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Sunday, April 15, 2018

A Grand Slam: Lucia, Luisa, and Three Tall Women

Jessica Pratt as Lucia
Yesterday I went to the matinee performance of Luisa Miller. I expected it to be wonderful, and it was. Everyone had settled into their roles more than at the premiere, and the love of the audience seemed to give the singers an extra jolt of energy. The death scene between Sonya Yoncheva and Piotr Beczala was gripping and Domingo was so heartfelt and still offers a master class in Verdian style that one could forgive the occasional lack of, well, baritonal voice. It was a beautiful afternoon and I'm glad the performance was captured for HD.

Then after it was over I decided to impulsively buy a ticket for the evening's Lucia di Lammermoor. I'd heard good things about the Lucia, Jessica Pratt. And this was alas one of her only two performances this season. It was unlike Luisa Miller a gamble, as I really hadn't heard much of her besides a few Youtube videos. And I think most of the audience was unfamiliar with her too, as the auditorium was depressingly empty for a Saturday night.

But about midway through the performance you could sense a buzz, an excitement, as people seemed to realize they'd stumbled into a great performance. By the Mad Scene the somnolent Met had turned into a screaming, frenzied gladiator's arena. 

Yes, Jessica Pratt is the real thing: an accomplished high lyric-coloratura who knows this score inside and out and can manage most everything the role requires without trouble. Her voice is one of those inverted triangles -- she sounds unremarkable in her middle register. Pleasant, but not memorable. So the very centrally written "Regnava nel silencio" had me thinking, "This is it?" But her upper register is another voice -- brilliant, loud, projects beautifully. In the sextet in that final note her voice was the one that carried over everyone else's. As might be expected her cadenzas were written so her voice could sit in the higher tessitura and she capped her big numbers with blazing money notes that the audience loved -- a high F at the end of her duets with  Raimondo (Vitalij Kowaljow), two long-held E-flats after both "Il dolce suono" and "Spargi d'amoro pianto."  I was sitting in a balcony box and could see the prompter applauding vigorously after "Il dolce suono."

Dramatically she wasn't the most exciting performer. Her approach to the role was more an old-fashioned display of vocal pyrotechnics. But eh, who cares? I'm reminded of this review of another Aussie soprano. A description of Nellie Melba's Lucia:
Melba was in excellent voice last night, and consequently she was heard to the best advantage. It would be easy enough for a genuine actress to make the rôle of Lucia theatrically effective in spite of the hollowness of the pretty music, but no one ever does act it, and consequently the public has come to accept it as a part in which the unaided exhibition of vocal technics is the whole issue. This is a good attitude for Mme. Melba, for she never acts, even when she thinks she does. But she sings admirably, and last night her work was up to its best mark.
There are some vocal imperfections: Pratt's trill is uneven. It's there but effortful. It's not the kind of rustling beauty of, say, Joan Sutherland (another Aussie)!  As mentioned the middle of her voice doesn't make nearly the impact as her upper register. But it was a triumph -- unlike Olga Peretyatko earlier in the season, she can sing this music with panache and style.

Grigolo, photo @ Richard Termine
Her colleagues were ... interesting. Vittorio Grigolo put on a display that would have made the most hardened burlesque performer blush. His voice is a fine instrument -- loud, pingy, with no trouble negotiating the music. However he seems to be singing in another era of opera. The veristic breaks in the musical line, the declamatory style, the overacting, it was ... unique. He made no effort to blend his voice with Pratt's in "Verrano a te." He also decided to interpolate his own mad scenes into the opera. At the end of Act 2 he threw the ring on the floor (expected) but then ran around the stage shoving people and furniture aside before grabbing a sword and attempting suicide several times before his sword was confiscated. He fell in a heap onstage as the curtain fell. In the final scene he lay prostrate on top of the prompter's box for "Tombe degli avi miei" and then at the news of Lucia's death he apparently decided that now was the time to make his debut as Escamillo in Carmen as he took his cape and waved it in front of some imaginary bulls. I don't know what opera he thought he was singing last night. It wasn't Lucia di Lammermoor.

Entire cast at curtain calls
Massimo Cavaletti's (Enrico) career mystifies me. Wobbly, colorless baritone, devoid of any charisma, doesn't act, can't sing the music. And it's not as if there aren't a bevy of baritones who can sing Enrico. Vitalij Kowaljow (Raimondo) was much better. Mario Chang showed much promise in the brief role of Arturo. Roberto Abbado led an exciting performance in the pit, with very few diva indulgences. Loved the glass armonica (expertly played by Frierich Heinrich Klein). In perahaps the nicest moment of the evening Jessica Pratt walked over to the glass armonica player at curtain calls and pointed for the audience to clap for him.

Is Jessica Pratt the next Joan Sutherland? Maybe not, but she is a great Lucia whom I hope to hear a lot more of in the future.

Here are the curtain calls:

Three Tall Women, photo @ Brigitte Lacomb
On Friday night I went "blind" into a Edwin Albee's Three Tall Women. Didn't know anything about it other than it was supposed to be good. And my god. What an amazing theatrical experience.  Jackson and Metcalf tore up the stage in a funny, biting, and ultimately chilling study on life and mortality. Edwin Albee based both "A" (Glenda Jackson), "B" (Laurie Metcalf), and "C" (Alison Pill) on his mother. And in the play as in real life Albee left home at the age of 18 and rarely returned. The reasons for the breakdown of the relationship are vaguer in the play. In real life, his adoptive mother never accepted his sexuality. There's an interesting article about the topic here.

B, A, and C in the first half -- photo @ Sara Krulwich
The first half of the play is more comic: a fiery, flinty, filthy rich 92 year old woman (Jackson) is alternately cajoled and humored by her caretaker (Metcalf). A young lawyer (Pill) is pushing the old lady to sign some legal paperwork. The old woman's ramblings are alternately funny (the long monologue about a bracelet on her husband's "pee pee" had the audience in stitches) and hair-curling (her racism and bigotry so common-place that her caretaker simply shrugs it off). Jackson barely moves from her seat as she recounts the old lady's life with so much unapologetic gusto that the audience loves her, even when she reveals herself to be a horrible person. I'd never seen Jackson onstage before. What an actress! Metcalf is brilliant here in not letting Jackson completely steal the play. Metcalf has less lines but her body language, hand gestures, and facial expressions are as funny as Jackson's monologues. Pill disappears somewhat -- "C" has few lines and Pill can't command the stage the way Jackson and Metcalf can. This talk-fest is cut short as the old woman suffers what seems to be a stroke.

In the second half A, B, and C emerge as the same woman in three different phases of life. C is 26, B is 52, A is 92. I don't want to give too much away but suffice to say the play's tone turns darker as one learns about all the pain, anger and disappointment behind a life that on the surface screamed "white privilege." Director Joe Mantello makes no attempt to make the three actresses act less distinct -- Jackson still speaks in her plummy British accent, Metcalf still exudes the kind of earthy humor that's made her so successful on shows like Roseanne, and Pill is still brittle and juvenile. But that's the brilliance of it -- the differences between the actresses turns the story into a Rashomon as we're never sure if A, B, or C are reliable narrators. The play's final moments are chilling. Glenda Jackson as A and Laurie Metcalf as B absolutely deserve Tony's. This was bar none the best thing I saw on Broadway and off-Broadway this season.

Attending Luisa Miller was quite fun as I got to meet both people I've known online and some pretty famous singers. To Rowna, Sophia, Helmut, and Ellen: so great to finally meet y'all in person! And here's some pictures at the stage door.

