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Monday, May 22, 2017

Ratmansky's Whipped Cream is Empty Calories

Princess Praline and Boy (Lane and Simkin), photo @Matt Masin

ABT's spring gala began with the usual boring speeches, and then an announcement from Kevin McKenzie that he was basically giving choreographer Alexei Ratmansky a blank check -- the "Ratmansky Project" would allow this prolific choreographer $15 million to create ballets for the next five years. Ratmansky is obviously a hot commodity and ABT will do anything to keep him -- a few weeks ago, his new piece Odessa was also the raison d'etre of New York City Ballet's Spring Gala.

The Sweet Shop, photo @ Gene Schiavone
And then the eagerly awaited New York debut of Whipped Cream. This ballet had its premiere in Costa Mesa in March. Everyone marveled at Mark Ryden's sets and costumes. And when the curtain went up, I looked at the sets and costumes and thought, wow, they are amazing!!! They look like a Macy's Thanksgiving float come to life, with enormous blinking and moving stuffed animals, tutus that contain expertly wrinkled tea leaves, and an army of corps girls that actually look like puffs of whipped cream. This is the ballet for the sort of balletomane who is obsessed with opulent designs and fabrics.

There were pleasures to the performance that had little to do with the ballet itself. David Hallberg finally made his return to the Met stage after a 3 year long absence. When he climbed out of the "Coffee" bin the hardcore ballet fans cheered loudly. This was a moment where everyone breathed a sigh of relief. And he's still DAVID HALLBERG of the impossibly beautiful feet and remote, handsome manner. His role was more partnering than anything but how great it is to have him back!

Another was a closer check of the program. I found two names -- Justin Souriau-Levine (as Nicolo) and Catherine Hurlin (as Mademoiselle Marainne Chartreuse). Way back when they were picked as Little Mouse and Clara, respectively, in Ratmansky's original Nutcracker. What wonderful continuity to see them dancing on the Met stage in adult roles now. 

Whipped Cream puffs, photo @ Matt Masin
The actual ballet, however, is a meandering, muddled mess. No other way to put it. Part of the issue is the music -- Richard Strauss's 1924 score keeps a very even keel of unrelenting, waltzing sweetness, but has few musical climaxes for the choreographer to achieve its effects. Everyone says Balanchine's ballets are "abstract," but ever notice how dramatic his musical choices were? The loud crashing chords in Allegro Brillante, for example. Without musical climaxes to choreograph to, Ratmansky's inspiration comes in fits and spurts.

The other issue is the "storyline," which is like cotton candy -- sweet, but evaporates on contact. Basically a Boy loves whipped cream too much. He gets sick. He's brought to the hospital. The Sweets in the Sweets Shop come to life to dance. In the hospital the Boy is saved from the grips of a sadistic doctor and his army of needle-wielding nurses by Princess Praline and alcoholic beverages. The alcoholic beverages (played by actual dancers dressed as liquor bottles) get the doctors and nurses so drunk that Boy is whisked away to Princess Praline's Land of the Sweets. The end.

There were undoubtedly some very clever moments -- the dance of the whipped cream girls and the nightmarish nurses were funny spoofs of the Petipa ballet blanc. The whipped cream scene recalls the Kingdom of the Shades in La Bayadere, the nightmarish nurses draws inspiration from the Wilis in Giselle. Princess Praline (a pert, charming Sarah Lane) was given bossy, staccato marching steps to establish her take-charge "You're coming with me, Boy" personality. And the Princess Tea Flower and her tea leave sisters have some cleverly "crumpled" choreography --  pirouettes done with the leg bent at an exaggerated angle. The pas de deux between Tea Flower and Coffee was a sendoff of the classical Petipa divertissement.

Abrera and Hallberg, photo @ Gene Schiavone
But Ratmansky used his most tiresome tricks -- one is the by-now obligatory throwing of the main character up in the air, trampoline-style, by a group of guys below. This happens near the end of the ballet to the Boy (an androgynous, child-like Danil Simkin) without much rhyme or reason. The other is the cutesy, cloying romantic gestures -- Princess Praline ends a pas de de deux by shyly pecking Boy on the cheek. Princess Tea Flower (Stella Abrera, ever graceful) and Prince Coffee (David Hallberg -- welcome back!) end their act one pas de deux with Tea Flower held aloft by several men over Coffee's head, as if she's flying down for a kiss. A little of this first grade puppy love goes a long way.

Other times Ratmansky seemed to be doing a weird parody of ABT's virtuoso, overstuffed spring season tastes. For instance, is it an accident that Danil Simkin actually plays an anonymous Boy, and also expresses his boyishness by a series of split leaps, 540's, barrel turns, and other YAGP gala tricks? Or that Act 2 actually has a parade of stuffed animals and enlarged float-heads? Even though the actual time of the ballet is short (less than 1.5 hours, with an intermission), interest lags and the final scene at Praline's kingdom goes on for way too long. Whatever the case, this Ratmansky work ends up being more empty calories than substance. Beautiful decor, but it's all dressed up with nowhere to go. And although all the sugar you see onstage is mouth-watering, it touches only the taste buds and not the heart.

Here's a video I took of the curtain calls:

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Groundhog Day and Who Deserves the Tony?

Andy Karl as the Weatherman stuck in February 2. Photo @ Sara Krulwich

Well I did something I never thought possible -- this afternoon I saw Groundhog Day: The Musical and with that I've seen all four musicals up for a Tony for Best Musical.  I've also now seen the two actors thought to be in hot contention for Best Actor in a Musical: Dear Evan Hansen's Ben Platt vs. Groundhog Day's Andy Karl.

