knockout.  In the current production, however, veteran local actor Joe Pierce as Brady gets the upper hand over his principal adversary Henry Drummond (played by Tom Minion) almost immediately, and steals the show with his booming voice and commanding stage presence. 

Once an unsuccessful candidate for President, Pierce’s character Brady is never at a loss for words, and those words string together — slickly and predictably — as a never-ending parade of stump speeches.  Pierce, whose shirt is carefully stuffed at the belly to give him a portly look that adds credence to his fatal heart attack shortly after the conclusion of the trial, crafted a believable image of William Jennings Bryan and captured the attention of the audience whenever he took to the stage.  Handkerchief in-hand at all times, Pierce was the only character to look genuinely affected by the town’s oppressive July heat spell.  

Pierce’s courtroom antics were believably bold, clever and cunning.  I count myself among the evolutionists, but I was nevertheless prepared to chuck it all by the end of Act Two for that “old time religion” Pierce was selling.  Or at the very least, buy a vacuum cleaner from the man.  

As Henry Drummond, Minion gave a solid performance as the enlightened seasoned defense attorney who took the unpopular case as a matter of conscience, not money, and is the recipient of some of the wittiest lines and snappy comebacks in the play.  Still, he could not muster enough charisma to trump Pierce for the sympathies of the audience.

Minion nevertheless made the most of his moments of mirth, such as the courtroom scene where all 15 of his expert defense witnesses (each of them a scientist) are denied by the judge who sustained the objections made by Brady at every turn.  “Do you have any objections to my calling an expert witness on the Bible?,” asks Drummond.  “Of course not,” chuckles Brady.  Drummond then calls an astonished Brady to the stand.  

Minion’s most convincing work comes at the end, when he chides E.K. Hornbeck — the cynical newspaper reporter from Baltimore modeled after H.L. Mencken  for callously deriding Brady after learning of his sudden and unexpected death.  

“You have no more right to spit on his religion than you have a right to spit on my religion, or my lack of it,” admonishes Drummond.  At the end of the play, in a telling gesture, Minion slowly and ceremoniously places both the Darwin book and the Bible in his briefcase.  The message comes through loud and clear: Science and religion can coexist in harmony, if given the chance to do so.  

As Hornbeck, Ed Mastin used his weighty baritone to good effect throughout the play, giving the quintessential media monger the proper degree of cockiness and acerbity as he mocks most every aspect of the trial and its principals.  It’s important to understand that Mastin’s character, an atheist, is not intended to be the voice of reason.  Though he ridicules religious zealots, Hornbeck is not so different from the fanatical Brady: Both are close-minded bigots who believe there is no room for competing interpretations as to the meaning of existence.  “I’m no reporter, Colonel,” Hornbeck tells Brady during an interview.  “I’m a critic.”

Bob Lamson plays his part of the no-nonsense Judge Merle Raulston with a ‘judicious’ balance of solemnity and self-importance, and looks the part.  I suspect Lamson could pass himself off as a Supreme Court Justice on his next trip to Washington and manage to get away with it.

Bill Lee crafted a high-and-mighty Reverend Jeremiah Brown who all but spit bullets in spreading the word of an almighty God who — if I am to understand the Reverend correctly — has no sense of humor whatsoever.  Lee conducted the pre-trial revivalist meeting in front of Brady and a lynch-mob consortium of townspeople with evangelical fervor, spewing hatred from his makeshift pulpit until Brady, every so diplomatically, suggested that perhaps the element of forgiveness is part of God’s message as well.  The role of the Reverend is fictitious: There was no such character in the original Scopes trial.  But his character is every bit as real as Senator Joseph McCarthy.  

As the Reverend’s browbeaten daughter Rachel, Liz Russell needed some time to relax and find the right mix of her character (i.e., confused and frightened) as the oppressed daughter of an overbearing father.  Russell saved her best work for the scene at the witness stand, as she watches her life unravel under the relentless grilling by Brady.  

Austin Arlington, as Rachel’s boyfriend the accused teacher, Bertram Cates, makes a convincing transition from a disillusioned young man trying to do right by his students to a martyr willing to accept punishment in order to provide a path for those who will succeed him in the journey to truth and science.  “Progress has never been a bargain,” Drummond reminds us.  “You've got to pay for it."

Among the smaller roles, Marguerite Fulton-Newton played the bit part of Mrs. Krebs to perfection, with a solid speaking voice and a look of authority that suggests her character is a card-carrying member of both the Daughters of the American Revolution and the NRA.  Robert D. Miller, as the District Attorney Tom Davenport, played his role as Brady’s assistant at trial as somewhat of a wimp, and kept his speaking voice largely inaudible.  If this was an intentional move it should be pointed out that Pierce’s strongly defined character is in no danger of being overshadowed by anyone in this cast.  Stephen J. Brownell in the bit part as Elijah was an absolute hoot in the voire dire scene, giving me the biggest laugh of the evening.

Under the buoyant direction of Sharee Lemos there was precious little stagnancy in this two-hour production (the three acts are separated here into two halves, with a single intermission).  Even though there are hoards of characters to manage in this play (21 names listed in the program not including a young girl), Lemos manages to inject a near-constant degree of anima especially evident during the crowd scenes — which run the gamut from menacing and scary (like the lynch mob in To Kill a Mockingbird) to exaggerated and comical (the God-fearing townspeople in Mel Brooks’s farcical Blazing Saddles).  Lemos heightened the comedic elements of the play, from the sharp-tongued point-counterpoint volley of invective between Matthew Harrison Brady and Henry Drummond to the hilarious voire dire process vetting a decidedly biased pool of jurors.

A motley crew of redneck farmers, cowpokes, Forrest Gumpers and bible-thumping religious zealots played their parts with passion and enthusiasm, remaining in-character at all times — whether shouting ecstatic phrases of praise and Halleluiahs in counterpoint with Reverend Jeremiah Brown’s fire-and-brimstone chantings at the pre-trial rally on the steps of the courthouse, or simply waving hand-fans while sitting in the sweltering courtroom (which the script gives as a scorching 97-degrees).

Set Designer Navroz Dabu’s handsome two-tiered set frames the action that takes place both within, and outside of, the courthouse.  At the top of stage right stands a handsome, wooden-framed loft that will hold spectators of townspeople (all rooting for the prosecution) during the trial.  Behind them sits four tall courtroom windows, and in front of them a wooden staircase connecting the spectators to the judge’s bench and witness stand, below.  At stage left sits the outside of the stone-studded county courthouse and cut-outs of trees, and inside stands tables that seat the teams for the prosecution and defense.  At center is a large sign that gently reminds folks to “READ YOUR BIBLE.”  

Barbara Toman’s period dress keeps the action, and the townspeople (many of them who look as if they’re straight off the set of Mayberry from The Andy Griffith Show), squarely in the 1950s.    

Due to a reviewing conflict with the October 11 opening night performance, I had to “settle” for a review of the Wednesday evening dress rehearsal.  It’s clear from this run-through that the troupe is ready to go and ready for prime time.  There was a pervasive sense of teamwork and comradery among the sizeable cast, with precious few mishaps or flubbing of lines.  

The verdict is in: Beyond any reasonable doubt, CNY Playhouse’s Inherit the Wind represents community theater at its best.

Details Box:

WhatInherit the Wind, by Jerome Lawrence and Robert E. Lee and directed by Sharee Lemos
Who: Central New York Playhouse 

Where: Shoppingtown Mall, Dewitt NY (2nd floor, next to Macy’s)

Performance reviewed: Wednesday, Oct.  9, 2013 (dress rehearsal)
Remaining performances: Opens 8 p.m. Friday, Oct. 11 and plays through Oct. 26

Length:  About 2 hours and 10 minutes

Tickets:  $15 to $20; dinner and show, $34.95 (Saturdays only)

Call: 315-885-8960 or
Family guide: Suitable for all ages

October 5 Met (Live): Eugene Onegin

The Met’s new production of ‘Eugene Onegin’ disappoints

The company’s new production of the Tchaikovsky masterpiece is cramped and cheap, leaving the listener longing for a return of the 1997 version

By David Rubin

The Metropolitan Opera in New York chose to open its 2013-14 season with a new production (in cooperation with the English National Opera) of Tchaikovsky’s most popular vocal work, Eugene Onegin.  The production is a drab and claustrophobic affair — one the Met did not need.  It was mounted for its star soprano, Anna Netrebko, who proved ill-suited to her role as Tatiana, the teenager who falls in love with the older, caddish Onegin.

The Met’s previous production of Onegin was all light, atmosphere, and swirling leaves.  It surged with passion.  The largely empty stage afforded the dancers — and among the glories of this score are Tchaikovsky’s dances — with plenty of room to waltz.  That previous production translated well both in the opera house and in the HD simulcast relay.

In contrast, the current production is cramped and cheap.  The entire first act is played out in some sort of potter’s shed on the Larin estate in Russia.  The stage is cut in half horizontally by a faux glass wall, pushing all the action to the front of the stage.  Through the glass the audience can see birch trees heavy with green leaves.  If only the audience could have been back there, outdoors with the birches.

The second scene of the first act is pivotal to the plot.  It should be set in Tatiana Larin’s bedroom, where the feverish girl composes her anguished letter to Onegin confessing her love.  Instead, it was played in the same potter’s shed, with Tatiana finally falling asleep on the floor next to a rickety table.  

The cramped frame of the shed also serves as the scene for the Act Two party celebrating Tatiana’s name-day.  In such a dowdy setting, the famous Waltz that opens this act went for little because there was no waltzing, just some foolish stage business with dancers wearing animal masks.

Not until the duel in the second scene of the act, where Onegin kills his former friend Lenski, does this production begin to rival its predecessor in atmosphere.  The despondent Lenski is sitting on a fallen branch of a birch tree, from which position he sings his aria Where or where have you gone, golden days of my youth?  The setting is cold, gloomy, and despairing.  In short, it fits.

A little grandeur arrives in Act Three when the action moves to a palace in St. Petersburg and Tatiana’s new life with her husband, Prince Gremin.  Nine white columns dominate the set, and while they interfere with the dancing required in the score, at least the costumes rise to the dazzling Met standard.

The last scene, in which Onegin admits to Tatiana that he has been a boob and begs her to accept him, should be played inside Tatiana’s residence.  Here it is set outside during a St. Petersburg snowstorm.  This stage picture would work splendidly for Tchaikovsky’s other great opera, The Queen of Spades, for the scene along the Winter Canal when Liza commits suicide in despair over her gambler boyfriend.  But it makes little sense as the finale to Onegin.

At this point I realized that Netrebko should have been singing Liza (in The Queen of Spades), and not Tatiana.  Liza is an enigmatic character.  The part makes few dramatic demands and it suits her still creamy middle and upper register.  But Netrebko is no Tatiana.  She doesn’t have the acting chops to become a convincing teenager in puppy love.  Throughout the first act, one could see her thinking:  “Move the arm here, walk there, look up, turn the face left.”  It was painful.  

In the first scene of Act Two Netrebko simply disappeared in the swirl of the birthday party.  Wearing a shapeless dull dress, she could have been a Larin family servant.  Her expression suggested more boredom than unrequited love.

Without an enchanting and believable Tatiana at its center, this opera loses its considerable charm.

The production did have some nice minor touches.  Projections of wheat fields and forests were effective as curtain raisers.  A lovely sunrise awoke Tatiana from her sleep in the shed.  Netrebko actually resembled her sister Olga, which heightened their relationship.  (Olga was performed winningly by a fellow Russian, Oksana Volkova.)  When Onegin is unhinged by seeing how elegant the adult, married Tatiana has become, he snatches an entire bottle of champagne, and not just a glass, during the St. Petersburg ball.  But these were not many minutes of pleasure during an opera that stretched to four hours but should have been three.

At least we had a splendid Lenski in the Polish tenor Piotr Beczala.  His open, handsome, beaming face (at least until Onegin insults him in Act Two) made him a convincing young lover of Olga.  He delivered both his major arias with beautiful, even tone and ample volume.  He had almost enough juice in his voice to make his cry of the heart in Act Two over Olga’s behavior thrilling, although both Ramon Vargas and Neil Shicoff were more powerful in this essential moment.

The Polish baritone Mariusz Kwiecien has neither the imposing physique nor the menacing voice to make Onegin the villain he is.  Tatiana’s infatuation with him was hard to understand.  His anger didn’t come from his core.  He was Onegin lite.  Given Netrebko’s wooden Tatiana, few sparks flew between the two.  Kwiecien at the Met has given a much better account of himself in comic roles such as Belcore in The Elixir of Love.  Perhaps those parts better suit his personality.  In short, bring back Dmitri Hvorostovsky in this role — forever.

Larissa Diadkova put her veteran, powerful, plummy mezzo to good use as Tatiana’s nanny, Filippyevna.  Every syllabus she sang was filled with Russian authority.  

As Triquet, the French teacher, John Graham-Hall showed a pleasant and accurate high tenor voice in delivering the little serenade to Tatiana at her party.  Why he was wearing an old-fashioned knee brace that forced him into some awkward postures (I feared for his aching back) was never made clear in the production.  The brace was so big that at first I thought he was on stilts.

Elena Zaremba has little to do as Tatiana’s mother, but she did it well and with her usual elegance.  Alexei Tanovitski was the appropriately serious Prince Gremin, although his bass voice was a bit unstable, and the low notes might have been blacker.

Valery Gergiev, without doubt the leading conductor of the Russian repertoire on the world stage, did not disappoint.  He led a stately performance, heavy with basses and cellos.  The horns did good work for him.  He delivered all the bon-bon dance numbers with panache.  The energy in the pit never flagged despite some of the boredom on stage.

The team of Deborah Warner (listed as in charge of the production) and Fiona Shaw (stage director) deserve the blame for this clunker.  One could readily believe The New York Times story that Shaw was rarely around to actually direct this show, so Netrebko’s shortcomings may not be all her fault.  She and Kwiecien seem to have been left to their own dramatic instincts.    

The lesson here is that when you have a splendid, beloved production of an opera such as Eugene Onegin, keep it.  Spend your money elsewhere.   It doesn’t grow on birch trees.

Details Box:

What:  Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Live at The Met

Who:    Metropolitan Opera
When:  Saturday matinee, October 5, 2013

Where: Metropolitan Opera House, New York

Time of performance: About four hours and five minutes

September 28 Borromeo String Quartet

Borromeo String Quartet brings the hand of Beethoven to the eyes, ears of Syracuse

Clarinetist Richard Stoltzman joins the celebrated quartet for Mozarts ‘Quintet, K. 581’ and encores the composer’s rarely heard ‘Rondo in A Major’

By David Abrams

Call it Switched-on Beethoven.  The Borromeo String Quartet, which played to a packed house at Saturday’s season-opening Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music concert, served up Beethoven with the aid of four MacBook laptops, a projector, a large screen and digital software that scrolled Beethoven’s Quartet in F-Minor, notated in the composer’s own hand.  

The power and electricity, however, came from the players themselves.

The Borromeo Quartet, a staple of the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center and longtime quartet in residence at The New England Conservatory of Music, has carved a niche for itself as an ensemble willing to use technology to enhance its product.  Whether the bridging of 18th- and 19th-century chamber music with the digital revolution is a genuine improvement or just another a passing fancy, however, remains to be seen.  But for those listeners able to get past the electronic distractions, Saturday’s performance gave credence to Borromeo’s well-deserved reputation as a first-rate string quartet.

Borromeo’s innovative practice of substituting MacBook laptop computers for traditional music stands has its advantages, to be sure.  No sheet music means no page turns — meaning the performers can read off the cumbersome full score (all four parts displayed) and switch pages as often and quickly as necessary through the use of floor-pedals hooked to the laptops’ USB ports.  

Still, this digital-age convenience comes at a price.  The open lids of the laptop computers skew the line of sight between performer and listener and obscure a sizeable portion of the performers’ bodies.  Moreover, the brightly lit Apple McIntosh insignia is distracting.  And then there are the unsightly wires hanging from the tops of the stands connecting to the foot-pedals, which further distract from the music-making process.

One of the reasons I prefer chamber music to that of larger ensembles is the greater intimacy in small numbers that helps make the musical experience a shared, hybrid dialogue between performer and listener.  The less clutter separating players and listeners, the stronger the connection between them.  I had to resort to closing my eyes several times in order to achieve this connection, and that’s hardly what live music is all about.  But this having been said, there’s no denying that the level of playing this evening was simply outstanding.

The three-work program got off to a captivating start with Beethoven’s String Quartet No. 11 in F minor, Op. 95 (“Quartetto Serioso”), which served as the “show and tell” portion of the concert.  Speaking from his chair atop the stage prior to the performance, first violinist Nicholas Kitchen directed the audience’s attention to a large screen occupying stage left that projected the score of Beethoven’s original manuscript in real time as the music travelled across the computer screens sitting on top of each performer’s music stand.

If you think it’s easy to play in this manner, think again.  Beethoven’s manuscript — with its obsessive changes and agonizing re-edits — looks like the scribble your doctor writes on your Rx prescription.  It’s a wonder how these players (none of whom ostensibly are pharmacists) are able to make sense of this scrawl quickly enough to play the correct notes and rhythms.  

Kitchen nevertheless defended the practice, explaining the value to Borromeo of playing directly from the source, without edits, during rehearsals.  Still, from the listener’s perspective the projector and screen offered very little in the way of musical enlightenment.  Even for those in attendance who could read music and were sitting close enough to the screen to follow what was going on, the projections provided little value to the listener due to the near-illegibility of the composer’s calligraphy.  Nevertheless, watching Beethoven’s handwritten notes fly across the pages gave listeners like me a warm and cozy feeling that Beethoven was somehow present during this musical experience.  (If so, I sure hope he was able to hear it.)

Dating from 1810, the Quartet No. 11 in F minor is the last of Beethoven’s so-called “middle quartets.”  The heavily dotted rhythmic motifs that dominate the fast movements speak to the composer’s growing anger and frustration over his hearing, which was continuing to deteriorate (in another seven years he would be totally deaf). 

Borromeo’s impressive blend of tone was immediately apparent in the angry unison statement that opens the Allegro con brio, and although I would have welcomed more fire and brimstone at the tortuous conclusion of the movement, the ensemble’s well rounded and balanced sonority in the softer and gentler sections — where no instrument obtrusively assumed the role of  “soloist” — was most satisfying.

The slow movement was sensitively delivered, and the relentless dotted-rhythms that drive the opening of the magnificent third movement to a wild frenzy came crashing through with great enthusiasm — in spite of the ensemble’s tendency to rush off the ties (caught up, no doubt, in the passion of the moment).  Sensitivity in the slow introduction to the final movement was especially lovely, with solid blending of inner parts (second violin and viola).

The Dvořák String Quartet No. 10 in E-flat Major that followed is an amiable, ethnocentric work that delights the ear with its Bohemian flavored melodies that flow almost unabatedly from the composer’s pen.  Borromeo captured the gentle tenderness of the lengthy opening (Allegro ma non troppo) movement, and the dance-like sections weaving in out of the musical fabric came off cheerfully and playfully.

The weightiest movement in this work may well be the second movement Dumka (a Slavic folksong that alternates in character between sadness and joy).  The slow, mournful melody passing from violin to viola sang ever so sweetly above the cello’s guitar-like strumming on a G-minor chord — producing a personal Kodak moment that will remain etched into my musical memory for a long time to come.  Borromeo put its collective soul into the music making here, playing off one-another with great warmth and sensitivity.  The jolly Bohemian dance that alternates with the elegiac theme was consistently, and irresistibly, buoyant.   

Kitchen’s abilities as the ensemble’s first violinist was especially evident during the relaxed third movement Romanza, which he phrased with great affection and tender poignancy.  Borromeo was suitably jolly in the dance-like Finale, and its peppy ensemble interplay helped make this performance a richly rewarding listening experience.

Clarinetist Richard Stoltzman, a perennial favorite among concert audiences, joined Borromeo for the concluding work on the program, Mozart’s gentle and ever so graceful Clarinet Quintet in A Major, K. 581.  

At 71 years of age, Stoltzman has lost none of the charm and charisma (or boyish looks) that catapulted him to popularity as a founding member, along with Peter Serkin, of the Tashi Quartet.  Still, the uneven passagework in the opening 16th-note passages of the first (Allegro) movement suggests that the clarinet superstar may have lost a degree of his usually reliable fingerwork, technique and polish.  Moreover, his articulated passages throughout the work revealed finger-tongue coordination problems endemic to wind players that you don't expect to hear from players of this caliber.

The most successful of the four movements was the Menuetto, for which Stoltzman found just the right relaxed tempo for such a minuet, and his improvised embellishments during the repeated sections of the second trio came off with a daring, yet controlled, sense of adventure.  I was particularly impressed with Kitchen, who mirrored Stoltzman’s improvisations almost note for note — even though it’s unlikely that Stoltzman played these embellishments the same way during rehearsal.  Stoltzman continued to embellish during the final movement's variations, although here the improvisations grew even more “daring” — until he distanced himself almost completely from accepted stylistic conventions of 18th-century Viennese classicism.  

When the work ended the audience afforded Stoltzman an immediate standing ovation, along with enthusiastic shouts of approval.  Whether they were acknowledging the clarinetist’s level of artistry, or simply his reputation, is anyone’s guess.    

Borromeo and Stoltzman returned to the stage for an encore that Kitchen, in a second talk from the stage, described as the unfinished Rondo in A Major for clarinet and string quartet.  The piece, which Mozart based on his tenor aria (Ah lo veggio) from Cosi fan Tutte, resurfaced only recently (as K. 581a) after music scholar-performer Robert Levin got his hands on Mozart’s sketches and completed what the composer had begun then soon discarded.  

Kitchen also expressed his belief that the present encore would be, according to his count, only the third public performance of this work — a questionable assertion indeed, considering that the piece can be found posted (from a live performance) on YouTube.  The work was also recorded last November, and has been widely available in this country (and elsewhere) since then. 

But whatever its history, the Rondo in A is a charming work with a memorable refrain that lingers in the musical memory long after the piece has ended.  Indeed, Stoltzman and company seemed to enjoy every measure of the work — whether penned by Mozart or Levin.  

Details Box:

What: Borromeo Quartet, with clarinetist Richard Stoltzman
Who: Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music

Where: Lincoln Middle School, 1613 James Street, Syracuse

When: September 28, 2013

Time: Two and one-half hours, including encore 

Next concert: Trio con Brio Copenhagen, Saturday, October 19
Tickets:  Regular $20; senior $15; student $10 (available at door)

September 20 Syracuse Stage: Blithe Spirit

A séance with ambiance: Syracuse Stage’s ‘Blithe Spirit’ levitates Noël Coward’s ghostly farce

Good ensemble acting “raises the spirits” in this satiric but playful discourse on marriage and commitment in well-to-do English society

By David Abrams

To hear it from Noël Coward, the phrase ‘til death do us part should be taken more as a wish than a promise.  

