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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Once On This Island; RIP Dmitri Hvorostovsky

Alex Newell and Hailey Kilgore, photo @ Joan Marcus
WARNING: SPOILERS BELOW.
The revival of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's Once On This Island has been getting insanely good word-of-mouth in early previews. I went to see what the fuss was all about last night. First of all, Circle in the Square is exactly the right theatre for this show. The boxed-in seating allowed director Michael Arden to make the entire set an "island." The pre-show involved the cast milling about a sand-and-water-filled set complete with goats and chickens. The ceiling of the theater had bunches of laundry lines. They obviously were trying to recreate the feel of a real Caribbean island. A little cheesy, but it worked.

The island set
The story is simple and sad: it is about Ti Moune, a peasant orphan who falls in love with Daniel (Isaac Powell) after she saves his life after a car crash. She tenderly nurses him until he is well enough to return to his home. She impulsively decides to follow him into his world. Unfortunately Daniel is separated from Ti Moune by not just class but race -- he is descended from the French colonial rulers, and their love story can only be a fleeting fling. Ti Moune is given an impossible choice: save herself or save Daniel. The predictable heartbreak ensues. This musical is really "Little Mermaid in the Caribbean With a Touch of Colonial Racism."

Hailey Kilgore
The revival is strongly cast. It is anchored by Hailey Kilgore's radiant portrayal of Ti Moune. Kilgore makes Ti Moune an absolutely enchanting wide-eyed romantic. She runs onstage, and we love her. She sings "Waiting For Life" (the I Want song), and we want what she wants. She dances, and we want to go onstage and dance with her. She weeps, and we weep. She has a beautiful voice, and an unaffected, winning stage presence. It's an amazing performance.

Actually the whole cast is strong. The ageless Lea Salonga is still beautiful in both voice and face as Erzulie, one of the island goddesses. Merle Dandridge is terrifying as Papa Ge, God of Death. Kenita R. Miller got huge applause as Ti Moune's adopted mother. Alex Newell's "Mama Will Provide" was a big hit with the audience. The story is framed by a little girl named Emerson Davis who was adorable. And Isaac Powell is believable as the kind of callow playboy who nonetheless harbors real feelings towards Ti Moune. The final farewell of Ti Moune and Daniel was heartbreaking.

Cast of OOTI, photo @ Joan Marcus
Another strength of the production is the choreography by Camille A. Brown. There is a real attempt to imitate the easygoing, natural rhythms of Caribbean music and dance. Perhaps the greatest moment is Ti Moune's dance in front of Daniel's society. She is in red high heels, and she cannot dance in them. She kicks off the shoes and does an exciting, seductive dance that obviously titillates the upscale crowd. In one moment she shows Daniel's society what they can never have -- this freeness and generosity of spirit.

But, but, but. If this show had limited itself to being a wistful fable of love found and lost again, the charming, colorful score might have been enough. However, the story actually takes an extremely tragic, bleak turn at the end. And Flaherty's score simply does not have the depth to convey the tragedy that is built into the musical's book. I mean, think of the opera Rusalka (which has an almost identical storyline). Rusalka has lasting power because Dvorak's score always underlines the tragedy of the story. If a musical wants to break our heart, the music has to do the major legwork. Think Carousel. West Side Story. Or, in more recent times, Dear Evan Hansen and Fun Home.  In Dear Evan Hansen songs like "Waving Through a Window," "For Forever," and "Words Fail" made the audience feel Evan's pain and loneliness. Fun Home ended with the heartwrenching "I'll Fly Away" with all three Alisons singing to Bruce Bechdel. People around me were sobbing. Flaherty's score is wonderful in conveying Caribbean local flavor, it has enough melancholy to carry the love story, but when it comes to the heartbreak and tragedy that make up the last third of the show, the music simply does not take us there. "A Part of Us" and "Why We Tell the Story" seem like weak attempts to finish the show.

Would I recommend Once On This Island? Absolutely. It's a fun theatrical experience. But the musical I think was intended to be more than "fun." It was intended to be a heartbreaker. And Flaherty's score didn't break my heart.



What did break my heart was that last night when I came home from Once On This Island a friend of mine told me that things were looking very grave for Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the Russian baritone who has been battling brain cancer for over two years. I went to bed saddened. When I woke up I saw that he had passed away overnight. He was only 55. I last saw him in an emotional performance of Il Trovatore in September 2017. The ovation at his entry was so loud the orchestra had to stop completely. He gave us a beautifully sung Count di Luna. At the end of the evening the Met orchestra threw roses at him and his colleagues were standing back and crying openly. I never saw him perform again. I guess God wanted to listen to his voice. RIP to this magnificent singer and artist.




Friday, November 17, 2017

Brigadoon's Music Wakes Up Audiences; Thaïs Scorches

Kelli O'Hara and Patrick Wilson, photo @ Sara Krulwich

When New York City Center announced that the chief Encores! presentation of their season would be Lerner and Loewe's Brigadoon, tickets sold out so quickly that you would have thought the musical only came around once in a hundred years. Oh wait ...

Anyway tonight's performance was one of glorious highs and depressing lows. Let's start with the positive here: this was a lavish, fully-staged performance. They spent good money on this. It didn't have the feel of a semi-staged concert at all -- there were colorful costumes, enough props and some background projections to evoke the world of the Scottish highlands. This is a production that could transfer to Broadway with minimal adjustments. A few more sets (a ramp served as an all-purpose entrance and exit tool) and less amateurish projections and we'll have a great show.  Of course if it moved to Broadway it probably wouldn't have had the full orchestra of 30 players led by Rob Berman. The orchestra really played Loewe's score with love and they got the loudest applause of the evening.

Other highs: it is so good to hear Frederick Loewe's score really sung -- the MGM musical with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse became an almost all-dance extravaganza, remade to fit Kelly's dancing skills and vocal limitations. But with the beautiful, soaring soprano of Kelli O'Hara as Fiona and other musical theater veterans in the lead roles, the music became the star, as it should be. "From This Day On" was absolutely glorious. O'Hara wasn't the only beautiful voice onstage. There was Stephanie J. Block who was very funny as Meg, the "earthy" girl to O'Hara's more romantic heroine. Block made the anti-love song "The Love of My Life" a show-stopper. Before tonight I had never heard of Ross Leiketes (Charlie). I certainly do now. Ny god, what a VOICE! "Come to Me, Bend to Me" became one of those melodies you just never wanted to end.

Fairchild and Esty, photo @ Sara Krulwich
Also excellent: Ex-NYCB principal Robbie Fairchild also stepped out of his wholesome nice-guy persona as the Jud-Fryish Harry Beaton. He scowled and sulked convincingly but his most expressive moment was the Sword Dance that ends Act One. Fairchild was able to make this number (which seems heavily derivative of the original Agnes de Mille choreography) a dance of rage and rejection. He's still finding his sea legs as an actor but this is a very promising start to his full-time theater career.

The mediocre: the Tommy (Patrick Wilson) and Jeff (Aasif Mandvi). I wonder what it would have been like had the originally announced Steven Pasquale not dropped out of the production. Wilson and Mandvi weren't bad but they were very bland and basic and just sort of there. Granted their characters aren't all that inherently interesting but they faded into the background. Wilson's lighter, grainy baritone couldn't match O'Hara's soprano and Mandvi was overpowered by Block. Sara Esty (Jean) was a good dancer but acting-wise was also vacant. It was good to have veteran actors like Dakin Matthews (who played Joe in Waitress) in smaller roles.