My signed program

A great quartet of singers, no?

Friday, April 13, 2018

A Tristan und Isolde Where King Marke Provides the Music-gasms?

Nylund, Kaufmann, Nelsons and Zeppenfeld
The hottest ticket in town this opera season was no doubt the Boston Symphony Orchestra's concert performance of the second act of Tristan und Isolde. By 8:00 Carnegie Hall had turned into several snaking crowds of ticket holders, bathroom visitors, scalpers, all converged into an auditorium that all of a sudden seemed tiny and cramped just because of the sheer volume of people present. The ambience of the audience resembled My Fair Lady's Ascot Gavotte:
Ladies and Gentlemen 
 Ev'ry duke and earl and peer is here 
 Ev'ryone who should be here is here. 
 What a smashing, positively dashing
 Spectacle: the Tristan op'ning night.
The hype was for several reasons: the elusive tenor Jonas Kaufmann was actually fulfilling his engagements (who would have thought I'd see him TWICE this year?), Andris Nelsons is a buzzy, rather hyped conductor, and Wagner ever since Peter Gelb took over has occupied less and less of a place in the Met's repertoire.

So, did the performance live up to the hype? Well, yes and no. For those who wanted a Wagnerian music-gasm where you were just in ecstasy at the intoxicating beauty of it all, those hopes were dashed by Nelsons' conducting. During "O sink' hernieder" he left Jonas Kaufmann (Tristan) and Camilla Nylund (Isolde) do all the heavy lifting as his conducting sunk into a total stupor. Wagner's music actually imitates a sexual encounter that gets more and more frenzied, and ends with an abrupt coitus interruptus when Melot and Marke walk in on the lovers.  Nelsons put on quite a show -- he was vibrating and emoting a bunch from the podium but his actual conducting was sluggish and monotonous. I think he was going for that hypnotic mystical von Karajan sound-scape. With Nelsons none of this came across. He had three modes: slow, slower, and slowest.

The original Tristan and Isolde, the Schnorr von Carolsfelds
The evening's other limiting factor was the pair of lovers. This, by the way, was the first time I ever heard the first half of the duet note complete. The live performances I've attended have made a big cut after Tristan's entrance. Camilla Nylund has one of those voices that's perfect for Elsa, Elisabeth, Eva, maybe Sieglinde? Her voice is a large lyric. She's not a dramatic soprano. When she's not pushing for sound her timbre is quite lovely. Alas Isolde requires more heft than Nylund could provide, so she resorted to some occasional shrieking and the voice turned squally. She's a very musical singer and I'd love to hear more of her. I just don't think Isolde is her role.

Jonas Kaufmann is one of my favorite singers. I don't mind paying through the nose to hear him.  Alas, his voice does not live in these heavy-duty helden-tenor parts. He's a fine Parsifal, Siegmund and Lohengrin, but despite the baritonal timbre the voice is too soft-grained to give Tristan's music its full impact. Because he too is a very musical singer he was always riveting to listen to but you could see the strain in his voice as he pushed for more volume over the huge Wagnerian orchestra. His face turned beet red, the veins of his neck popped out, and he took more and more swigs of water.

The setup for the Liebesnacht was also very awkward. Nylund was on one side of the podium, Kaufmann on the other side, so their acted out "passion" was limited to a few bashful smiles between the two singers. I wonder why they grouped them this way, as there was plenty of room onstage. Both of them were also glued to their music stands. As might be expected Nylund and Kaufmann did better in the "O sink' hernieder" section of the Liebesnacht than the more stentorian "Isolde! Geliebte! Tristan! Geliebter!". They're both lovely singers, and their voices blended beautifully. I just don't see them doing a full-length Tristan (as Kaufmann apparently plans to do). They're not Flagstad and Melchior. With that being said I am very happy I heard them last night.

The veteran mezzo Mihoko Fujimura has a large, plummy mezzo that belies her petite figure. Brangäne's drug-like warning is actually my favorite part of the entire opera, and Fujimora did this gorgeous music justice. (This whole passage shows Wagner's genius: Brangäne is "warning" the lovers but with music so intoxicating it sounds like a siren song. No wonder the lovers don't heed the warning.)

Georg von Zeppenfeld
And then Georg Zeppenfeld showed up as poor cuckolded King Marke and brought the house down. This is actually only the second King Marke I've ever heard live. At the Met I've always heard René Pape. I'd seen Zeppenfeld in several videos but nothing prepared me for what his voice was like live in the flesh. Zeppenfeld's bass has that wall of sound that cut through the orchestra, through the auditorium, through my body. His voice had so much impact I could feel the vibrations in my seat.  And what an interpretation of a monologue that usually has me checking my watch. He exuded so much gravitas and his pain and disappointment was so acute. He got the kind of screaming bravos from an audience that had experienced a true Wagnerian music-gasm. What a VOICE.

And I'd be remiss not to mention Rees as Melot. The best actor of the evening was actually Rees. He was foaming at the mouth at Tristan's betrayal and acting as if this were a fully-staged performance.

At the end of the evening the audience was raucous. Zeppenfeld got a screaming ovation, Fujimora got a warm appreciation, Kaufmann and Nylund got a whole florist shop's worth of bouquets, and despite the imperfections everyone walked out with that kind of excited, drugged feeling that only Tristan can bring.

Wednesday, April 11, 2018

A Loverly Revival of My Fair Lady

The cast at curtain calls
About three weeks ago I saw the Lincoln Center Theater's revival of Lerner and Loewe's My Fair Lady. Back then it was in the first week of previews. I saw a lot of promise and potential but it was obvious that the production was still in an embryonic stage. Actors were going up on lines, timing was off, and the pacing was slow and ponderous. The performance read more like a serious play than a classic musical comedy.

Last night I went back. The show is now "frozen" -- the audience last night was made of LCT's patrons. Director Bart Sher was still nervously watching from his seat in the back of the theater and busy peppering people for feedback during intermission and after the show. And while there are still a few weak spots in the production, overall the show is ready to go. The timing is snappy, the jokes are landing, the music is beautiful, and everyone just looked ready for prime time. This is a loverly revival and I expect it will get several Tony nom's and win the Tony for Best Revival.

The Rain in Spain, photo @ Joan Marcus
Bart Sher's production is essentially a conservative, loving tribute to one of musical theater's crowning glories. The Vivian Beaumont Theatre is one of the best-- there's really not a bad seat in the house and there's a sizable pit that allowed for a large orchestra. They played Frederick Loewe's classic score beautifully. Much of the stage business seems based on the original production by Moss Hart and the movie adaptation. Sher didn't reinvent the wheel. The sets by Michael Yeargan are mostly minimalist flats except for the main set which is Higgins' study. That is a big, tall, ornate set that last night malfunctioned and held up the show for a good 10-15 minutes. The costumes by Catherine Zuber were nice if were a bit too fussy for my taste. I longed for Cecil Beaton's famously elegant designs.