How did I like Groundhog Day? Well ... uh ... I liked the parts more than the whole, if that makes sense. I LOVED Tim Minchin's breezy, catchy, compulsively listenable score. I think "Small Town, USA," "Nobody Cares," "One Day," "Night Will Come," "Seeing You," are all great songs and the strength of the score will give Groundhog Day a life after award seasons are over. I also LOVED Andy Karl's smarmy, smug Phil Connors. He plays the character totally different from Bill Murray -- Murray is all sarcastic bite, Karl is a glib pump-and-dump playboy. Andy Karl actually looks like those vapidly handsome weathermen that populate the local news. His voice is also sleepily seductive. In other words, he wins you over even though for most of the show he's a Class A jerk. I know Karl hurt his knee during previews and he wears a leg brace that he now uses for comic effect in the scene with the fur coat (you have to watch the show to get it).

I also loved Rob Howell's scenic design, a rotating set that cleverly allowed the same scenes to keep repeating themselves throughout the musical. Everyone goes on about The Great Comet's set design and yes it is clever to turn a Broadway theater into a cabaret club, but I also believe in the power of old-fashioned, beautiful stage sets and Groundhog Day's set is magical.

Barrett Doss, photo @ Sara Krulwich
Despite all these great things I thought Groundhog Day suffered from some structural problems -- one is the radical turn the show makes in the second act. It goes from funny and edgy to serious and sappy without much transition. One minute Phil is trying to kill himself to get out of living in February 2, the next minute he's acting like a transformed Scrooge and running all over town doing wonderful things for the down-and-out. Another issue is that Phil's love interest Rita (Barrett Doss) is pleasant and sweet but the chemistry between the two actors is not particularly dynamic. The big 11 o'clock love duet number "Seeing You" thus had less emotional impact than expected.

The supporting characters are not as well-developed as they could be. For instance, Nancy (Rebecca Faulkenberry) is a girl Phil has a one-night stand with. She's never really a big presence in the show, but in Act Two she suddenly gets a sad ballad "Seeing Nancy," which is a lovely tune but the audience hasn't really gotten to know Nancy. So the number was a bit formulaic and (IMO) a rather obvious way to turn the show from humorous to serious. Ned Ryerson (John Sanders) also goes from being a one-note obnoxious insurance salesman to singing a serious song of grief for his wife ("Night Will Come"). The melody itself is haunting. But again, we haven't had a chance to really know Ned beyond the few laugh lines.

As a whole, the show doesn't have the tight focus of Dear Evan Hansen or Come From Away. It lacks the showy glitz of The Great Comet. Personally, I think the race for Best Musical shouldn't even be a race -- Dear Evan Hansen is in a class by itself. However all the other three musicals are very strong -- Come From Away is the feel-good type of show audiences crave, The Great Comet is the offbeat type of show theater nerds love, and Groundhog Day is a genuine star vehicle for a leading Broadway actor. As for Best Actor, Andy Karl's performance, as charming and wonderful as it is, isn't as overpowering as Ben Platt in Dear Evan Hansen. So I don't think Groundhog Day will win Best Musical or Best Actor. But that doesn't mean it's not worth watching -- it is. And it might have the most classic, beautiful score of the four nominees. So Best Original Score? Best Set Design? Maybe?

Volle and Wagner, photo @ Richard Termine
I also caught the last performance of The Flying Dutchman at the Met. Although the performance was anchored by the veteran bass-baritone Michael Volle in the title role, the performance also (rare for Wagner) featured the promise of some younger voices. Amber Wagner's Senta was powerfully sung, with a gleaming sound that reminded me of the young Debbie Voigt. This is a punishing role and her top occasionally became wayward but she has hands-down the most impressive dramatic soprano voice I've heard in ... well, a long time. Ben Bliss's Steersman and AJ Glueckert's Erik offered handsome, robust tenor voices. And most of all, conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, who will be the Met's next musical director, gave a thrilling account of the score that was very different from James Levine's stately, slow style. The production was old and stodgy, but the performance was filled with hope for the future of Wagnerian singer. Fingers crossed.

I also saw Waitress a second time and loved it even more -- Sara Bareilles' voice was even more powerful, Christopher Fitzgerald was back is Ogie, and the whole evening had a wonderful estrogen-receptor energy.

Friday, May 5, 2017

Spring Gala: New Ratmansky, Old Gala Warhorses

Cast of Odessa, photo @ Andrea Mohin

Spring Gala at the New York City Ballet is traditionally a more substantive, dance-heavy evening than the Fall Fashion Gala. The good news: dance lovers often line the third and fourth rings dressed in non-designer clothes because they love ballet. The bad news: the ballets.

The raison d'etre for last night's gala was Alexei Ratmansky's new piece for City Ballet. Ratmansky's batting average at the NYCB has been 4/4 -- Russian Seasons (2006), Concerto DSCH (2008), Namouna (2010), and Pictures at an Exhibition (2014) have all traveled widely to other companies and are considered modern classics. My expectations were sky-high for his new work Odessa.

How was Odessa? Well ... uh ... I think I need to see this ballet more times to fully absorb it, but it was radically different from Ratmansky's usual style. There was no quirky humor, no sense of a happy, insular community. Instead it was a dark and disturbing piece that seemed to consciously eschew all the qualities that make Ratmansky so in-demand as a choreographer.

The music by Leonid Destatnikov (the same composer of Russian Seasons) was haunting. If it sometimes sounds like movie music that's because it is -- it's incidental music from the Russian film Sunset. A mix of tango rhythms with Russian folk dance and a strain of traditional Jewish music. The setting was a smoky, dark ballroom where a group of six dancing couples are in the back of the stage and only intermittently aware of the drama between the three main couples: Sterling Hyltin/Joaquin de Luz, Tiler Peck/Taylor Stanley, and Sara Mearns/Amar Ramasar. The costumes by Keso Dekker were colorful and stylish.