Asaf Mandvi, Patrick Wilson, Dakin Matthews and Kelli O'Hara photo @ Joan Marcus

And now the bad: this whole project was directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. And there's just no getting around the fact that I dislike his choreography. In the program there is a line that says "Original dances created by Agnes de Mille" but what I saw was a bunch of Wheeldon clichés -- the men with the women lifted at shoulder length and twirled over and over again, the usual sliding of women between the men's legs to be semi-dragged on the floor, the women somehow ending upside down with legs in the air. The one piece that seemed truly inspired by de Mille was the Sword Dance and that was by far the most thrilling dance set piece of the night. But the other choreography often looked like the same filler he used in An American in Paris.

One really tasteless number: the funeral dance of Harry. Patricia Delgado (Maggie) is a wonderful dancer -- I saw her when she was with Miami City Ballet. But she was in a brown rag dress that was looked half Martha Graham, half Mark Morris, and instead of a heartfelt dance of grief for the troubled Harry Wheeldon made her wriggle all over his body and of course her legs had to spread eagle in the air. This faux-modern dance concoction really took the viewer out of the Scottish village romance mindset. It stopped the show in all the wrong ways.

This show has a lot of built-in dancing and Wheeldon of course beefed up the dancing even more. But when the choreography is so uninspired I often just zoned out waiting for the next beautiful song to come up. Thankfully those beautiful songs did appear over and over again all evening. Lerner and Loewe's score deserves to be heard way more than once in a hundred years. I could listen to it every day. The story is quaint but charming, and really loops us into an earlier time, when such an unabashedly romantic score graced the Great White Way.

And also: now I know where Andrew Lloyd Webber got the opening melody to "Music of the Night."

Listen to "Come to Me Bend to Me." There's more of a passing, "accidental" resemblance.






Pérez, photo @ Chris Lee
A day later I make one of my increasingly rare trips to the Met. The opera: Massenet's Thaïs which isn't performed often despite having a drop-dead gorgeous score, a compelling storyline, and meaty roles for both soprano and baritone. When I arrived on the rainy night I saw a slip inserted into my program -- Gerald Finley was out, Bradley Garvin was in as Athanaël. Turns out Garvin has been singing comprimario roles at the Met since 1993, and has racked up 183 performances. His current assignment at the Met is the Commissioner in Madama Butterfly. But in life, when you get an opportunity to shine, some people seize that spotlight and that's what Garvin did tonight. He's a tall, handsome singer with a big, robust bass-baritone voice and if he had any nerves he didn't show it. He even added subtle details to his portrayal that one might expect of someone experienced in the role -- for instance, in Act 3, as he dropped Thaïs off at the convent there was a subtle shift in body language as you realized that the monk now wanted the reformed courtesan in a biblical way. His desperation as he begged for Thaïs in the final duet was palpable. At the end of the evening Ailyn Pérez pushed Garvin forward for another solo bow. Bravo. He killed it.

Bradley Garvin
The whole evening was actually way more inspired than I had expected. Ailyn Pérez in the title role has a pleasing, warm timbre and is sexy in a Rubenesque way. She isn't the Thaïs of my dreams but she was thoroughly competent and professional. One problem: her upper register is inconsistent -- the high C at the end of the first act was harsh and wiry. The high D in the famous Mirror Aria was sustained but the note was just sort of yelled. It didn't bloom. In the final duet she made those difficult ascents to high D but again, you got the feeling that she had reached the absolute ceiling of her voice and those notes were squeezed out rather than truly sung. The role requires a kind of gleaming upper register to make its full impact and Pérez doesn't have that. But I'm nitpicking. This is a more than creditable performance.

Borras and Pérez, photo @ Chris Lee
Jean François Borras sang the role of Nicias, Thaïs's libertine lover. Borras is that rare specimen on the Met stage: an idiomatic French lyric tenor. The role isn't big but it's always great to hear his stylish, unforced voice sing non-phonetic French. Now will the Met puh-lease bring him back for a FULL RUN of Werthers? David Pittsinger as Palémon was wobbly and hoarse.

But seriously? GIVE THIS OPERA A CHANCE. There's way more to it than the famous Meditation. I don't know why this opera hasn't been revived since the initial production with Renée Fleming but my god, it's a beautiful opera and the production by John Cox is delightlful in a kitschy sort of way. The orchestration is stunning -- it runs the gamut from the flighty, fanciful flourishes of Thaïs's life to some vaguely Middle-Eastern music to almost Wagnerian grandeur. Emmanuel Villaume's conducting emphasized the Wagnerian grandeur more than the delicacy of the score. This opera deserves to be heard. And this Met cast isn't perfect but they do justice to Massenet.

I mean isn't this gorgeous?


Saturday, November 4, 2017

People, Places and Things: When 12-Step Is Just the Beginning

Denise Gough and Barbara Martens
One of the most popular genres of autobiography is the addict-recovery memoir. The format usually follows a tight script: the promising beginning, the descent into drugs and misery, the harrowing "rock bottom" moment, and then the recovery process by which the addict finds strength from God. The result is usually uplifting and tidy. How engaging these books are depends on the narrator (and editor). My personal favorite addict-recovery memoir is Darryl Strawberry's Straw. Strawberry sounds like a very typical jock who muses about how much his batting average would have been had he "juiced" on steroids and described his ex-wife as "drama, drama, drama." The authenticity and lack of pretension is appealing. I also like Mike Tyson's memoir if only for the honest epilogue in which he admits that he hasn't recovered, is still an addict and working through issues.

Duncan MacMillan's play People, Places and Things (now playing at St. Ann's Warehouse through December 3) has an addict who is the 12-step nightmare. To say that Emma (the incredible Denise Gough) is a hot mess is an understatement -- in the opening scene she is high out of her mind and slurring her way through The Seagull. She blacks out at a club (the loud, relentless electronica music played during the play starts to feel like a pounding nightmare). We next see her at a rehab center -- she snorts a line of coke at the counter. Once in rehab she rejects every part of the "process," as the center calls the 12-step program. She's rude, cynical, dismissive of the group therapy sessions and we're never sure whether she's putting on a performance. She is an actress after all and her name and stories switch constantly. The direction emphasizes how schizophrenic Emma is as a narrator of her own story by having doubles often joining the stage with her as her identity becomes more fractured and confused.

Nathaniel Martello-White
Gough is so compelling that we almost can overlook that the middle of the play gets bogged down by some rather tedious rehab/recovery "process" scenes. We meet a bunch of addicts, but their stories are rather bland and formulaic, and Gough is so overpowering that I got bored whenever she wasn't the focus of attention. Of course Emma meets an efficient, skeptical doctor and a more sympathetic group therapist (both played by Barbara Martens) and of course she ends up befriending a fellow addict Mark (Nathaniel Martello-White). And just as predictably Emma eventually loses that armor of cynicism.

Denise Gough
However the meat of the play is in the final scene. Emma has returned home to her parents' place. At the rehab center she and other addicts have to "practice" how they're going to make amends with loved ones once they're out in the real world. As Emma sits in her childhood bedroom and "performs" the speech she'd practiced in rehab to her real-world parents (Barbara Martens again as the mother, and Kevin McMonagle as the father), their cold reactions are both heartbreaking and understandable. They've suffered through a lifetime of Emma's addiction and they're burned out. And in one final scene, there's still ambiguity about how much of Emma's recovery is real and how much of it is a performance.