Charles Condomine, protagonist of Coward’s sardonic fantasy Blithe Spirit, learns the hard way that while marriage may terminate at death, one’s dearly departed spouse is under no obligation to follow suit.  Seven years following the untimely death of Charles’s “morally untidy” first wife Elvira, a medium summons her from the hereafter for what will prove to be an extended stay at the Condomine estate in Kent.  For Charles and his second wife, Ruth, there will be no peace on earth.

Syracuse Stage’s visually appealing and artistically persuasive production, which opened Friday to a packed house, delivers a faithful rendition of Coward’s “improbable farce” (the playwright’s own words), lampooning marriage and commitment in high society England with an almost perfect balance of mockery and mirth.  

Blithe Spirit is first and foremost a comedy — but don’t expect to laugh out loud in the manner of other fantasy-comedies such as Woody Allen’s The Purple Rose of Cairo.  The humor in this play is of the clever, witty variety.  Except for some light slapstick limited to the role of the maid, Edith, the play plows along in a continuous drone of sardonic writing and unrelenting wit.

The storyline centers on seven characters, principally Charles, Elvira, Ruth and Madame Arcati — the eccentric medium whose séance creates the whole mess and gets the story rolling.  Charles has engaged the medium to conduct a séance at his home in order to give him a better perspective on the occult, which he plans to include in his upcoming mystery novel.

Arcati travels on bicycle, enjoys cucumber sandwiches, takes her martinis extra dry and outfits herself in clothes that look as if mixed and matched from the local thrift shop.  She observes no social conventions or contemporary standards of any kind.  In stark contrast to the other characters in the play, all of whom are bound by codes, rules and expectations, Madame Arcati stands tall as her own person.  

The great Margaret Rutherford was the first to play Arcati, a role she later reprised to equally great acclaim in the film adaptation directed by David Lean.  (More recently, Angela Lansbury has played the part on Broadway.)  

Patricia Hodges plays Arcati in this production with an appropriate amalgam of quirkiness and unconventionality.  Indeed, as soon as Hodges steps onstage we know we are in the presence of a certified oddball — and I say this with all due respect.  At this early stage in the production’s run, however, Hodges did not appear entirely comfortably acting “silly,” with gesticulations that at times appeared calculated and self-conscious.  The character she creates seems real enough, but a role such as this (one of Coward’s most memorable creations) requires the delivery of a virtuoso.   

The role of Ruth is played in magnificent fashion by Joey Parsons.  When we first see Charles’s second wife the charming socialite is dressed to the nines in an elegant evening gown that remains flattering across every curve of her body.  Aided by Parsons’s past study of classical ballet and modern dance, Ruth carries herself across the stage with aristocratic grace, elegance and effete snobbery befitting her superior breeding, privileged education and elevated British social status.  

Ruth is, as they say in affected circles, top draaah.  But later, like the picture of Dorian Grey, her actions will begin to dismantle her beauty through increasing degrees of ugliness as she barks orders at the maid, berates Madame Arcati and henpecks her husband at every turn.  Then again, what else might you expect from a woman forced to compete for her husband’s affections with an apparition of his first-wife?  Parsons’s performance as Ruth was as good as they come, and her transition from a Dr. Jekyll to a Mr. Hyde was entirely believable.

Unlike the mercurial Ruth, who can turn on you at a moment’s notice, the calm and collected Elvira never loses her cool.  This makes her even more dangerous.  Gisela Chípe, whom some will remember as the perky maid Matilda in the Syracuse Stage production two years ago of The Clean House, captured the spirit (no pun intended) — and the looks — of the vain seductress she plays.

Even before her re-appearance in the physical world, Elvira’s presence is felt through Charles’s wistful recounting of his blissful years with wife number 1.  But as we’ll soon learn, it’s the elusive memory of Elvira, and not the actual person, whom Charles still adores.  Elvira’s true colors emerge when she occupies the Condomines’ country home, as the cunning little vixen tries to wreck Charles’s marriage, and even worse  arrange a permanent “reunion” with him in the hereafter.

Outfitted in a skimpy satin nightgown (I suspect Costume Designer Suzanne Chesney purchased this from Queen Victoria’s Secret), Chípe slinks around the drawing room as if performing a sultry ritual, adding credence to Charles’s description of her as “morally untidy” (an understatement of classic British proportion, as we learn later in the play).  But Chípe manages to capture her character’s manipulative side, and its spoiled child side, as well.  This woman would make one helluva Salome.

As the plot’s central figure Charles, Jeremiah Wiggins projects the image of a refined gentleman and successful novelist whose research for an upcoming book is the catalyst for Madame Arcati’s ill-advised séance.  Yet underneath the self-assured exterior, Charles has always been dominated by women (an observation made by Ruth in the play).

When we first see Charles he seems perfectly content to be married to a woman who, though not perhaps as sexually engaging as his first wife, nevertheless establishes stability in his life while maintaining the harmony of existence to which he has grown accustomed.  But Charles then goes through an emotional wringer, emerging in a state of total confusion at the unexpected re-emergence of Elvira, then returning to complacency and a renewed sense of control in the new ménage-à-trois arrangement with his two wives, then back again to chaos as he finds himself now dominated by both wives.      

Wiggins captured the changing faces of Charles’s predicaments and remained in character through each wild turn of events.  His diction was crisp and his voice carried well throughout the performance, and his British accent never showed signs of fading into the vernacular.

The three smaller roles were remarkably strong in this production.  As the hapless maid, Edith, Antonieta Pereira (a senior at the Syracuse University Department of Drama) captured the lion’s share of laughs, scurrying uneasily around the stage juggling dishes, glasses and plates under the scornful direction of Ruth.  Curiously, Pereira looked surprised during her curtain call — as if the enthusiastic applause and loud shouts of approval had been unexpected.  

Elizabeth Ingram played her small but colorful part as Ruth’s friend, Mrs. Bradman, to perfection.  Ingram is a wonderful character actress, and her solid British accent and wide-intervalled vocal inflections injected a convincing dose of Britannia into the production.  As her onstage husband Dr. Bradman, Curzon Dobell proved a worthy complement to the handsome ensemble of actors.   

If Blithe Spirit has an Achilles’ heel, it’s surely the play’s excessive length.  At a hefty three hours, Coward’s “improbable comedy” struggles to sustain the laughs into the final act, and some of the play’s absurdist humor seems dated.  As John Gielgud wisely observed, “it was a good joke, but he spun it out too much.”

Director Michael Barakiva may not have found a fix for Coward’s lengthy indulgence, but he did manage to keep the pacing of the action moving forward and kept all eyes focused on the stage throughout the evening.  (Of course, Elvira’s skimpy outfit didn’t hurt).  The irresistible period set by John Iacovelli, faithfully English from top-to-bottom, looked especially inviting.  During the first act I would gladly have shelled out $20 for one of Charles’s very dry martinis, and by the second act I was prepared to submit a purchase offer on the house.   

It’s difficult to imagine that Blithe Spirit began its run in London during World War II at the time of the Blitz.  But the fact that the play enjoyed a then-record run of 1,997 consecutive performances suggests that in 1941, at the height of the war, there was a desperate need for comic relief.  The original playbill program notes carried this piece of advice:

If an air raid warning be received during the performance the audience will be informed from the stage . . . those desiring to leave the theatre may do so but the performance will continue.

Yes, Virginia, the show must go on.  And this handsome Syracuse Stage production will do so only through October 6.

Details Box: 

WhatBlithe Spirit, written by Noël Coward and directed by Michael Barakiva
Who: Syracuse Stage

Where: Archbold Theatre, Syracuse Stage Complex, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse
Performance reviewed:  Friday September 20, 2013

Remaining dates: Plays through October 6

Length:  About three hours, with two intermissions

Tickets: Call (315) 443-3275 or
Family guide:  Adult situations, adult humor

September 6 CNY Playhouse: Spamalot

CNY Playhouse’s ‘Spamalot’ draws laughter galore — and every Monty Python fan in town

The area’s newest theater troupe mounts the first local production of this whacky Broadway megahit, and gets it (mostly) right

By Laurel Saiz

Judging from the reaction of the near-capacity crowd at Friday’s opening night performance, Central New York Playhouse’s current production of Spamalot, directed by Dustin Czarny, just may be the hottest ticket in town.

Central New York Playhouse, one of the area’s newest local theater companies, is the first to secure the rights to Spamalot — the 2005 Broadway megahit that ran for 1,575 performances and garnered three Tony awards including Best Musical, Best Director and Best Actress. Spamalot, of course, was “lovingly ripped off from the motion picture” Monty Python and the Holy Grail, the wacky 1975 film by the absurdist British comedy troupe that had inspired a cult-like following. Add real Central New York theater royalty to those champions of offbeat comedy and you have the makings of a local Broadway-caliber hit.

Bob Brown, famous for his multiple years playing Jesus in Salt City Performing Arts Center’s annual production of Jesus Christ Superstar, steps in as King Arthur. Joining him as the Lady of the Lake is his real-life wife, Kathleen O’Brien Brown — well regarded by local audiences and a veteran of national and international musical theater touring troupes. Several other actors in the cast might not be as well-known as someone who has played Jesus Christ some two-dozen 24 times, but they deserve to be knighted themselves for their spot-on performances in this production.

Simon Moody does yeoman’s work as Patsy. He literally does yeoman’s work, as that word is defined as “a servant in a royal or noble household, ranking between a sergeant and a groom or a squire and a page.” Poor Patsy is ever by King Arthur’s side, trotting and galloping through the byways of England, albeit by helpfully providing the clip-clop noises of horses’ hooves with coconut shells hung around his neck. A hilarious exchange about the incongruity of the coconut shells is one of the first comic bits in Act One.

Moody’s experience as a Shakespearean actor (Falstaff and Titus Andronicus) is supremely evident as he transforms a lowly servant into a noble character. One of the best and most genuinely moving songs of the evening was the duet I’m All Alone. The audience had deepest sympathies for Arthur’s stalwart, yet overlooked companion.

Another standout was Jon Wilson, an actor and director with multiple credits in Central New York theater companies. Here, he is not only the stage manager but also deigns to play a hapless plague victim in the first act I’m Not Yet Dead in and — even more hysterically funny — the lovelorn Prince Herbert in the second act. To say that Prince Herbert doesn’t live up to his father’s expectations as a brave, manly Prince would be an exaggeration. We first see Prince Herbert in a blonde curly wig and white nightgown, pining for love with the song Where Are You?, sung in a delicate falsetto. His next number, Here Are You, alludes to the fact that he does find his true love. (The revelation is so, so funny — but no spoilers here.)

Trevor F. Hill as Sir Robin has an incredible voice and a commanding stage presence, although his character is known for wetting himself in battle. Less commanding was Alan D. Stillman as Sir Lancelot. Lancelot has always been the handsome, captivating and romantic knight of the Arthur legend and the Camelot Broadway musical and film. It’s true that the Python gang has a different take on Lancelot, but Stillman’s casting is perplexing since he appears more like a character actor intent on playing a darker role.

Stephen Tampa was excellent as Sir Dennis Galahad. (I bet you didn’t know his first name was Dennis!) He and the Lady of the Lake have perhaps my favorite song in the show: The Song That Goes Like This. At any point in a Broadway musical, the audience expects a lyrical song with both a crescendo and a little love interest. That’s exactly what this song delivers — in a droll, tongue-in-cheek fashion.

The biggest show-stopping numbers are admirably performed by O’Brien Brown. The Lady of the Lake exhorts King Arthur’s men to Find Your Grail, the Act I closer. Her voice reaches to the heights and she attempts to do so physically as well, thrusting her arm upward with a silver bejeweled chalice. The fact that the Central New York Playhouse’s performing space is a converted store is evident by the limitations at the climax of this number, when she grazes the rafters.

Integral to the rich, live sound of the production is a seven-piece orchestra led by music director Abel Searor. Unfortunately, the weak delivery of several cast members could not compete with the orchestra in several numbers. Josh Taylor’s recitation as the Historian about the various locales of England was very difficult to hear: “England, 932 A.D. A kingdom divided. To the West, the Anglo-Saxons. To the East, the French. Above, nothing but Celts and some people from Scotland.” (I know what he told us only because I have memorized the Broadway cast recording CD.)

Likewise, the rather sick humor of the lyrics of Brave Sir Robin was mostly lost because the cast members’ voices often did not project. How brave was Sir Robin? “He was not in the least bit scared to be mashed into a pulp. Or to have his eyes gouged out and his elbows broken.” The litany of abuse gets more extreme and ridiculous, but it was very difficult to follow what the minstrels were singing in this production.

As to the sick humor in this song, I must say that I’m not a fan of any of the Monty Python movies or the British television skits now readily available on YouTube. Many of the references in Spamalot don’t do much for me. The killer rabbit for example seems incongruous, but not hilarious. The Knights Who Say Ni and the Dark Knight with his severed limbs don’t really evoke laughter from me.

Likewise, another song is funny in an uncomfortable way. A new addition to the musical, not taken from the original film, is You Won’t Succeed On Broadway, which satirizes one particular demographic group in the New York City metropolitan area. I found it mildly offensive when I saw it in the Shubert Theater and it seems more woefully out of place now.

Before the show started, a couple seated near me said they had seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail at least 100 times. As I walked through the theater I heard another member of the audience say he knew all the skits by heart, including the aforementioned Knights Who Say Ni, killer rabbit and Black Knight. Spamalot draws on a huge number of Monty Python fans. It’s also a major Broadway musical, new to local theater in this region.

The current Central New York Playhouse production boasts an overall strong cast, a good set, great costumes and wonderful live music. But better get your tickets now: It’s sure to sell out.

Details Box:

WhatSpamalot, book and lyrics by Eric Idle, music by John Du Prez and Eric Idle 

Who: Central New York Playhouse 

Where: Shoppingtown Mall, Dewitt NY 

Performance reviewed: Friday, September 6
Remaining performances: Plays through September 21 

Length:  About two hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission 

Tickets:  $20 and $25. Dinner and a show tickets on Saturday nights, $39.95.
Call: 315-885-8960 or
Family guide: Nothing objectionable

August 29 Redhouse Theater: Songs for a New World

Redhouses ‘Songs for a New World’ a high-calibre musical revue

A talented troupe of singers and pit orchestra musicians forges a song-filled journey from a 15th century Spanish ship to a modern Fifth Avenue skyscraper

By Laurel Saiz

The Redhouse’s latest production, Songs for a New World, brings together a group of eight talented performing artists who explore elements of America through songs alternately lyrical and rousing — and always beautiful and moving.

To say that Songs for a New World, directed by Danielle Melendez, does more than explore elements would be inaccurate. As its title implies, it is a song cycle, defined by Oxford Dictionary as “a set of related songs, often on a romantic theme, intended to form a single musical entity.” To say that all of the revue contains romantic themes would be off the mark. To say that the show, with music and lyrics by Jason Robert Brown, ends up being a completely cohesive musical entity might also be debated.

One thing, however, is certain: This Redhouse production, with supremely gifted musicians and musical theater actors, is consistently high-caliber. 

Jason Robert Brown has authored a variety of musicals. One Broadway show, Urban Cowboy, was entirely mainstream with potential to play to masses of fans — although it was a critical and box office failure, with a short run in 2003. Another musical, Parade, was based on the most unlikely of potential stories: the true-life 1913 lynching of a Jewish factory owner in Georgia for a murder he most likely did not commit. Presented on Broadway in 1998, Parade was also short-lived, though it won two Tony Awards for best book and best score. Brown’s next Broadway show, The Bridges of Madison County, is slated for a February 2014 opening and is generating lots of buzz.

With its limited cast and modest set requirements, Songs for a New World — originally presented Off-Broadway in 1995 — is ideal for small theater groups in small performance spaces. The singer-actors do not portray characters in the typical sense, but their personae (Woman 1 and 2, and Man 1 and 2) present small slices of the human experience.

Becca Orts, a recent graduate of the University of Miami’s musical theater program, plays Woman 1 while Rebecca Flanders — another University of Miami grad (and new member of Actors Equity) — plays Woman 2. Playing Man 1 is Antonio Tillman, a Virginia Commonwealth University grad who has just finished a nine-month cruise line stint playing Seaweed in Hairspray. Hailing from the State of Washington, Cody Bringman plays Man 2. He recently played the title role in the Seattle area in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the rock musical that’s slated for an October opening at The Redhouse. (Could he be reprising his role as the military hero/president?)

The four-piece band includes Fayetteville-Manlius senior Jason Belanger on keyboard, New York-based drummer and percussionist David Vincola, Sandra Schlink on bass, and Emily Croome (who also serves as music director) on piano.

What makes it difficult to pin down Songs for a New World in terms of a uniform description is that it’s a song cycle, with no real plot. Moreover, the songs are presented in non-chronological fashion. For example, the show’s second song, On the Deck of a Spanish Sailing Ship, 1492, would certainly suggest the beginning of a narrative with people leaving their former lands as adventurers, immigrants and later slaves to find their destiny. The very next song however is clearly set in modern-day New York City, literally on the edge of a skyscraper — not on the deck of a sailing ship. Near the end of the second act, we have another song with a chronological date: The Flag Maker, 1775, which evokes Betsy Ross or a comparable seamstress with the lyrics describing a concrete, historical event:

Think of life with independence
Think of muskets and brigades
Think of taking the oppressors 

Think of banners and parades

Song titles referencing Columbus’s discovery of the New World and the patriots of the American Revolution might lead one to presume that the thematic arc is one of achieving the American dream, or perhaps following a vision of Manifest Destiny.  Not so. Other numbers offer much smaller snapshots, showing individual stories involving yearning, loss and failure. Of course, these also fit the true American experience: Not all people achieve the ideal of what the country promises.

Many of the songs Flanders sings as Woman 2 are filled with resentment and angst. In Just One Step she laments about a man named Murray while teetering on the ledge high above the streets of Manhattan, contemplating suicide. In Stars and the Moon she is self-absorbed and materialistic, throwing away true love in order to embrace a superficial lifestyle of wealth and luxurious possessions. One of her songs at the top of the second act, though a crowd-pleaser, is totally anomalous and superfluous, as if thrown in for comic relief.

In Surabaya-Santa Woman 2 is kvetching about her spouse, Nick — yes, Saint Nick. Here, she’s as far from the theme of “songs for a new world” one can expect, delivering the song as a torch singer straight out of the smoky and decadent cabarets of Berlin during the Weimar Republic. (One line in the song about “not even being German” takes a knowing wink at this conceit.) It’s hilarious, but the song seems to be a one-off in this cycle of stories.

As Man 1, Tillman has some of the most moving and heartrending numbers in Songs for a New World. In King of the World he is in a jail cell decrying an imprisonment he considers unjust. The lyrics note:

Once upon a time I had lives to protect 

I had rules to change 

And wrongs to set right 

And there were people at my side 

And there were rivers I could guide 

I wanted nothing in return

Is the “king” in the title an allusion to Martin Luther King Jr.? That’s hard to say. He’s been in prison for a long time and he is looking back over his life. He’s still an inmate, and we certainly know that the real King — much in the news lately with the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington — did have a profound impact on life well outside of confines of the Birmingham Jail.

In The Steam Train, Man 1 presents another unfortunate aspect of the African-American experience in the United States. In a few lines (in fact, the only spoken lines in the entire production) Tillman describes the often insurmountable odds facing young black youths in poverty-stricken areas: “You don't know me. There were 12 boys in my 5th grade class at Sojourner Truth. Four of them are in jail, six of them are dead, and Gordon Conners works at Twin Donut on 125th Street. You don't know me, but you will.”

The World Was Dancing, sung by Bringman as Man 2, is the most Harry Chapin-esque piece in the production in that it recounts an entire lifetime, with memories of childhood and his father’s bad luck experiences. He describes poor choices about relationships and girlfriends left by the wayside. Later on Bringman has a different experience entirely, with a lovely ballad celebrating romantic fulfillment (after some bumps in the road) with I’ll Give It All for You, sung with Orts. The latter has an exquisite voice, beautifully utilized in this number and most especially in the first act I’m Not Afraid of Anything.

The songs involving the four singers as an ensemble pulsate with energy and vibrancy. The standout song of the entire production is the early 1492 number. Here, they beg the Lord for help as “children who believe in a Promised Land.” They admit that they are unworthy and lack strength.  At the same time they demand a better life, and — by their actions in leaving all behind and seeking unknown worlds — show that they are indeed noble and courageous.  

This powerful song begins as a yearning spiritual, but ends in a powerful crescendo: We are seeking a New World and we better get it! It’s a musical anthem of Attention Must Be Paid, and that is as an American theme in theater —and in life — as it gets.

Details Box: 

Songs for a New World, written and composed by Jason Robert Brown
Who:  Redhouse Theater 

Where: Redhouse Arts Center, 201 S. West Street, Armory Square, Syracuse
Performance reviewed:  August 29, 2013
Remaining performances: 8 p.m. Sep. 5, 6 and 7; 2 p.m. Sep. 7
Length:  About one hour and 45 minutes, no intermission

Tickets:  $30, $20 for members and $10 for students. Call (315) 425-0405 or
Family guide:  Nothing objectionable

Commentary: The 39th anniversary of a ‘Twelfth Night’ classic

The ‘Twelfth Night’ you will probably never see

Peter Gill’s Royal Shakespeare Company production of ‘Twelfth Night’ opened on August 22, 1974 at Stratford-upon-Avon: 39 years later audiences are still finding it hard to accept the play as a strange and erotic masterpiece

By Wayne Myers

Promoted as a “sexual musical,” the nudity-filled Let My People Come, featuring ribald songs such as The Cunnilingus Champion of Company C, a parody of the Andrews Sisters’ 1941 hit The Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy of Company B, opened at the Regent Theatre in London’s West End on August 19, 1974.

But the real erotic heat was in Stratford-upon-Avon, where three nights later on August 22, 1974, the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) production of Twelfth Night opened under the direction of Peter Gill.

In 1969, John Barton had directed a Chekhovian Twelfth Night for the RSC, and many who had seen it felt that Shakespeare’s broody, autumnal and bittersweet masterwork had finally found its fullest expression.  But some who had seen Gill’s staging were having second thoughts about that assessment.  

Peter Ansorge, in his October 1974 review of the production for Plays and Players, noted how Gill had been “rebuked in some quarters for his reading of the play.”  But Gill wasn’t doing anything Shakespeare already hadn’t.  All Gill did was to focus on the least-explored aspect of the play’s theme of “doubleness” — sexuality.  Gill, Ansorge wrote, didn’t impose a “theory of sexual ambiguity on Twelfth Night, he has brought the theme movingly out into the open from the original text.”