The big departure for Ratmansky was the gender relationships in Odessa. Gender relations between couples in Ratmansky ballets are usually quirky, cute, even cloying. (Remember in Nutcracker how Clara plays peek-a-boo in the middle of the pas de deux?) In Odessa the dance hall becomes a trap for the women. Taylor Stanley grabbed Tiler Peck in an attempt to force her to dance. Peck wriggled, pushed, struggled against the sexual assault. She was still carried offstage with force. The next time we saw her however she was alone and walked downstage and did a seemingly endless series of pirouettes. It garnered applause. No one puts Tiler Peck in a corner.

Hyltin and de Luz, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Even creepier was the Hyltin/de Luz relationship. de Luz constantly reached out to Hyltin, trying to get her to dance. His efforts were not successful, as she proved elusive and non-responsive even when he did make contact with her. Her body bent as if she was traumatized from abuse. Finally a group of males carried her in the air, threw her up and down like a beanbag, and roughly manhandled her into submission. de Luz reached for her to prevent the gang assault. When she finally was released she slapped de Luz in the face. Why? The audience gasped. Only the Mearns/Amasar relationship was consensual. They danced a slow, if joyless dance together. The entire group of dancers and the corps gathered onstage for a dark, bleak ending where some of them already seemed dead.

The steps were always inventive -- sometimes resembling ballroom, other times folk dance, other times modern dance. It clocked in at 20 minutes and was compulsively watchable. Ratmansky is probably the most talented choreographer in making inventive steps for dancers and he's obviously branching out from his tried-and-true style. I just didn't personally enjoy the ballet as much as I've enjoyed his other works.

Here are the curtain calls for Odessa:

Kowroski and La Cour
As for the rest of the gala, not even the talents of Megan Fairchild, Joseph Gordon, Harrison Ball, and Aaron Sanz as well as some of the cutest costumes could save Martins' Jeu de Cartes. It's one of Martins' excruciatingly long, meandering pieces where when the curtain goes down you've learned nothing and felt nothing. After Jeu was that overdone gala piece, Wheeldon's After the Rain pas de deux. Maria Kowroski unfurled her long limbs, cascading hair, and jelly-like flexibility into the various gynecological poses of this ballet, while Ask La Cour proved a solid board for Maria to dive into constantly in the ballet's main motif. It's not my thing, but the audience loved it.

Bouder and Veyette
Thankfully there was some Balanchine -- Ashley Bouder and Andrew Veyette in Tchaikovksy pas de deux. These two are old hands at this sort of thing. Veyette ran out of steam in his turns a la seconde in the coda, so Ashley saved the day by leaping into his arms with so much force that a less experienced partner would have dropped Bouder face-first onto the stage. But of course Veyette caught her, and they repeated this gravity-baiting trick a second time, and by that time the audience was roaring and they were still roaring when Veyette carried Bouder into the wings. I guess that's the power of Balanchine -- he had the unmatched gift of making audiences delirious with happiness.

So how do I feel about Odessa? It's not a work that engenders instant love, the way Concerto DSCH or Namouna do. But I remember it. The vision of Sterling Hyltin struggling while being held aloft by men she is afraid of are still on my mind. And that's what is important.

Update: I saw Odessa again on May 6 with a different cast: Ashley Bouder/Taylor Stanley were the "Tiler/Taylor" couple, Unity Phelan/Tyler Angle were the "Sara/Amar" couple, and Megan Fairchild/Daniel Ulbricht were the "Sterling/Joaquin" couple. With the new cast the ballet was considerably less dark and disturbing. The battle between Ashley and Taylor seemed more like a lovers' quarrel than a violent dispute, and Megan did not exude the same kind of fear as Sterling towards the men. When she slapped Daniel she seemed more peeved than anything. Daniel Ulbricht made his character considerably less sleazy and menacing than Joaquin de Luz. It wasn't better or worse, just different. The music and steps are as watchable as ever.

Also on the program were two works that premiered in the fall: Lauren Lovette's For Clara and Peter Walker's ten in seven. For Clara now seems a better work than I remembered -- I liked her inventive work for the corps. Still don't like the aggressive partnering for the solo dancers, but I definitely see more structure and style in the work than I did in the fall. ten in seven on the other hand was much less impressive on second viewing. Still an enjoyable trifle but that's all it is.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

Spring Diaries: Beautiful Pies, Babes in Toyland, Here/Now, and There/Then

Sara Bareilles as Jenna in Waitress
My Broadway blitz continues: I saw a concert version of Victor Herbert's operetta Babes in Toyland, the new play Oslo, and Sara Bareilles sing her own score in Waitress. She's taking over the role of Jenna until June.

Babes in Toyland was a one-off concert in Carnegie Hall. The original operetta ran 4 hours long. Four hours about a bunch of toys in a cupboard. The conductor Ted Sperling abridged the dialogue (adding an often-awkward "Narrator" to transition between musical numbers) and focused on the music, which was lovely. The lullaby "Toyland" was especially beautiful as sung by Kelli O'Hara and Jay Armstrong Johnson. Lauren Worsham and Christopher Fitzgerald were charming and Fitzgerald was also a hoot. All had the kind of sweet voices that fit operettas like a glove.