So if you take out Denise Gough's fearless, terrifying performance and and Jeremy Herrin's clever direction (the white-tiled set represents the impersonal rehab clinic but also the blank spaces that dot an addict's mind) does MacMillan's play have lasting power? Well ... uh, I don't know, but my guess is no. It's an intense, harrowing theatrical experience and one I'm glad I experienced but besides the structural flaw I mentioned earlier I also think the play suffers one fatal defect: Emma is compelling and watchable, but she's not someone I cared about. I'm not saying that all protagonists have to likable, but I have to be invested in their journey. Still, Denise Gough gives an incredible performance and the play is definitely worth seeing. She will be back on Broadway in the spring in the highly anticipated Angels in America.



Ben Platt, Will Roland, and Mike Faist
In other news, I saw Dear Evan Hansen for the second time last night. Ben Platt is leaving the show on November 19, and I had to see his performance again. He's vocally rawer than he was in the spring, but the impact of his performance hasn't waned. All of the original cast was on last night except for Rachel Bay Jones (Heidi). Garrett Long played Evan's struggling mother and while she was very good she didn't have the tenderness and warmth of Jones. The musical was even more of a tear-duct activator on second viewing -- there were so many details that I didn't catch the first time I saw the show. For instance, I didn't catch this heartbreaking moment in "For Forever." Evan talks about falling out of the tree:
And I suddenly feel the branch give way
I'm on the ground
My arm goes numb
I look around
You realize that Evan is actually talking about his own suicide attempt and it's chilling. The story has some holes in it and the ending is a bit muddled but it's selling to sell-out crowds night after night because it has likable characters that we want to follow. Their loneliness and pain resonates with people. Seriously, if you haven't seen this musical yet, go! In other news during intermission I ran into Ben Platt's alternate, Michael Lee Brown. I've heard he's also amazing and seeing him as Evan is also on my never-ending to-do list.

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Harvey Fierstein Double-Header: Torch Song Sings, Kinky Boots Still Has Sex In the Heel

Ward Horton, Jack DiFalco, Michael Urie and Mercedes Ruehl, photo @ Joan Marcus
I guess the 2017-18 is the season of Seminal Gay Theater revivals. In the spring a highly acclaimed London production of Tony Kushner's Angels in America is coming to Broadway. There was already much hysteria during the Ticketmaster pre-sale where good seats were going for well over $300. But if you want something slightly less lengthy and costly Harvey Fierstein's Torch Song Trilogy has been revised and shortened to Torch Song and is currently playing off-Broadway until December 9. I saw it this afternoon and highly recommend it.

The play spans the 1970's to 1970's and follows the life and times of neurotic, love-starved drag queen Arnold. David Zinn's sets are a wonderful recreation of that era. Michael Urie as Arnold has almost nothing in common with Harvey Fierstein on the surface. Fierstein was larger-than-life and LARGE, period. The androgynous, noodly-limbed Urie looks like a generic pretty boy. But Urie is like Fierstein a very engaging actor who has the ability to draw the audience into the drama the minute the curtains go up. Arnold's opening soliloquy immediately establishes him as a likable, funny, charismatic character. Someone we want to spend the next three hours with. An example of his wit: "An ugly person who goes after a pretty person gets nothing but trouble. But a pretty person who goes after an ugly person gets at least cab fare." Urie is also like Fierstein in that he's a fearless performer who will do anything to get a reaction. His simulation of a dark-room dive bar sexual encounter is hysterical.

Fierstein and Estelle Getty in the original Torch Song Trilogy
The heart of Torch Song is Arnold's on-again, off-again relationship with the "happily married" Ed (Ward Horton, whose generic good looks and vanilla personality make him believable as someone who can code-switch effortlessly between homosexuality and heterosexuality).  We first see Ed as he's cruising a gay bar and "sees" Arnold (who is offstage, so Ed is talking to the audience). Ed pays Arnold a heartfelt compliment and then goes in for the move. The play takes place over many years and Arnold finds another man (Michael Rosen plays Alan, Arnold's much younger boyfriend) and Ed gets married to Laurel (played Roxanna Hope Radja, who takes her husband's bisexuality with a blasé attitude). But Ed and Arnold always find their way back to each other. When the curtain falls you still root for these two crazy kids to make it, and that's a testament to the chemistry of Michael Urie and Ward Horton.

The third act of Torch Song is focused on Arnold's highly charged meeting with his mother (Mercedes Ruehl). Ruehl plays Arnold's mother as one of those women we've all met -- earthy and funny and charming and "liberal", but filled with deep, covert prejudices that bubble to the surface at the most unexpected times. I don't think I'm spoiling anything by saying that the mother-son reunion does not go well. It ends with this unapologetic statement from Arnold:
There's one more thing you better understand. I have taught myself to sew, cook, fix plumbing, build furniture - I can even pat myself on the back when necessary - all so I don't have to ask anyone for anything. There's nothing I need from anyone except for love and respect and anyone who can't give me those two things has no place in my life.
Is Torch Song perfect? No. It rambles for too long at places. Some parts would have been better left at the shrink's office. Arnold's third act proclamations of deep love for the deceased Alan ring false as we saw in Act 2 that their relationship was nothing more than a youthful infatuation. And the subplot about Arnold trying to adopt a gay teen David (Jack DiFalco) is marred by the fact that DiFalco looks closer to 30 than 16, and that Urie exudes a lot of things, but fatherly concern is not one of them. But the play is funny, it's entertaining, and the one-liners make the time fly by: "It's easier to love someone who's dead. They make so few mistakes."

And it's still surprisingly relevant in 2017. Yes today gay people can get married and have kids together, but gay people finding love, parental acceptance, building a family, those themes are universal and timeless. This talented cast makes Torch Song really sing and thus the plays still packs a punch in the #loveislove era.

Porter and Sands
After the play was over I decided to make my day a Harvey Fierstein double-header as I got a ticket to Kinky Boots. This musical also has Fierstein written all over it: the drag queen lead character, the Oscar Wilde references, the humor and heart that make these LGBT themes appealing to a wide audience (I was sitting next to a Mormon couple from Salt Lake City who had a grand time). Fierstein works endure not because of the drag queen campiness but because of their soft, squishy core -- Hairspray, Torch Song, Kinky Boots, La Cage Aux Follies all feature likable characters that we want to follow.

In the case of Kinky Boots the musical has been running on Broadway for four years but is still fresh. It helps that the original leads (Billy Porter as Lola and Stark Sands as Charlie) are back, and the Don the rough gruff factory worker is still played by original cast member Daniel Sherman. The cast sings Cyndi Lauper's catchy pop score with charm and conviction. Porter in particular has an amazing Broadway belting voice that carried the musical's big anthems like "Sex is in the Heel" and "Hold Me In Your Heart." Sands is the perfect straight man to Porter's over-the-top diva.

The story is sort of cheesy -- Charlie Price's family-owned shoe business is running low on capital until a drag queen named Lola decides to give the company a corporate reorganization -- less practical mens' loafers "to last a lifetime", more drag queen kinky boots. Of course issues of homophobia and parental acceptance have to be worked out before the "everybody let's be fabulous" ending. But it's a really fun evening with some great production numbers ("Everybody Say Yeah" has to be one of the most rousing Act 1 finales) and a nice way to book-end Torch Song.

And so I ended my Very Gay B'way Day this way, as "Lola". Although I could never in a million years be as fabulous as Billy Porter:

Yeah I think I should quit my dayjob and become a drag queen

Monday, October 23, 2017

Mariinsky's Dreamy La Bayadere

Tereshkina and Kim and Shades
A quick day-trip to D.C. yielded great rewards: an absolutely gorgeous performance of La Bayadere from the Mariinsky Ballet. Because of schedule constraints I could only see one performance but I'm confident I ended up with the best cast because, honestly, it's hard to imagine a greater Nikya and Solor today than Viktoria Tereshkina and Kimin Kim. They were awesome. Amazing. Stupendous. I could go on with the superlatives but I'm sure it will get boring fast, if it hasn't already gotten boring.