Why did some react so angrily to this sexual Twelfth Night? Some of that anger may have come from what Shakespeare was suggesting about human sexuality, and the realization that the play was not what they always thought it was.  (No such acute hostility was directed at Ingmar Bergman, when in July 1975 at the Royal Dramatic Theatre in Stockholm, Sweden he staged his own erotic version of the play.  Bergman cast his Viola well with Bibi Andersson, who as Alma in Bergman’s 1966 film Persona related a sexual encounter on a remote beach in a scene that film critic Pauline Kael in her 1982 book 5001 Nights at the Movies called “one of the rare truly erotic sequences in movie history.”

In my 2008 interview with Shakespeare Theatre Company Artistic Director Michael Kahn, he called Twelfth Night a “profound investigation of love.” And that includes sexual love — which is what Bergman’s production emphasized.

Gill’s staging revealed Twelfth Night as the gateway play to Shakespeare’s sexually-darkest plays: Troilus and Cressida, Othello, Measure for Measure — with its depiction of a sex-saturated, venereal disease-ridden Vienna (a thinly-veiled stand-in for Shakespeare’s London) — and All’s Well That Ends Well.  

The play is also part of an unbroken (depending on how you date Timon of Athens) string of masterworks ranging from Hamlet to Antony and Cleopatra.  Yet it’s too often treated as an early Shakespeare comedy. This is the common error many directors make when staging Twelfth Night, assuming Shakespeare is innocently re-using the cross-dressing heroine device he deployed earlier in three plays, The Two Gentlemen of Verona, The Merchant of Venice and As You Like It.  In Twelfth Night, however, it’s put to its most sophisticated and brazen use — and a streak of sexual deviousness courses through the play as a result.  

Shakespeare’s evil genius here is that Viola does not have total control over her Cesario persona. When she carelessly (or calculatedly) expresses her femininity, the outcome is sexual chaos. If, for example, she impulsively kisses Orsino in Act 2, Scene 4, as she did in Manhattan’s Sonnet Repertory’s 2010 production, she is seen by Orsino — and everyone else — as doing so as a man!  This is what Ansorge refers to as the “erotic trap” of the play.

At the center of Gill’s staging was Jane Lapotaire’s sexually disruptive Viola.  In his review, Ansorge wrote that Lapotaire was “the perfect androgyne, loved by Orsino (knowingly) as a boy, and by Olivia (at first unknowingly) as a girl.”

“This Viola,” he continued, “accepts the double nature of her sexuality — yielding to Orsino’s embraces as a page boy, even wanting to satisfy Olivia as a woman.  Indeed both Jane Lapotaire as Viola and Mary Rutherford’s Olivia are the aggressors in their relationships (at one point they turn angry sterile circles of frustration on a darkening stage).  It’s Orsino and Robert Lloyd’s Sebastian who are more feminine, passive receivers of love (the latter weeps more tears on Antonio’s shoulders than ever did this Viola on her Captain’s after their shipwreck).  With the arrival of the twin Sebastian, Orsino and Olivia’s pleasure is complete. In the final moments, Orsino grabs Sebastian by mistake to take to bed before realizing that Viola is his actual bride-to-be. Equally, Olivia is clearly delighted at the prospect of a ménage-a-quartre: doubleness adds piquancy to desire.”

Shakespeare’s sophisticated court audiences would have loved this. Sex was major entertainment for the Elizabethans — even with venereal diseases rampant — and Shakespeare was a very sexual writer, celebrating the whores of London’s brothel-crammed Bankside with characters such as Mistress Quickly (or “Quick Lay”), from Henry IV, Parts 1 and 2 and Henry V, Doll Tearsheet from Henry IV, Part 2 and Mistress Overdone from Measure for Measure.  

The 21st century for Twelfth Night really began on the night of August 22, 1974 — yet Gill’s staging did not immediately change the way the play was performed.  The Chekhovian version remained, at least in the United Kingdom, the preference for many critics and theatergoers in the ensuing years. Things only took a hard sexual turn in the U.K. after 2000, even as Sam Mendes (who directed the 2012 James Bond film Skyfall) staged a Chekhovian Twelfth Night — part of a double bill with Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya at the Donmar Warehouse in 2002 — as a valedictory marking the end of his tenure as the Donmar’s artistic director.

It also was a valedictory for the Chekhovian Twelfth Night.

In 2011, Peter Hall directed his version for the National Theatre with his daughter Rebecca Hall (Woody Allen’s Vicky Cristina Barcelona) playing Viola.  This marked Hall’s fourth production of the play — and his 1958 Shakespeare Memorial Theatre Caroline-dress production was regarded as launching the wave of “autumnal” Twelfth Nights. But he never saw the play as sexual, and for many critics who reviewed his 2011 production (including the Financial Times’s Sarah Hemmings) this was no longer acceptable.  As a result, many felt that Rebecca Hall’s talents were squandered.
Twelfth Night, or What You Will (many directors often treat the “What You Will” part of the play’s double title as a throw-away, which is a mistake: That part of the title contains insight as to what happens in the play, with “will” meaning “desire,” as in “sexual desire”) is a much more bizarre and disturbing play than many realize.  But that doesn’t stop director after director, abetted by critics and bloggers, from turning the play that director Neil Bartlett in a 2007 interview with Positive Nation magazine called “one of the queerest, most outrageous plays ever written” into a sex-and-romance averse, family-friendly comedy — especially in the United States and Canada.

The first Twelfth Night likely to be seen on this side of the Atlantic is one in which the director stages the play as a farce or “frothy” comedy.  Farcical versions of the play are inevitably filled with gags and gimmicks.  (A gimmick is a device that operates at the expense of the play and whose sole purpose is to “wow” an audience).

The “time period gimmick” is extremely popular for directors. In this instance, the play is set in a time period and location intended to make the play “funny” or “entertaining.”  It might be The Old West (Olivia was a whorehouse madam and the saloon was called Duke’s in the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s 2011 production).  Or perhaps even Brooklyn in the 1970s.  The Sacramento Shakespeare Festival’s 2013 Twelfth Night was set during the disco era. (The Sacramento News & Review’s Kel Munger described the production as a “giggle fest.”)  Lavina Jadhwani’s 2013 production for the Oak Park Festival Theatre transplanted the action to a Southern California beach in the early 1960s, evoking beach party films such as Muscle Beach Party and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini.  Cast members threw beach balls out into the audience.

Gimmicks can also become the setting for specific scenes, such as a steam room in Des McAnuff’s 1992 staging at California’s La Jolla Playhouse. (McAnuff, who directed the Tony Award-winning Jersey Boys on Broadway, apparently loved this gimmick so much he used it again in his 2011 Stratford Shakespeare Festival production, with Brian Dennehy as Sir Toby Belch.)  The Vancouver, B.C.-based Bard on the Beach also set a scene in a steam room at the “What You Will Hotel and Spa” in its 2013 production, warning playgoers on its website that “The play contains partial nudity. The tone is playful, not prurient, and a bare female back and bare male buttocks will be glimpsed.”

In some cases, the play is forced to fit the gimmick, such as the pool in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s 2009 version.  Kris Vire in his April 12, 2009 review of the production for Time Out Chicago wrote: “[Josie] Rourke’s Twelfth Night suggests its storm by flooding the center of CST’s courtyard stage; amid flashes of lightning, a silhouetted Viola (Michelle Beck) is dunked from the sky to crawl upon the shore — here a series of wooden decks descending into the water that designer Lucy Osborne extends into an enormous framing heart.”

“That’s the only time the tank makes narrative sense,” Vire wrote. “For the next three hours, the citizens of Illyria wade and splash… It’s a visually appealing gimmick, but gimmickry nonetheless.”

Gag-and-gimmick Twelfth Nights are also usually filled with one or more of the play’s common clichés: A lust-crazed Olivia; a bloated, aged Sir Toby Belch; a decrepit Malvolio; and the worst cliché, a Viola with a mustache. (Bard on the Beach and the Folger Shakespeare Theatre are among the more recent productions showing Viola sporting a mustache.)

The effect of an audience’s repeated exposure to gag-and-gimmick, cliché-ridden Twelfth Nights is to misrepresent what the play is actually about. Members of the new generation of arts writers who don’t think through what they write aren’t of much help, either.  

In her April 30, 2013, Washington Post feature story on the Folger Shakespeare Theatre’s production of the play, Jessica Goldstein called the gag-loaded Amanda Bynes comedy She’s the Man — a (very) loose adaptation of Twelfth Night — a “cinematic masterpiece.”  Worse, Goldstein (who in her LinkedIn profile describes herself as the Post’s arts and style writer and backstage columnist) wrote that she couldn’t understand why Robert Richmond, the Folger production’s director, didn’t cite the film as inspiration for his own staging.

The best Twelfth Night directors — even if they miss the play’s eroticism — use design and setting to capture the play’s strangeness and fantastical elements.  In 2009, Bonnie J. Monte staged a frosty fantasy version for the New Jersey Shakespeare Theatre, with a polished cobalt blue set floor that conjured a deep woods frozen pond, walls of white confetti that suggested cocoanut flakes and shaved white chocolate, and a snowy-white divan with icicle-like fringes.  In Philadelphia in 2010, the Curio Theatre Company’s Liz Carlson transported the audience to a Jules Vernesque universe with her steampunk Twelfth Night, while Shakespeare Santa Cruz Artistic Director Marco Barricelli mounted a Burtonesque veersion in 2012. In March 2013, the Washington, D.C.-based Taffety Punk Theatre Company presented an undersea-fantasy Twelfth Night. “The play takes place in the time it takes Viola to drown — or not drown, as the case may be,” said director Michelle Shupe in a Taffety Punk press release. Whether or not Viola survived the shipwreck was left open until the production’s final seconds.

And what of the play’s supposed happy ending? With the possible exception of The Comedy of Errors, Shakespeare never wrote an outright “happy” ending for any of his plays, and may have achieved the perfect ambiguous play ending — unsentimental yet extremely poignant — with Twelfth Night.  As the play ends, the concerned couples are only just beginning to grasp the consequences of Viola’s cross-dressing. They also find that they now possess an unsettling sexual self-awareness that they lacked at the play’s beginning.  It’s a very different world they are now facing from the one they were in at the play’s beginning!

In the meanwhile, there will always be an audience for gag-and-gimmick Twelfth Nights. Those who desire to see such productions can probably find one in major metropolitan areas throughout the year

There is also a growing audience for erotic Twelfth Nights, but those productions will remain hard to find. In 2010, Insurgo Theater Movement staged the play as part of its Erotic Shakespeare series at the Erotic Heritage Museum in Las Vegas.  John Beane, who directed the production, called the play “already specifically erotic,” and if his staging was not as sophisticated as Gill’s or as sensuous as Bergman’s it was at least played in the spirit of how Shakespeare wrote it. The Arc Theatre in Ridgefield Park in Evanston staged a production of the play earlier this month in which Chicago Reader critic Zac Thompson noted displayed “sexual fluidity,” —even if he felt that director Mark Boergers’s “abrupt return to hetero norms at the end feels like a loss of directorial nerve…”

Pittsburgh’s Steel City Shakespeare Center will launch its inaugural season this fall with Twelfth Night, and it will be interesting to see what approach to the play it takes. (Many theater companies inaugurate new theaters or mark special occasions with the play, imagining that it’s a festive play.  It isn’t.)  

In September, the Atlanta Shakespeare Company will stage a Twelfth Night/Troilus and Cressida double-bill at the New American Shakespeare Tavern in Atlanta.  This makes thematic sense (unlike the Mark Rylance Richard III/Twelfth Night double-bill that will open on Broadway in October), for they are Shakespeare’s most sophisticated plays.  Twelfth Night is also Shakespeare’s most erotic play, and Troilus and Cressida, with the possible exception of Othello, his most sexual.  Troilus and Cressida was likely written immediately after Twelfth Night. (The double bill, however, will not likely be as successful if the sexual themes in both plays are ignored.)

Today, Gill’s name is unlikely to come up as often as Barton’s in discussions about Twelfth Night. Gill was not a part of Guardian theater critic Michael Billington’s 1988 roundtable on the play, the outcome of which was the book Directors’ Shakespeare: Approaches to Twelfth Night.

But it was Gill who 39 years ago tonight on August 22, 1974 — called into question much of what many theatergoers and critics thought they knew about Twelfth Night, or What You Will.

August 17 CNY Playhouse: Unwrap Your Candy

CNY Playhouse pulls off ‘Unwrap Your Candy’ and without a crinkle

‘Wildwood Park’ proves the most engaging of the three one-act plays in this alternately dark and humorous production

By Laurel Saiz

The title Unwrap Your Candy, the set of one-act plays currently being offered by the Central New York Playhouse, is rather misleading. A piece of candy implies something sweet, a confection. You eat candy in lieu of dessert, or when you’re craving something sugary. But these three one-act plays written by Doug Wright are anything but saccharine.

Perhaps a better title might be The New Alfred Hitchcock Presents, or An Evening with a Modern-Day Edgar Allan Poe. The comparison with those masters of the macabre and the twist ending is hardly an exaggeration. These plays, while not as famous as any of Hitchcock’s or Poe’s works, exhibit strong writing and, for the most part, captivating storylines.

Unwrap Your Candy also demonstrates the versatility of the relatively new local theater troupe, Central New York Playhouse. The company’s last play, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, was corny and sentimental. Another recent musical, Hamlet Cha-Cha-Cha, was silly to the point of being insipid. Unwrap Your Candy on the other hand features dramas with dark humor and suspense — including one with a sci-fi twist.

The strongest of the three plays is the second, Wildwood Park, directed by Heather J. Roach. Sharon Sorkin plays Ms. Haviland, a high-end realtor with a challenging prospect.  She is trying to sell an upscale property that has been the site of a recent grisly crime, which the audience learns about incrementally as the play transpires. Ms. Haviland is showing the house to a well-heeled physician, Dr. Simian, who assures her he is not in it for the prurient tabloid appeal but rather for the house’s architectural advantages.

Sorkin smoothly describes the residence’s accoutrements: a Revolutionary era portico, a quaint weathercock, a brass chandelier. The house is 8,000 square feet, and as Dr. Simian notes, has such details as a marble mantelpiece that can support objets d’art, among other features. Unfortunately, the house has become more than a business deal for Ms. Haviland — it has become a personal obsession. She reveals more of herself to the doctor (skillfully played by the charismatic Nathan Faudree), who also shares some telling particulars about his life.

One reason Wildwood Park stands out among the three one-acts is that it contains genuine dramatic interaction between the principal characters. The two converse, face each other, react to each other and move about the stage together.

The two other plays, The Bone Violin: A Fugue for Five Actors and Baby Talk: A Case Study in One Act, are more static. In each, the “action” essentially consists of actors presenting mini-monologues directly to the audience. The Bone Violin, (directed by Christopher Best) is set during an auction, while Baby Talk (directed by Justin Polly) is set during a legal proceeding or medical review of some sort. With a key exception in Baby Talk, the characters in both mostly talk to the audience rather than to each other.

Likewise, the front piece of the production (which probably gives the program its name) also features disparate characters communicating mostly to the audience rather than each other. The angle here is that they, like Unwrap Your Candy’s attendees, are awaiting the start of a play at the Central New York Playhouse.

We hear pre-recorded voiceovers that represent the unnamed characters’ internal musings, while they sit before the start of a play urging theatergoers to unwrap their candy prior to the start of the show, lest the crinkling noise disturb others in the audience. This is a clever but slim conceit that extends to a tiresome level as the voiceovers continue during the intercessions between the three plays. (A spotlight shining directly in your face during these interludes makes this especially irritating.) Certainly, Wildwood Park, The Old Violin and Baby Talk can stand on their own without the addition of the “audience listening to an audience” segments.

With its sci-fi leanings, The Bone Violin might be the oddest of the evening’s fare. Gina Fortino and James Uva play a mother and father of little boy who had been a musical savant. At five, the boy could play Beethoven and Brahms perfectly, and at seven he had already surpassed this teacher’s musical skills. William Edward White played The Professor and projected the air of an erudite professor with aplomb.

Into this mix stepped The Doctor, played by Jody Agostinelli, who ran an institute that was researching eugenic selection of designer babies created with genetically superior sperm and eggs. Agostinelli announces her plans for the boy’s DNA with the right mix of scientific-sounding authority and defensiveness about a process that some would find morally reprehensible. I wonder if Wright was inspired by the true-life case of the Repository for Germinal Choice, run in California from 1980 to 1999 and recounted in the nonfiction book by David Plotz, The Genius Factory: The Curious History of the Nobel Prize Sperm Bank.

The Bone Violin looks at the wonder and anguish experienced by parents of highly gifted children and explores the nature-versus-nurture debate, with some other elements thrown in for added interest. (I’m leaving these out, so I don’t spoil the climax and ending for people yet to see this production.)

The darkest and funniest play has to be Baby Talk. Steve Rowlands plays a psychiatrist who seems to be testifying and reading from his notes about the case of a woman he had diagnosed as schizophrenic. The woman, Alice (played by Kasey McHale) begins to hear her unborn fetus talking to her in utero. Her husband, played by Daryl Acevedo, dismisses his wife’s mood swings as hormonal.  But something more bizarre is afoot.

The theatrical tour de force belongs to Dan Rowlands, who plays The Baby. This is no ordinary pre-term infant. He first goos, gahs and babbles, then start starts spouting Shakespeare before moving to crude invectives. Rowlands is hilarious, in the truest sense of black comedy. Is this all in Alice’s head, or is it truly a case of the “bad seed?” Again, no spoilers here.

On the other end of the performance spectrum is Steve Rowlands, who appeared hesitant and unsure of his lines. Steve is Dan’s real-life father — an interesting juxtaposition in a play that deals with biological inheritance.  A disparity in performances was also evident with McHale and Acevedo: McHale was appropriately believable and anguished as the jibber-jabbers of the baby began to ratchet up, while Acevedo had an inconsistent accent that occasionally evoked South Boston.

The playwright has a remarkably eclectic oeuvre. Wright in 2004 won both the Pulitzer Prize and Tony Award for his one-man show, I Am My Own Wife — based on the true story of Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, a transgendered person who survived Nazi Germany and the Communist regime in East Berlin. The drama also garnered a Tony Award for the actor Jefferson Mays.

Wright wrote the books for the Broadway musical version of Disney’s The Little Mermaid and the oddball musical Grey Gardens — about Big Edie and Little Edie, the Southampton eccentrics and recluses made famous by the documentary of the same name. Wright also penned the play and screenplay for Quills, which imagines the life of the Marquis de Sade in the insane asylum at Charenton. The film starred Geoffrey Rush.

The Little Mermaid and the Marquis de Sade — two characters who could not be more different! The current one-act plays at the Central New York Playhouse also offer a dramatic contrast to the typical offerings of local community theater.

And back to the name of the production: The title of the play, Unwrap Your Candy, presents a facile prompt for potential drama critics or copy editors, offering an easy start for a headline. To wit: “Theater-goers should not unwrap this candy” might work for a bad production with bad performances. Strong production, strong performances? “Theatergoers unwrap a great box of candy!” could be the lead.

To continue along this line, let me offer my own take on the candy metaphor: Delve into this box of candy with gusto! You won’t be disappointed. While you will not find that the candies are sugary sweet, they are treats just the same — for the mind and the imagination.

Details Box:

WhatUnwrap Your Candy, by Doug Wright

Who: The Central New York Playhouse
Where: Shoppingtown Mall, Dewitt NY

Performance reviewed: August 17, 2013
Remaining performances: Plays through August 24
Length:  About 90 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets:  $10 and $15. Call 315-885-8960 or
Family guide: Some profanity and dark humor

July 20 Glimmerglass Festival: Passions

Glimmerglass’s handsomely staged ‘Passions’ expands the boundaries of oratorio       

The double-bill program of sacred vocal works uses choreography, sets and costumes to heighten the drama within the music

By David Abrams

Passions seem to be running high at Glimmerglass Festival.  

The company’s ambitious double-bill program, carrying the title Passions, takes a pair of sacred vocal masterpieces written some 270 years apart and turns up the drama by adding staging and costumes.  The finished product produces a handsome visual experience that complements the music.

The title of the program is somewhat misleading, given that neither Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater nor David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion fits the definition of a passion: a story recounting the suffering of Christ at the Cross.  Nor do these works fit the definition of an oratorio or cantata, due to the staging.  But whatever you prefer to call it, it’s clear that the present reworking of these pieces adds an appealing visual element to an already potent musical experience.  

The Stabat Mater in C Minor, which gets my vote for the artistic highlight of the evening, was Pergolesi’s final composition: He succumbed to consumption in 1736, shortly after finishing the work.  He was 26 years old.  The oratorio for soprano and alto soloists with strings and continuo enjoyed widespread popularity  both within and beyond the Baroque era.  (Listeners familiar with the film Amadeus will no doubt recognize the final measures of the concluding Amen, which is quoted in the film.)

The quality of musical performance in this Glimmerglass production, buoyed by a pair of first-rate vocal soloists and the meticulous direction of conductor Speranza Scappucci, was outstanding.  So, too, was Jessica Lang’s choreographed body movement — which resonated well with the deep pathos of the music.  

The dancers were often synchronized in coordinated motions with the vocal soloists, as if paired in a dramatic pas de deux of pain and anguish.  Indeed, the writhing and twisting of bodies, along with contrasts of shadow and light made possible by Mark McCullough’s lighting effects, reminds me of figures in a Caravaggio painting.  The minimalist set comprising two giant logs slowly changed position to suggest everything from trees to The Last Supper and the Crucifixion.

The decision to substitute a countertenor for the more customary alto or mezzo-soprano soloist afforded Anthony Roth Costanzo an opportunity to showcase his considerable powers of expression.  Costanzo, whom some may remember as Ferdinand in the Metropolitan Opera’s Baroque fantasy pastiche, The Enchanted Island, simulcast live in HD a year ago January, produced a pure and creamy male alto that blended smoothly with Nadine Sierra’s silky soprano.

The flexibility of Costanzo’s vocal timbre was especially apparent in those numbers involving trills and other ornaments  such as the Quae moerebat et dolebat, which he performed handsomely in-sync with the dancers.  His stark dynamic shifts in the Quis non posset contristari at the end of the duet with Sierra were particularly effective.  I was especially moved by Costanzo’s deeply expressive vocal delivery, and the smoothly shaped movement of his arms and torso throughout the dramatic and stately Eja mater fons amoris.