Ambrose, photo @ Joan Marcus
Lauren Ambrose (Eliza) has improved in leaps and bounds within weeks. A few weeks ago she was so focused on the singing that her acting was often tentative. Well last night she was funny. Her exaggerated way of pronouncing the "H's" in the Ascot scene and her breathless retelling of her aunt's demise had the audience guffawing. She showed humor, spunk, charm, and strength of character. Ambrose also did something that Audrey Hepburn could not do in the film, and that was to convey Eliza's awkwardness and discomfort as a "duchess at the Embassy Ball." Hepburn disappeared completely into her international accent and designer clothes. Ambrose made it clear that she was still an outsider. And how Ambrose's voice? It's basically a lovely soprano, but is an upside down triangle -- she sang the high notes "I Could Have Danced All Night" with no problems, but songs requiring a medium tessitura sounded weak and breathy. During those moments she has rather weird posture -- hunched over shoulders, bent knees. For songs like "Show Me" the posture went against the confidence Eliza is supposed to project. But overall she gives a very winning portrayal.

Harry Hadden-Patton, photo @ Joan Marcus
Sher hit a jackpot when he cast Harry Hadden-Patton as Henry Higgins. Higgins is a tricky character to play -- his patter-like song-speech was something devised by Frederick Loewe, Alan Jay Lerner and Moss Hart for Rex Harrison. Hadden-Patton kept the quick patter but sang a lot more than Harrison. Hadden-Patton's Higgins is not so much an ill-tempered bully but rather an endearing eccentric. If we were to use modern lingo we might say that his single-minded obsession and disregard for others puts him on the spectrum. He's also funny, good-looking and charismatic, and those qualities offset some of the misogyny and rudeness of Higgins. He got huge laughs for moments both big (his delightfully oblivious songs like "I'm an Ordinary Man" and "Why Can't a Woman") and small (every time he mentioned his love of shopping the audience snickered). His natural British accent was a great goal-post as I noticed inconsistencies in the accents of Ambrose, Norbert Leo Butz, and Jordan Donica. Hadden-Patton also showed much more depth of feeling during "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" than Harrison did in the film. His voice cracked with emotion. The audience likes him even when he refers to Eliza as "this squashed cabbage leaf."

Get Me to the Church, photo @ Joan Marcus
Norbert Leo Butz as Doolittle also made major improvements. Doolittle when done right is one of the funniest characters in musical theater. But Butz in early previews let one joke after another get away with his mumbly diction and surprisingly dour disposition. All of this is gone. He was projecting his lines much better, and with better timing so the laughs came easily. He also apparently took some dancing lessons because he danced a lot more in "Get Me to the Church." I'm still super-attached to Stanley Holloway's incredible portrayal but Butz was a fun Doolittle.

Jordan Donica, photo @ Joan Marcus
The weaker link was Jordan Donica's Freddy. Donica's voice is fine, and he looks cute. His portrayal however is stiff as a board and rather cold. His timing is also off -- during the Ascot scene he didn't get the cue to "snigger" at Eliza's "small talk" at the right time. Freddy is supposed to be a big sap, but Donica's mannerisms are more like Prince Philip than a guy who writes "sheets and sheets" of love poems. "On the Street Where You Live" was well-sung but had no feeling, no passion. He also had no chemistry with Ambrose's Eliza. You couldn't imagine these two dating, much less marrying. I was let down by Diana Rigg's Mrs. Higgins. I know it's a brief part but honestly I expected more. She's DIANA RIGG. But what we got was a formulaic, unremarkable portrayal. Allan Corduner was a bland Pickering (but is this character ever interesting?) while Linda Mugleston sneakily stole some scenes as the officious Mrs. Pearce.

The timing for this revival was just right. Last year all the buzz was about Hello Dolly! I saw Hello Dolly! with both Bette Midler and Donna Murphy. I took my mom to see Hello Dolly! I enjoyed it immensely. However Hello Dolly! is pure fluff/diva material. Its impact disappears as quickly as Dolly's meal at the courthouse. My Fair Lady as well as the uneven but compelling revival of Carousel shows that classic musicals were not just corny fluff. They are complicated, thorny stories with beautiful music that demands across-the-board excellence from its performers.


Higgins and Eliza, photo @ Joan Marcus
The only major thing Bart Sher has changed about My Fair Lady is the ending. The ending to G.B. Shaw's Pygmalion was always a point of contention -- performers started tinkering with it so much so that Shaw felt it necessary to write a long epilogue explaining that Eliza marries Freddy and remains frenemies with Higgins. You can read it here. The wonderful 1938 movie however changed that ending to a cautiously optimistic future for Eliza and Higgins. It was this ending that Alan Jay Lerner used for My Fair Lady.

Both endings are problematic. Eliza is too intelligent to be truly happy with the sweet but dim Freddy, and Shaw's insistence on marrying Eliza off to Freddy is a reflection on his cynicism. On the other hand the bond between Eliza and Higgins is never portrayed as sexual or romantic, and so a forced reunion at the end seems, well, forced. I mean what would they really do together at Wimpole Street? Talk about grammar and shop for clothes? Sher's ending doesn't change any of the lines between Eliza and Higgins. She still visits him and watches him sadly listening to her voice on the phonograph. She turns the phonograph off and says "I washed my face and hands before I come, I did." He still says "Where the devil are my slippers?" But instead of the curtain falling at that moment, Sher gives us a bittersweet farewell between the two protagonists. Eliza holds his hand, touches his cheek, and then walks offstage, presumably to begin a new life.

In theory this should work beautifully. There's enough tenderness in the scene to make us understand Eliza and Higgins' bond, but also realism -- if you just judged the musical's book there's no indication that Eliza could ever be happy with Higgins. However, in this production, the chemistry between Ambrose and Hadden-Patton is so strong that this ending also creates problems. The joyful rapport that Ambrose and Hadden-Patton share for three hours makes Eliza's choice rather melancholy. Both Ambrose and Higgins emote so much and look so crestfallen during their final scene together that instead of the empowering, uplifting "I am Eliza Doolittle, hear me roar" ending I think Sher wanted, we get Casablanca v. 2.0 with Eliza/Higgins substituting for Ilsa/Rick. Oh well. They'll always have the rain in Spain.

Monday, April 2, 2018

Easter is for Musicals: Carousel and Jesus Christ Superstar

Regular readers of this blog might know this already but every year I take my mom to a carefully picked, PG-rated, old-fashioned musical (the only type my mom will go to). I call them momsicals. We've been to Lion King, Cats, Phantom of the Opera, and Hello Dolly!. When I asked her what the next Momsical would be, she said "Carousel." She was adamant about it too, so on April 1 we went to see the new Broadway revival of Carousel.

This revival is directed by Jack O'Brien with choreography by Justin Peck. The producers of this revival have snipped quite a bit of dialogue and also cut two musical numbers: "Geraniums in the Winder" and "Stonecutters Cutting on Wood." As a result the whole thing plays almost like an opera with the occasional recitatives. Sort of appropriate as this is no doubt R&H's most operatic score. The sets are minimalist but quite pretty. Justin Peck's choreography isn't the kind of ballet-lite thing I expected -- more modern dance with moves that wouldn't look out of place in Paul Taylor's company. I think he'll win a Tony for best choreography. I know there's a lot of nostalgia for Agnes de Mille's choreography but I found this clip of the Act 2 ballet and ... it really isn't that great? Peck's choreography is very winning.

And how was it? First things first: my mom absolutely loved every minute of it. The dark, violent storyline didn't seem to bother her as she just soaked in maybe the finest score ever composed for musical theater. So if the goal was to find a momsical that my mom would like, this afternoon was a success.