I last saw the Mariinsky dance La Bayadere in full about 10 years ago. I remember Uliana Lopatkina was the Nikya and she was a delicate, fragile, sad creature. I remember her exquisitely tapered hands and feet, her peerless adagio work. I remember how her entire wedding dance was a song of grief, and her arching back seemed to scream "Feel my pain!" She was a special, one-of-a-kind dancer. But alas, she has retired. Viktoria Tereshkina's Nikya is so opposite from Lopatkina's that it might as well be a different ballet. I first saw her dance Nikya a few years ago with ABT but this performance with her home company was simply in a different league, simply because in the Mariinsky production she has more dancing to do than Makarova's streamlined version.

Tereshkina and Kim, photo @ Dave Morgam
First of all, Tereshkina's technique is jaw-dropping. She can do anything. She can rise on pointe, lift one leg in high unsupported arabesque/developpé/attitude, stay on pointe and balance in perfect stillness, as if she were a statue. During the lifts you can see how strong her core is -- she lifts herself higher and then stays there, airborne, apparently oblivious to the demands of gravity. In the shades scarf duet she lets go of the scarf and then completes three consecutive triple pirouettes like child's play. In addition she has that uber-flexible Russian back and those soft, expressive arms.

Here is a clip that gives you an idea of the incredible strength of Tereshkina:


All this would be for naught if it didn't contribute to her portrayal of Nikya. But oh, it did. In this case, technique served artistry. Her strong technique allows her a certain freedom and boldness in her dancing that is immensely appealing. Tereshkina was the fiercest temple dancer I've ever seen. There was fire in her belly from the very first scene. In the wedding scene she rose on pointe, lifted her leg in a high unsupported arabesque pencheé and balanced without any difficulty. She seems to be showing off her strength to Solor, as if to say, "See? This is what you could have had." In the Shades scene her independence made her elusive, like something Solor could touch but never hold. This was not a forgiving spirit. One could easily imagine her destroying the temple in the 4th act which has been dropped from the Mariinsky version of the ballet.

Kimin Kim was just as impressive in terms of technique. He has amazing elevation and ballon and can do those famous double assembles en tournant with each one seeming higher than the last. Centered turns, pointed feet, an ability to get the crowd screaming with excitement. He's a decent partner too, and had no trouble with the lifts. His portrayal was a bit bland. I didn't feel Solor's torment at having to choose between Nikya and Gamzatti, nor his despair as he smoked opium to begin the Shades scene. But really, one can't complain about this quality of dancing.

Matvienko and Kim, photo @ Jack Devant

Anastasia Matvienko as Gamzatti is one of those dancers with perfectly acceptable technique, who doesn't take a wrong step, yet whose stage persona is simply not fierce enough to make the battle between Gamzatti and Nikya seem real. Tereshkina is so ferocious. If she's Bette Davis, she needed a Joan Crawford. She needed a Steph Curry to her Lebron James. A Frazier to her Ali. But Matvienko seemed only mildly perturbed by the actions onstage whether it was almost getting stabbed or watching her rival die. In the wedding pas de deux the Italian fouettés were a bit clunky but she got them done, and her single fouettés were very fast and centered.

Other shout-outs: May Nagahisa as a charming Manu, the three shades, all so proficient (Valeria Martynuk, Yana Selina and Anastasia Lukina), Roman Belyakov who made the slave duet with Tereshkina rather compelling (and it isn't always so). And of course, the life-blood of the Mariisnky: their unbeatable corps de ballet. In the Shades scene they were so calm, so eerily still, with nary a wobble in site, that the scene had a hypnotic beauty that simply isn't present in, say, the ABT's version. Just to see those 32 shades come down a double-sided ramp, one after another, in arabesque pencheé, and having them line up in those perfect rows, was worth the price of admission.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Band's Visit - It Wasn't Important?

Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalboub, photo @ Sara Krulwich
The Band's Visit, an off-Broadway musical that is now in previews on Broadway, begins and ends with the statement that an Egyptian banded visited the Israeli town of Bet Hatikva, but no one knows about it, because "it wasn't very important." Those words are meant ironically, as obviously, the whole musical is about the visit. But at the end of last evening's performance it also crossed my mind that, well, uh, it wasn't important. I admired many things about David Yazbek and Itamar Moses's adaptation of the 2007 film, but ultimately I didn't really care about the characters. The music (a charming mix of pseudo-Middle-Eastern pop and folk music) didn't really grab me. It was charming, it was pleasant, but, yeah, it wasn't important.

The story is simple, and actually a well-worn trope in musical theater: the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Band accidentally are sent to the wrong town in Israel when there is a misunderstanding between Bet Hatikva and Petah Tikva. So for one night they are stranded in a sleepy Israeli village where people introduce themselves with the song "Welcome to Nowhere." Of course, before the night is out, people from two different cultures find out they have more in common than they expected, and of course, the thing that unites these people is music. So Band's Visit is a musical about music. I love musicals about music bringing people together. Show Boat. The Music Man. The Sound of Music.

But in order for these sorts of musicals to work, they need to have great music. One of my favorite moments in musical theater is in Show Boat when Magnolia desperately auditions for a nightclub singing the song Julie taught her as a child. The song is rudely dismissed. Magnolia bristles: "That's the most beautiful song in the world. If you don't like it I'm sorry for you." Since that song is "Can't Help Lovin' That Man of Mine" we are on her side. It is a beautiful song.

David Yazbek's score has been praised to the high heavens but what I heard was a bunch of great music ideas and motifs played without being explored for the big payout. Only the jaded cafe owner Dina's (Katrina Lenk) anthem "Omar Sharif," as well as the final number "Answer Me" really develop a motif from the start to the end. But the whole evening is snippets of a great tunes here and there that are abruptly cut off. Musical coitus interruptus. It's ultimately unsatisfying. Actually the best moment of the evening was an encore after curtain calls, when the "band" plays together for the first time. It's a rousing folk theme and it gets audiences going. Why have that be after the curtain calls? Beats me.

Another problem I had were the stylistic choices. Because the Israelis and Egyptians don't have a common language they speak in English together, and the cast (bless their hearts) really tries to speak with authentic Middle-Eastern accents. However, as the evening progresses the director seems to forget that English is not the first language of these characters and the slow, stilted way they talked at first gives way to casual American slang, and characters of the same ethnicity stop speaking Arabic or Israeli to each other. A guy's an "asshole," etc. For a musical that tries to create exact verisimilitude those details matter.

The Band, photo @ Sara Krulwich
There are some wonderful things about this musical. Katrina Lenk deserves praise for her beautiful voice as well as her characterization of Dina. She's the exact dreamy/jaded heroine musicals love, and "Omar Sharif" is a beautiful I Want song. Tony Shalhoub also is wonderful as Tewfiq, the conductor of the band. He forms a bond with Dina throughout the night that becomes the heart of the story (although Dina does something that I won't spoil which IMO sort of cheapens this storyline arc). There's other charming moments, like the band's clarinetist serenading a crying baby to sleep, a fun scene at a roller rink, and the final number "Answer Me," a sort of primal scream of loneliness. But since there was little build-up to that cathartic number, it seems out of place. Like an 11 o'clock number where nothing happened at 10 o'clock.