Like Costanzo, Sierra’s soprano was full of expression and color, and the movement of her body in tandem with the dancers looked natural and effortless.  This combination of sweetness and passion was apparent early on, beginning with the Cujus animam gementem  a lamentful aria that shows off her rich and mellow lower register.  Sierra is secure in the higher register as well, as evident in her tender duet O quam tristis, sung in thirds with the second vocal part.  Sierra’s dexterous execution of the rapid trills and ornaments in the duet Fac, ut ardeat con meum (one of the rare fast numbers in this oratorio) was particularly impressive.

The most effective use of the set comes at the mournful final number, Quando corpus morietur  the evocative duet that precedes the concluding Amen.  For me, this was the most emotionally charged number in the piece.  Here, the staging helps capture the mood of resignation as the logs join together to forge a long table that seats the dancers  symbolizing The Last Supper.  

Audience reaction to the performance was swift and uniform an immediate and prolonged standing ovation peppered with voracious shouts of approval for the soloists, conductor, instrumentalists, dancers, choreographer and set director (Marjorie Bradley Kellogg).  


David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion, based largely upon a Hans Christian Anderson tale, tells the story of a poor young girl (Victoria Munro) forced by her cruel father to sell matches in the streets on New Year’s Eve.  Barefoot, cold and hungry, the little girl strikes match after match trying to keep warm, but spoiler alert! she will not live to see the start of the new year.  

As was the case with the Stabat Mater, dramatic potency is heightened as a direct result of the staging — which in this case is dominated by the presence of a 24-voice children’s chorus costumed to look like characters in the Broadway musical, Oliver!  A steady stream of falling snowflakes (a nice touch by Director Francesca Zambello) evokes the coldness of the streets and reminds us that the warmth of the Christmas season is not within reach of all.

In spite of the handsome visuals, however, Lang’s music — which is remarkably effective in the sparsely voiced original with a quartet of singers doubling on percussion instruments — loses much of its intimacy and focus in the larger, staged setting of the work.  Indeed, it was the chamber version of The Little Match Girl Passion, and not Lang's subsequent choral arrangement, that earned the 2008 Pulitzer Prize in music.  (A convincing recording of the original version with Paul Hillier’s Theater of Voices is available on the Harmonia Mundi label.)

Lang’s writing in this piece may best be described as a synthesis musical styles from both past and present, bonded together with post-minimalist techniques such as unrelenting repetition of melodic patterns, overlapping rhythms and painstakingly slow harmonic motion (speed of the chord changes).  

Critics have likened the meditative quality of Lang's music to plainchant, but a more accurate comparison would be the vocal polyphonic styles of the Medieval and Renaissance eras, including 13th century cantus firmus techniques (where the lower part moves much slower than the rest), as well as elements from 15th century motets and 16th century madrigals.  But once you abandon the intimacy of a one-on-a-part performance, you forfeit much of its meditative and personal appeal, as well.  In the end, the presence of the chorus in Lang's work provided more of a distraction than a musical complement.

Because Lang treats the four voices as quasi-contrapuntal independent melodic lines, it's a constant challenge for the singers to blend sound and match pitches with any degree of consistency.  The four Glimmerglass Young Artists program soloists  soprano Lisa Williamson, mezzo-soprano Julia Mintzer, tenor James Michael Porter and bass Christian Zaremba  did justice to this work, and each delivered an impressive individual effort.  There were occasional moments where blend of tone sounded choppy and pitch among the four was questionable.  Still, the overall effort was impressive.  Credit James Michael Porter with navigating the upper tenor register with apparent ease and stability.  

The large but well-disciplined children’s chorus moved about the stage gracefully under the preparation and guidance of choreographer Andrea Beasom (another Glimmerglass Young Artist), and the chorus maintained a pleasant and homogenous blend of tone.  Many of Lang’s sonorities, however, proved a bit too challenging for the youngsters, who struggled with intonation issues throughout the performance.  

I expect many of these performance problems will iron themselves out over the course of the production run.  The Little Match Girl Passion is a masterpiece of contemporary dramatic vocal writing, but it takes a first-rate performance to do it justice.  It's well worth the effort.  And passion.

Details Box:
What: Passions, a double-bill program comprising Giovanni Battista Pergolesi’s Stabat Mater and David Lang’s The Little Match Girl Passion
When: July 20, 2013
Who: Glimmerglass Festival
Where: 7300 State Highway 80, Cooperstown, N.Y.
Time:  About 1:45 minutes, with one intermission
Call: Glimmerglass Box office: (607) 547-2255, or
Ticket prices: $10 to $132 (discounts for students, educators and seniors)
Remaining performances: 8 p.m. Aug. 3; 7:30 p.m. Aug. 9; 1:30 p.m. Aug. 18; 7:30 p.m. Aug. 22

July 19 Cazenovia Counterpoint: The Wind in the Willows

Society for New Music stages a whimsical and wistful ‘The Wind in the Willows’

The Society's production, a musical setting of the treasured Kenneth Grahame children’s classic, is a delightful reminiscence of childhood

By Jon Fredric West
Contributing writer

On Friday, July 19th my wife and I spent a lovely evening at The Catherine Cummings Theater in Cazenovia to see the Society for New Music’s production of the Diane Adams McDowell and James McDowell musical based on the childhood classic, The Wind in The Willows.  Kudos to Neva Pilgrim, the Society’s Program Director, who brought this production to an appreciative audience.

Sar Shalom-Strong, Central New York’s premiere collaborative pianist, conducted the score from the keyboard, leading the instrumentalists with precision, charm and elegance — bringing out the music’s beautiful phrasing without overpowering the young voices.  Special mention to the pit orchestra’s Ralph Dudgeon, whose impressive control in the softer dynamics passages on the trumpet and tenor horn was worthy of praise.

The music and lyrics of Adams McDowell and McDowell are fanciful and whimsical, wistfully transporting us to childhood bygones.  The excellence of the libretto, music and universal appeal of this story deserves continued performances by theater troupes having the resources to stage it.

Director Victoria King worked very well with the youthful cast to finely delineated characters, at once humorous, then poignant, and had the luxury casting veteran singing-actors Steven Stull and Bruce Paulsen.  She made optimum use of the chamber stage, and along with co-designer David Harper managed to make maximum use of a limited budget for the sets.  Costumes by Darlene Vinyard were suggestive of the various animals, but again, she had budget constraints.  To her credit, King understood and trusted her material — allowing the joy and fun to come forward in the piece and bringing the production to a rousing, Broadway-esque finale.

As “Badger,” Steven Stull projected beautifully both in speech and song, his voice ringing free and clear.  Moreover, his character was well defined and had continuity of physical realization throughout the evening.  Bruce Paulsen, as the “Chief Magistrate,” brought the audience to a level of delight that only a gifted veteran singing actor can do.  Special kudos to Paulsen for his continued involvement in-character while part of the chorus.  Stull and Paulsen captured the soul of live theater.  

The younger cast members were all uniformly good.  Hopefully, they will take with them the knowledge learned from Stull and Paulsen about projecting the voice and fully inhabiting their characters.  In this regard, the young cast members’ presentations were successful at times, and at times not.  Sound enhancement would have helped greatly.

Tyler Eighmey stood out as “Rat,” imbuing his role with good singing, strong acting and a mellifluous voice.  He shows great promise.

Sam Stulberg was sweet and generally effective as “Mole.”  He would have been better served, however, had he worked harder at pronunciation and preciseness of accent and physical gestures.  More exaggeration of character was in order as when he played a female in a later scene.

Nicholas Fields as “Toad” performed well and worked hard trying to project his character’s puffed up, grandiose pomposity.  But he was simply too good-looking in the part, and could not fully convey the overwhelming belief in all things “Toad” (This is a character role and Fields is a leading man).  Still, Fields captured very touchingly the moment where “Toad,” in the finale, drops his egocentric ways and accepts the need to be one of the whole.

Steven Kendrat was appropriately funny in his green swimwear as “Otter,” but could have projected a more clear physicality in this largely thankless role.  Marshall Pokrentowski threatened to steal the show with his zany walk-ons proving the old adage, “there are no small roles, only small actors.”  The trio Missing Him, performed by Rat, Mole and Badger, was a highlight of the production.  Well done!  

Last but not least, the members of the ensemble who took various chorale parts delivered lyrical and exciting renditions of The Christmas Choir, Stoats Forever and the very scary Song of the Wildwood.

Heldentenor Jon Fredric West’s vast experience includes performances with the Metropolitan Opera, Bavarian State Opera, Deutche Oper Berlin, Salzburg Festival, Bayerische Staatsoper, Vienna Staatsoper, Royal Opera House at Covent Garden, Berlin Philharmonic, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Staatstheater Stuttgart, Semperoper Dresden, Casals Festival, Residente Orkest de Haag, Staatsoper Wien, Teatro Real in Madrid, Teatro alla Scala, San Francisco Opera, New York City Opera, New Israeli Opera, Washington National Opera, Vienna Staatsoper, Kennedy Center, New York Philharmonic, Bayerische Rundfunk Orchestra in Munich, Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, Philadelphia Orchestra, Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Houston Symphony, BBC Symphony Orchestra, the Edinburgh Festival, San Francisco Symphony, Saint Louis Symphony, Boston Symphony, Pittsburgh Symphony, Toronto Symphony, London Symphony Orchestra.
 He presently teaches at Hamilton College and Mohawk Valley Community College.

Details Box:
What: The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame, with music and lyrics by Dianne Adams McDowell and James McDowell
Who: The Syracuse Society for New Music, Cazenovia Counterpoint series
Where: Catherine Cummings Theater, Cazenovia, NY
Date of review: July 19, 2013

July 21 Glimmerglass Festival: King for a Day

Glimmerglass’s rarely done ‘King for a Day’ a rare treat, well done

This zany production of Verdi’s only comic opera before ‘Falstaff’ keeps the singers in chaos and the audience in stitches 

By David Rubin

The heroes of the Glimmerglass production of Verdi’s rare — really rare — second opera, Un Giorno di Regno (King for a Day), are director Christian Rath, choreographer Eric Sean Fogel, and set and costume designer Court Watson.  This trio has taken a work with a threadbare, unfunny plot, and only intermittingly inspired music, and transformed it into an afternoon of zaniness that delighted the audience in the Alice Busch Opera Theater in Cooperstown.

Verdi wrote this work in 1840 when he was 27.  It is his only comic opera until Falstaff, the final masterwork of his old age.  Un Giorno was booed by the audience in Milan, in part because of poor singing, and it received but a single performance.  

Verdi bounced back from this disappointment with his third opera, Nabucco, which is about as far in spirit from Un Giorno as one could get.  He was clearly not looking in the rear-view mirror.  Just as he abandoned the comic path, so has the work been abandoned by opera houses in the last 173 years, although Europe has seen a few mountings.

The Rath team put the six principal singers and the chorus through all sorts of physical activity — climbing, jumping, boxing, kissing, dancing, and swinging chairs at each other in a chaotic closing scene to Act 1 that is reminiscent of The Barber of Seville and The Italian Girl in Algiers, both by Rossini, whose presence hovers over Verdi in this creation.  The sight gags come so thick and fast and are so ingenious that the audience forgets this soufflé could collapse at any minute if the temperature is not kept at a high heat.

Rath signaled to the audience that a circus was about to start by projecting clown-costume circles of color on a white curtain during the toe-tapping overture.  Then, in the English titling (for a production sung in English), the audience was invited to attend a double wedding and to allow four hours “to clear security.”  Similar 21st century touches were interpolated in the text by Kelley Rourke, who did all she could to make this creaky story of young love thwarted (and then triumphant) relevant.

The stage business was so intricate, and non-stop, it was a wonder that the first performance went so smoothly.  I expected the cast to fall off the steeply raked set at any moment and tumble into the orchestra pit, but no one did.  Indeed, if anyone was ever out of place it wasn’t evident to the audience.  The physical comedy delivered by the young cast assured a success.

Had Verdi not been the one to write this, however, no one would stage it today.  So, is the great master present at all in the music?  Here and there, yes.  A few phrases from mezzo-soprano Ginger Costa-Jackson (as the Marchesa) find their way into Gilda’s music in Act 1 of Rigoletto.  Some of the choral work prefigures Ernani.  

What is more instructive, however, is how Verdi assimilated Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini in this work, which is only to be expected given how wet behind the ears he was.  The basso buffo singing of Doctor Dulcamara (The Elixir of Love) and Don Pasquale are not far from the surface in the music for bass Jason Hardy as the Baron Kelbar, and baritones Andrew Wilkowske (as La Rocca) and Young Artist Alex Lawrence as the King of the title.  One extended passage for the King and chorus in Act 1 is a close parallel to music from Rossini’s Il Viaggio a Reims.  A promising duet for tenor and baritone in Act 1 could be plopped into Bellini’s I Puritani without much alteration.

And so it goes for about two hours of music — little Verdi, but lots of early 19th century Italian opera by other masters.  What he did demonstrate at 27 was his ability to write for the voice.  The tenor part (the love-sick Edoardo, sung by Young Artist Patrick O’Halloran) is particularly fine.

As the Marchesa, Costa-Jackson was the only “name” singer in the cast.  Dolled up in a red sheath and a blond beehive wig, she vamped around the stage, often holding a twinkly gray toy poodle that adamantly refused to move at one point in the first act.  Her part lies high for a mezzo, and Costa-Jackson had some problems at the top of the range.  But given she was in a track meet of a production that must have sorely taxed her lung power, it’s surprising she sang as well as she did.

None of the three low-lying males — Hardy, Lawrence, and Wilkowske — has the cavernous bass or baritone voice, or the agility in articulation, to do justice to the patter. Nor do they have the blustering style of a Doctor Bartolo.  All were too light for their roles, but they threw themselves into the proceedings with gusto, particularly Hardy.  His impersonation of a boxer alone is worth the price of admission.

The best singing came from the young couple (who would become Nannetta and Fenton in Falstaff in another 53 years).  Young Artist Jacqueline Echols was a prim Giuletta in her modest patterned dress.  She has a melting soprano voice and terrific stage presence, even when singing from under the raked stage.  As her true love Edoardo, O’Halloran looked like Clark Kent in an argyle sweater, matching socks, shorts and black-frame glasses.  He doesn’t yet sing like Superman, but he has much potential.  His voice seems agile enough for Rossini, but also with sufficient heft for Donizetti and Bellini.  For me he was the most rewarding singer on stage.

The two smaller parts of Delmonte and Count Ivrea (who totters around on a walker) were assumed by two more Young Artists, Andrew Penning and Joe Shadday.

The performance was conducted by Joseph Colaneri, the new music director of the Festival.  He miraculously led a crisp, tidy performance in which everyone stayed together even as they were rocketing around the stage.  I don’t know how this was achieved, but it was.  The orchestra played very well for its new boss.

Un Giorno can be heard on CD in a luxury cast that includes José Carreras, Jessye Norman, Fiorenza Cossotto and Ingvar Wixell on Decca, under conductor Lamberto Gardelli.  The score holds up in repeated listening, particularly with the manic images from Glimmerglass in one’s head.  Even though Rath’s production book must be 5,000 pages long, other companies might want to take a look at this rarity — if the cast is young and fit. 

Details Box:
What: Giuseppe Verdi’s King for a Day, sung in English
When: July 21, 2013
Who: Glimmerglass Festival
Where: 7300 State Highway 80, Cooperstown, N.Y.
Time: 2 hours and 20 minutes, with one intermission
Call: Glimmerglass Box office: (607) 547-2255
Ticket prices: $10 to $132 (discounts for students, educators and seniors)
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. July 26; 7:30 p.m. August 2; 1:30 p.m. Aug. 6; 7:30 p.m. Aug. 8; 1:30 p.m. Aug. 10; 8 p.m. Aug. 17; 1:30 p.m. Aug. 19; 1:30 p.m. Aug. 24

July 18 Covey Theatre Company: Rent

Covey Company’s well-crafted ‘Rent’ captures the feel of NYC’s East Village in the 1980s  

The use of a live band in this rock-adaptation of Puccini’s opera La Bohème makes a world of difference

By Laurel Saiz

For a group of young people who are starving, grappling with drug addiction, suffering from HIV/AIDS, and living in marginal spaces with no heat in the middle of winter, the eight lead characters in Rent certainly have an oversized amount of energy, vibrancy and zest for living.

The primal energy of youth and the fundament human need for love are the driving forces of the musical, Rent. Both are core elements beautifully on display in the dynamic production currently being presented by the fine, versatile Covey Theatre Company, helmed by Garrett Heater.  

The company’s performers give impressive performances, and all of the lead actors are standouts: Brett Roden as Mark, a filmmaker who serves as the play’s informal narrator; Marguerite Mitchell as Mimi, a junkie; Tyler Ianuzi as Roger, a guitarist in love with Mimi; Anthony Wright as Angel, a beloved friend and flamboyant transvestite; Maxwel Anderson as Collins, who finds meaning in life with his commitment to Angel; Mary Musial as Maureen, an in-your-face performance artist; Jodie Baum as Joann, a down-to-earth lawyer in love with Maureen; and Jason Timothy as Benny, Mimi’s former boyfriend who has gone to the dark side by becoming a real-estate speculator.

Several of characters are also HIV-positive; it’s the 1980s in the East Village in New York City, a time period when that was invariable a death sentence.

The Rent characters are both proud and pitiable, in circumstances that test their grit, tenderness and compassion. If they’re faced with more than the typical allotment of problems for young urbanites it’s because the blockbuster musical is a rock version of La Bohème, Puccini’s landmark 1896 opera set in a Paris neighborhood of impoverished artists and musicians — all rootless Bohemians.
An etymological aside: The term Bohemian dates to the 1700s, in the misapprehension that all gypsies (now known as the Romani) came from the Czech Republic of Bohemia. The Westminster Review in 1862 noted: “A Bohemian is simply an artist or littérateur who, consciously or unconsciously, secedes from conventionality in life and in art.” This counter-cultural spirit of joie de vivre is a through-line in Rent, best epitomized by the song La Vie Bohème, during which the characters carouse and literally dance on tabletops.

The villain of Rent is Benny — once their friend and now their landlord demanding the rent. The villain of La Bohème is the 19th century romantic equivalent of AIDS: consumption. Just as Mimi in the musical suffers from HIV along with her addiction, Mimi of the opera suffers from tuberculosis. Having beautiful people die young is a plot device guaranteed to provide pathos and prompt tears.

Susan Sontag’s 1978 Illness as Metaphor, expanded 10 years later to include AIDS and Its Metaphors, documented the uses of the TB and disease as romantic, sentimental  devices in literature. In Nicholas Nickleby, for example, Dickens describes consumption as a “disease in which death and life are so strangely blended that death take the glow and hue of life, and life the gaunt and grisly form of death.” This duality of vitality and vulnerability is a constant in Rent.

Another duality is the love-hate relationship of Joann and Maureen. Maureen is larger-than-life and quick to take offense. Joann is steadfast and captivated by Maureen. Audiences will be hard-pressed to find a more powerful song on a Syracuse stage this season than Baum and Musial’s dueling duet, Take Me or Leave Me. The release of the fever pitch of accumulated emotion and passion is fierce and powerful.

Also formidable is the love story between Angel and Collins. Wright’s stage presence is arresting and his dance ability is extraordinary. The most astonishing talent on the stage, however, has to be Anderson. He commands a deeply resonant voice, quite in contrast with his slight frame. Amazingly, he lifts not one, but two other characters, in his arms and carries them across the stage. He is a physical presence and vocal powerhouse, all the while conveying the truest feelings of gentle caring and gut-wrenching grief.

Also notable is the use of the performance space by the director, Heater, and choreographer, Andrea Colabufo. The Bevard Room is the smallest space in the Civic Center. It boasts a wrap-around walkway with metal railings, which the performers — especially the wonderful supporting cast members — use to give Rent a texture and dimensionality not usually seen in a community theater production. The live band, with musical direction by Dan Williams, adds to the power of the touching, tragic story.

The “anthem” of Rent, of course, is the beautiful song Seasons of Love, with its remarkable opening lyrics: “Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes. Five hundred twenty-five thousand moments so dear. Five hundred twenty-five thousand six hundred minutes. How do you measure, measure a year?”

How do you measure great local theater? The 150 minutes of the Covey Theatre Company’s Rent.

Details Box:

WhatRent, music and by Jonathan Larson, by The Covey Theatre Company

Where: Bevard Theater, John H. Mulroy Civic Center 

Performance reviewed
: July 18, 2013 (dress rehearsal)
Remaining performances:  Through August 3 

:  Two and a half hours, with one intermission

Tickets:  $31. Call 315-420-3729 or
Family guide:  Simulated sex acts, references to drug use

July 13 Glimmerglass Festival: Camelot

Glimmerglass premiere of ‘Camelot’ chivalrous, but hardly a knight to remember

David Pittsinger, as King Arthur, provided most of the magic in this pleasant but unspectacular production of the Lerner and Loewe musical

By David Abrams

Francesca Zambello’s courageous marketing decision to produce a blockbuster Broadway musical each season is not without its challenges.  Unlike opera, where audiences hope to be artistically engaged, Broadway musicals draw crowds expecting to be entertained.  As such, the pressure is on for the Glimmerglass Festival Artistic Director to provide musicals that keep pace with — or exceed — the entertainment appeal of the Festival’s prior efforts.  

Judged by the yardstick of its past successes, Glimmerglass’s latest venture has come up short.  Its current production of Camelot, though enjoyable, pales in comparison both to last season’s stunning production of The Music Man and the prior year’s Annie Get Your Gun.  

The finger pointing rightly begins with Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe — whose 1960 collaboration can hardly be considered the pair’s best effort.  Camelot lacks both the depth of story and the number of memorable tunes of My Fair Lady, produced some four years earlier.  Still, it was Glimmerglass’s new production, not the story and the music, that ultimately underwhelmed those in the crowd who, like I, left the theater unfulfilled.  

The story, adapted from T.H. White’s novel The Once and Future King, centers on a medieval love triangle involving the enlightened King Arthur, his handsome wife Guenevere and the love-smitten knight, Sir Lancelot.  Themes of chivalry, romance, adultery, battle and ultimately forgiveness run through the nearly three-hour show.  Baby boomers no doubt will remember Camelot as all but having defined the Kennedy presidency.  According to Jackie Kennedy, JFK’s favorite line came at the end: Don't let it be forgot/ That once there was a spot/ For one brief shining moment that was known/ As Camelot.

The “one brief shining moment” in this production is David Pittsinger, whose stunning singing and acting throughout the performance as King Arthur is alone worth the price of admission.

Pittsinger, who from my seat in the theater looked curiously like political humorist Bill Maher, sang beautifully and carried himself well onstage — capturing the attention of the listener at all times.  His crisp speaking voice spread his lines across the theater with ease and grace, while his clean diction obviated the need for supertitles (which in this production accompanied the singing but not the dialogue).  