Mueller and Henry, photo @ Joan Marcus
There is a lot to like about this production. Joshua Henry was magnificent as Billy Bigelow. So many actors try and fail to seem menacing. Henry really embraces the violent, angry side of Billy. His voice is pretty powerful too -- a baritenor who had enough horsepower for this very long role. I never realized this until I saw the musical but Billy has very few musical breaks. Once he's on he's on. His voice is not beautiful -- it's sort of rough-grained. But it works. His "If I Loved You" glowed and his "Soliloquy" ended the first act on a real high note.

Ramasar and company, photo @ Joan Marcus
New York City Ballet star Amar Ramasar also impressed as Billy's partner in crime Jigger. The role has obviously been reworked to show off Amar's amazing dancing abilities but Ramasar was surprisingly good as an actor. His singing parts have been cut or trimmed but Ramasar gives enough energy to the show so that it doesn't feel like a huge loss. Jigger is played as that certain kind of oily, charming lowlife. And not for nothing but women of a certain age in the audience (including my mom) were just nuts for him. "He's so good looking," my mom whispered.

Fleming and Mueller, photo @ Joan Marcus
Renée Fleming (Nettie) spent many years on the operatic stage and still has enough pipes and then some for the anthem "You'll Never Walk Alone." She also came across as believably maternal. It's cool that more than 30 years after her professional debut she still has the most beautiful voice onstage. I also liked Lindsay Mendez's Carrie Pipperidge although she had some screechy high notes. Mendez had wonderful comic timing and brought some much-needed laughs to a very dark and serious musical.

The weak link was Jessie Mueller (Julie). Julie is actually a brief part, with only two musical numbers and very little actual stage time. Mueller's voice is a sweet soprano. However her voice doesn't bloom or soar in "If I Loved You" and "What's the Use of Wond'rin" but stays very even-keeled. Her stage persona was more problematic than her voice -- she's demure and very much a good girl. But Julie isn't a "good" girl -- she knowingly breaks her curfew to have an encounter with Billy. She knows this action will get her fired and probably lead to sex with Billy. Granted the role is underwritten but I do think Julie's have to show an inner spark and passion. Mueller just doesn't have that rebel vibe to her. The chemistry between her and Josh Henry is not really there.

Alex Gemignani (Enoch Snow) was rather charmless. Usually the officious Enoch gets big laughs but line after line went from Gemignani to crickets from the audience. Whatever he's doing is not reading across the footlights. Also NYCB's Brittany Pollack (Louise) is a wonderful dancer and makes the second act ballet worth watching but her acting is rather stilted and she needs to stop screeching her lines. 

Gemignani and Mendez, photo @ Joan Marcus
A few nitpicky but noticeable things: accents are very inconsistent. Sometimes the actors sound like they've relocated Carousel to Georgia, other times they're doing a Barbara Walters caricature. The costumes were a disappointment: Julie is in a pink/lavender concoction that looks like a nightmare bridesmaids' dress. In fact I googled "ugly bridesmaid dress" and found almost an exact match for Julie's dress. Jigger is wearing very-not-19th-century wifebeater. Billy is wearing an Abercrombie-and-Fitch type knit sweater. And there's an occasional sense of a lack of direction -- for instance the Starkeeper (John Douglas Thompson) wanders about the stage often but the blocking is confusing and my mom kept asking me "Why is that guy in the white suit always there?" But overall I think this revival has way more positives than negatives and will probably settle in for a nice Broadway run. For one, the audience absolutely loved it. I could hear audible sobbing for large parts of Act Two.

And Broadway really needs Carousel. The last Broadway production was in 1994. It was critically acclaimed but I have seen a video and listened to the cast recording and all I hear are a Billy and Julie that can't sing. Yes Audra McDonald is amazing as Carrie and Shirley Verrett a great Nettie but a Carousel without a great Billy is a no-go for me.

After the show thanks to a friend I got to go backstage and meet Renée Fleming who was so nice and gracious. My mom was a bit tongue-tied but I know she had a wonderful time and that's all that mattered.

My mom and myself backstage with Renée:

As for Carousel nostalgia, here's some priceless footage with the OBC of John Raitt and Jan Clayton. Is Josh Henry John Raitt? No, but he does justice to the role.

Brandon Victor Dixon and John Legend, photo @ Eric Liebowitz
When I got home I turned on NBC to watch Jesus Christ Superstar. This 1970 rock musical was Andrew Lloyd Webber when he was still sort of edgy and cool and didn't just raid Puccini for all the sentimental tunes. I don't know whether I was in a good mood or this live concert format was a lot more organic than the "live-on-a-tiny-soundstage" setup they've used in the past for productions like Hairspray and Grease. But I loved every minute of it. The costumes, the warehouse-style setting that made it look like a rave, the mix of musical theater veterans with rockers. I think in the future NBC might want to look at this semi-staged live concert format as the sound-stage "set" musicals have been very awkward. 

The casting was so strong. Brandon Victor Dixon (Judas) totally rocked it as Judas. His anthem "Superstar" was truly an 11 o'clock number. Sara Bareilles (Mary Magdalene) has that 1970's folk-rock thing down pat. Her numbers kind of foreshadow the ALW-type ballad but she sang them very well. Alice Cooper made a nice little cameo as Herod. Good to see a septuagenarian rocker still rocking it. Norm Lewis (Caiaphas) and Jin Ha (Annas) blew "This Jesus Must Die" out of the water. I've seen both Norm Lewis and Jin Ha onstage and rarely have I seen them be such scenery-chewers. They were amazing.

The only slight weak link was John Legend as Jesus. Vocally he was great except for a few weird moments in "Gethesmane" but unlike Dixon, Bareilles, Cooper, or Lewis he remained bland and sort of a cipher. But strangely Jesus is the most under-written role of the musical. 

But overall great concert. Great energy, great fun. When was the last time you could really put "fun" and ALW in the same sentence? It was played in front of an ecstatic live audience who screamed as loudly as any megachurch congregation. The whole thing felt ... messianic? Jesus has risen ... Happy Easter!

Friday, March 30, 2018

Luisa Miller: Role #149 is a Keeper

Domingo and Yoncheva, photo @ Chris Lee
If there's one thing I wish I could change about myself it's this: I have no off switch when I attend a performance. I can't just sit back, relax, and enjoy. From the moment the lights dim to the last moment before the house lights go up I'm always mentally criticizing, taking notes, comparing, contrasting, weighing the positives against the negatives, until my program notes become one illegible scrawl. I'm probably an insufferable performance companion. I've know that I've missed many a great performance because I was too hung up on this or that detail.

At tonight's premiere of Verdi's Luisa Miller the same thing happened. I listened. I watched. My mind started racing. But at intermission, I found myself not fixating on all the merits and demerits of the performance. Just the opposite. I was actually just sort of chilling. It wasn't that I didn't hear the mistakes or that the performance was so superlative that I was overwhelmed. But I wasn't replaying the mistakes over and over in my head. And then it dawned on me why I wasn't doing this mental marathon: the three leads in the performance really know how to sing Verdi, and that's a skill that nowadays is so rare, and so special, that I better just count my blessings.

Beczala and Yoncheva photo @ Chris Lee
Let's start with the eponymous heroine, Luisa Miller. Sonya Yoncheva was making her role debut. In the past few years Yoncheva has really been everywhere in the repertoire, adding roles so quickly and singing in so many engagements that it's become exhausting just to cover her. In this Met season alone this is her third role that's scheduled for an HD. She's also sung Norma in London,  Elisabetta of Don Carlo and Iolanta in Paris. And there are some signs of wear and tear on her voice. In Tosca I thought she was trying to push for a bigger, brassier sound and more histrionics than her vocal DNA allowed. Her upper register can occasionally turn harsh and the vibrato loosens into a mini-wobble. In Luisa's opening cavatina "Lo vidi e 'I primo palpito" the music seemed to lie too high and move too fast for her voice and there were a few missed notes and some of the passagework was smudged.