Ultimately I expected more from a musical that's been so praised and is being promoted as the big Tony hope. Maybe that's my problem -- the fact that I set the bar very high for musicals about music. I feel like for these sorts of musicals to work the music has to hit you in the solar plexus. You have to believe that this music is so powerful that people who don't have any reason to be in the same room together have a meeting of the mind and soul. It can't be "oh that was nice and pleasant." David Yazbek's score was nice and pleasant but that was it. It wasn't important.

ETA: here is a clip of Katrina Lenk singing "Omar Sharif":


And here is "Answer Me":


Sunday, October 15, 2017

NYCB Fall Season: Hello New Works, Goodbye Robbie

Fairchild in some of his best roles at NYCB
After two weeks of Swan Lake NYCB returned to its usual mixed bills. As is often the case the all-Balanchine program reaffirmed Mr. B's genius, the "Here/Now" program revealed which modern works had staying power and which didn't, and the "all-new" works were a mixed bag. NYCB said goodbye to two principals: Rebecca Krohn and Robert Fairchild.

First things first: the Balanchine triple bill of Square Dance/La Valse/Cortegé Hongrois showed that the state of the union of NYCB is strong. Square Dance is in good hands with the allegro technicians of Megan Fairchild/Anthony Huxley. La Valse is trickier -- it can become a cheesy Halloween horror show. But with Sterling Hyltin as the simultaneously delicate and demented socialite and Justin Peck as a hovering, creepy Death, that wasn't an issue. Cortegé Hongrois is not top-drawer Balanchine -- it's heavily derivative of both Petipa's Raymonda and Balanchine's earlier takes on Glazunov's score. Raymonda remix, basically. Sara Mearns and Tiler Angle were fine as the classical couple (the role taps into Mearns' imperiousness, which is one of her best qualities) but more surprising was the vigor with which Georgina Pazcoguin and Ask La Cour danced the "folk" czardas.

But Balanchine's a genius. We all knew that. More uneven was the "Here/Now" mixed bill of Wheeldon's Liturgy/Polyphonia, Ratmansky's Odessa, and Justin Peck's The Times Are Racing. The Wheeldon works were set on Wendy Whelan and have not aged well -- all the gynecological maneuvering of female limbs is tiresome. Liturgy was just dull, Polyphonia not much better. Unity Phelan and Zachary Catazaro (newly promoted to principal) tried and they made gorgeous shapes but these let-twist-Wendy-into-a-pretzel-500-times-in-30-minutes works belong in the ballet dustbin. Ratmansky's Odessa remains an odd, elusive ballet. Is it a dark, violent view of male-female relations, or is it a lighthearted boys-loses-girls-boys-gets-girls fairy tale? The violence between the couples has been toned down, the romance turned up in this revival. And in the midst of all this Megan Fairchild has quietly become an excellent Ratmansky dancer, so able to "get" the composer's offbeat humor. She and Daniel Ulbricht made perhaps the most famous moment in Odessa (the "dream" sequence where she's held aloft by a swarm of guys who eventually become rough and sinister) the right mix of surreal and disturbing.

Stanley and Applebaum, photo @ Michael Kirby Smith
Justin Peck's The Times Are Racing is the closest thing NYCB has to a modern megahit. The pulsating music of Dan Deacon, plus Peck's skill at moving the corps de ballet in exciting ways merged together to make an anthem that had the crowd on their feet and screaming at the ballet's conclusion. The whole ballet bursts with excitement and energy. The NYCB dancers' unique musicality is so obvious -- the way their bodies pulsated visibly to the music is something you often find on the streets of NYC but rarely among classical trained ballet dancers. Time will tell if the work retains its power but my bet is that it will. It's probably the best thing Peck has danced -- in classical ballet his technique is limited, but in tose black t-shirt, jeans and sneakers, his tall handsome build and fast footwork made him the epitome of cool. Neatly inserted into this revival was a sex-change -- the pas de deux originally set on Tiler Peck and Amar Ramasar became a same-sex duet between Taylor Stanley and Daniel Applebaum. The duet between Peck and Ramasar came off as a bit impersonal, like a Tinder hookup. With Stanley and Applebaum it smoldered with intensity.

Preston Chamblee and Taylor Stanley in Not Our Fate, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The evening of new works was a mixed bag, as these things always are. Let's get the bad out of the way: Troy Schumacher's The Wind Still Brings was godawful. It was set to a difficult, dense score (William Walton's Piano Quartet in D minor), had ugly costumes (Jonathan Saunders' creations looked like those loose one-piece bathing suits women of a certain age like to wear to the beach), and repetitive steps that were the epitome of "effects without causes." After a chipper opening the stage apparently became a graveyard where all the dancers lay dead, and then each one of them got up to do a zombie turn before returning to the grave. And then the final movement everyone came back to life and jumped around for no particular reason.

More charming was Gianna Reisen's Composer's Holiday rookie effort. Reisen is an SAB grad and only 18 years old. It shows off two extremely talented apprentices, Gilbert Bolden and Roman Mejia, and two talented junior corps members, Emma von Enck and Christina Clark. The costumes by Virgil Ab-doh were pretty tutus for the girls and dapper black suits for the men. The music by Lukas Foss was mildly jazzy. The piece was lighthearted, with fun body drops for women and a few witty parodies of Balanchine motifs. The most memorable was when a male dancer walked to the edge of the stage to pull a girl onstage, only to find himself dragging several girls in a very Balanchine-like daisy chain. Was it great? No, but it was fun.

The most interesting work of the night was Lauren Lovette's sophomore choreographic effort. Last season's For Clara was a pleasant surprise. Now with her second piece Not Our Fate (inspired by a poem by NYCB corps member Mary Elizabeth Sell) Lovette is already displaying two important virtues in a choreographer: the ability to pick of piece of music that is responsive to dance (Mark Nyman's pulsating score reminds one of Phillip Glass), and willingness to push dancers outside their comfort zone. The duet between Preston Chamblee and Taylor Stanley is an interesting take on same-sex partnering -- Chamblee is obviously the "male" and he partners Stanley completely like he would partner a ballerina. Supported finger pirouettes and fancy lifts and the whole nine yards. Stanley while being partnered danced on ballerina-like high demi-pointe. The duet between Ask La Cour and Olivia MacKinnon was actually more gender neutral, with many contemporary poses that suggested neither traditional male or female roles. Ask La Cour can often be stolid but Lovette brought out an intensity in him. The piece was occasionally overwrought but it held interest. Lovette is a more interesting choreographer than she is a dancer and I look forward to her next works.

Pulcinella, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Justin Peck's Pulcinella Variations closed out the evening. The costumes by Tsumori Chisato were amazing -- they suggested commedia dell'arte but with a modern twist. The choreography was more uneven. As the title suggests this is a ballet of two pas de deux and several distinct variations. Stravinsky's music for these variations differed in their danceability. For instance the "Serenata" between Sara Mearns and Jared Angle was rather sluggish. Neither of them are able to move their bodies with the speed that the music demands. Blink and you might miss Sterling Hyltin's brief solo. Indiana Woodward's costume (half nude unitard, half yellow flower) was more interesting than her solo which was perky but unmemorable. But the Tarantella danced by Anthony Huxley blazed and was by far the best part of the piece, while the "Gavotta" between Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia actually captured the flavor of commedia del'arte. Justin Peck's work is always stimulating, and it was a fine closer for the evening. As for its place in the Peck "canon" I think it falls somewhere in the middle. Not a real clunker a la The Most Incredible Thing but without the direct appeal of Rodeo or The Times Are Racing.