J.T. Rogers' Oslo is a Very Serious Play about a Very Serious Topic (Middle East peace talks). I'm usually allergic to this sort of thing. Westerners who attempt to portray the complexities of the Middle East in a play usually come across as woefully ignorant and naive at best and condescending and prejudiced at worst. Thankfully Rogers' play avoids most of the pitfalls. It's based on some secret negotiations to preceded the famous Yassir Arafat/Itzak Rabin handshake at the White House in 1993 There are some moments that come across as pat and too cute by half (like the negotiators all bonding over their love of waffles) but those moments are few and far between. This drama doesn't offer easy answers to hard questions.

The tense land/peace/territory discussions in Oslo were set up by two Norwegian diplomats (played by Jefferson Mays and Jennifer Ehle). The heart of the story is the negotiations between an Israeli diplomat Uri Savir (the outgoing, larger-than-life Michael Aronov) and a PLO member Abu/Ahmed (Antony Azizi). Other famous historical figures come in and out of the play (Shimon Peres for instance) but it's the relationship Uri and Abu form that fills out most of the three hours. Of course at first there's mutual mistrust, and at the end of the play, there's still mistrust, but both men reach a place of respect for "across the ocean," as they put it.

There's a large cast and the play is very long and I don't want to give away major plot points but I'll just say the direction by Bartlett Sher is excellent and the cast is uniformly stellar. And the ending is painful when we consider what happened after that famous handshake. Today, the Middle Eastern region is if anything even more unstable and there's something quaint about watching people foolhardy enough to think peace in the region was/is possible.

The highlight of the weekend however was seeing Sara Bareilles sing the songs and lyrics she herself wrote in Waitress. She wasn't as good as I expected -- she was Head and Shoulder Pies better. For one, her singing voice was plaintive, expressive and she's the best interpreter of her own music. Her acting was the real surprise. Bareilles played Jenna not as a beaten down waitress, but as a spunky young lady with a bright smile and perky demeanor to the outside world. It was thus believable that Jenna would be so proactive about improving her life. She's a fighter. It was also more depressing to see her so meek and miserable with her husband Earl. She got huge applause for the big 11 o'clock number "She Used to Be Mine" but my favorite number of the musical was actually "What Baking Can Do." Just the way Sara sings "Sugar. Butter. Covered Pieces" is enough to make me happy.

Sara with Lulu, photo @ Noam Galai
Will Swenson (Earl) was so convincing as the drunken no-good husband that he got boos during the curtain calls. But he and Bareilles had enough chemistry that you could believe that this was once a loving couple. Otherwise this small, intimate show has two holdovers from the original Broadway cast: the gruff diner manager Cal (Eric Anderson), and the curmudgeon-with-a-heart-of-gold Jim (Dakin Matthews). Christopher Fitzgerald (Ogie) was out. The audience of perhaps 80% women adored this show. I know if I can I will buy a return ticket to see Sara again.

Peck and Ramasra in Allegro Brillante, photo @ Paul Kolnik
The billboard advertisements are everywhere. 43 ballets by 22 choreographers in 4 weeks!!! And not a Balanchine or Robbins ballet in sight -- the Here/Now festival is devoted to contemporary choreographers. Heavy emphasis on the Big Three of the current ballet world: Alexei Ratmansky, Justin Peck, and Christopher Wheeldon.

Before Here/Now was a week of "There/Then" -- all-Robbins and all-Balanchine programs. I attended three of the all-Balanchine triple bill: Allegro BrillanteFour Temperaments, and Symphony in C. Highlights: I saw Tiler Peck whiz through three performances of Allegro Brillante and she was faster and more powerful each time. She has absolute command of her technique -- those dizzying triple pirouettes, chaine turns, and rotations in arabesque, all done with impeccable timing and musicality. She makes it look too easy. Amar Ramasar looking more like a danseur noble when partnering Tiler in Allegro. Teresa Reichlen returning to Choleric in Four Temperaments and thank god -- her long, long legs and aggressive attack are just about perfect for this role, especially the last portion of the ballet where Choleric leads an army of kicking girls. In Symphony in C, newly promoted soloists Harrison Ball and Joseph Gordon both danced as if they had springs in their legs, and the young corps member Alston McGill had an endearing, coltish energy. The third movement in Symphony in C has been so poorly cast in recent seasons that to see dancers who can really dance this -- so exciting. Sara Mearns gave the most exciting, least mannered performances I've ever seen her give as Sanguinic in Four Temperaments and in the Adagio in Symphony in C.

Stanley, Mearns, Catazaro and Fairchild, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The only Here/Now choreographer that I think will have permanent staying power is Alexei Ratmansky, and the programs that highlighted his work just confirmed that belief. The first Here/Now bill I saw was an all-Ratmansky program: Russian Seasons and Namouna: A Grand Divertissement. Both these ballets have traveling power -- the Bolshoi and Dutch National Ballet have Russian Seasons in their repertoire, and Ratmansky has staged Namouna for Berlin.

It's easy to see why Russian Seasons and Namouna have traveling power -- both of these works are clever, musical, and have Ratmansky's trademark quirky sense of humor. Russian Seasons alternates between a very serious, even sinister marriage rite and men and women goofily chasing each other offstage. The star of the show was a dancer who jokingly admits that she's a "There and Then" kind of dancer -- Megan Fairchild as the Green Girl. Fairchild was the only dancer in Russian Seasons to get what I consider to be an important part of Ratmansky style: a self-deprecating, self-parodying wit and humor. It's a very fine balance between calling attention to the humor and mugging, and so every other dancer I saw in Russian Seasons veered on the side of seriousness. But Megan has that "hey, I'm dancing, but this is also funny" balancing act down pat. This levity was especially welcome given the dark turn the ballet makes at the very end. The rest of the cast was fine, and Amar Ramasar and Sara Mearns were than fine -- they positively smoldered as the Red Couple. But Megan was the dancer that made me see this ballet in a different light.