But as the opera progressed one sensed that this sort of lyric heroine role is where Yoncheva's voice and stage persona really lives, breathes, and shines. Her dark plush middle voice and naturally sympathetic personality made this role a wonderful fit for her. Her second act scena with Wurm "Tu puniscimi, O Signore"/"A brani, a brani, o perfido" had a few hard top notes but otherwise was fine Verdian singing with lovely legato and sense of musical line. It was the final act however where Luisa has her most lyrical music where Yoncheva's voice simply glowed. It resembled her Desdemona in that float and spin. Her duet with her father, her death scene with Rodolfo, the final trio, was just gorgeous singing. There was no forcing, no push to make her voice or her acting more dramatic than it really was. It was so natural, so beautiful.

Beczala, photo @ Chris Lee
She had a worthy tenor in Piotr Beczala (Count Rodolfo). Luisa Miller is one of the few Verdi operas where the tenor's music and backstory is the richest and most compelling. Beczala had an unalloyed success. He is 51 but you'd never know it from his singing. His voice doesn't have the Mediterranean warmth of, say, Carlo Bergonzi or Luciano Pavarotti but he offered stylish, musical singing from curtain to curtain. "Quando le sere al placido" (like Donizetti's "Una furtiva lagrima") seems to lie in a beautiful place for the vast majority of tenors and of course he got a huge ovation. He also sang one verse of the cabaletta "L'ara o l'avello apprestami" which showed his impressive upper register.

I was more impressed by his work in the last act when the character takes on a much darker turn and the music turns sinister and menacing. Beczala avoided shouting or straining and did not overact. He understand that the music provided enough drama. As a result he made it to the final curtain and sounded like he could do it all over again, but made the finale intense and thrilling as Verdian finales always should be. There are tenors with more volume and glamorous timbres than Beczala. There are few tenors with his incredible consistency and who can maintain this day-to-day, performance-to-performance, season-to-season, role-to-role quality.

Here is a comparison of Beczala's "Quando le sere placido" with Domingo's own rendition almost 40 years ago:

Domingo and Yoncheva in the beautiful Act 3 duet, photo @ Chris Lee
And now for role #149 for Placido Domingo. Domingo by his own account is 77 and according to "talk of the town" is closer to 80. And so I was sort of expecting the worst. And in the first act my fears were confirmed -- Domingo's voice simply does not have enough color to do justice to Verdi's music. I don't think it's the fact that he used to be a tenor. I think it's the fact that he's almost an octogenarian. My dad who is a very feisty dude and several years younger than Domingo is starting to sound raspier and hoarser. It's called aging.

But in the third act duet with Luisa something miraculous happened. It's as if he turned back time and all of a sudden his voice was so there, so present, that you understood his greatness. In "La figlia, vedi, pentita" he ripped your heart out. I have no other words than to quote the brilliant, mercurial Albert Innaurato's review of a Domingo-as-baritone album. Innaurato, who was no fan of Domingo, wrote:
Though none of the singing here matches the better let alone the best versions put on record since the cylinder (do people know of let alone care about Amato, Ruffo, the miracle Battistini, de Luca, Giraldoni, Stracciari, Ancona?), none of it is disgraceful. More arresting is the realization that Domingo really understands how this music should go. Whether he can give voice to that insight memorably has to be put to one side, but from vivid recitative, beautifully and meaningfully pronounced, to arias that have at least the right musical shape and emotion, he really does more than his rivals today. He belonged to the last generation that really felt this music and identified with the style; and he has survived as a demonstrator of what can be done for the bland and clueless who are hired everywhere.
Domingo might not have the voice for Verdi, but he has the style. He has the dignity. As Innaurato said, he understands how this music should go. And that's something to treasure.

Alex Vinogradov, photo @ Chris Lee
The leading trio's understanding of Verdi was a marked contrast to the supporting characters. Dimitry Belosselskiy (Wurm) and Alexander Vinogradov (Count Walter) are both Russian basses whose voices have that youthful vigor and bite. But that's all they have. They bark, they roar, but they don't sing Verdi. I could say the same about the Federica Olesya Petrova. But perhaps it will come with time. I thought Vingogradov's voice had the best basic material -- it was the steadiest and most sonorous voice of the three lower-voiced characters and he did the best acting.

Bertrand de Billy in the pit led a decent if not thrilling performance. The Met's performance practices for Italian opera are still so old-fashioned: cabalettas are almost always shorn of a verse, singers are allowed to drop out for bars to blast a note (high or otherwise), and the chorus parts are often hacked as well. Why? Elijah Mohinsky's ultra-realistic production seemed too big for this intimate opera. Count Walter's house had a huge descending staircase that cried out for a Lucia mad scene and/or a "Hello Dolly" type production number but was just used to usher people on and offstage. But recent new productions have often called for overly busy, frantic stage business that sometimes seems to detract from the actual singing. This production as old-fashioned as it looks allowed the singers to sing their hearts out and that's what was so special about this performance.

And truth be told, Luisa Miller has its moments but is not top-drawer Verdi IMO. The ending chords are almost note-for-note identical to Il Trovatore, and there are bits and pieces of the work that remind me of Don Carlo (toxic father-son relationship), Rigoletto (father lives but daughter dies tragic senseless death), and La Traviata (woman is forced to make sacrifice that causes much suffering for all), Otello (lover becomes jealous murderer). The opera lacks the sheer impact of all those operas. But that doesn't matter. Luisa Miller when done well is a very moving drama and this Met revival of Luisa Miller is aside from Parsifal by far the best thing they've put on this season and there are six performances left. Go.

Here are the curtain calls:

Sunday, March 25, 2018

Spring Diaries: A Very British Rinaldo; A very grand Grand Hotel; My Fair Lady

Cast of My Fair Lady
"Spring" officially started on March 20. The next day the Northeast coast was hit with a Nor'easter that lasted for a good 24 hours and dumped a foot of snow in NYC. I had a snow day so obviously the thing to do was to trek to Lincoln Center and see Bart Sher's revival of My Fair Lady. The auditorium was about 2/3 empty and it's very early in previews. The fact that the singers had yet to settle fully into the roles was betrayed by Lauren Ambrose (the Eliza of the new production) and Jordan Donica (Freddy) going up in lines for a large chunk of the Ascot scene.

But the early previews show a very promising production -- Harry Hadden-Paton's Higgins didn't have the almost sadistic sarcasm of Rex Harrison's famous portrayal but that was all to the good. This Higgins was more likable -- an eccentric rather than a bully. He says the same lines ("so deliciously low, so horribly dirty," "a squashed cabbage leaf"), but without the glee that Harrison injected into his voice. Ambrose's soprano voice was surprisingly strong and soared in "I Could Have Danced All Night" in a way that I wouldn't have expected from someone who's never sung in a Broadway production before, and she totally has the spunk and sass needed for Eliza. Diana Rigg was properly imperious as Mrs. Higgins, and Jordan Donica has a lovely tenor voice. I wasn't too fond of Norbert Leo Butz's Doolittle -- maybe I'm just wedded to Stanley Holloway's remarkable portrayal but Butz IMO didn't have the charm and humor for Doolittle. And he couldn't dance, which made "Get Me to the Church" somewhat anti-climactic.