Fairchild and Hyltin, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Sunday, October 15, last day of the fall season, and the company bid adieu to Robert Fairchild. Oh boy. This one is hard for me to write about. It wasn't a surprise that he left, since for the past three years he's danced only intermittently with the company. He became a Broadway star with An American in Paris and is leaving to pursue more musical theater opportunities. Plus his marriage to Tiler Peck is over. Still, seeing him one last time onstage with Sterling Hyltin in Duo Concertant reminded me of the dancer he was. At his best he could do the classical and neo-classical roles with a boy-next-door freshness and simplicity. His Apollo was magnificent -- unaffected, endearing, a young god finding his sea legs. His Who Cares? with Tiler Peck often became a hot-ticket item when casting was announced. He partnered Wendy Whelan as the Poet in her farewell to the company. To the rest of the world he's a ballet star. To me he'll always be a ballet dancer who was on the cusp of being a great artist before Broadway took him away forever.

Having said that, it was a beautiful performance. Actually the whole afternoon was wonderful. Teresa Reichlen and Russell Janzen gave a very different interpretation of Cortegé Hongrois -- Reichlen is elegance personified. Whereas Sara Mearns powers through steps, Reichlen glides like Elsa from Frozen. Lovely. I'm not a fan of Sara Mearns in La Valse -- she dances it well but I prefer the fragility of Sterling Hyltin. Ashley Bouder absolutely hit Square Dance out of the ballpark. She's one of the few ballerinas who is able to really articulate the gargouillades with clear swings of both calves. Taylor Stanley was not chopped liver either.

Then the lights came up to the piano and violin, and Robbie and Sterling transported the audience in a heart-meltingly tender Duo Concertant. Hyltin has a way of bringing out the most in her male partners -- I remember a Dances at a Gathering where Fairchild (Brown Boy) was struggling technically. Then the Brown Boy and Pink Girl (Hyltin) danced together and all the struggles melted away and it was so beautiful. You could tell how long Hyltin and Fairchild been dancing together from the natural way Sterling rested her head on his shoulder and in how much their bodies mirrored each other. The final image of Fairchild in the dark, with the spotlight dimming for the final time was bitter-sweet and a testament to how Balanchine knew how to end ballets like no other choreographer. Of course afterwards came the flowers, the confetti, the cheers. Fairchild looked happy, like he was eager to start the next stage of his career.

Here are the curtain calls:



Robbie, Sterling and the signed program
Afterwards I went to the stage door and expressed my appreciation to Robbie and Sterling. I also met a bunch of other City Ballet dancers -- Adrian Danchig-Waring, Megan Fairchild, Maria Kowroski, Daniel Ulbricht, Joseph Gordon. But Robbie and Sterling were so gracious with the fans. I keep telling myself that this won't be the last I see of Fairchild -- he's doing Brigadoon at City Center in November and he has more projects in the pipeline. But part of me still feels sad that the memories of seeing him dance ApolloStravinsky Violin ConcertoDuo ConcertantWho Cares?Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, and a host of other roles will be just that -- memories. But what memories!

Saturday, September 30, 2017

NYCB Fall Season: 4 (!!!) Swan Lakes

NYCB Swan Lake, photo @ Paul Kolnik
When the 2017-18 season for NYCB came out last spring, I saw that the first two weeks of the season were devoted to Peter Martins' Swan Lake. I thought "Oh good, giving my wallet a break." This was one production I was in no hurry to revisit. I saw it once with Sara Mearns and that was enough. Or so I thought. Flash forward to September. I found myself buying tickets to see four (!!!) different Swan Lake casts. The struggle is real, y'all.

I still hate the production. I hate the mish-mash of Balanchine/Martins/Ivanov choreography in the lakeside scene. I hate the hideous decors by Per Kirkelby. I hate the mismatched green costumes in the first act. I hate the Jester. I hate the hilariously bad Russian dance in which one female dancer usually slinks as if doing a Middle Eastern belly dance. I hate the cold, non-sensical ending (Rothbart is defeated, but as dawn approaches Odette still goes back with her swans and Siegfried is alone). The only part of new choreography I like is the ballroom pas de quatre. The difference is now NYCB has such a strong roster of Odette/Odiles that I wanted to see what they could do with this iconic role. The casts I saw were: Reichlen/Janzen (Sept 22), Hyltin/Catazaro (9/29), Fairchild/Garcia (9/30), and Peck/Finlay (10/1). Yes, I really sat through this production three times in three days. God help me.

The first performance was the most disappointing. Teresa Reichlen gave the kind of constricted, expressionless performance she often gives when she has a bad case of the nerves. She's an amazing dancer but her bloodcurdling Siren, her incomparable Rubies Tall Girl or her majestic Firebird (some of her best roles) were nowhere to be seen in her Odette/Odile. She didn't differentiate between Odette and Odile -- both were stony and passive. She got through the role, and that was about it. Her and Janzen did not really bother telling the story with their bodies. Janzen's partnering was also off. The black swan pas de deux had not an iota of sex appeal. They're both wonderful dancers but this ballet brings out the least in them. The corps was also obviously underrehearsed and often out of the step with the music and their arms looked sloppy.

Hyltin and Catazaro, photo @ Kent G. Becker
What a difference a cast (and a week) makes! The next couple I saw (Sterling Hyltin and Zachary Catazaro) were so exquisite that I felt like I was truly getting the Swan Lake experience, and not just the neo-classical, abbreviated Martins' Swan Lake. Catazaro from his entrance was telling a story -- his Prince was young, curious about the world. He took his bow and fussed over it the way a young man would. Hyltin as Odette was breathtaking -- so slight, but with such soft arms, pliant back, regal posture, that you forgot she was the shortest of all the swans onstage. Unlike Reichlen she stretched those iconic poses to beautiful effect. She and Catazaro made the white swan pas de deux (here with that allegro ending which I dislike) truly sing with heart-melting tenderness. Hyltin's Odette variation was wonderful. Her sissones in her variation burst with longing to be free. You believed in Catazaro and Hyltin because it was clear they believed in Swan Lake.

The black swan pas de deux was amazing. Hyltin's body language was completely transformed and she and Catazaro really ACTED not with their faces but with their bodies. Loved the way Hyltin's Odile would beckon Siegfried with a hand and then turn her whole body away. Her variation was fine, with those double pirouettes followed by the pirouette in attitude only lacking the ability to balance longer to show off those poses. For those who were counting the fouettés, Hyltin got through all of them -- started with a triple, then did singles with some doubles thrown in. She started traveling downstage a bit but ended on a triple (!!!) right with the conclusion of the music. Catazaro is not a virtuoso dancer but his variation was also very clean, very musical, and again, the emotional investment he put into this role showed.

Hyltin, photo @ Paul Kolnik
Martins' ending to the final lakeside scene actually made sense with Hyltin. She was able to convey to Siegfried that he had broken his vow and there would be no happy ending. Their final duet was beautiful. Finally at dawn as the apotheosis music played, you saw Hyltin transform herself back into a swan. The back straightened, the arms started flapping, and she bourreéd offstage with her flock of birds forever. What was muddled and confusing with Reichlen and Janzen was heartbreakingly clear with Hyltin and Catazaro. Bravo.

Other shoutouts in this performance: Harrison Coll was a wonderful Benno, and handled the demands of the pas de trois with excellent double tours. Spartak Hoxha's Jester made the most of what is a very irritating part. And Adrian-Danchig-Waring (welcome back!) and Emilie Gerrity managed to make something of the Russian dance. The swan corps were much improved -- their arms even had a softness and flow that I don't usually associate with this company.