Pittsinger’s full-strength bass-baritone and strong delivery, which at times overshadowed the other singers, was apparent from his opening number, I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight, and his signature tune, Camelot.  Even his whistling (during the charming duo with the Queen, What Do the Simple Folk Do?) projected well.  The tender side of King Arthur’s character came out, loud and clear, in Pittsinger’s earnest and sensitive delivery of How to Handle a Woman, as the confused King seeks guidance and wisdom in dealing with his beloved Guenevere.

As an actor, Pittsinger captured the essence of Arthur as a well-meaning King seeking to make sense of the world and trying to do the right thing at any cost — even if that means watching Guenevere slowly slip away into the arms of Lancelot.  He forged a character whose ultimate decision to forgive the two greatest loves in his life (Guenevere and Lancelot) we may respect or reject.  Either way, Pittsinger’s Arthur is a flesh-and-blood character with whom we can empathize.

As Guenevere, Canadian soprano Andriana Chuchman has the looks to sustain the love triangle drama throughout the lengthy production, and her handsome voice — while by no means large — made for a pleasant listening experience during her principal numbers. 

Chuchman’s opening song, The Simple Joys of Maidenhood, set the bar high for those that followed — culminating in what I thought her best effort of the show: the sweetly expressive Before I Gaze at You Again at the end of Act 1.  Unlike Pittsinger, however, Chuchman could never quite abandon her trained operatic voice for something better suited to musical theater.  And the mellowness of her speaking voice made me wish that supertitles had been used for more than just the singing.

Next to Pittsinger, the most commanding performance of the evening came from Jack Noseworthy — a first-rate actor whose suave and calculating presence as Arthur’s nefarious illegitimate son, Mordred, was unforgettable.

Noseworthy’s high-pitched tenor projected exceptionally well, and his diction was beyond reproach.  (He sounded the most “British” of the cast.)  Like Roddy McDowall in the original Broadway production, Noseworthy spoke his melodic lines during The Seen Deadly Virtues, shifting to pitches when singing along with the knights in Fie on Goodness.  But whether singing or speaking, Noseworthy maintained an imposing presence befitting his role as the show’s only true villain — staying in character even as the audience began hissing him, if only affectionately, at the curtain calls.

Nathan Gunn started off with a bang, using his handsome baritone to capture the moment in his opening song, C’est Moi, where he defines his character as the cocky, self-centered would-be knight to Arthur’s newly created Round Table.  But Gunn never again sounded this good during the remainder of the show, and his signature song, If Ever I Would Leave You, sounded shaky and rushed, as well as lacking in any meaningful degree of expression.

Glimmerglass Young Artists Clay Hilley (Sir Dinahan), Wayne Hu (Sir Sagramore) and Noel Bouley (Sir Lionel) deported themselves well as the triumvirate of knights and interacted playfully with Chuchman in Then You May Take Me to the Fair.  I especially enjoyed the boys’ horsing around with Mordred in the Act 2 Fie on Goodness — which I thought was going to end as a Bud Light commercial.  

Wynn Harmon, in the non-singing dual roles as Arthur’s mentor, Merlyn, and the eccentric old knight, Pellinore, projected his lines well but sounded rather hoarse — making it difficult at times to hear his every word.  Young Richard Pittsinger, the real-life son of David cast as the young and impressionable Tom of Warwick, was a fitting choice to carry on the dream of his hero King Arthur, as the latter heads to France to battle Lancelot’s armies.

Director Richard Longbottom deserves praise for his charming staging of the joyous Then You May Take Me to the Fair — a delightful number in which Guenevere coyly coaxes the three knights to thrash newly arrived Lancelot in the upcoming jousting match, promising whoever succeeds a good time in her company at the Fair.  Longbottom nevertheless wasted several opportunities to enhance the action of this mostly static production.  

The second-act dueling scene between the knights and Lancelot, performed in slow motion, was utterly lacking in tension and anima.  The lightly choreographed dance scenes by Alex Sanchez, while visually appealing, had none of the pizzazz that ignited the stage in last season’s unforgettable production of The Music Man.  Lancelot’s miraculous healing of the fallen Lionel, which could have been milked for all it’s worth as a dramatically vibrant moment, was reduced to a simple touch of the wounded man’s chest — as if an abbreviated medieval version of CPR.  Longbottom’s decision to begin Gunn’s delivery of If Ever I Would Leave You from the very back of the stage was ill-advised, since the baritone could barely be heard until making his way to the front.

Kevin Depinet’s abstract minimalist sets don’t do much to enhance the drama, either.  An imposing structure in the shape of a right triangle anchors the set, with a Disney-like mural of a seemingly far-off castle resting below the top of the hypotenuse.  Standing at the base of the triangle is an oddity sprouting what appears to be a stack of giant linguini.  When King Arthur is seen hiding within the strands of linguini, we realize this is actually a tree.  Cooked al dente.

Depinet is less abstract in his design of the King’s chambers.  A pair of thrones sits on a lengthy tapestry, over which a large chandelier of candles, suspended by chains, hangs overhead.  In the final scene this chandelier will fall to the ground, if only slowly and deliberately, ostensibly to signal the demise of Arthur’s vision of the perfect Camelot.  (I much prefer the scene from Phantom of the Opera.)  Paul Tazewell’s colorful costumes, while easy on the eyes, more closely resemble early Renaissance than the story’s sixth-century medieval period dress.

The 42-piece orchestra, directed by James Lowe, had a rough time fighting pitch problems during the instrumental ensemble sections.  There were also a few sloppy ensemble moments during the transitions into new tempos during the Overture and Entr’acte to Act 2, which I expect will disappear after another performance or two.

Audience reaction at the curtain calls sounded genuinely excited, particularly with respect to the three lead roles.  But it wasn’t until Pittsinger (the elder) came onstage that the crowd took to its feet in tandem — and justly so.  He was the knight in shining armor who almost single-handedly brought this production out of, well, the Dark Ages.

Details Box:
What: Camelot, music by Frederick Loewe and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner
When: July 13, 2013
Who: Glimmerglass Festival
Where: 7300 State Highway 80, Cooperstown, N.Y.
Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission
Call: Glimmerglass Box office: (607) 547-2255
Ticket prices: $10 to $132 (discounts for students, educators and seniors)
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. July 19: 1:30 p.m. July 22 (sold out); 1:30 p.m. July 28; 7:30 p.m. August 1; 1:30 p.m. Aug. 3; 1:30 p.m. Aug. 5 (sold out); 1:30 p.m. Aug. 11 (sold out); 1:30 p.m. Aug. 13 (sold out); 7:30 p.m. Aug. 15; 1:30 p.m. Aug. 17; 7:30 p.m. Aug. 23; Special Young Artists performance 1:30 p.m. Aug. 23

July 17 CNY Playhouse: The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas

CNY Playhouse’s ‘The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas’ knows how to please

The company mounts an engaging production of the 1978 Broadway show based upon the legendary Texas ‘Chicken Ranch’

By Laurel Saiz

A once-stable Southern town is riven in two by a controversy that has revealed issues usually left unspoken. An official decision has been rendered, leaving equal numbers of people either angry or vindicated. A silver-haired investigative journalist has been probing the case and the story is covered relentlessly, both by mainstream and tabloid reporters.

No, it’s not Sanford, Florida, in the summer of 2013. It’s Gilbert, Texas, the fictional version of La Grange, Texas, where the shuttering of a famed regional brothel, fondly known by all as The Chicken Ranch, spawned national news headlines and sparked a Broadway musical and major motion picture titled The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

An October 1973 Texas Monthly cover story, “Closing Down LaGrange,” written by Al Reinert, centered on the actions that lead to the demise of the “Oldest Continually Operating Non-Floating Whorehouse in the United States.” The article piqued the interest of author Larry L. King — who went on the write the musical with Peter Masterson, with music and lyrics by Carol Hall.

The great majority of the scenes in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas take place in the whorehouse, as befitting the title. Director and choreographer Stephfond Brunson has cast a group of curvaceous local actresses, clad in alluring lingerie, as the residents of the ranch who provide much-in-demand services to a wide range of “guests” — from naïve farm boys to leading politicos. No brothel is complete without its madam, and Stephanie McCall fits the bill as Miss Mona, who cares for her girls with the stereotypical heart of gold. Mona in the film version was none other than Dolly Parton. (The real madam, Edna Milton Chadwell, died last year at the age of 82.)

The hyperbolic subhead of Reinert’s story helps convey the hoopla surrounding the closing the business, which is the story arc for this play: In which the Long Lens of the Law uncovers Sin and Corruption in Babylon-on-the-Brazos, and the Electric Bounty Hunter confronts the Nightmare Sheriff and the Banshee Madam to unearth a Bizarre Tale. The real events and characters are almost too colorful to be believed.

The TV journalist Marvin Harold Zindler was most well known for his weekly restaurant-sanitation expose The Rat and Roach Report before starting his muckraking crusade to shut down the ranch. In the play, he has been renamed Melvin “the Watchdog,” and is played with gusto by Jay Burris. Zindler wore a phony-looking, silver-haired wig and Burris is also coiffed with a garishly ill-fitting head of hair. What makes it especially funny is that his is uncannily similar to the faux Idaho Senator Larry Craig (he of the tapping foot in the airport bathroom stall fame) in the MSNBC parody, The Larry Craig Dragnet Show. (Check it out on YouTube.)

The Watchdog surrounds himself with church gospel choirs as civic back-up in his righteous mission to shut down local prostitution. As seems to frequently be the case with people who engage in overwrought moralizing, Melvin’s evangelical posturing ends up being more prurient and less dignified that Miss Mona, herself. Sympathetic to the madam is the Sheriff (Stephen Gamba) — who has shared some intimate moments with Mona in the past, but who cannot turn a blind eye now that the ranch has been brought into the hell-fire glare of publicity and condemnation.

The male actors have a couple of key scenes as “Aggie Boys” — football players from the local agricultural college who are treated to an annual night at The Chicken Ranch, thanks to a thoughtful endowment by the school’s alumni association. Miss Mona does it up nice, dressing the girls in prom gowns to give the post-football hanky-panky an air of a genteel Cotillion. The football players’ dance number, The Aggie Song, is perhaps the most arresting finger-snapping part of the show.

The original choreography of the Broadway show, which opened in 1978 and ran for 1,584 performances, was by Tommy Tune and Thommie Walsh — an Auburn native and one of the original cast members of the landmark musical, A Chorus Line.

The Sidestep, the title of a number performed by the Governor (Tom Briggs) aptly describes what politicians tend to do to get out of trouble. Briggs’ rendition was a nice moment in the second act, but I must admit that I am still in the thrall of the Sidestep song-and-dance performed in the movie version by the indefatigable character actor, the late Charles Durning, which was set in the actual stairwell of the Texas State Capitol. Likewise, I can’t get some other thoughts out of my mind when watching the musical which prevented my completely unreserved enjoyment of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.

The Chicken Ranch is depicted from a warm, uplifting perspective. It’s a place that has long given sanctuary, and a means of earning a living to, vibrant young (and not-so-young) women. An early scene has two newcomers, Angel (Kate Crawford) and Shy (Kasey McHale), arriving to seek employment as part of Mona’s corral of lovelies. Possible sexual abuse by a father is briefly alluded to and then not brought up again. Is a life of prostitution the helpful response for a girl who has fled her home because of that trauma?

The farewells that unfold as The Chicken Ranch meets its end are touching and heart-rending, epitomized by the beautiful song, Hard Candy Christmas. So caught up are the girls in their sadness about leaving this wonderful life-affirming institution, I was reminded of the final scenes of A League of Their Own — when the members All-American Girls Baseball League had to disband and return home at the conclusion of World War II.

The musical does, unfortunately, put a colorful gloss on what was a houseful of prostitutes in a backwater town. Perhaps the story of a whorehouse is corny and colorful when set in the rural south. Homespun country songs, twangy accents and political shenanigans make a seamy business endearing and amusing. (Musing out loud: Would a raid on a house of prostitution in, say, Brooklyn or South Boston, have also motivated a boisterous, tongue-in-cheek Broadway musical?)

My personal gripes don’t detract from the fact that the current Central New York Playhouse production is an engaging show. The hot weather outside might make Central New Yorkers feel like they are in The Lone Star State. The relatively new theater space in Shoppingtown is cool and inviting — much like Miss Mona’s in her heyday.  

Get out of the heat and stop watching the ubiquitous sensationalism of Fox, MSNBC and CNN and learn about another real-life news story, this one now a musical.

Details Box:
WhatThe Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, choreographed and directed by Stephfond Brunson.
Who: The Central New York Playhouse
Where: Shoppingtown Mall 

Performance reviewed: July 17, 2013 (final dress rehearsal)

Remaining performances:  Plays through August 3

Time: Two and a half hours, with one intermission

Tickets:  $20 and $25; $39.95 dinner and a show option for Saturday nights only; call (315) 885-8960 or  

Family guide: Action takes place in a house of prostitution

July 14 Glimmerglass Festival: The Flying Dutchman

Glimmerglass Festival’s ‘The Flying Dutchman’ a voyage to remember

Excellent staging and strong vocal efforts put wind in the sails of this legendary ghost ship

By David Rubin

The sultry weather outside the Alice Busch Opera Theater in Cooperstown, New York moved indoors for an erotic and riveting production of The Flying Dutchman that put all the characters’ sexual frustrations front and center.  Call it “Tennessee Williams meets Richard Wagner at the Glimmerglass Festival.”

This work, the first to announce Wagner’s distinctive style, is based on a nautical legend as retold by the poet Heinrich Heine.  The Dutchman has been doomed to sail the world as punishment for uttering a blasphemous oath.  Every seven years he is permitted to step on land to seek a woman who will be faithful to him and provide him release from the curse.  So far, no luck.

As envisioned by Director Francesca Zambello, who is also the Festival’s Artistic and General Director, this Dutchman needs female companionship in the worst way, and who can blame him?  As a result, one key prop in this production is a bed, specifically Senta’s bed.  She is the latest object of his desire — and his hope for release.  

Fortunately for him, Senta is obsessed with the legend of the Flying Dutchman.  After the justly famous overture, Zambello places Senta on the bed in the midst of a nightmare as a storm rages off the coast of Norway.  She is enveloped in a black cloud of cloth, flailing wildly as she foresees her own doom.

The bed returns when Senta gives herself to the Dutchman as a sign of her enduring fidelity.  She will save him from his accursed wandering.  Her Dutchman is bare chested — save for a large Gothic tattoo that covers most of his skin.  (It is painstakingly drawn on his chest before each performance.)  Bass-baritone Ryan McKinny as the Dutchman has the abs and the arms to make this seduction convincing, although if this production had been staged in Germany, and not Central New York, Zambello might have taken more risks.  Still, steam was coming off the bed.

Then Senta greets her sad sack, discarded boyfriend Erik, on this bed.  He almost convinces her to remain faithful.  The Dutchman spies on this scene of partial reconciliation and assumes Senta is like all the other women he’s met in his endless wanderings and abandons her, returning once again to the sea.  

Finally, on this bed Senta in despair commits suicide using a rope — a second key image in this production.

Ropes are everywhere.  They hang from scaffolding that frames the stage both right and left.  Sailors hang onto them for dear life to suggest the raging storm that has delayed their return to Norway and to their girlfriends.  They pull on the ropes at the end of Act 1 to inflate the mast once a south wind has returned.

In the spinning scene, the village girls each have ropes suspended from the scaffolding to their laps.  Rather than sew, they braid these ropes — often using them erotically to suggest their own sexual frustration as they await the return of their sailor-lovers.

The ropes also envelope Senta’s bed, as if they were bars to a jail she will never leave alive.

The Heine legend says that the Dutchman’s cursed ship had blood-red sails.  Zambello’s lighting director Mark McCullough has suggested this through the frequent use of a red spotlight on the Dutchman and with red backlighting for the rigging of his ship.  In the rigging one could see bodies — perhaps of the women who had already lost their lives by being unfaithful to the Dutchman, or perhaps of his ghostly crewmembers.  Spooky it was.  Had this been a Broadway show, McCullough’s lighting throughout the production was worthy of garnishing a Tony Award.

All of this was in service to a splendid cast that was strong from top to bottom.  Wagner’s score was sung as well as one is likely to hear it in a house of this size (914 seats).

In the title role, McKinny was most effective when singing quietly, as when he first tells Senta his sad story in Act 2.  He is a bit light of voice for the role, but this made sense given that he was portrayed as a young and ardent captain, seemingly not much older than Senta.  McKinny is a good actor, able to make a real person of this mythical sailor.

Melody Moore was a sensational Senta.  She hit all the exposed high notes of her famous Ballad without scooping or straining, as if nailing the notes was no big deal.  She offered none of the blowzy singing that sometimes afflicts others who sing this part.  She delivered the role with both power and lyricism.

The role of Daland, Senta’s father, was sung heartily by Peter Volpe, who has a cavernous but also agile bass voice.  It was a clear contrast to the lighter voice of the Dutchman.  He captured the comic absurdity of this money-grubbing father who is wiling to sell off his daughter to a rich, mysterious captain of a ghost ship, ignoring that this Dutchman might not be such a great son-in-law.  Directors can’t do much with this character that Wagner didn’t make explicit, and Volpe seems to have found just what the composer intended.

Erik, Senta’s shunned boyfriend, is often played and sung as a wimp — as if Don Ottavio had wandered out of Don Giovanni and into the wrong opera.  Not here.  Jay Hunter Morris, who has sung Siegfried in both New York and San Francisco (with Zambello) to great acclaim, assumed the role.  He was physically rough with Senta, no wimp at all.  His voice was large for this house and thrilling, if a bit nasal.  His Act 3 aria, in which he begs Senta to stick with him, was melting in its delivery.  This was an Erik worthy of a forging scene.  A bit more Bellini-type vocalism would have helped (this is, after all, an early Wagner work), but I’ll take it.

Glimmerglass Young Artist Adam Bielamowicz was a sympathetic steersman with a tenor voice as clear as spring water.  A second Young Artist, Deborah Nansteel, was a most capable Mary, Senta’s nurse — a somewhat thankless part.  

The men and women of the chorus sang and acted with polish.  Conductor John Keenan led a fleet performance — about as far from the classic, lumbering, but celebrated Otto Klemperer EMI recording as one could get.  Occasionally balances were off and the brass and winds rode over the strings.  After a wonderful clarion opening from the horn in the overture, it was a hit or miss afternoon for the brass section.  But overall the orchestra acquitted itself honorably.  (This was the first time Glimmerglass has ever presented one of the 10 canonic Wagner operas.)

Oddly, Zambello chose to break the opera for an intermission at the point in Act 2, when Senta first sees the Dutchman.  In dramatic terms this makes sense, since it leaves the audience wondering how she will react.  It also splits the opera into nearly two equal parts.  But for those who know the score, it was jarring.  Wagner knew how to end his acts in slam-bang fashion, and this was not it.  I would have preferred either a single two-hour performance with no break, or the three-act version with the endings Wagner wrote.  But this is a small quibble.

Zambello’s reputation as a Wagner director was established, at least for me, in her San Francisco “Eco-Ring.”  This production of The Flying Dutchman convinces me that she has a lot to say about this composer.  She saw, as The New Grove Dictionary of Opera suggests, that Wagner identified with his “sexually unfulfilled protagonist.”  This is a production Wagner would recognize, and no doubt appreciate. 

Details Box:
What: The Flying Dutchman, by Richard Wagner
Date reviewed: July 14, 2013
Who: Glimmerglass Festival
Where: 7300 State Highway 80, Cooperstown, N.Y.
Time: About 2 hours and 40 minutes, with one intermission
Call: Glimmerglass Box office: (607) 547-2255
Ticket prices: $10 to $132 (discounts for students, educators and seniors)
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. July 18: 8 p.m. July 27; 1:30 p.m. July 30; 1:30 p.m. August 4; 8 p.m. Aug. 10; 1:30 p.m. Aug. 12; 7:30 p.m. Aug. 16; 1:30 p.m. Aug. 20; 8 p.m. Aug. 24

July 7 Cooperstown Summer Music Festival: Birds of Paradise

CoopFest’s ‘Birds of Paradise’ program takes flight

The festival opens its 15th season with wind chamber music and a multimedia novelty

By David Abrams

The world of chamber music today is thoroughly dominated by string music, and with good reason: Composers since Haydn and Mozart have put their best creative efforts into genres such as string trios, quartets and quintets.  Still, it’s nice to hear a program devoted to wind chamber music from time to time.  Especially when it bears the stamp of quality we’ve come to expect from the Cooperstown Summer Music Festival.

Now in its 15th season, CoopFest has amassed a sizeable and dedicated audience by sticking to a winning formula: Program good repertory and engage first-rate performers, and the crowds will come.  

They came Sunday evening, sure enough — filling the Otesaga Resort Hotel Ballroom to capacity for the festival’s season-opening concert featuring wind music, with and without piano.  And when the crowd filed out some two hours later saying that the program was for the birds, it was intended only as a compliment.

“The birds,” which formed the centerpiece of the six-work program, is a multimedia collaboration titled Birds of Paradise.  The project couples a trio for flute, clarinet and piano by composer Robert Sirota, juxtaposed with a video project from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology.  

The phrase “Birds of Paradise” refers to the crow-like species of birds found largely in New Guinea, and the Cornell Lab video — edited earlier this year by Zapcast Creative’s Jim Berman to forge an artistic complement to Sirota’s music — includes rare footage of the species shot on-location in New Guinea.  The resulting amalgam of music and video produced an engaging 13-minute experience in which acoustic bird-like sounds produced on the three musical instruments combines with ambient sounds of the exotic birds (recorded in their natural habitat) to produce an effect that may aptly be described as National Geographic — the Musical.   

Sirota’s approach to the music, as you might expect from a program piece tied to birdcalls, is laced with short, sputtering motifs and quick running passages tossed among the three instruments.  Grace-note figures heavily adorn the writing throughout the work, as do wide intervallic leaps and pointillism effects that mimic the interactive “call and response” chanting of the birds.  

Accessible and listener friendly, Sirota’s writing at times draws upon the spirit (though not the pitches) of prior composers.  The opening flute entrance recalls the beginning of Stravinsky’s ballet, Petrouchka, while the quick grace notes recall the bird in Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf.  Similarly, bird-like effects in the clarinet part evoke Messiaen’s Quartet For the End of Time

The interplay among the three instruments is rather challenging — with rhythmically complex figures that juxtapose groups of three notes against four, and quickly changing meters and tempos that demand razor-sharp synchronization among the three players.  A well-prepared ensemble comprising flutist (and CoopFest Artistic Director) Linda Chesis, clarinetist Marianne Gythfeldt and pianist Pedja Muzijevic were decidedly up to task.