I don't want to say too much more about the production because it's very early in previews -- director Bart Sher was actually asking people during intermission and after the show for feedback. That is promising -- it shows Sher actually wants to use previews to gage audience response and improve the final product. He grabbed me at the end of the show and asked me about how I interpreted the ending. But this has all the foundations of a real musical theater treat: the sets and costumes are lovely, and the actors already seem to connect to the roles in an organic way. The show needs to pick up the pacing a little bit but that will come as actors become more familiar with lines and tighten up their timing. Sher devised a "new" ending to the musical that is somewhere between G.B. Shaw's ultra-cynical ending for Pygmalion and Lerner and Loewe's rather conventionally romantic ending for My Fair Lady. I think it works beautifully. I'm definitely going back when this show is "frozen."

Irina Dvorovenko and James Snyder in Grand Hotel photo @ Sara Krulwich
Two days later I was at City Center for an Encores! presentation of Grand Hotel. Grand Hotel is not a great musical -- the score by Robert Wright and George Forrest veers from faux-operetta to Kander-and-Ebb-like musical noir without having much of a definite voice, the characters are never fully fleshed out, but it is a lot of fun. Large snippets of the OBC can be found on Youtube -- here is the showstopper "We'll Raise a Glass" with the delightful Michael Jeter at the 1989 Tony Awards. You can see why this show was an unexpected success. (As a sidenote, the OBC was quite star-crossed: both David Carroll and Michael Jeter ended up dying of AIDS).

"We'll Raise a Glass", photo @ Sarah Krulwich
The Encores! cast and creative did justice to the somewhat thin material. Director Josh Rhodes spent money on this -- there wasn't that barebones feel that the Encores! performances sometimes have. They had a double-decked set with a big central staircase and even replicated the hanging chandeliers of the original production. The choreography of course was heavily derivative of Tune's but that's all to the good. I like how they didn't go for the big names in any stunt casting but instead cast quality people who were all very right for their parts. Brandon Uranowitz (as the dying Otto) does not quite have Michael Jeter's pocket-sized noodly charm but he also danced up a storm in "We'll Raise a Glass" and that number predictably brought down the house. Actually the dancing was the evening's main enjoyment.  Other than "We'll Raise a Glass" the tango dancers Junior Cervila and Guadalupe Garcia were sultry and sexy and bookended the show well.

James Snyder (Baron) has a gorgeous tenor voice and plenty of charm. One of the musical's running themes is that the wastrel playboy Baron who steals to pay off his debts can't help being noble at the end of the day. Snyder's likability made the Baron's unexpectedly good heart believable. Irina Dvorovenko as the fading ballerina Elizaveta was delightful -- her thick, throaty Russian accent exuded a "don't f__k with me" vibe and her singing voice was surprisingly strong. Dvorovenko's sudden dismissal from ABT was disappointing and it's great to see she's found her groove with fairly steady acting gigs. Heléne Yorke was delightful as Flaemchen, the knocked-up Hollywood wannabe/typist in the role that made Jane Krakowski a star. John Dossett (Preysing) code-switched between the urbane businessman and the creepy philanderer. The musical takes a rather sudden tragic turn that neither the music nor book can quite handle -- there just isn't enough depth there. This is not Cabaret or Follies. I'm not sure Grand Hotel can endure a sustained run on Broadway. But Grand Hotel was a great way to spend the evening.

The cast of Rinaldo with Harry Bicket cond.
This Sunday I was at Carnegie Hall for a concert version of Handel's Rinaldo. I'll be the very first to admit that I'm not knowledgable enough about baroque opera to really say much other than I really liked the opera, and to make some observations about the singing. It has some of Handel's greatest hits ("Lascia ch'io pianga," "Cara sposa," "Augelletti, che cantante"). The best moment of the opera might be the aria "Dunque e lacci" -- a "dialogue" between Armida and the harpischord. Handel himself played the harpischord in the original production.

With that being said I dimly remember seeing this at NYCO a long time ago and don't think the opera lends itself particularly well to the concert format. This is an opera that lives heavily in the supernatural -- there's magical sorceress transformations, dragon-drawn chariots, and thrilling battles between the Saracens and Christain crusaders (don't ask). The sight of singers glued to their scorebooks gives this opera a slightly distant, formal feel that I don't think was Handel's intention. I think this was meant to be one of those baroque fantasias.

The cast was mixed (so much as these inexperienced ears could hear). Iestyn Davies has a pretty countertenor voice but I have an issue with countertenors taking on roles written for castrati -- their voices are simply too small and delicate to have the kind of impact that people described from castrati. This was made clear in "Or la tromba," Rinaldo's triumphant final aria that is accompanied by four blaring onstage trumpets. Davies was absolutely drowned out by the trumpets.

I also thought that Jane Archibald sounded shrieky as Armida, Joélle Harvey has a pretty, silvery voice as Almirena and handled the opera's biggest hit "Lascia ch'io pianga" well but was a bit basic and dull in her overall presentation. Luca Pisaroni looks gorgeous but his voice just doesn't have the flexibility to handle Handel (pun intended). The finest voices IMO were Sasha Cooke as Goffredo and Jakub Józef Orlinski as Eustazio. Cooke doesn't quite have the lower register but her voice is rich and sonorous. Orlinski's countertenor has sort of kooky, disconnected quality that sounds haunting. It's certainly distinct. Harry Bicket and his band The English Concert were favorites with the audience and got the loudest applause. As I said, the audience absolutely loved this performance. I just wish I had more insight to offer.

Sunday, March 18, 2018

A Semiramide Revival Has a Death by Baton

Ancient Babylonia, photo @ Ken Howard
You might have recalled that a month ago I was dithering about whether to see Semiramide or a second performance of Parsifal. Wagner beat out Rossini. The great thing about living in NYC though is that I had a chance to see Semiramide as well. Win-win I guess. So last night I was transported back to the magical world of ancient Babylonia ...

Oh who am I kidding? This revival of Semiramide was lifeless and uninspiring and didn't transport me anywhere except to constant glances at my watch. It wasn't really the singers' fault per se, nor was it the production's -- John Copley's 1991 production presented this opera seria with some picturesque tableaus and fabulous costumes. Instead the energy-killer last night was conductor Maurizio Benini.

The opera was heavily cut -- about 45 minutes worth of music. But instead of cutting entire numbers, there were a bunch of disfiguring internal cuts. Arias or choruses jumped from the first stanza to the "final" cabaletta stanza without any transition in between. So as a result the opera actually seemed longer because it was so repetitive -- choral interludes or chances to decorate the second verses were gone. It became one number after another with no connections.

Benini also managed to conduct Rossini while avoiding any hint of the famous Rossini crescendo. I don't know how that's possible, but there it is. It all was smoothed over into some sort of primo ottocento easy listening muzak. I'm not that familiar with this score but even I could tell that there were moments like the appearance of Semiramide's murdered husband's ghost where the music was supposed to sound much more atmospheric and ominous than it did. Bleh.

Meade and Abdrazakov, photo @ Ken Howard
The cast was okay-ish. Angela Meade in the title role has a large, competent dramatic coloratura soprano voice which she used to fairly good effect for most of the opera. A few caveats: her ornamentation mostly consists of blasting high notes in alt which might be crowd-pleasing but definitely isn't Rossinian. Her voice in the middle register can sound abrasive -- there's a hard edge to it that is not exactly ugly but not pretty either. "Bel raggio" had a pennywhistle high E. My thing about these extreme notes in alt is that they better be great. Meade's high notes are there, but they're thin and disconnected from the rest of her voice.