Namouna with Mearns, Angle, Hyltin and Bouder, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The Namouna cast, however, were experts at making the material self-consciously funny. Namouna is set to Édouard Lalo's exquisite, tuneful score. It was originally a story ballet. Ratmansky has taken out the concrete narrative but retained an outline of a plot: there's a sailor (Tyler Angle), who meets three different muses with three distinct personalities. Ashley Bouder's character is fiercely independent -- she and her corps flaunt convention and Angle's advances by smoking a cigarette and blowing smoke into the air while dancing. Sara Mearns is the seductress -- her outsized, voluptuous movements wowing a slew of males whom she tinkers with by letting them partner her briefly before disappearing again. And finally there's Sterling Hyltin, sweet and bubbly. Spoiler alert: Tyler picks Sterling. There's also some sort of knight/fighter (Daniel Ulbricht) with two female Amazons at his side -- Eric Pereira and Abi Stafford. They make occasional appearances throughout the ballet.

Sound confusing? It is. But it's also funny and charming. Ratmansky's work for the corps de ballet is head and shoulders above anything else I've seen him compose for the corps -- one minute the girls are 1920's flappers with Louise Brooks wigs, the next they are sea creatures who rise and fall gently like waves. And all the muses were amazing. Bouder's quick pas de chats as she smoked a cigarette was a great masterclass of multi-tasking. Mearns' curvy body and outgoing personality seemed made to dance the siren role. The pas de deux between Hyltin and Angle included some Soviet-style acrobatic lifts: upside down lifts, some lifts where Hyltin was dropped and then caught again in a reverse fishdive, you get the picture. On a lesser dancer it might have looked cheesy. On Hyltin it was adorable. This is a delightful ballet that I think I'll revisit in the future whenever I can.

Alexei Ratmansky might be part of Here/Now but I think his works have the quality to be part of Elsewhere/Tomorrow.

Here is a private recording I made of Babes in Toyland:

Saturday, April 22, 2017

Der Rosenkavalier - Should I get a ticket? "Ja, ja."

Garanca and Fleming, photo @ Ken Howard
Last night's performance of Der Rosenkavalier was the bar none the best-sung performance I've heard at the Met all season. That didn't mean there wasn't a note out of place all evening, but every performer was singing at the highest possible level they are capable of singing. As a result Strauss's opera which can have such longueurs bubbled along to its ending in a surprisingly quick four-and -a-half hours. If you want to hear impeccable vocalism I urge everyone to snatch up a ticket to the remaining performances.

Renée Fleming's Marschallin is widely thought to be her operatic swan song. She is not retiring. In fact, it's just been announced that she will sing Nettie in a revival of Carousel. But she is retiring the operatic roles (Marschallin, Arabella, Desdemona, Rusalka) that have been the meat-and-potatoes of her career. With this in mind her Marschallin sounded vocally fresher than she's sounded in years. She seemed to make a concerted effort to project the middle of her voice without resorting to glottal attacks or growling. The huskiness that I've heard in recent years was gone. The role is not a long role, and it allows her to show off her still gorgeous upper register. She capped the trio with a high B that would be the envy of many singers thirty years younger.

Her interpretation was what we've come to expect from Fleming over the years -- dignified, reserved, a bit remote. Fleming is one of the few superstar singers to actually hide from the spotlight during the big moments, to turn her face away from the light. The upshot is that when this Marschallin says that she's leaving Oktavian and Sophie to their happiness, it looks 100% sincere. Fleming quietly walks offstage without one more scene-stealing glance at the audience -- in fact, despite the fact that she's decked out in black furs, her exit was so quiet I didn't realize she was gone until the start of the Oktavian-Sophie duet. The downside is that those who want blood on the stage will never get it with Fleming.

Garanca manspeading, photo @ Ken Howard
Elina Garanča's Oktavian was one of those performances so perfect that I instantly thought that one day I'd be able to brag that I saw this portrayal. Her buttery smooth mezzo can soar into the stratosphere or it can sound like a teen going through puberty with sudden voice drops. Her voice projects beautifully throughout the entire auditorium, and she also gave the most complete interpretation of the night. She was able to switch so quickly in body language, appearance and demeanor between a teen boy and the perky maid Mariandel. For instance when she smokes a post-coital cigarette she sits in a masculine way, man-spreading and slumped over a chair. But as Mariandel she was the gorgeous Grace-Kelly-lookalike she is offstage, and in Act Three (set in a high-class brothel) she looked like she was having the time of her life actively playing against type as the very sexually aggressive prostitute. Garanča has also said this is her farewell to Oktavian, which makes her performance that much more treasurable. (Totally off-topic, but in my dreams I've always wanted to play Oktavian just so I can sing "Nein nein! Ich trink' kein wein.")

Match-not-made-in-heaven: Groissböck and Morley, photo @ Ken Howard

If the Met audiences didn't really know Günther Groissböck before this run of Rosenkavaliers they certainly do now, as his portrayal of this unlikable, obnoxious character was so well-sung that he got a stomping ovation during curtain calls. Groissböck's Ochs was less outwardly ridiculous than most Ochs' -- he was younger, with a veneer of military respectability. He got his laughs from his behavior, which was gross. He pawed and leered at anything that moved. His bass is handsome, sonorous and with a large range -- his low E at the end of Act 2 was really sung, and not just a growl. Groissböck also knew to inject enough joie de vivre to prevent his character from being truly unbearable. Ochs' lilting waltz melody helped -- you can't hate a guy whose favorite melody is that catchy. And plus, at the end of the day Groissböck is funny. Not many Ochs are truly funny.