The video projected at the front of the hall (directly behind the musicians) provided the audience a “birds-eye view” of the courtship process, as a large number of very determined males try every trick in the book to woo the picky females.  The males prance about in the throes of a phantasmagoric mating-dance, spreading their colorful wings while gyrating their heads wildly from side to side in a desperate attempt for attention.  The females look squarely ahead, singularly unimpressed. 

Scenes like this evoked widespread laughter from the audience  along with occasional groans from those gentlemen in attendance who may have experienced an uncomfortable sense of déjà vu

The program opened with a buoyant rendition of Jean Françaix’s lighthearted Quartet for Flute, Oboe Clarinet and Bassoon — a technically demanding work whose snappy syncopations, wit and humor recalls the style of Francis Poulenc.  Oboist James Roe and bassoonist Adrian Morejon joined Chesis and Gythfeldt for this performance, which captured the vibrancy of Françaix’s amusing French neo-classic style. 

The musicians, looking as if they were thoroughly enjoying themselves, stood side-by-side in a straight horizontal line, rather than the more customary arched horseshoe configuration.  The stage presence was handsome, if not novel, but the lack of visual contact among the players may have contributed to some ensemble problems in the final (Allegro vivo) movement, which was not entirely in-sync.  

The two unaccompanied works that followed, Benjamin Britten’s Pan (from his Six Metamorphoses after Ovid) for oboe solo and Claude Debussy’s Syrinx for solo flute, were delivered with great charm and sensitivity of phrasing by Roe and Chesis, respectively.  The dry acoustics of the fully carpeted and heavily draped Otesaga Ballroom however is not especially flattering to unaccompanied works played on monophonic instruments.  When flute and oboe perform alone, resonance and reverberation are necessary to connect notes into phrases, and to sustain phrases as they blossom into lyrical lines.  (If you’ve ever listened to yourself singing in the shower, you know what I’m talking about.)  

Ironically, the same dry acoustics that dulled the program's solo works actually enhanced the listening experience of the ensemble numbers.  

During the Mozart Quintet in E-flat Major for Piano and Winds, the uniquely independent sounds of the four woodwind instruments — oboe, clarinet, bassoon and horn — were easy for the listener to follow. And whichever wind instrument you focused your attention on, the sound was indeed quite lovely.  

I especially enjoyed isolating the horn playing of Zohar Schondorf, who demonstrated great control of tone and balance in all registers of his instrument, as well as a flawless sense of pitch.  It was nevertheless the composite sound and blend of the ensemble that impressed me the most, as the winds (Roe, Gythfeldt, Morejon and Schondorf) forged a handsome complement to the piano part played by Pedja Muzijevic.

The printed program notes described this Mozart Quintet as a sort of “piano concerto accompanied by winds.”  Nothing could be further from the truth.  This is quintessential chamber music, pure and simple, with an equality of instrumental parts you don't typically find in classical concertos.  

Muzijevic understands this  which is why his playing was faithfully unaggressive and understated.  The Bosnian-born pianist’s first movement sextuplet runs were elegant and delicate, as if he were wearing while gloves while delivering the rapid passagework.  Moreover, his approach to the tension-building development section favored poignancy and sensitivity over sheer muscle.  I especially appreciated his improvised eingang (bridge) connecting the end of the Largo introduction to the beginning of the Allegro moderato, where the sonata form actually begins.

The slow (Larghetto) movement was a bit of a disappointment, due largely to the quick tempo and uncharacteristically short articulations that hurried the phrases rather than savor them.  The effect was like that of the host who pours you a glass of 18-year old scotch and then pushes you to finish it in two minutes.  Mozart, like good scotch, is not to be rushed.  The delicate Rondo finale, taken just a tad too fast for comfort, sparkled and allowed the players to demonstrate their acute sense of ensemble interplay.

The final work on the program, Poulenc’s Sextet for Piano and Wind Quintet, involved all six players — who combined for a sparkling and thoroughly uninhibited performance of this beloved wind chamber music warhorse.

Poulenc’s highly stylized parlor music, especially evident in the two outer movements, came through loud and clear in this spirited rendition.  Roe, whose gesticulations were genuine and contagious, saved his best playing for this piece, and intonation among all players (and indeed the entire program) was exceptional.  The wild opening Allegro vivace was played with an appropriate sense of reckless abandon, and the euphoric Finale sounded, well, beyond wild.  

As in the opening Françaix Quartet, the players here were clearly enjoying the moment — only now they were sitting in a semi-circle and could watch and feed off each other’s excitement.  Just like the audience. 

Details Box:
What: Cooperstown Summer Music Festival

Program: Birds of Paradise: Music for Winds and Piano

Where: Otesaga Resort Hotel, 60 Lake St., Cooperstown, NY
When: 7:30 p.m. July 7, 2013

Information: call (877) 666-7421

Ticket prices: Regular $25, Students (6-18 yrs.) $15

Order tickets by phone: 1(800) 838-3006, open 24/7

NextRebel Baroque Ensemble, 3:00 p.m. Sunday, 8/4, Otesaga Resort Hotel, 60 Lake St., Cooperstown, NY

June 22 CNY Playhouse: The Breakfast Club

CNY Playhouse’s adaptation of ‘The Breakfast Club’ does justice to John Hughes’s iconic 1985 film

The troupe’s well-casted ensemble of local actors revisits a time when the phrase ‘teen dynamics’ referred to something other than volume controls on an iPod

By Laurel Saiz

Last weekend I saw Man of Steel at the new IMAX Theater at Destiny USA. My husband, who generally uses audio-enhancing earphones at the cinema, didn’t need them because the volume was so ear-splittingly loud. I don’t have hearing problems, but after that show I suspect I might have suffered some. The surround-sound speakers were cranked up so high I could physically feel the reverberations of the crashes and explosions.

The Superman remake has so much unrelenting, careening destruction to poor Metropolis that some family members and I were joking that the sequel would have to be named Man of Steel II: Insurance Companies Strike Back.

This weekend, we also saw another remake. It didn’t have any special effects, ear-damaging audio or preternaturally strong aliens from a doomed planet fighting it out on earth. However, it did have superheroes: five excellent local actors portraying people at their most vulnerable: teenagers facing the challenges and vicissitudes of grappling with life.

The Central New York Playhouse has mounted a theatrical version of John Hughes’s famed 1985 film, The Breakfast Club. It’s a brilliant idea and it would be interesting to find out how Dan Rowlands, the adapter and director of the play (and producing director of the Playhouse), went about securing the rights and approval for this enterprise. The Breakfast Club isn’t your average teen flick — it’s the lodestar for an entire generation and the epitome of cinematic storytelling for young adults. It’s not for nuthin’ that the obituaries for Hughes, who died suddenly of a heart attack at age 59 in 2009, had such headlines as “Remembering John Hughes, Bard of the American High School.”

On the day of Hughes’s death, Vanity Fair Hollywood columnist Michael Hogan wrote, “For Americans occupying a certain generational span — everyone from tail-end boomers to front-end Y’s with older siblings — there was no greater guide to the forbidding landscape of adolescence than the films of John Hughes.” In March 2010, that magazine also ran an elegiac feature story, noting, “It was remarkable enough that a baby-boomer born squarely in the middle of the 20th century had somehow laid claim to the title of Teen Laureate of the 1980s; more remarkable still was that his movies turned out to be a renewable resource, with a reach far beyond the generation for which they were originally intended.”

And why should this story have so much reach and depth? At first glance, the plot is deceptively simple, even one-dimensional. Five students have been sentenced to an all-day detention in their high school’s library for various misdeeds, some of which are not explained until further on in the telling. That the roles are archetypes of teenage identities also might seem rather cardboardy. As the character Brian Johnson (Justin Polly) says at the play’s onset, they are “the Brain, the Athlete, the Princess, the Basket Case and the Criminal.”

The strength of Hughes’s story and this adaptation, along with the capable acting in this production, makes The Breakfast Club transcend these all-too-familiar and overdone characterizations. Polly is joined by Jordan Glaski as John Bender, the Criminal; Kim Panek as Claire Standish, the Princess; Kasey McHale as Allison Reynolds, the Basket Case; and Joel Miscione as Andrew Clark, the Athlete. In the film version, these characters were played by Brat Pack members Anthony Michael Hall, Judd Nelson, Molly Ringwald, Ally Sheedy, and Emilio Estevez, respectively.

Although the play’s cast is almost uniformly excellent, Polly and Glaski deserve special plaudits. Brian truly is a brain. He (no surprise) excels in math and science and is a member of both the math and physics club. The guileless way Polly announces this and the way he readily provides incidental factual information shows how essentially unschooled Brian is in teen social interaction. I don’t remember thinking so at the time I first saw the film, but the phrase “on the Asperger’s spectrum” definitely comes to mind. Polly sensitively portrays this character, who also ends up being the most incisive in his honesty about the detention group’s dynamic.

Glaski, on the other hand, is anything but sensitive as the rebellious, wounded Bender. He is trouble with a capital “T” and all too willing to follow the predictions made for him early on in his life. When you’ve been told repeatedly that you are a “stupid, worthless, no good, God damned, freeloading, son of a bitch, retarded, bigmouth, know it all, asshole, jerk” and “ugly, lazy and disrespectful,” could any young person expect to end up any differently? Glaski, who has an uncanny resemblance to Judd Nelson, reveals the range of this character from his scary outbursts to his neediness just under the surface.

Panek as Claire is facing her own issues. She’s popular, but that comes with its own baggage — the expectations of the in-crowd and the cost that entails as a well-rounded, humane person. On top of that, her whole life is not that of Ozzie and Harriet. Fundamentally, despite her success with the high school clique, she feels bounced back and forth at home with her warring parents. “It's like they use me just to get back at each other,” she tells her fellow detainees.

Quiet for much of the beginning of the play is the Gothic crazy girl, Allison, garbed in black with eyes shaded in heavy dark makeup all the more for her to make herself invisible. Ironically, that’s exactly the way she feels at home. Her parents don’t affirm her worth and in fact don’t seem to recognize her existence at all. Allison reveals the most surprising reason for her Saturday in the school library as the students began to open up more and more to each other. Since this role is so much of the cipher, it is difficult. McHale rises to this with adeptness, inviting empathy.

Miscione hits the right notes in terms of his performance and looks like an athlete, albeit more of a football player in physique than the stated champion wrestler. Because he seems far too old to play this teenage role, he is the least believable in terms of casting. In addition, when he takes off his team jacket, Miscione reveals heavily tattooed biceps not in keeping with a potential All-American high school sports star.

Rounding out the group is the cynical, beleaguered teacher who monitors the detention hall (none too effectively), and the custodian who shows that sometimes the people in the most menial jobs within an institution are the ones who have the greatest awareness of what is going on. David Vickers as the teacher and Sean Pratt as the janitor complement the ongoing drama developing among the students in the library.

As the allotted time period for their punishment begins to wind to a close, Brian asks the most prescient and compelling question: “What happens to us on Monday? When we're all together again?  I mean I consider you guys my friends, I'm not wrong, am I? So, so on Monday... what happens?”

This is the crux of the story of The Breakfast Club: maneuvering the shoals of the high school environment with its seemingly-ordained stratification of groups, painful perceptions of popularity, and manifestations of social acceptance. Yes, the young people engage in genuine communication and reach out across the divide to others, whom they originally think they couldn’t relate to at all. But will they have the moral courage to do this publicly in school on Monday?

Pondering this question and the long-term effects of the day in the library on these five characters makes for profound opportunities for discussing not just the realm of high school, but human nature as a whole. This is why Hughes’ classic motion picture, well told here in this live performance, sticks with you longer than most of the other popcorn-action and Sci-Fi movie hits.

The Central New York Playhouse’s The Breakfast Club is more eye-opening than eye-popping. It’s full of sensitive revelations, not sensory reverberations. In short, it shows just how much of a “person of steel” a teenager needs to be to traverse the most dangerous of obstacles: rising above others’ stereotypes to finally find yourself.

Details Box:

WhatThe Breakfast Club, adapted for the stage and directed by Dan Rowlands
Who: The Central New York Playhouse

Where: Shoppingtown Mall, 3649 Erie Blvd East, Dewitt
Date of review: June 22, 2013
Remaining performances: Plays through June 29

Length:  Two hours, with one intermission

Tickets:  $15 and $20. Call 315-885-8960 or 

Family guide: Characters smoke pot and use the f-word

June 7 Rarely Done Productions: Debbie Does Dallas, The Musical

XXX marks the spot: Rarely Done Productions mounts ‘Debbie’

Spoof of the notorious ‘Debbie Does Dallas’ porn flick maintains the film’s dialogue, replaces X-rated scenes with music

By Laurel Saiz

Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical, the current show by Rarely Done Productions, is goofy and cornball, All-American, and hilariously, uproariously raunchy — in a totally unsordid way.

It’s hard to believe that the theatrical remake of a 1970s porn film could be so coy, sweet and corny. It’s also hard to believe that the porn flick was so earnest in reinforcing traditional social mores.

What is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of this humorous romp is that the script is taken almost completely verbatim from the 1978 cinematic hit. Using the original plot and text was a flash of genius by Erica Schmidt and Susan L. Schwartz, who originally conceived the idea of the musical that was first performed as Debbie in the New York Fringe Festival in 2001. What makes it The Musical is that each sex scene in the original film has been replaced with a genuine Broadway-worthy musical number, with music composed by Andrew Sherman.

When watching the superb Syracuse production of Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical, directed by Dan Tursi, I was reminded of the Saturday Night Live 2008 election season skits, in which Tina Fey played Sarah Palin and Amy Poehler played Katie Couric. What was brilliantly funny about those recreations of the famous interviews with the vice-presidential candidate is that they were virtually word-for-word transcripts of the real thing. When seeing the Fey-Poehler version, you would both laugh uncontrollably and shake your head in disbelief and say, “Did she really say that?”

When seeing Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical, you will likewise be engulfed in laughter while shaking your head in disbelief wondering, “Could this porn movie really have been this transparently corny? Was this famous porn flick really so hokey?”

You see, the plot of Debbie Does Dallas draws upon universal themes of dreaming big, reaching for the stars and striving for success. Debbie Benton wants to leave her small town behind and make it in the big city by trying out for the famous “Dallas Cowgirls” cheerleading squad. Rachael Mou-Thiel as Debbie effuses the character with wide-eyed expectation and yearning. She is true-hearted and innocent, although unwittingly about to launch a group of nubile teenagers into the sex trade.

Debbie Does Dallas also plays on a number of tropes that define traditional gender roles. Debbie is the popular and attractive captain of the high school cheerleading squad. Her boyfriend Rick is the handsome (and horny) captain of the football team. The ubiquitous double standard is in play here. Debbie is the “good girl” and good girls save themselves for marriage. Rick (Michael Riecke) knows that she is a good girl, but — gosh, darn it! — he’s a healthy red-blooded American jock and has needs.

Enter Lisa, “the slut” — another stereotypical character in any number of young adult novels or teen movies. Lisa is played by Lzay Whalen, who steals most every scene with her over-the-top arch come-ons to Rick. She’s Debbie’s friend, but not beneath taking advantage of Debbie’s reticence — and Rick’s sex drive.

Lisa and the other three cheerleaders also uphold the values of friendship and hard work. As in all good stories, Debbie first has to overcome hurdles before achieving her dreams. In this case, she needs to earn bus money to Texas for her promised audition. The cheerleaders band together with common cause and decide to get after-school and weekend jobs to help raise funds to send Debbie to Dallas. Two short weeks of working minimum wage will not give them enough, so they decide, one incremental step at a time, to do things that most good girls would not do for money. They start a business called “Teen Services.” Need I say more?

Andrea Colabufo, Kelsie Deyo and Amy Zubieto, who play Roberta, Donna and Tammy, respectively, are spot-on in hitting the right notes of naïveté and naughtiness — often simultaneously. Their intentionally clueless delivery and frisky physical humor make all their numbers genuinely funny and entertaining.

The other men in the cast, David Minikhiem, Gennaro Parlato and Josh Mele, adroitly do double duty both as football players and the local business owners who hire the cheerleaders for such arduous tasks as counting candles and moving boxes — which quickly lead to other things. That the candle store owner’s name is Mr. Hardwick is just one of the groaners from the original film.

The choreography by Colabufo and Jodi Bova-Mele is precise and masterful, evoking the moves of cheerleading practice and the football field.  Like this entire production of Debbie Does Dallas, the dance moves and physical scenes embrace the racy material with insouciance, never crossing the line into sleeziness.

The production is performed tongue in cheek which is more than I can say for Debbie.

Details Box:
WhatDebbie Does Dallas: The Musical, adapted by Erica Schmidt with music by Andrew Sherman
Who:  Rarely Done Productions

Where: Jazz Central, 441 E. Washington St., Syracuse 

Performance reviewed
:  June 7, 2013
Additional performances:  plays through June 22

Length:  One hour and 45 minutes, with one intermission

Tickets:  $20. Call 315-546-3224 or
Family guide: Simulated sex scenes

June 9 Opera in film: The Magic Flute

Kenneth Branagh’s ‘The Magic Flute’ works its magic on the eyes and ears

Now headed to theaters across the USA for the first time, ‘The Magic Flute’ is a theatrical and vocal success

By David Abrams

I’m not especially fond of operas on film or other visual media unless shot live and sung in the language originally intended.  Mostly, I find it difficult to tolerate lip-synching.  Yet somehow I remain curiously enamored with Kenneth Branagh’s fantasy-like 2006 film adaptation of Mozart’s The Magic Flute — lip-synched to a new libretto set in English.

For starters, this daring reworking of Die Zauberflöte, which plays on the big screen in 150 theaters across the USA Sunday, June 9 (Encore presentation June 11), is original, clever, well acted and visually engaging.  And while not opulent in the sense of a Franco Zeffirelli operatic extravaganza, Branagh’s production is imaginative, tasteful and thought-provoking.  Best of all, the performance — led by the magnificent German bass, René Pape — stands out as a richly rewarding listening experience.  

Whatever Branagh had in mind when transposing the setting of the 1791 Singspiel to World War I, he wisely left Mozart’s music (recorded separately under the direction of James Conlon) intact.  And Conlon’s preference for quick tempos and clean and precise orchestral accompaniments, provided by the Chamber Orchestra of Europe, was invigorating.  

Still, it’s by no means easy to categorize Branagh’s The Magic Flute.  The director-actor of such Shakespearean masterpieces as Henry V, Hamlet and Much Ado About Nothing entered the world of opera with no experience whatsoever and forged an effort that appeared to be neither an opera staged for the screen nor a film whose storyline uses an opera as its musical background. 

In the end, The Magic Flute is a hybrid fantasy-adventure story — just like the Mozart-Schikaneder original.  

And while Branagh’s updated storyline may be completely devoid of the mystical bonds and symbolic numerology of Freemasonry that permeate the original libretto, Stephen Fry’s artful English revision maintains both the spirit and the dramatic integrity of the phantasmagorical tale and its underlying focus on spiritual delivery through trial by fire and water.  

As the overture begins, the action opens with British troops in the front trenches of a battlefield preparing to charge enemy positions.  But this storyline transcends borders (one can’t even be sure the action takes place in France) and leaves the “enemy” faceless.  Throughout the film we see the carnage, the refugees and the pain and suffering — but never actually see anything even remotely resembling a German soldier.  The enemy is unmasked only late in the film, and then — surprise: It’s the Queen of the Night leading the forces of aggression.  

Of course, evil is evil — whether generated by the German High Command or a wicked coloratura soprano.  And Branagh’s anti-war sentiments that permeate this production, while delivered gently and with restraint, pack an emotional wallop.

Carved on the wall of the castle that serves as a Red Cross hospital are the words Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori — an ancient Roman battle cry (“It is sweet and right to die for your country”) used as the title of a poem by the great WWI British poet-soldier Wilfred Owen, whose disturbing and painful references to the horrors of war are immortalized in Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem.  Later on, Sarastro sings his mighty O Isis und Osiris standing before a colossal wall of remembrance at a multinational graveyard, where the names (and the ages) of countless fallen soldiers are carved indelibly into the stone.  The wide variety of languages, including English, Hebrew, Arab, Russian and Chinese, serve as a reminder that suffering and the consequences of war know no borders.

To his credit, Branagh never appears preachy.  His film is not about protest or indoctrination; it’s a love story that pauses from time to time for reflection and meaning.  Branagh invites the viewer into his world but doesn’t try to lead them to his conclusions.  And it’s this practice of understatement that gives the production its strength and depth.

Even had it not been for the thoughtful dramatic touches, this production would stand tall solely on the merit of its quality of musical performance.  The soundtrack to this film is competitive with the best performances of this work out there. (Well, at least the ones in English.)   

As Sarastro, René Pape all but steals the show.  He’s a fine actor, and his sumptuous lyric bass (which I well remember from his Gurnemanz at the Met’s recent production of Parsifal) has never sounded better.  His deep pedal tones in In diesem heil’gen Hallen, assuring Tamino that things between Pamina and her mother will be all right if he perseveres and completes the trial, are alone worth the price of admission.   Give credit to Pape for working with a professional lip-synching coach (now there’s a career worth looking into) — just so he wouldn’t look foolish “singing” his arias.   

Joseph Kaiser as the brave and duty-bound Captain Tamino (we first see the name on his dog tags after being knocked unconscious during battle) sings with a delicate, easy-going tenor that is consistently pleasing to the ear.  His signature aria Dies Bildnis ist bezaubernd schön, sung while he adorns the photograph of the Queen of the Night’s daughter, Pamina, was quite lovely — although I would have preferred a bit more depth and color to his voice in that aria.  (In a clever directorial move, Pamina’s image in the photo comes to life in a ballroom dance routine.)

Benjamin Jay Davis was throughly appealing as the birdman, Papageno.  (In Branagh’s adaptation, Papageno is on “pigeon duty,” carrying birds into the trenches testing for poison gas.)  Davis’s lyric baritone is flexible and supple in its upper register, giving him many characteristics of a tenor.  I particularly enjoyed his delightful aria, Ein Mädchen oder Weibchen, sung as he imagines life not only with birds  but with the bees, as well.  In the film this aria is delightfully staged as a fantasy, with bird-women dancing in cages and flying provocatively through the air.  

As the wily Queen of the Night, the seasoned Russian coloratura soprano Lyubov Petrova forged an outstanding villain who all but spit bullets when encouraging her daughter to kill Sarastro.  The archetypical drama queen makes her initial appearance in this film riding atop a tank one of Branagh’s unforgettable visual touches.