Here is the beautiful couple in their curtain calls:



Fairchild as Odette, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Performance three: Megan Fairchild and Gonzalo Garcia. This is Megan's debut in the role, even though she's been a principal at NYCB for 12 years. One can see why she wasn't given this role before: she's short, with the proportions of a soubrette. She also tends to do best in comedy -- she was absolutely wonderful as Ivy Smith in On the Town. Fairchild and Garcia gave a decent, respectable performance, but it didn't match the poetry of Hyltin/Catazaro. Megan is technically very strong, but her physique really limits how expressive her body can be in this role. Her movements lacked grandeur. Gonzalo Garcia is a good partner and a sincere actor, but there's something so joyful and pure about his persona that the angst of Siegfried's plight doesn't come naturally. Their white swan adagio was well-danced, but lacking in drama. I thought Megan would do better with the Black Swan pas de deux than the White Swan adagio but oddly that wasn't the case -- she just wasn't very convincing as the vampish Odile. Her Odile variation was very secure, but her fouettés were not -- they traveled quite a bit and looked shaky. The final scene was disappointing -- unlike Hyltin, Fairchild didn't completely transform herself back into a swan as the apotheosis music played, but chose to simply bourreé backwards with her and the flock of swans closed Siegfried off.  It was a good effort, but it didn't quite cut the mustard. The highlight of the performance might have been the pas de quatre -- Joseph Gordon, Ashly Isaacs, Unity Phelan and Lauren Lovette danced up a storm.

Peck as Odette, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Tiler Peck and Chase Finlay were the final couple I saw. This run of Swan Lakes is also Tiler and Chase's debuts in the ballet. Tiler Peck is probably the company's strongest technician. Scratch that. She's probably the ballet world's strongest technician. There's nothing she can't do. However roles that require a lot of acting and drama have never been her forte -- I remember her flawlessly danced but decidedly un-magical La Sylphide. So therefore I was curious to see her tackle Odette/Odile.

Before I start on Tiler let me say that Chase Finlay was the only prince to act in a realistically royal way. It's part of Martins' staging that the jester in the first act sneaks onto the throne. All the other princes good-naturedly swatted the jester away. Chase shoved the jester and drop-kicked him for good measure in full Joffrey mode. It would have made Cersei proud. His blond bouffant hair was perfectly coiffed, and he exuded a distinct narcissism.

Final curtain calls, photo @ Kent G. Becker
From Tiler's loud entrance applause you knew she was the audience favorite. With that said her Odette is clearly a work in progress. Her superhuman strength in par terre dancing means that her back and upper body are stiff boards. Her swan arms need work -- way too much wrist flapping, not enough movement of the shoulders and back. Her white swan act was actually a disappointment -- her and Chase did not have much rapport, and as I mentioned, the lack of softness and flow in her upper body was detrimental. BUT her Odile really blew all the other NYCB Odiles out of the water. That's not a surprise -- the Black swan pas de deux is meant to showcase technical strength, and Tiler has a surfeit of strength. Every pose was perfectly held. The control she had in her variation was remarkable -- those difficult double pirouettes to pirouette in attitude were like child's play to her. And she rocked the fouettés -- all doubles in the first half, switching to singles in the second half, minimal traveling. The thrill on Tiler's face was palpable -- she even cackled at Chase. At the end of the pas Tiler and Chase both came forward for three bows, Bolshoi style.

Here's a video NYCB released of Tiler's fouettes:


Chase and Tiler's last act was not as heartbreaking as Sterling and Zachary's. Tiler for one didn't have the swan arms to make that final transformation back into a swan at dawn quite as effective. But it worked, because Chase's portrayal of the prince was so selfish and full of self-regard that Odette leaving him alone in his grief seemed like just punishment. And Tiler, who was passive and expressionless in the earlier lakeside scene, ratcheted up the emotion for an affecting farewell to Siegfried. She's a remarkable dancer, and she will clearly grow in this role. She and Chase got 7 raucous curtain calls. Also: Aaron Sanz, Sara Adams and Kristen Segin were IMO the most charming of the pas de trois that I saw.

Last spring at ABT much ado was made of the fact that so many of the ABT principals could not complete the basic requirements of Odette/Odile including those famous fouettés. It's therefore remarkable that NYCB, that doesn't do 32 fouetté ballets regularly, went 6/6 with Odiles who made it to 32. But that's the strength of the company right now. I tip my hat to this amazing group of dancers. And the performance of Sterling Hyltin and Zachary Catazaro will live in my memory as one of the most moving accounts of this ballet I have ever seen.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Opening Night Norma: Business as Usual

Opening night Norma, photo @ Ken Howard

Last night was one of my personal firsts: attending an opening night at the Metropolitan Opera. The opera: Bellini's Norma. I thought at the very least it'd be fun in a special occasion sort of way. Instead it was one of the most normal, average nights I've ever spent at the Met. It wasn't a bad performance so much as a terribly routine one.

The new production by David McVicar looked like something that was raided from old sets of Die Walkure. Norma's house looks a lot like Hunding's hut, and the centerpiece of the Druid command center was an enormous tree. I really thought Norma was going to pull a sword from the tree. The costumes by Moritz Junger were nondescript dark drapes for most everybody. It was a safe, inoffensive production for the most part, save some odd directorial choices. Why does Norma begin "Casta diva" by crawling on her hands and knees to the little treehouse platform, and why does she scurry under the tree to sing "Ah bello a mi ritorna"?

But the fault of last night's dull, unenthusiastic performance lies not with McVicar, as really, what CAN a director do with Norma? This is such a singer-centered opera. Very hard to make a regie-Norma. It was instead the flawed performances by ALL the principal singers that made this night not-so-memorable. No one's voice was working the way it needed to work to pull this opera off.

Let's start with the big one: Sondra Radvanovsky. Norma isn't a new role for her. She's sung it many times in many houses, including the Met. She was a replacement when Anna Netrebko decided "nyet" on Norma. The Russian superdiva's primo ottocento skills are suspect but she might have brought a measure of glamour to the evening.

Sondra's Druid Priestess, photo @ Ken Howard
I wanted to like Radvanovsky's Norma. She certainly works hard. But her Norma didn't work for me musically or artistically. Part of it I think is her voice -- it's large and powerful, but can be unwieldy. Notes often become thin and scratchy, the tone wavers and sounds harsh. Cabalettas are a struggle for her -- after a mostly lovely "Casta diva" she sang a bumpy, approximate "Ah bello a mi ritorna." But most of it is her musical choices. Simply put, she's not a very musical singer. It's amazing that after so many years singing Italian repertory, she still pronounces Italian phonetically, with all vowels distorted to an "eee" or "aww" sound. Like many non-Italian singers she also over rolls her r's. Listen to Pavarotti and Scotto. Did they ever roll their r's in such an exaggerated way? Another issue is her inability to sing a clean, unfussy vocal line. She sounds like she's spacing out the music in chunks so she can use two of her favorite special effects: the soft, floated high note, and the blasted, fortissimo high note. A Norma that can't sing Bellini's vocal lines in a clean, instrumental way is a non-starter, in my opinion. Her voice also started to give out during "In mia man." The cascades of sound that Radvanovsky usually supplies just wasn't there at the very moment it needed to be there. And "Son io" was oddly muffled and rushed, so the impact of the Big Reveal was totally lost.



La Divina in Norma
Her dramatic choices were also off. She just didn't exude the authority needed for the role. Look at pictures of Maria Callas in this role: no doubt who was Boss. Her interactions with her two children were off too -- at the beginning of Act 2, Norma contemplates killing them. The scene when done right is supposed to tear your heart out. But Sondra barely looked at them, and the childrens' interactions with Clotilde (an excellent Michelle Bradley) were warmer. Sondra also needs lessons on how to make some stage business more convincing: she held her dagger like a Halloween costume prop all night. No sense that this woman was teetering on the edge of murder.