The Faninals, photo @ Ken Howard
Erin Morley's Sophie was more mature and less bratty than the way the role is often played. Her small but lovely voice has a youthful flutter and sweetness that's very winning, and it blended beautifully with Garanča's Oktavian in the Presentation of the Rose. But really, there wasn't a weak link in the cast. Even a smaller role like Faninal (Markus Brück) was memorable -- he managed to capture Faninal's overt social climbing and fawning over the gross Ochs in just a few moments onstage. Matthew Polenzani as the Italian singer was luxury casting. Sebastian Weigle led the Met orchestra in a performance that was light and waltz-like. As I said, the show rarely got bogged down in note-spinning and each act progressed speedily from start to finish. 

As for Robert Carsen's "new production" (which isn't new at all -- it first premiered in Salzburg in 2004) ... I'm actually not going to comment much on it. There were some things I liked (Paul Steinberg's set design, Brigitte Reiffenstuel's costumes), some things I really disliked, but I couldn't write about them without spoiling some of the evening's most memorable moments. I also think that your response to the production will depend on whether you think Der Rosenkavalier is a drawing room comedy or a broad sex farce. I will say that I think Carsen takes one decent idea (the impending World War I) and way overplays this idea until it wears out its welcome. But I also think that the musical values of this production are so high that even if you hate the production, there's plenty of reason to still go see this run of Der Rosenkavalier.

I mean, listen to this. Know that you're never going to hear it again. And, if you haven't already, buy a ticket.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Dear Evan Hansen - A Great Musical For Forever

Cast of Dear Evan Hansen, photo @ Matthew Murphy
This year is actually unusual because I now have seen all the three major contenders for the Tony for Best Original Musical -- The Great Comet, Come From Away, and Dear Evan Hansen. I have great respect for the creative teams behind The Great Comet and Come From Away, but if DEH loses the Tony for best musical, it will be a travesty. The other two musicals had their charm, and Come From Away was touching. But Dear Evan Hansen was simply one of the most emotional, genuine, beautiful experiences I've ever had in the theater. 

Those who want flashy music and dancing might not like the deceptively simple score by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul and a book by Steven Levenson that renders DEH more a "musical play" than anything else. There are no big 11 o'clock production numbers in DEH, no huge anthems. All the songs have a sort of almost casual melody, like pop ballads teens might really sing to each other while strumming a guitar. There's no huge above-the-board stars like Bette Midler or Patti Lupone. No, DEH succeeds by telling a difficult story in an honest, beautiful way.

I think everyone knows the basic outline of the story by now -- shy, awkward Evan writes daily letters to himself as part of his therapy treatment. One letter falls into the hands of a troubled classmate Connor (a wonderfully sardonic Mike Faist). Connor kills himself and his family thinks the letter is a suicide note and Evan lets the family think that their troubled, angry son was actually a cherished friend. Evan and his "friendship" with Connor becomes a social media sensation. This is a story that can only end in tears.

Platt and Jones, photo @ Matthew Murphy
The casting was pitch perfect. Ben Platt deserves every accolade he's getting for his heartbreaking portrayal of the lonely, anxious Evan. His unassuming demeanor belied a powerful expressive voice, and by the end of the evening his face was drenched in tears. It would have been easy for him to go for pure sentiment but Platt's portrayal of Evan was complex and multifaceted -- in between the anxious motormouth talking you could sense there was a mean streak and a manipulative side to nerdy Evan, which made his anguish and remorse all the more affecting.

This is an ensemble cast where there were no small roles. Rachel Bay Jones positively glowed with warmth and heart as Evan's struggling single mom. Will Roland provided most of the comic relief as Evan's one "parents' friend" Jared, who nevertheless helps Evan in his deception. I was astonished to find out that Laura Dreyfuss (Zoe, Connor's sister) is 28, as she so perfectly imitated the mannerisms of a sullen, confused teen. Michael Park and Jennifer Laura Thompson were wonderful as Connor's grief-stricken parents. I could go on giving accolades to the cast, but it's not really one person that stands out, it's the chemistry of the entire cast. They have all been together since DEH was an off-Broadway show, and the emotion and feelings they generated was obviously didn't happen overnight.  I would go urge people to see this cast, because the replacements might be fine singers, fine actors, but I doubt they will have the alchemy of this OBC.

Here's one of the most beautiful songs from DEH:

I think anyone who's ever felt lonely, alone, awkward, shy, depressed, can feel the pain of the people in this drama. When Evan sings "Would anyone notice if I disappear?" or "Is anyone waving back at me?" it wasn't a cheap ploy for sympathy. It made people in the audience wince. There's no big uplifting happy ending either. Just life. As the curtain went down I could hear audible sobs from all areas of the auditorium. Dear Evan Hansen touches the heart "for forever."

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Come From Away - Blame Canada!!!

Come From Away's stranded passengers, photo @ Sara Krulwich
2017 is the year I blew all my disposable income on Broadway. Tonight I saw yet another musical: Come From Away. Unless you've been living under a rock, you know by now that Come From Away is based on the true story of over 6,000 plane passengers whose flights were diverted to Gander, Newfoundland following September 11, 2001. The residents of Gander had to become impromptu hosts and a bunch of strangers who would never speak to each other on a plane are forced to live in close quarters. You'll laugh, you'll cry, you'll tell everyone to see it ... In fact the only reason I bought a ticket was because several friends saw it and loved it and I trust their taste.