Petrova possesses a strong and mighty vocal presence that added credence to her nefarious character.  But her signature aria Der Hölle Rasche, though a sound to behold, was hardly a sight to behold — as the close-ups of her mouth during the lip-synched high F passages looked like something out of a Monty Python farce.  

The one singer who did not work out well in this production is Amy Carson, who was simply vocally miscast as Pamina.  

Fresh out of college when she got the part, and with no solo professional singing experience under her belt, Carson landed the part because the opera-inexperienced casting director did not realize that the role of Pamina requires the gravitas of a lyric soprano, not the light and sweet soubrette character of Carson’s vocal timbre better suited perhaps to a Zerlina (Don Giovanni) or Despina (Cosi fan tutte).  

Carson’s voice is quite lovely, actually.  It’s just the wrong voice for the part.  The disparity is especially evident in her character’s defining aria, Ach ich fühl’s, where she contemplates suicide having mistaken Tamino’s vow of silence for indifference towards her affections.  This is an aria that requires meat and potatoes, not meringue.  

The vocal ensemble numbers were especially attractive, with a first-rate ensemble of singers playing the Three Ladies (or nurses, in this production), comprising Teuta Koço, Louise Callinan and Kim-Marie Woodhouse.  The Three Boys (William Dutton, Luke Lampard and Jamie Manton) sounded absolutely wonderful — and sang in-tune.  

The chorus (Choir Apollo Voices) was excellent throughout the production, and the Chamber Orchestra of Europe proved thoroughly up to task during Conlon’s spirited tempos.  

Stephen Fry’s clever and imaginative lyrics will likely put a smile on your face.  When the love-struck, bird-loving couple Papageno and Papagena sing about producing offspring, Fry translates Schikaneder’s three-syllabled Kinderlein as chicks inside.  Papageno’s opening aria morphs to The birdman’s work is never done, from the crack of dawn to set of sun.

Branagh’s production team, together with Conlon’s musical team, produced more magic in this production than pulling a rabbit out of a hat.  Indeed, they pulled a treasure chest from this Magic Flute.

Details Box:
What: Mozart’s The Magic Flute, film adaptation by Kenneth Branagh
Language: English
Orchestra: James Conlon conducts the Chamber Orchestra of Europe
Where: 150 theaters across the USA,
Date of US broadcast: June 9, 2013; USA Encore broadcast June 11, 2013
Time of performance: 2 hours and 14 minutes

To order the DVD:

May 23 CNY Playhouse: Hamlet Cha-Cha-Cha

CNY Playhouse’s ‘Hamlet Cha-Cha-Cha’ is simply ‘not to be’

The amateur cast in this cornball production is enthusiastically embraced by a claque of friends and well wishers, but seasoned theatergoers may find the play ‘much ado about nothing’

By Laurel Saiz

Hamlet Cha-Cha-Cha is neither a good comedy nor a good musical. However, as a musical comedy production it serves to show the attributes, and the potential, of a new theater company know as Central New York Playhouse.

Central New York Playhouse, founded last year by Dustin Czarny, is in the midst of its first complete season. Czarny was formally artistic director of Not Another Theater Company, which ran for several years and presented plays in a venue near Alliance Bank Stadium. The new Playhouse utilizes some of the open retail space available in the flagging Shoppingtown Mall and is located near the mall’s food court. The Playhouse is also the home of Syracuse’s longest running improv comedy troupe, Don’t Feed the Actors, which has upcoming performances in June and July.

The theater company appears to be carving out a niche in the local performing arts realm similar to that of the now-defunct Salt City Center for the Performing Arts, which was housed in the old Temple Adath Yeshurun (now a nouvelle hotel) and which was a community mainstay from 1973 until 2004. In an interview with The Post-Standard, Czarny stressed that the Central New York Playhouse is designed to showcase local amateurs; Salt City Center did the same with varied results.

Salt City Center often tackled major musical theater productions with sizable casts, such as 42nd Street and the ubiquitous (if not overly done) Jesus Christ Superstar. If Hamlet Cha-Cha-Cha is any indication, Central New York Playhouse is willing to take on large-cast productions using local thespians who really are in it for the love of performing. One characteristic of the decidedly amateur cast came into play with Thursday night’s performance.

The premise of the classic musical The Music Man is that “Professor” Harold Hill is a charlatan and really has no legitimate credentials. Throughout the play, Hill fears he’ll be discovered a fraud when the townsfolk see the uneven musical performance by the town’s children. As anyone who’s seen The Music Man knows, however, people delight in seeing their friends and family members perform — no matter how “professional” their skills may be.

The townsfolk in River City, Iowa were thrilled by the kids’ musical performance. The same may be said with the audience at Hamlet Cha-Cha-Cha. Thursday’s crowd, which for the most part appeared to comprise friends and relatives of the cast, shrieked with hilarity at myriad parts of the play  which I thought was only minimally funny.

A continuing comic theme in the production is the idea of an unseen Elsinore buffet. In one example, Ophelia asks, “Can you help me find the buffet table?” Later on, a courtier replies to a question with, “Sire, he did dawdle beside the buffet table upon his arrival.” Was the courtier being asked about any of the famous characters? Polonius? Claudius? No, he was responding to a question about the location of the wedding photographer. If that doesn’t sound funny at all, it’s because it really is not.

An extended visual sight gag involves Milk Duds. This reference to the Hershey Company Candy brand’s chewy caramel is in the original script, written by Monk Ferris. (He also wrote the music and lyrics.) Director Janet DeCook milks this (pun intended) for all it’s worth, as several characters pop heavily masticated wads of Milk Duds in and out of their mouths. Off-putting to me, but raucously funny to the friends and loved ones in the audience.

Towards the end of the musical one character opines of another, “His talent is surpassed only by his enthusiasm.” Positive energy was coming from the audience, and the cast members themselves showed great enthusiasm and gusto in their performances. They truly were having a fun time with this rather silly version of Shakespeare’s greatest tragic drama.

Of the numerous cast members, Geoff Hawthorne as Laertes seems to have the best control, showing an irreverent, sly wit in his performance. As Hamlet, Peter Dowling evinces more of a sulking man-child than an anguished hero. Jenny Pearson as Ophelia has a powerful, though excessively shrill, voice. References in the script, such as to whales and the skimpy width of the crypt, highlight the fact that this young actress is of generous size. 

That the two main characters are nicknamed “Hammie” and “Ophie” only serves to underscore the ridiculous creation that Hamlet Cha-Cha-Cha is intended to be… or not to be. Rosie Krantz and Gilda Stern (Kasey McHale and Crystal Rowlands, both comely, good singers) are Rosencrantz and Guildenstern — another strained groaner. What’s more: they are dressed in quasi-Batman and Robin costumes. Ouch!

The famous “To be or not to be” soliloquy? Here, Hamlet is not dredging the depths of his soul for introspection into the meaning of existence. It’s another attempt at comedy, with the other cast members sticking their heads out from behind various portions of the scenery at intervals to sing a refrain punctuated by "Doo waaah!" Can you imagine Hamlet with a conga line? Don’t worry. That’s also here in Hamlet Cha-Cha-Cha. If all this sounds like a perplexing mishmash, it is.

To get to the dramaturgical bottom of Hamlet Cha-Cha-Cha, I first scoured the Internet Broadway Database. No luck. Wikipedia had no article on Monk Ferris. It turns out, according to the Samuel French theatrical publishing site, that Ferris is one of several pseudonyms for a playwright named Jack Sharkey. I don’t know why he would need not just one, but four pen names, since he is surely known for his “blockbusters,” Oh Fudge!, A Fine Monster You Are! and Let’s Murder Marsha. Thank goodness we don’t have to worry about the Central New York Playhouse putting on any of Ferris/Sharkey’s works in the near future.

In fact, Czarny has secured what may very well be the biggest entertainment coup of the year. The Central New York Playhouse has the first Syracuse area community theater rights to an actual Broadway blockbuster: Monty Python’s Spamalot — which one three Tony Awards in 2005 including best musical.

is the genuine deal: a musical comedy that not only is rip-roaringly funny but also has catchy and creative music, to boot.  Hamlet Cha-Cha-Cha is another story, entirely.

Details Box:

WhatHamlet Cha-Cha-Cha, with book, music and lyrics by Monk Ferris
Who: Central New York Playhouse

Where: Shoppingtown Mall, 3649 Erie Blvd., DeWitt

Performance reviewed: May 23
Remaining performances: through June 1 

Length of performance:  About two hours, one intermission

Tickets:  $20 to 25. Select performances with dinner inlcuded, $39.95. Call (315) 885-8690 or

Family guide: Nothing objectionable.

May 17 Syracuse Stage: An Iliad

One-man show ‘An Iliad’ good for a single, but not a ‘Homer’

Syracuse Stage’s loose adaptation of the Greek tragedy spends too much time trying to engage the audience and too little time telling a story

By Malkiel Choseed

An Iliad, a one man play (an hour and forty five minutes without intermission) opens with the figure of the Poet, lighting a candle and inviting us to listen to a story.  The story is long and complicated and ultimately heartbreaking.  It’s a story that many of us have heard before in many different forms, but what’s important about this story is the telling of it.  The play is a poignant retelling of a classic with a modern sensibility.  Playwrights Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare, along with Director Penny Metropulos, actor Joseph Graves and the production staff at Syracuse Stage, have come together to present this fascinating and deeply challenging play.  

One of the first challenges that the playwrights had to address was finding the balance between translating the story into the modern world and simply presenting it as they found it translated from the ancient Greek by Robert Fagles.  The second major challenge has to do with how much to push and pull the audience along with the Poet on this journey.  They were, for the most part, successful  but the playwrights could have trusted the audience more.  We were willing to follow the Poet and didn’t need so much explicit direction as to what to think or how to feel.

The staging of the play is unique and befitting of a one-man show. Held in the smaller Storch Theatre, the audience is treated to a theatre-in-the-round experience.  The stage resembles an underpass or the underside of a bridge.  Litter and cast off, broken objects which the Poet interacts with throughout the play surround the graffiti-scared walls (much of it in Greek).  When the play begins it is just us and Graves.  Directly addressing the audience, leaning over the patrons in their seats with the lights up, he connects with the audience and invites us in.  

By its very nature, a one-man play presents a different type of theater-going experience.  In a traditional piece of drama the characters interact with and play off one another.  The audience can relax a bit; they can become spectators watching as the actors direct their focus and energy toward each other.  But when there is only one actor on stage for an hour and 45 minutes, performer and audience have to work that much harder. 

The artistic staff at Syracuse Stage worked to make this connection with the audience palpable.  In a production like this, the lighting (designed by Diane Ferry Williams) and the score (composed by Sterling Tinsley) are just as important as the actor and his lines.  The lights are up for much of the play, and Graves is circulating around the periphery of the audience.  We are meant to feel fully present for much of the play, unable to retreat into darkness.  Music punctuates the most dramatic parts of the production.

At its best the audience is forced not just to pay attention, but also to participate more — to engage with the actor directly and for a long period of time.  To do this well takes a special actor, one with amazing stamina as well as talent.

Graves, directed by Metropulos, has the potential to be this actor.  And at moments in the play, he is.  When narrating the story of Hector and Patroclus, and then of Achilles and Priam, he was mesmerizing.  There are other times, however, when I found myself wishing he would simply stop using technique, stop trying to engage the audience, and simply engage us.  

The Poet is reluctant to tell the story of Agamemnon, Achilles, Hector, Odysseus and all the rest.  He claims not to remember all of the names, the details, but it is to Grave’s credit as an actor that it is clear, no matter how much he says otherwise, that the Poet is forever haunted by these visions.  We were presented with a man who has been irrevocably damaged by war.  His clothes tell us this.  His surroundings tell us this.  His drinking of the vodka and gin hint at this.  At his best Graves takes us with him, illuminating this trauma.  Graves’s character of the Poet disappears into the other characters — brash soldiers, distraught fathers and heartbroken wives.  In many ways it is a tour de force performance.

There’s a lot going on in this play.  It is about rage and loss and heartbreak and fear and death and great men draped in glory and unknowns sent to ignominious graves.  It is about all these things all at once, but most of all it is about the horrors of war.  The Poet is himself a victim of these horrors, a ship knocked loose from its moorings.  And it is the Poet — our narrator, actor, historian, teacher who guides us through these horrors.

You can see why the director and the actor took up this challenge.  It is deeply relevant.  2,500-plus years have gone by since The Iliad was first chanted, yet all of us have been touched in some way, large or small, by what seems like a series of endless wars and their impact on individuals, on families, on communities, on nations.  Ultimately, this is what the Poet sings about, what he’s been singing about for all this time — and what we, the audience, need to hear.

Details Box:
WhatAn Iliad, written by Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare and directed by Penny Metropulos
Who: Syracuse Stage
Where: Storch Theater of the Syracuse Stage Complex, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse
Performance reviewed:  May 17, 2013
Remaining dates: Plays through June 9
Length:  One hour and 45 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: Call (315) 443-3275 or
Family guide:  Adult language, disturbing themes

May 11 Symphoria Masterworks Series

Symphoria, led by Fabio Mechetti, turns the clock back to the glory years of the 1990s

Pianist Jon Kimura Parker joins the former SSO music director in a thrilling program that keeps the memories and expectations for the future alive 

By David Abrams

Those in Central New York who experienced the Fabio Mechetti years with the Syracuse Symphony Orchestra know that he is a conductor accustomed to taking command.  And he wastes little time doing so.

When the Brazilian-born conductor won the audition for associate conductor of the SSO in 1989, members of the orchestra described how Mechetti took immediate control at his rehearsal-audition and made it appear as if it were his orchestra right from the start.  Mechetti succeeded Kazuyoshi Akiyama four years later as SSO music director largely on the strength of that authority, which he continued to exercise until leaving the post in 1999.  

Mechetti, now music director of the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, returned to Syracuse last weekend to an orchestra comprising familiar faces, only now carrying the name Symphoria.  And he resumed command as if the metronome had never stopped ticking.  He led the new orchestra Saturday at its third and final Masterworks Series concert, and his influence took hold almost immediately with a well-disciplined execution of Verdi’s overture to La forza del destino

Watching the back of Mechetti’s head triggered memories of the days of the SSO in its full splendor, with focused playing and meticulous ensemble that largely defined the Mechetti years.  As was his custom then, the maestro conducted this piece from memory, with a firm hand and an unmistakable sense of determination.  The orchestra, which occasionally sounded disheveled during its previous Masterworks concert, hung on to Mechetti’s every beat as though following the proverbial Pied Piper. 

The overture sounded fresh and invigorating, with the opening low brass statement bold and in-tune, and the violin section that followed tight and well synchronized.  The work also featured some nice solo passagework from principal clarinetist Allan Kolsky.

Mechetti used to say that Syracuse is a “piano town.”  Programming the melodically rich Tchaikovsky Piano Concerto No. 1 — along with the dazzling crowd-pleaser, Pines of Rome — was no doubt part of the new Symphoria strategy designed to woo back the faithful.  

The Chaik 1 is also a warhorse that Canadian pianist Jon Kimura Parker has tackled many time before, having recorded the piece under André Previn and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra in 1986, and having played it many time since — including three weeks ago with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra under Gerard Schwarz (Mechetti, I believe, was on a conducting assignment in Brazil). 

The Canadian-born pianist played with firm fingers and a large, assertive sound that stood up to (and several times overpowered) the orchestra playing at full strength.  The broken-octave passages (and this piece is chock full of them) were solid and sure-handed, unmuddied by excessive pedaling or, for that matter, superfluous gesticulations.  But Parker can also play softly and with restraint, as shown in his caressing of the melodic lines in the sensuous slow movement.   

Parker saved the best for last.  His gargantuan tone in the final section, culminating in a hair-raising coda showered with dazzling broken octaves, shook the hall and swept the crowd to its feet with vociferous applause and howling that made me wonder if I were at a Syracuse Crunch hockey game.  The final chord had hardly sounded when Parker sprang from the piano bench and into Mechetti’s arms for a well-deserved hug.  The gesture of appreciation, no doubt intended for both conductor and orchestra, was well deserved.  

Following a rather tentative opening tutti horn passage, Symphoria sounded alert, prepared and at times even sublime.  A good many of the musicians had been with the former SSO on its final trip to Carnegie Hall on April 5, 2003 with Van Cliburn Competition gold co-winner (2001), Stanislav Ioudenitch.  Experience matters. The strings section delivered power and intensity in the louder sections of the concerto, and the shapely flute solo at the opening of the dreamy second movement sounded all the more intoxicating through the silken tone of principal flutist, Deborah Coble.

For his encore, Parker chose the Danse Russe from Stravinsky’s Petrouchka — a piece whose steely, percussive touch suits this pianist’s style especially well.

With the new onstage camera that pans the stage and projects real-time images of the orchestra and soloists onto a large screen suspended above the players, 
Parker’s fingers were clearly visible to all.  Curiously, there was a split-second time delay between watching Parker's hands pound the keyboard and hearing the sounds he was making (particularly noticeable during the work’s familiar opening chords), resembling a badly synchronized voice-over on a foreign film dubbed into English.

Symphoria closed the program with Respighi’s aurally opulent Pines of Rome.  This symphonic poem is the second (and most popular) installment of the Italian composer’s “Roman trilogy,” sandwiched between Fountains of Rome and Roman Festivals.  Here, each of the four movements portrays a thought-provoking mood about various pine trees in Rome.

The dazzling orchestration of the opening Pines of the Villa Borghese, like Stravinsky’s Petroushka written about two decades earlier, reveals the unmistakable influence of Rimsky-Korsakov, with whom Respighi had studied. The expanded orchestra responded alertly to Mechetti's widely arched baton gestures, bouncing splashes of orchestral color from wall-to-wall.   

The solemn chords in the low strings and Gregorian Chant-like phrases in the trombones provided an evocative background for principal trumpeter John Raschella’s evocative and poignant offstage solo in
 Pines Near a Catacomb.

Pines of Rome has the distinction of being the first orchestral work to incorporate pre-recorded media.  Respighi in his musical score actually specified the recording to be used to generate nightingales chirping during the sinuous Pines of the Janiculum movement.  Mechetti’s messaging of the lush violin passages, seasoned with the sounds of the harp and celesta, provided a peaceful backdrop for one of the most haunting and delicate clarinet solos in the orchestral repertory — which Kolsky (who had a busy night Saturday) played beautifully.  

Like Ravel’s Bolero, the final Pines of the Appian Way takes the listener along a lengthy and persistent crescendo that culminates in a blaze of glory.  One could almost hear the approaching footsteps of the triumphant soldiers marching along the Appian Way under Mechetti’s patient building of tension to the final climax.

Credit the oboe section’s Alina Plourde for her commanding English Horn solo early on in the movement.  It’s too bad that the leader of that section consistently falls short of Symphorias other principal winds in providing the projection and confidence of delivery expected of first-chair players.

As was the case with the previous Masterworks Series concert under JoAnn Falletta, attendance at this performance was entirely respectable.  There was however a noticeable difference with respect to the general level of playing between this performance and last: This one was better.  Part of the credit has to go to the former SSO music director, whose style and direction many of the players already know from his era of leadership in the 1990s.  There was no need for a “breaking in” period.  (Symphoria put this program together in only three rehearsals.)

Mostly, however, I believe that the quality of musicianship in a professional symphony orchestra is proportional to its experience playing together as an ensemble, and to its level of respect and admiration for its leader. 

Symphoria will continue to improve its skills as it builds an increased schedule of concert performances.  But it will continue to require nourishment from demanding, no-nonsense conductors such as Fabio Mechetti to inspire and discipline the musicians to dig deeply into their formidable skills to continue to produce impressive efforts such as this one.

Details Box:
Who: Symphoria, conducted by Fabio Mechetti with pianist Jon Kimura Parker
What: Masterworks Series #3
Where: Crouse-Hinds Theater, 411 Montgomery St., Syracuse
When:  May 11, 2013
Time of performance: One hour and 35 minutes, including intermission
Tickets and information:

May 11 Rarely Done Productions: Bang Bang You’re Dead

‘Bang Bang You’re Dead’ hits its target — dead-on

The troubling drama about troubled youths showcases dynamic young actors from the locally-funded Academy Student Program 

By Laurel Saiz

In the brief span of six months in the late 1990s, three school shootings shook America. The public was horrified both by the cold-blooded way in which a total of 12 youths and adults were gunned down and by the shockingly young age of the perpetrators.

In December 1997, 14-year-old Michael Carneal killed three students and injured five others as they were gathered for their morning prayer group in West Paducah, Kentucky. In March 1998, 13-year-old Mitchell Johnson and Andrew Golden, then 11, killed four students and one teacher and injured 10 others in Jonesboro, Arkansas. Two months later, 15-year-old Kip Kinkel of Springfield, Oregon, murdered his parents and then headed to school, where he killed two students and wounded 25 others.

Youngsters being killed at prayer meetings. Eleven-year-old mass murderers. Such events seemed almost beyond comprehension and the place names Paducah, Jonesboro and Springfield entered our public consciousness, with all of us vowing that such atrocities should never happen again.

In the years since then, other horrors have overshadowed those tragedies. Columbine. Virginia Tech. Tucson. Aurora, Colorado. And, of course, Newtown, Connecticut. The shootings by troubled young people in those locations are on everyone’s minds as we continue to grapple with the NRA-stonewalled debate over gun safety. But the earlier names — Paducah, Jonesboro and Springfield — are the inspiration for, and the repeated refrain in, the electrifying production Bang Bang You’re Dead, performed locally by a group of talented and dynamic young actors.

The drama, directed by Rarely Done Productions Artistic Director Dan Tursi, uses the talents of young people involved with the Academy Student Program, a partnership between Rarely Done and Appleseed Productions. The Academy is a free experimental theater program for students aged 13 to 19 and is supported in part by funding from Onondaga County, administered by CNY Arts. If its Saturday night performance is any indication, this community program is a valuable, laudable endeavor that deserves increased public support and a wider series of stages. (A few additional performances will be at two other local venues.)

Bang Bang You’re Dead’s author, William Mastrosimone, is a screenwriter and playwright best known for his hard-hitting drama, Extremities, which starred Farrah Fawcett as a woman turning the tables on and fighting back against her rapist. The 1997-1998 school shootings prompted Mastrosimone to write this one-act play in 1999, designed to put a closer focus on school violence and spark discussion around this issue. The script is offered free and licensure rights forbid any admission charges.

The play — brief in running time but powerful in its impact — draws pieces of the stories from the Paducah, Jonesboro and Springfield cases. Like Kinkel, Josh, the young protagonist, kills his parents before heading off to school. Like Golden, Josh steals the weapon from his grandfather. Like Carneal, Josh kills a young girl whom he once liked romantically.