DiDonato and Radvanovsky, photo @ Ken Howard
Joyce DiDonato (Adalgisa) had the opposite problem. Her slender mezzo soprano was an odd fit for this role, which was originated on a soprano (Giulia Grisi, who would go on to sing Norma) and if sung by a mezzo needs one with a secure upper register. Alas, Joyce has never had a secure, free upper register and especially didn't have one last night. In the first act duet "O rimembranza" she tried to match Norma's high C, got nowhere close to the note, and hastily improvised a descending cadenza. She didn't even try in the second act duet "Mira o Norma." Her voice sounded like it had reached its ceiling all night. One wonders why there weren't some transpositions to accommodate Joyce's range. (Correction: I've been told by someone way more versed in music than myself that Joyce's solo at the start of the Act Two duet was transposed, but that was the only transposition.)

But Joyce does so much with such a limited vocal capacity. She's an intensely musical singer who communicates with the audience in a direct, sincere way. When she sang, you knew exactly what she was singing about, what the character felt, and for once, Adalgisa's drama became more compelling than Norma's. She shaped Bellini's vocal lines beautifully -- even when she was reaching for another high note that wasn't there, you could admire the way she made you "see the music." Her diction was clear and there was always a connection to the text. So when she sang those duets with Norma it was like one side (Sondra) was garbled and mushy vocalise, and the other side (Joyce) was a lieder recital.

Calleja as Pollione, photo @ Ken Howard
Joseph Calleja (Pollione) has, like Radvanovsky and DiDonato, a tight, constricted vibrato that is not always easy on the ears. His tone is warm and his stage manner earnest. Too earnest. The McVicar vision of Pollione is a jerk with wife-abuser-vibes. Calleja tried mightily but couldn't quite pull off that persona. Vocally he was fine. Matthew Rose (Oroveso) must have been having a bad night because he sounded shaky and wobbly all night and he usually is reliable.

As usual the Met's orchestra and chorus saved the day. For this production we were spared the overindulgent Marco Armiliato and/or Maurizio Benini. Carlo Rizzi led a sensitive, detailed account of the score, with the melancholy melodies taking center stage. The chorus was as always amazing.

At the end of the evening the principals got a polite if not overwhelming ovation. When the production team was brought out there were neither cheers nor boos, just silence as most people were already shuffling out of the auditorium. As I said, just business as usual at the Met. Not a very promising start to a season that seems designed to be very safe and dull.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

My Last Day as a Cometeer

Dave Malloy as Pierre
So Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812 closed this afternoon. It was certainly not the ending fans of this show expected when it opened and was making millions per week. The demise of this musical has been endlessly discussed here, there, everywhere. Today I'll just talk about the thrilling, wonderful experience of being a Last Cometeer.

I almost didn't go to this show. Tickets sold out early and I had seen the show four previous times. But then an opportunity opened up and of course I pounced on it. My day as a Cometeer started at the NJ Transit train station where I was waiting for the train -- a mother and daughter were talking about "what goes on behind those doors." I quickly deduced that they were also Cometeers and indeed, they were headed to NYC for the same reason as me -- to see this show for their third time.

From then on I basically ran into one hard-core Cometeer after another. At ticketing I was standing in front of a girl who was made up exactly like Princess Mary. I was seated in front of a co-producer, who then was talking to a nice gentleman, "Mr. Benton." Yes, Denée's dad. It was such a joy to run into all these Cometeers. And then during intermission, I noticed a bunch of people approaching a skinny man in the orchestra. Yes, it was Josh Groban! I debated approaching him since I had no pen (stupid!) but was like fuck it, I'll just go when the co-producer assured me he was "very sweet." He was very sweet and also very low-key. On this day, he was just another Cometeer. When Amber Gray clinked my glass during "The Abduction" that was just the cherry on top.

Life as a Cometeer
As for the performance, the screaming started as soon as Dave Malloy entered with his accordion. He acknowledged the cheers with a brief bow to the audience. Every main character got huge cheers. Unlike previous performances where I've seen Denée and Lucas pace themselves, the whole cast sang at full throttle -- no more holding back. There were loud ovations after every song, including a standing ovation after "Dust and Ashes." Other numbers that got screaming ovations: "Charming" by the incomparable Amber Gray, "Sonya Alone" with Brittain Ashford singing her heart out. But perhaps the moment that got to me the most was during the huge second act production number "Balaga" Lucas Steele sang one verse of "Goodbye, my gypsy lovers ..." and then pointed the bow of his violin at the audience and motioned for us to sing. Much of the audience started singing along, including, I noticed, some ushers behind me who were quietly wiping away tears. The crowd was in such a frenzy that Dave Malloy had to be reminded to ring the cowbell. By the final two numbers "Pierre and Natasha" and "Great Comet of 1812" the audience was sniffling, and I noticed Denée was crying for real. I wish the audience hadn't started applauding BEFORE the final light on the "comet" went out but hey, can't blame them for the enthusiasm.

Denee and Lucas

Myself and Josh Groban. Not a big deal at all right?
Then of course the bows, more cheers, and a brief but heartfelt speech from director Rachel Chavkin who implored the audience to go to "new works." By then the whole amazing ensemble was gathered onstage, and I was just thinking of the first time I went to the show (saw it on TDF and was curious to see Josh Groban in a fat suit -- it didn't go much beyond that), and how I then managed to see the show four more times in less than a month. Each time, the show got better, and it didn't matter much who was Pierre (I saw Josh, I saw Oak, I saw Scott, and I saw Dave). I think the first time I saw the show I was sort of overwhelmed by all the things going on -- the pierogies, the egg shakers, the rave party, the dancing up and down aisles, etc. etc. But upon each successive viewing I realized that the star of the show was The Score. Like all great musicals it's anchored to a score that gets better with each listening. I have a feeling that many numbers of this score will become musical theater favorites for divas and divos to steal -- "Sonya Alone," "No One Else," "Dust and Ashes." But really, it's the minute-to-minute greatness of the score, the continuity, the way Dave Malloy constantly goes into the minds of all these characters even when the sometimes awkward lyrics can't do so, that makes The Great Comet. And goshdarnit, Dave makes these character so lovable. Anatole might be a wastrel playboy, but I defy anyone not to love him when he sings "Goodbye, my gypsy lover ..."

Lucas Steele a few weeks ago posted this classy but strong rebuke to the charges of racism that clouded the show's final days. Here is the video, deserves to be seen in its entirety for it shows what a diverse cast this was:

This show developed such a loyal following among theater nerds that part of me still can't believe it's over. But then again, isn't that what comets do? They shine brightly and make the sky beautiful for a brief moment, and then they're gone, leaving us with wonderful memories.

Here is a video I took of the curtain calls. Farewell Cometeers. This cast is so talented I'm sure they'll sprinkle the sky again soon with new projects. But the alchemy of having them all in one room will never again happen, and that's why I feel so honored to have been part of this bright star, having traced its parabola, with inexpressible speed, through immeasurable space. Onto a new life, Cometeers, but never forget the old one.



This recording only captures a fraction of the frisson in the room:



The awesome cast of GHD

ETA: On September 15 I also went to Groundhog Day's closing show. Also a beautiful experience. I went to the stage door and wow, what a sweet cast! I got my entire playbill signed by the cast members. This is another show that also deserved a longer run.

I also went to the stagedoor to express my appreciation to the amazing cast. Andy Karl, Barrett Doss and Tim Minchin all came out. They were not stars, or at least did not act it. A very humble, gracious cast and I'm glad I got to tell them how much I appreciated this show.