More bothersome was her complete disengagement from the character. She never seemed more than slightly perturbed at all the storyline surrounding her. "My dead husband whom I murdered has returned as a ghost. Oh well." "The man I love is actually my son. Oops." Changes in mood were indicated by turning her face -- face away from a character = upset. A face towards a character = happy. An appearance of her murdered husband's ghost caused her to simply look down at her hands. When she read the letter that informed Arsace of his real parentage her response was to crumple the letter up and then take a seat in the temple. Very dramatic.

Sarah Mesko
Elisabeth DeShong in the trouser role of Arsace was sick and replaced by Sarah Mesko. Mesko was obviously nervous and shaky in her Act 1 aria "Ah! Quel giorno" but once her voice settled in she was a pleasant mezzo-soprano who managed the music well despite having a voice that sits too high for this role. Brava to her for stepping in on such short notice and giving a creditable performance. She's also a tall handsome woman who looked believable as a young man.

Ildar Abdrazakov as Assur was more problematic. His voice is no longer flexible enough to really handle Rossini roulades and so the coloratura was sketched rather than truly sung. He also does not have the low notes needed for the role -- they came out as a sort of growl. He did look great in those shirtless costumes, I'll give him that.

For a comparison, here's Ildar in the Act 2 mad scene vs. Samuel Ramey. You can hear how much richer and more flexible Ramey's voice is.

Camarena, photo @ Ken Howard
The best, most consistent singing of the night came from the characters with the most tangential relation to the plot. Ryan Speedo Green projected real authority as Oroe the high priest. His voice has a rather prominent vibrato which might not be to everyone's taste but this is a major voice and I can't wait to see what he does next. Javier Camarena's role in the opera is even weaker -- Idreno loves Azema who loves Arsace who is loved by Semiramide. So that's like 4 degrees of separation from the central drama. But he does have two show-stopping arias, one in the first act and one in the second act. Alas, Rossini roulades are not really Camarena's specialty either (a lot of his runs were aspirated), but his bright, pingy voice and astonishing upper register (I lost track of how many high notes he interpolated) were definitely a much-needed jolt of adrenaline. Old timers often lament "lack of squillo." Camarena definitely has squillo.

Peter Gelb has made it known he loves primo ottocento opera, and under his reign the Met has finally "caught up" to the rest of the world in the sense that works like the Three Queens Trilogy, Le Comte Ory, Guillaume Tell, and La Donna del Lago were finally staged, and warhorses like L'elisir, La Cenerentola, Lucia di Lammermoor, Don Pasquale, Norma, La Sonnambula, I Puritani, La Fille du Regiment, and Il Barbiere di Siviglia get more play-time. This is all to the good. But casting for these works remains inconsistent -- disfigured by old-fashioned cuts, sung by singers who have intermittent understanding of primo ottocento style, conducted by routiniers. Last night someone who had never heard any Rossini before might have concluded that he was a dull, ponderous, repetitive composer. Do it right or don't do it at all.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

Why I Walked Out of Angels in America UPDATED: Saw Perestroika!

At the end of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches I had a choice to make. I could either grab some dinner, and return for the evening performance of Perestroika, or I could go home. I decided to go home.

I shocked myself. I had been looking forward to seeing Angels in America for a long time. The production (a transfer from National Theatre Live) had racked up plaudits and awards all over the place. During Millennium Approaches I found Tony Kushner's writing alternatively funny, biting, insightful, thought-provoking. There were parts that in my opinion could have used some judicious cutting -- (one example: the opening monologue with the rabbi went on for way too long) but overall I was impressed with how little this play has dated. AIDS is no longer a death sentence and the artistic community is no longer losing so many talents to this dreaded disease but a good play is a good play. The many references to 1980's hot button issues also serve as a timely reminder about just how heartless Ronald Reagan was towards AIDS patients as nowadays many Democrats seem to view him through a gaze of nostalgia in comparison to Donald Trump.

Instead I walked out and decided not to return for the second part because I thought Kushner's play deserved a better presentation than it received. I don't think I've ever seen a production hampered by so many poor directorial and acting choices. (edit: I was also sick as a dog which is why I decided to see Perestroika later -- see below).

Lee Pace and Denise Gough
Where do I start? The #1 mistake was the casting of Lee Pace as Joe Pitt. Joe is already an unlikable character but Pace just about killed him. Pace's delivery of his lines was so wooden, so lifeless, that he sucked the energy out of every scene he was in. He really seemed like he was reading straight from cue cards or a powerpoint. In fact I've seen corporate keynote addresses that had more sparkle than Pace. I could not believe he read for this part and director Marianne Elliot said "Yes that's it. He's our guy." The scenes between Joe and Louis, Joe and Roy Cohn, Joe and Harper, were all sapped of any vitality. For instance in the painful scenes between Joe and Harper I think we're supposed to sense that Joe is genuinely tormented by his poor treatment of Harper. Joe delivered his lines with all the passion of a 5th grader in a spelling bee. The conflict and guilt that Joe feels is just not there and thus a hard-to-like character becomes simply annoying.

McArdle and Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize, photo @ Helen Maybanks
Running a close second to Lee Pace was the choice to cast James McArdle as Louis. Louis is one of those stereotypical neurotic Jewish characters that populate theater. The thing about these characters is that if played the right way they can be endearing. I hate Woody Allen's personal life choices but damn if he isn't lovable in Annie Hall. McArdle makes Louis all whine, all whimpering, ZERO humor or charm. His long monologue on race relations that started the third act was what cemented my decision to go home. Three and a half hours with McArdle and Pace was already 3.5 hours too much. I couldn't bear to imagine having to spend another 4.5 hours with them.

Gough and Stewart-Jarrett, photo @ Helen Maybanks
I had been impressed with Denise Gough in People, Places and Things. I was therefore surprised at how unaffecting her Harper Pitt was. She recycled some of the same tics and mannerisms she used in People, Places and Things but Emma and Harper are very different characters. Gough also seemed like she was concentrating so hard on getting that flat "typical" American accent just right that she ignored the character's pathos. These strung-out, drug-addled miserable wives are a beloved theater trope for a good reason: they work in touching the heart. Actresses always want to play Mary Tyrone or Birdie Hubbard. Gough made Harper ... well, she made her annoying. For someone who is addicted to valium Gough read her lines like she'd popped too many speed pills instead. And she also didn't get the occasional flashes of humor and irony in Harper that give the audience hope that underneath the drug addiction there's a spirit waiting to come out. In fairness to Gough Kushner's writing for Harper is very tricky. Lots of rambling about ozone layers and Antarctica and other flights of fancy to show that Harper isn't all there. But it can sound very stagey.

And finally there was Susan Brown in the many roles: rabbi, Hannah Pitt (Joe's Mormon, unforgiving mother), Ethel Rosenberg. She played every single character with a cold, hard, steely demeanor. It got monotonous. One of the play's most memorable moments is when Roy Cohn remembers his machinations in getting Ethel executed. This is the "big reveal" moment when the audience realizes that Roy Cohn is even more monstrous than we expected. So his ghostly encounter with Ethel should show some sign that Ethel was someone sympathetic right? Not with Susan Brown.