The ensemble, photo @ Sara Krulwich
So what did I think? I liked it a lot. First of all, I was surprised at how much I took to the score. Husband and wife team have of Irene Sankoff and David Hein have created a score that's a mix of Irish folk-pop and bluegrass. There are accordions, fiddles and bagpipes. Plenty of Riverdance-like stomping. It's the sort of music that gets people all peppy and cheerful. I also loved the cast. The 12 players all switch roles seamlessly between the residents of Gander and the stranded plane passengers. All the ensemble members are excellent but a few stand out -- Jenn Colella as the female pilot has a lovely voice and the evening's only solo song: "Me and the Sky," Joel Hatch exudes a calm decency as the mayor of several different towns in Newfoundland, and Rodney Hicks is very funny as the blunt African American passenger who can't believe he's being invited into white homes. The opening number "Welcome to the Rock" has become the show's anthem but my favorite songs were the ballad "Stop the World" and the earworm "Somewhere in the Middle of Nowhere."

Of course the people of Gander, Newfoundland are the salt of the earth — they invite everyone for drinks at the pub! They open their homes for people to shower! (One laugh line: "Thank you for coming to Walmart. Would you like to come back to my house for a shower?")  An animal shelter worker takes care of the planes' four-legged travelers -- cats, dogs, and a pregnant chimpanzee! And the plane passengers are the usual motley crew you’d expect in this sort of musical —a gay couple named Kevin and Kevin, two middle-aged divorcees who fall in love, a Muslim chef, an Orthodox Jewish rabbi, a intrepid plane pilot, a wary African American NY’er, and a mom whose son is a firefighter in ground zero.

The unit set. Isn't everything so pretty in Canada?
The script has the 1/3 serious, 1/3 comic, 1/3 let's-hold-hands-and-sing-kumbaya formula down pat. There's the obligatory Tim Horton jokes, a group sing of "My Heart Will Go On," and some exaggerated Canadian accents. Lest you think this is all fun and laughs, the script also has some darker moments -- an Egyptian passenger is shunned by the other passengers and Gander residents until he reveals himself to be a talented chef. I guess the way to erase cultural stereotypes is cooking a great meal. And of course continual reminders of 9/11 pop up throughout the show. One character is the anxious mother of a firefighter. 

Normally I have an allergy to this sort of calculated-to-make-you-feel-good show. I don't dislike sentiment, but I do dislike works that become overly sentimental. However as the show progressed (100 minutes without intermission) I became aware that any criticisms or nitpicking were essentially useless because you can't hate on a show that makes people so damned happy. And not happy in the xenophobic, ugly, "Make America great again" and "Build that wall!" way. But happy because it's a show about nice people being nice to each other. I don't think this show would have been as popular in a different year. But when you turn on the TV and all you see is Donald Trump, Sean Spicer and a United Airlines passenger being dragged off the plane  this is the musical that will soothe your soul.

Here are a few of the songs from the show:

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Six Degrees of Separation; Momsical #3

Unit set of the Kittredges' living room
My theater blitz continues: I attended the second preview of the revival of John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation on April 6th. I know that it's the second preview and thus the show is still ironing out the wrinkles, but I think this revival is well worth attending for several reasons. this is just a well-constructed, well-written, thought-provoking play and even if you've seen the movie I think a live performance is worth seeing. Some aspects of the play are dated. It sounds unlikely nowadays that an art dealer can really own a Fifth Avenue apartment, and the characterization of the Ivy League Kids is overly broad. But the play still makes us think about uncomfortable issues of race, class, identity, and, for lack of a better word, how much of the "liberal" New York population is really so that rich upper class Manhattan Brahmins can feel less guilty for being, well, filthy rich. The Cats jokes are appropriate as there is currently a Cats revival on Broadway.

David Hampton
Another reason is that since 1991, we have found out more about the con-artist that inspired this play: David Hampton died of AIDS in 2003. He really did con a bunch of rich New Yorkers into thinking that he was Sidney Poitier's non-existent son. Hampton continued to hustle and con even after his release from prison and the publication of the play. In the play "Paul" (Corey Hawkins) is a vague, shadowy character whose motives and background are never explained. Hampton appears to have been a much more sinister figure.

The revival is directed by Trip Cullman and is generally well-cast. Allison Janney's Ouisa is wonderful -- she's funny, admirable and pathetic all at once. Janney is also the best at making some of the more portentous parts of the play read naturally. John Benjamin Hickey's Flan was appropriately nebbish. The Kids (Colby Minifie as Tess, Keenan Jolliff as Woody, Ned Riseley as Ben) were funny but overly broad in their characterization. They also need to stop shouting/screeching their lines -- they were really eardrum-piercing.  James Cusati-Moyer as the Hustler looked nice even in the Full Monty. Peter Mark Kendall (Rick) and Sarah Mezzanotte (Elizabeth) as the young couple Paul REALLY fleeces had brief roles but were very touching.

Paul and his marks, photo @ Joan Marcus

If there's a weak link to the revival it's Corey Hawkins' Paul. Maybe he will grow as the previews progress but right now he comes across as one note -- too overtly glib, his contempt for his marks apparent throughout. Most master con artists are more subtle, and use a disarming sense of humor and humility rather than the hard-sell and swagger. (Then again Donald Trump did get elected so ...) Also, a big theme of the play is that Paul and Ouisa form a genuine if odd bond. The long phone call towards the end of the play is supposed to illustrate this. I didn't see that bond last night. Paul still came across as a desperate hustler, and as a result the finale had a somewhat muted impact.

But as I said it's only the second preview and I'm sure the production will gel more in time. But as of now, tickets can be obtained for low prices at several discount sites and this is a good revival of a good play.