Josh is played by Hunter Siegel-Cook with great aplomb, moving from whining immaturity to threatening and scary violence with split-second changes of mood, depicting the chameleon-like mindset of an incipient teenage mass killer. Rarely Done Production’s program doesn’t say if Siegel-Cook plans to go to drama school after graduating from Jamesville-Dewitt High School. My bet is that he could very well have a future as a professional actor.

Hayley Bermel and Luke Tarnow play Josh’s mother and father. The play shows how the parents try to discipline Josh and grapple with his outbursts. Far too often, these awful crimes are blamed on the parents for turning a blind eye to a would-be killer. Ryan Coots does double-duty as both the percussionist and Josh’s grandfather. The play makes much of the hunting excursion Josh’s grandfather brings him on, and how proud Josh was to kill his first buck. It is true that Golden was posed in camouflage for photos as a toddler and was given a shotgun for Christmas at age six. However, it can’t be inferred that families that enjoy hunting outings necessarily breed school shooters.

Kylie Bragg played, alternately, Josh’s principal and the psychotherapist whom the school has requested he see because of his behavior problems. This also belies the conventional wisdom of if only we had been done something to help, this wouldn’t have happened. These cases are complicated and don’t offer up simplistic answers.

Other capable local students round out the cast in this production, which starts with a litany of their plaintive voices asking, “Why me?” The young people are featured in scenes that show their varied interaction with Josh. Like all school relationships, at times they seem to get along and at times they proceed to taunt him. Most moving is the final scene in which the students — like a Greek chorus — intone the futures they will never get to live.

One character says, “I’ll never play catch with my son.” Another says, “I’ll never be married in a white dress and have a huge wedding.” Yet another says, “I’ll never have an epitaph that reads ‘beloved mother, grandmother, and wife’ because I died at 17.”  This is truly heart-wrenching stuff.

I do hope that local school districts embrace this production and future casts of the Academy Student Program that put on Bang Bang You’re Dead. Although it was written 14 years ago, it still has far too much resonance with the events occurring today.

Young people need to talk about these tragedies, and theater is the perfect vehicle with which to reach students’ hearts. It allows them to express feelings they might otherwise hide or repress. The Rarely Done and Appleseed partnership offers a great opportunity for local teenagers. School performances, followed up by effective talkbacks and classroom discussions, will likely help young people deal with the tremendous pressures they face today.

Who knows? Bang Bang You’re Dead might hold the key to reaching troubled youth and preventing another Paducah, Jonestown, Springfield — or Newtown.

Details Box:

WhatBang Bang You’re Dead, written by William Mastrosimone, directed by Dan Tursi
Where: Jazz Central, 441 E. Washington St., Syracuse
When: May 11, 2013
Remaining performances: May 16 at the Hamilton Street Boys and Girls Club, and May 17 and 18 at ArtRage Gallery
Length: 40 minutes, no intermission

Tickets: Free admission. Call (315) 546-3224 or
Family guide: Heavy material, but intended for school audiences

May 4 Pacifica Quartet

At three-quarters’ strength, Pacifica Quartet sounds remarkably ‘whole’

There was more to celebrate in the Pacifica Quartet’s delivery Saturday than just good music

By David Abrams

As may be expected of one who performs in a professional string quartet, Sibbi Bernhardsson has an acute sense of timing.  His stork, not so much.   

Bernhardsson, long-time second violinist with the acclaimed Pacifica Quartet, did not make the trip to Syracuse Saturday for the 2012-13 season-ending concert of the Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music due to the anticipated birth that evening of his new daughter.  The resulting change in personnel prompted a switch on the program, with a quartet by Luigi Boccherini scratched in favor of one by Joseph Haydn.  

That made two good reasons to pass out the cigars.  

Since its last SFCM appearance in October 2010, Pacifica has enhanced its reputation as one of the hottest commodities in the chamber music world — landing a residency at Indiana University’s Jacobs School of Music and completing a residency at Metropolitan Museum of Art that last year included the complete Beethoven quartet cycle.  And while Bernhardsson’s absence may have been disappointing to those who’ve come to know Pacifica’s distinctive sound and balance, the quality of playing Saturday suggests that three-quarters of this ensemble's regular players is enough to outshine 100-percent of a good many quartets on today’s circuit.  

Add a Shostakovich quartet to the program, and the math works out even better.

Pacifica has carved its niche as one of the best interpreters of the Shostakovich quartets, and just weeks ago released the third installment of a four-volume, eight-CD set of his complete cycle of 15 quartets.  Saturday’s performance of the Quartet No. 2 in A Major gave listeners a sampling of the ensemble’s depth of understanding of the enigmatic Soviet composer.

The Quartet No. 2, which along with his final quartet is the longest of Shostakovich’s works in this genre, is probably the least well known among them.  Written in 1944, it was one of only two chamber works the composer wrote during World War II, each heavily injected with Jewish musical inflections.

There’s little room for civility and good manners in the opening rustic movement of Quartet No. 2.  You’ve simply got to get down and dirty.  The four instrumentalists rolled up their sleeves, gritted their teeth and dug firmly into the Bartok-like opening — tossing around the wild open-fifths and Lydian seasoned scales, and exaggerating the ubiquitous dotted-rhythmic figures so as to capture the raw ethnic Eastern European flavors.  When the smoke cleared at the end of the movement, one could all but see the dirt underneath each player’s fingernails.

The Jewish elements in this work are most apparent during the slow and somber Recitative and Romance movement that followed.  Listeners familiar with Shostakovich’s Violin Concerto No. 1, composed three years after this string quartet, will experience here the genesis of that concerto’s lengthy and profound cadenza.  Ganatra’s mournful recitative, played over a slow chordal accompaniment provided by the three other players, was a perfect combination of anguish and schmaltz. 

The third movement Waltz is a distorted and emotionally disturbing parody of a waltz.  Pacifica found the right balances of character here, capturing the alternating moods of the morose, the macabre and the downright ugly.  The fourth movement Theme with Variations grows angrier as the variations progress, and Pacifica faithfully and adroitly captured the composer’s inner frustrations, rage and fury.  

The program began in much sunnier fashion with Haydn Op. 76, No. 4 (“Sunrise”) Quartet.

Pacifica’s unhurried manner of playing in the opening Allegro con spirito movement was a welcome departure from the more usual buoyancy and fluff I’ve come to expect.  Theirs was a tender and rubato-driven interpretation that looks more ahead to Mendelssohn and Schumann than it does back to Viennese classicism.  Tempos were relaxed and deliberate, allowing Ganatra to shape and nurtured her phrases with great warmth.  I especially enjoyed the feel of Pacifica’s rustic folk style in the third movement Menuetto that almost danced off the page and into the aisles of the auditorium.  The ensemble’s piú presto coda in the Finale movement was, to be sure, utterly dazzling.

Bedrich Smetaňa’s largely autobiographical Quartet No. 1 in E Minor (“From my Life”) details specific aspects of the composer’s life, particularly his struggle with deafness.  At one point in the final movement the first violin sounds a high E (harmonic) that floats dramatically in the stratosphere — giving the listener a taste of the ringing in his ears Smetaňa had to bear prior to the onslaught of deafness.  

I generally find unabashedly self-indulgent works such as this to be tiresome  just like Janacek’s String Quartet No. 2 (“Intimate Letters”), or for that matter Strauss’s Ein Heldenleben.  But I’ll admit to some engaging musical effects in the Smetaňa that, in the hands of Pacifica, came off rather well.  Among these is the amiable rustic strains of the ebullient second movement Polka, a rubato flavored folk dance with a playful Trio that offers some irresistible visual effects such as the syncopated double-stops in the two violins, played in tongue-in-cheek fashion on the up-bow.

Alexander Kerr, the accomplished former concertmaster of the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra now a professor of violin at Indiana University, proved a competent stand-in for Bernhardsson, hitting all the right notes and weaving his lines seamlessly among those of the three other players.  On the whole, however, Kerr’s modestly sized sound was not well suited to the full-timbred and richly shaped tone of Ganatra, creating an imbalance in sound that was difficult to ignore.
This disparity of tone was especially pronounced in the opening two movements of the Haydn and again in the final movement of the Smetana, where the first violinist’s extroverted sound simply overpowered that of Kerr.  In all fairness, however, one can’t expect a new player to sit in with an established chamber ensemble and blend in as if they’d been rehearsing for years.  

If there was a silver lining to the substitution of the second violinist, it was that the sound of Ganatra’s instrument was that much easier to identify and scrutinize.

I have admired Ganatra’s particular brand of music making ever since I first heard her at the 2005 Skaneateles Festival.  She has everything it takes for a first-chair player  an exquisite tone, firm technical command of the instrument, a secure high register, keen ensemble skills and the ability to take command and lead the ensemble. 

But Ganatra’s skills go well beyond what’s expected.  She draws the audience into the music with her warm sense of phrasing and passion, and gives them a sense of belonging to the listening experience.  In short, she has it all. 

So, too, does the audience that comes to experience the Pacifica Quartet in live performance.

Details Box:
What: The Pacifica Quartet, sponsored by Syracuse Friends of Chamber Music

Where: Lincoln Middle School, 1613 James Street, Syracuse

When: May 4, 2013

Time: About 2 hours
Next concert:  2013-14 begins Sep. 28 (Borromeo Quartet with Richard Stoltzman)

April 26 Syracuse Stage: Good People

‘Good People’ evokes laughter, tears — and a Boston neighborhood we can all call home

Living, loving and hurting in a tough place inhabited by tough people

By Malkiel Choseed

Even though this play was nominated for a Tony Award in 2011, you can’t help but think that Good People, set in and around the various neighborhoods of Boston, is going to take on a new resonance in light of the bombings at the Boston Marathon on April 15th.  All of the United States, and much of the world, was (and still is) fixated on Boston and the terrible events that unfolded there on Boylston Street and in and around Cambridge and Watertown.

Of course, in any tragedy we see the potential for acts of simple kindness and even heroism amidst the horrors.  As the motives of the attackers are still coming to light, the only coherent image emerging is a composite picture of the people of Boston themselves.  Those of us watching the evening news may not know much about the motivation of the attackers, but we are learning about the people who call that city home.  

Good People, written by David Lindsay-Abaire and directed by Laura Kepley, provides another insight into the city and its residents.  The play opens with its main character, Margie (played by Kate Hodge), in the process of being fired by her boss, Stevie (played by Patrick Halley), the son of a deceased childhood friend.  We are immediately introduced to the complex web of relationships being played out against the backdrop of harsh economic realities in the tightly knit working class neighborhood that is South Boston. 

Everyone knows everyone — their histories, personal tragedies, and struggles.  And everyone struggles.  In short order, we are introduced to Dottie (played by Denny Dillon), Kate’s landlord, and Kate’s friend Jean (played by Elizabeth Rich).  Jean tells Margie that Mike (played by David Andrew Macdonald) has recently returned back to town.  Mike is the only one of their social set who has “gotten out” and broken away from the old neighborhood and its influences.  Margie decides to seek out Mike for help in finding a job — but the audience wonders if Margie doesn’t have other motives.         

Touching upon the harsh economic and racial realties of the time and place in which it is set, Good People is intimate, funny, and heart breaking all at once.  Friday evening’s audience alternated between roars of laughter and heartfelt tears. 

In terms of plot, the play is about a woman in difficult circumstances reconnecting with an old friend.  It is, however, also about life — about what was, is, and might be — and the role that luck and chance play in it.  Why is it that Margie can never catch a break?  Why is it that Mike made it out?  Throughout the play, Margie essentially asks herself, How did I get hereCould things have been different?”  The audience watches as she forces Mike to answer (perhaps for the first time) these same questions, and maybe, just maybe, reconcile his past and present.      

With its naturalistic dialogue, the play is very modern in its pacing and style.  There are only six characters in the entire play, and no more than four are onstage at any one time.  This allows the audience to share in the sense of intimacy with and between these characters. 

Director Laura Kepley takes a light but deft hand with her actors.  What really stands out is the pacing.  These characters go through a lot on stage, and it would be easy for the audience to become emotionally exhausted.  Kepley, though, is keenly aware of this and lets the rhythms of the play work to its advantage.  Moments of extreme tension are punctuated with comic relief, allowing the audience to catch a quick breath right before they are plunged back into the taut and compelling drama unfolding on stage.    

In a play with only six actors, all of them are literally in the spotlight at one moment or another.  The cast does an admirable job providing comic relief when necessary and creating a space for Hodge and Macdonald to dig deeply into their characters and present a wide range of complex emotions.  Zoey Martinson, as Mike’s wife, Kate, stands out as she is able to play off of both Hodge and Macdonald, more than holding her own.

The dialogue (most of it in that characteristic south Boston accent) and its delivery is meant to evoke a sense of reality and truthfulness, which for the most part it does.  Towards the opening of the play, though, several of the actors (but especially Hodge and Rich) had a tendency to direct their dialogue at the audience even when, in terms of the onstage action, it ought to have been directed to another character. 

While this may be understandable (after all, the audience has to hear them, see their faces, etc.) it breaks the illusion of reality that the rest of the play works so hard to create.  It made the acting seem forced and overly mannered.  By the third scene, however, the actors found their rhythm, and the idea that the audience was watching actors melted away as we began to sense we were engaging with real people.

This sense of honesty and truthfulness on the part of the actors is enhanced by the overall production. While the entire artistic staff did an excellent job, as one would expect form the Syracuse Stage, Scenic Designer Mimi Lien deserves to be singled out for special attention for her sliding sets. 

The sets shift from the very minimalist to the elaborate.  All are simple, elegant, and beautiful.  It was a pleasure to watch the stagehands, dressed in traditional “Southie” garb of dark sweatshirts and knit caps, quickly and effortlessly transmute the stage from an alley behind a dollar store to a shabby basement apartment to a downtown doctor’s office.  When the lights went up after intermission, revealing the Chestnut Hill home of Mike, the audience gasped and applauded at the transformation of the set (and this was before any actors had come onstage).

South Boston has a reputation.  It’s a tough place filled with tough people.  Lindsay-Abaire grew up there and wanted Good People to give its viewers some insight into the people who lived there.  This production succeeds in doing just that.  The audience comes away with a new understanding of the complexities of these characters and their lives. 

The play does something else, as well.  Just as the events from the week of April 15th teach us about the people of Boston, they also teach us about human nature.  In the images of the bombing and its aftermath, we see both the essential human capacity for evil and good, for cruelty and compassion.  Good People does something similar.  In Margie and Mike, we get a glimpse into what it feels to live, love, and hurt beyond the confines of a single neighborhood or city.   

Details Box: 

WhatGood People, written by David Lindsay-Abaire, directed by Laura Kepley

Who: Syracuse Stage (co-produced with the Cleveland Play House)

Where: Arthur Storch Theater, 820 E. Genesee Street, Syracuse

When:  April 26, 2013

Remaining performances: Through May 12

Length:  Two hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission

Tickets:  Call 443-3275 or

Family guide:  Adult language and themes

April 21 Adams Foundation Series: Joseph Kalichstein

Joseph Kalichstein sings and dances his way through the ‘miracle of Schubert’

The acclaimed pianist’s all-Schubert program a masterful blend of color, touch, balance, voicing and pedaling

By Kevin Moore

The Adams Foundation Piano Series presented pianist Joseph Kalichstein in recital this past Sunday afternoon at Westminster Presbyterian Church in Auburn, NY. This distinguished pianist has a career stretching back more than four decades and has been soloist with just about every famous conductor and orchestra in the world during that time. He is also a founding member of the Kalichstein-Laredo-Robinson Trio, one of the best around. And he’s director of chamber music at The Juilliard School of Music.

I have warm memories of a recital of piano fantasies I heard him do when I was a graduate student in New York City. That was at Hunter College on March 17, 1972 and was devoted to fantasies by Mendelssohn, Schumann, Mozart and Schubert. I still have the printed program and review (Allen Hughes, NY Times) in my possession. The only thing that has changed since then is the depth and richness of thought, not to mention tone. Ironically, the only work the critic in 1972 disliked was Kalichstein’s Schubert (Wanderer Fantasy). In the program of this past Sunday, his Schubert was almost beyond criticism.

Speaking to the audience at the outset, the pianist explained the title he had given his program, Schubert: A Dance, A Song, A Miracle. He explained that Schubert’s music was rooted in dance, whether waltz, landler, minuet or German dance of any kind. The music is also rooted in song, of which Schubert wrote hundreds.

As for the miracle, he mentioned the extraordinary productivity of Schubert’s last two years, particularly his final year. Two months before his death and during one two week period, Schubert wrote his last three piano sonatas — each one a masterpiece. (One of those formed the second half of Sunday’s program.) In that same year he wrote the second of his two great song cycles, the E-flat major Piano Trio, the Quintet for Strings in C major, his last symphony, and several other imperishable masterpieces.

Kalichstein was right that such productivity counts as one of the great miracles in the history of music. In fact, he was right on all counts. What he didn’t mention, but I will now, is that the word miracle could also be applied to the quality of playing throughout Sunday’s program.

Let me talk first about the sequence of works performed. My piano teacher, Robert Goldsand, once told me that planning a one-composer program was easy if it were to feature works by Beethoven, Chopin, or Liszt because there is such natural variety found within each of these composers’ piano music. But building an entire program around Schubert had to be done especially carefully because the essence of Schubert was song. You needed a piano that would sing, and you had to choose the pieces, and the order of those pieces, with great care.

That certainly was done on Sunday. The program was musically and emotionally gripping from first note to last. There were two reasons for that. First and foremost, Kalichstein is a superlative musician. And in his opening remarks he said he wanted “to take you on a journey through the entire gamut of moods and emotions in Schubert’s music.” The marvelous sequence of pieces he put together did exactly that.  

The programming revealed a wonderfully creative and perceptive musical imagination. The 11 pieces on the first half, comprising some 45 minutes of music, were wonderfully varied yet provided an engaging and emotional sequence of stories and events.

Probably less apparent to the audience was the logical key sequence they formed. The entire first half was played without any break for applause, which sustained the sense of storytelling and held the audience in its grip. First there were five of the short Valses Nobles, D. 969.  Next, three of the 6 Moments Musicaux, D.780, which evidently were chosen to represent the emotional core of those six masterpieces. Next came the Scherzo in B-flat, D.593, which Kalichstein described as “like yodeling.” Then came the second of the Drei Klavierstücke, D.946, which he said was his favorite of the three. The first half of the concert ended with the well known Imprompu in E-flat major, the second of the Four Impromptus, D.899.

Too often, critics and listeners divide pianists into two categories, the pianists and the musicians — the former meaning, of course, “the virtuosos” and the second “the ones with less technique.” I’m exaggerating just a bit and it is in any case an unfair and unfortunate dichotomy. But it’s also one that has no meaning whatsoever when it comes to Joseph Kalichstein. He is a total musician and masterful pianist, meaning that he has it all. Yet so pure is the musical essence he distills in recital that the instrument becomes almost irrelevant. I suspect he could make profound music with a kazoo. And make no mistake, much of the music on this program was profound and came across with an emotional power that was unforgettable.

The Valses Nobles were played almost as one piece, leading to the second of the Musical Moments, a much more substantial and sublimely songful piece. The two shorter Musical Moments, the well known third one and powerful fifth one, each in F minor, provided a nice contrast. He characterized the B-flat Scherzo as very playful, with a singing Trio section. The second of the Drei Klavierstücke was the most substantial of the pieces on the first half. It alternated between the achingly beautiful opening tune in E-flat major and two disturbing, emotionally troubled contrasting sections. The E-flat Impromptu was characterized by swashes of color rather than individual triplets — an effect that brought Schubert’s remarkably colorful harmony into brilliant relief.

Unlike some of his younger colleagues, Kalichstein never makes a harsh sound. His tone throughout this concert was rich, dark and comforting. His sense of color, touch, balance, voicing and pedaling were magical and supported a sense of structure and flow that simply explained itself. At times he sounded like a great operatic singer, alternately soprano, mezzo, tenor, or baritone, accompanied by the color of the entire Metropolitan Opera Orchestra (as my wife described it).  I didn’t want the first half to end.

The second part of the program contained only one work, the great Sonata in A major, D.959, one of those miracles of Schubert’s last few months on this earth. As such, one can’t help but wonder if Schubert was already encountering a heavenly reality that he translated for us, at least partially. This is a work that is amenable to a variety of approaches — from the restrained and classical to the unrestrained, passionate and romantic. No matter the interpretive approach, the greatest difficulty is communicating the natural structural flow. Done in too strict a tempo it doesn’t flow at all. It takes years of experience to make this piece come alive. And Kalichstein certainly did that.

This was a masterful performance. Were all the notes and little details in place? No, but that was of no significance at all. Making clear the important points in the structure and flow of this massive and complex masterpiece is a rare thing. Getting to the heart of its spiritual essence is even less common. I was glad to be there today. I have rarely been so moved by this piece, and I have heard it done by several distinguished pianists.

The first movement Allegro, which he described as “the most Beethoven-ish” of the four, was pushed and pulled in an occasionally impetuous and agitated way that made the connection with Beethoven quite clear. It nonetheless highlighted and characterized the main ideas wonderfully. The pianist had reminded us at the beginning that Beethoven, who was Schubert’s idol, had died only a few months earlier and his influence is especially clear in the opening movement. Kalichstein also omitted the exposition repeat. The emotional center, which to me comes at the gentle and comforting end, was gauged perfectly. Kalichstein never rushes tempo, letting the music take its own natural and expressive flow.

The extraordinary slow movement, marked Andantino, with its terrifying and emotional outburst in the middle part, was utterly convincing. The quietly despairing outer sections framed it perfectly and emotionally. I was reminded that, like Mozart, Schubert is eternally beautiful. The third movement Scherzo, marked Allegro vivace was just as it should be, carefree and joyous — the essence of Schubert’s happiest moments. It was simply the joy of dance, and was just right.

The finale, a rondo marked Allegretto begins with a tune that can stay in the mind and memory forever. It is eternal, and seems to sum up Schubert’s life emotionally. The return to the opening motive from the first movement completes it all. Kalichstein’s traversal of this masterpiece was moving and brought a depth of experience and musical depth for which I for one am grateful. I dislike comparisons but have to say the only time I’ve heard something comparable in this piece was from Frank Glazer, on two different occasions. And for me, that’s high praise.

The entire experience was capped by a single short encore that summed it all up: Schubert’s famous Serenade in Liszt’s wonderful transcription. Just wonderful.

Details Box:
Who:  Pianist Joseph Kalichstein, Schubert: A Song, A Dance, A Miracle
What: The Adams Foundation Piano Series
Where: Westminster Presbyterian Church, Auburn, New York
Date of review: April 21, 2013