Nathan Lane, photo @ Helen Maybanks
It's a shame because amidst all this disappointing acting Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter and Nathan Lane as Roy Cohn gave the play so much energy and life. Nathan Lane can't resist making Roy Cohn a funny bastard more than a truly evil man. But then again, Roy Cohn probably did have a sort of snake oil charm to him and Lane knows how to deliver lines and jokes with timing, precision, character. All things sorely missing from Pace, McArdle, and Gough. And as a result Cohn became one of the few "likable" characters onstage in the sense that I was interested in his storyline arc and wanted to follow him. Cohn might have been a loathsome socipath in real life, but in this production at least he has spunk and doesn't talk like a zombie.

Andrew Garfield as Prior Walter also transformed himself completely from the star of the Spiderman movies into a sickly AIDS patient who is abandoned by his lover Louis. Prior Walter is a tricky character to play: I didn't stay for the second half but it's clear even in the first half that he's being set up to be some sort of savior/messiah. Those types of characters can be hard to pull off as flesh and blood people. But Garfield manages to do it, and makes Walter's hallucinations with all the "prior" Prior Walters funny. I also liked Nathan Stewart-Jarrett as Belize.

Andrew Garfield, photo @ Helen Maybanks
I wasn't just disappointed with the acting. I thought some of Marianne Elliot's directorial choices were head-scratching. First of all, Adrian Sutton's music that accompanies the play has all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. It's loud, bombastic, and frankly unlikable. The three storylines were done on a turntable with each "set" looking like the waiting room in a dentist's office. The "angel" reveal was this: the theater blacked out, and then there was an explosion, and the angel (Beth Malone in this performance) was held up by two puppeteers. The audience was screaming. Why? It was a cheap effect.

And so I decided to take an "L" for the day and went home. Since this show has been popping up with some regularity on TDF I'll try to see the second part sometime. But yeah, so basically I left Angels in America not because I didn't like the play but because I liked the play too much to see it killed by some uninspired acting. I'm reminded by Roy Cohn's speech:
I would have pulled the switch if they let me. Why? Because I hate traitors. I HATE communists. Was it legal? FUCK legal. Not nice? Fuck nice. The Nation says I'm not nice? FUCK THE NATION. Do you wanna be NICE? Or you wanna be EFFECTIVE.
 Tony Kushner's play cannot handle the Lee Pace/James McArdle "nice" performances. It needs way more energy to be effective.

The final tableau

UPDATE: Part of the reason I responded so poorly to Millennium Approaches was I was coming down with a nasty virus. I'm still home sick. But I am seeing Perestroika on 3/16 so I will update this as soon as I see Perestroika.

March 16, 2018

Ethel Rosenberg visits Cohn
I went back to see Perestroika a little less than a week after I walked out on the double header. I was no longer feeling the effects of the nasty virus and was determined to give the entire Angels in America a chance.

Overall I found Perestroika to be a much weaker work than Millennium Approaches.Ushers told me that between last week and this week they had cut about 20 minutes of Perestroika. Well the play still felt endless. There are no doubt some brilliant scenes (Roy Cohn's death being one of them) but the play felt much more preachy, less organic, and more self -indulgent.  Perestroika unlike Millennium Approaches does not have a very tight dramatic structure. The play weaves in and out between realism and surrealism, ozone layer and atmosphere,  heaven and earth, angels and mortals. Sometimes I felt like I was listening to several a PhD thesis on religion, law, and politics.

In Millennium Approaches I recognized the brilliance of Kushner's play and was frustrated that I didn't think the actors were maximizing the impact. In Perestroika I'm not sure the greatest actors in the world could have made some of the monologues work. The opening monologue by some Soviet diplomat about, well, perestroika, was longer and even more unfunny than the rabbi's monologue that opened Millennium. Louis's long rant to Joe about legal decisions took some important political points and then proceeded to drain them of any interest because the tone of the monologue was so didactic and without nuance.

Garfield and Stewart-Jarrett, photo @ Helen Maybanks
With that being said, Perestroika also exposed the limits of Nathan Lane and Andrew Garfield's acting abilities. I had liked them a lot in Millennium Approaches but in Perestroika their approaches were too one-note. Garfield in particular must have shrieked the entire time he was onstage. He started at a level 10 of hysteria and had nowhere to go. Nathan Lane also tried too hard to wring humor and laughter out of Cohn's character. Cohn is in such a grim state of affairs in Perestroika that the slick humor that was believable in Millennium Approaches (when Cohn still had the facade of luxury and power) did not work when Cohn was desperate, dying, on a morphine drip, and disbarred. Even with these weaknesses though Lane is still bar none the best actor of the production.

Susan Brown and Andrew Garfield, photo @ Helen Maybanks
But the whole production suffers from some weak casting in principal and supporting parts. Lee Pace in Perestroika has to go the full monty but his awkward, stilted delivery was as much of an energy sucker as it had been in Millennium. Susan Brown in Perestroika has a scene that if done right should absolutely break the heart. Hannah Pitt has to accompany Prior to the hospital after he faints at the Mormon center. Prior shows Hannah the lesions that have wrecked his body. Hannah quietly holds Prior's hand. Susan Brown keeps a stiff upper lip in this scene when some sentiment and softness are needed. And James McArdle's Louis went from annoying in Millennium to truly unbearable in Perestroika.  He played him as so shrill, whiny, selfish that he just gave us no reason why we should care about this guy. Denise Gough's character of Harper has a smaller role in Perestroika and she faded almost completely out of the play, her monotonous droning voice simply becoming a nuisance. I also thought Nathan Stewart-Jarrett's Belize was stereotypical to the point of being offensive.

McArdle and Pace
The directorial choices in Perestroika were also questionable: again, Marianne Elliot resisted any effort to put the play in a specific place and time. But Perestroika has even more of a 1980's/early 90's zeitgeist than Millennium. The long discussions about Ronald Reagan and the end of the Cold War make the nowhere-land approach mind-boggling. It also dulled the impact of one of the play's most famous moments: when Prior breaks the fourth wall and talks directly to the audience about how "the great work begins":

“And the dead will be commemorated and we’ll struggle on with the living, and we are not going away. We won’t die secret deaths anymore. The world only spins forward. We will be citizens. The time has come. Bye now. You are fabulous, each and every one. And I bless you: More Life. The Great Work Begins.” 

When this speech played in the 1990's, I can only imagine its impact. People in the United States were still dying of AIDS at a shocking rate. The anti-retroviral medicines had yet to be developed. There was no guarantee that the "great work" would even continue. Today AIDS is still a horrible virus that infects millions of people around the world, but with the right medications it's not a death sentence. But even with the improvements in life expectancy among those who are HIV+ the "great work" continues and it's now concentrated in places like sub-Saharan Africa where the countries lack the means to provide their patients with life-saving medication.

So Prior's speech TODAY should give us a reminder of what life was like back then, and how far we've come, but how much "great work" needs to done still. Yet this moment went for very little. Andrew Garfield's speech was nervous and jittery, and without any time, place and perspective the opportunity for a history lesson is lost.

If you want to see a truly great version of Angels in America, I highly recommend the HBO miniseries. Even if you don't have HBO it's available to rent on Amazon. The performances there are so pitch-perfect without a single false note and everyone is a flesh and blood character. And then here are extensive clips of the OBC in 1993. Watch how real those actors were, how little artifice there was. They are raw and powerful. In other words, they are everything that this revival of Angels in America is not.

This production is a lost opportunity. The great work continues, but this production is not the one that will inspire people to continue that great work.