James Barbour
Today I saw "momsical" #3 -- Phantom of the Opera. I had tried to maneuver my mom into seeing Hello Dolly! but no dice -- my mom decided she'd rather see Phantom, so crashing chandeliers it was. There's not much I can add to Phantom that hasn't already been said so I'll just include a couple of Mom's nuggets:

Mom: "That Christine is so annoying. She knows he's a stalker and still bothers him. Why does she keep pulling off his mask? It's rude. Doesn't she have parents?"

Me: "Her dad is dead."

Mom: "She has a mother though doesn't she?"

Me: "She also kissed him at the end."

Mom: "Yeah but I can understand that. She kissed him so she could get rid of him."

Me: "Did you like this better or Cats?"

Mom: "I liked Cats better. I thought it had a better storyline. The story here is hard to follow with all the scene changes. Like one minute they're in a cemetery and the next everyone is in an opera singing."

Me: "Did you like this at all?"

Mom: "I liked the music. I didn't like Christine's (Ali Ewoldt) voice. But the stalker (she's referring to James Barbour, who plays the Phantom) has a really good voice."

Later on the train home she pulled out her smartphone and tapped me. "Oh no. James Barbour is a sex offender."

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Little Foxes: Basket of Deplorables

Sometimes when I watch the characters parade through Trumpland I get a surreal feeling. I almost can't believe that people like Paul Ryan, Steve Bannon, Sean Spicer, Jared Kushner, Ivanka Trump and the rest of the vat of deplorables exist.

Tonight on Broadway there was a pithy reminder that people so greedy, so heartless, so devoid of any inner life or compassion and empathy really do exist, and what's more, people have been writing plays about these kinds of people for a long time. The Manhattan Theatre Club's revival of Lillian Helmann's classic The Little Foxes has a bit of stunt casting -- Cynthia Nixon and Laura Linney are alternating roles of Regina and Birdie with each performance. When I first heard about this casting I immediately decided that Cynthia Nixon was a more natural Regina and Laura Linney more of a Birdie. So this was the cast I saw tonight. The show is still in the first week of previews.

Prior to this evening my only frame of reference is the famous 1941 movie adaptation so I'll be referencing that movie a lot. Bear with me.

I think I made the right choice. I honestly can't imagine the role reversal. Laura Linney was pitch perfect and heartbreaking as the long-suffering, alcoholic, abused Birdie. She nailed the fluttery, genteel manners of a Southern belle and was so likable and vulnerable from her first entrance that the theater gasped when her husband Oscar (Darren Goldstein) casually hit her. I loved the way she indicated to the audience her alcoholism by the nervous way she snuck gulps of alcohol while the others drank in a leisurely, social way. Her monologue about the hiccups drew extended applause. I didn't think it was possible to equal Patricia Collinge's performance in William Wyler's film but Laura Linney has done that.

Regina and Birdie, photo @ Joan Marcus
Cynthia Nixon's Regina still needs a little refining (her Southern accent comes and goes) but already you can see a strong clear vision of Regina. Nixon's Regina doesn't really attempt to play up the Southern charm and sex appeal. Her body language is aggressive and cold, and one thinks that had Regina lived in another time she would have made a great CEO. When she declares she's "going to Chicago" (presumably to become Marshall's mistress) there's no sexuality in her voice. It's purely business for her. Nixon doesn't have quite the iciness of Bette Davis's famous portrayal but she comes close. In the famous "I hope you die" scene Cynthia Nixon's voice is more desperate, more high-pitched. Regina is scared of losing her get-rich-quick scheme, but the fear is very real and palpable and thus human. But Regina's heartlessness is chilling. When Horace was struggling up the stairs Nixon sat back in a chaise lounge and smirked. Mission accomplished.

Richard Thomas's Horace had an aw-shucks decency but also a wiliness that's absent from Herbert Marshall's portrayal. His interactions with Regina had more venom -- you could imagine that once upon a time there was passion in this mutually toxic relationship. Horace might have been weak in the heart but his stubbornness was as implacable as Regina's greed. And the Hubbard deplorables (Michael Benz as Leo, Michael McKean as Ben, Darren Goldstein as Oscar) were fantastic and nicely differentiated. Leo was a spoiled playboy, more frivolous than anything. Oscar was a brute and wife-beater. Ben was the smooth businessman. The Tim Cook to Ben's Steve Jobs. Or (ugh) the Mike Pence to Ben's Donald J. Trump.

Only Francesca Carpanini was a bit immature and annoying as Alexandra. Not that she was bad, but her portrayal didn't have the depth of the other actors onstage. As a result her final confrontation with Regina didn't have all the impact it could have had. Cynthia Nixon played the final scene perfectly though. There was a trace of tenderness as she asked Alexandra to stay one last time, but her body language was still cold and distant. Regina had given up all pretenses of wearing a human suit a long time ago.  Caroline Stefanie Clay as Addie and Charles Turner as Cal provided comic relief as well as a moral center to the surroundings as they tried the best they could to protect Birdie and Horace.

Daniel Sullivan's direction is straightforward and direct. There's one unit set, a rather plain-looking parlor in Regina's home. It's a very non-interventionist production -- Sullivan seems content in letting the actors play out the drama. The evening is 2.5 hours long with two intermissions but there wasn't a slow moment. This is a wonderful revival and I highly recommend that everyone who loves this play see it.

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Hello Bette, Goodbye Glenn, and Love is for Sale

Bette Midler in Hello Dolly! Photo @ Julia Cervantes
This was a big Broadway blitz for me. On Friday evening, I attended City Center's Encores! presentation of Cole Porter's  The New Yorker's.  A day later it was time for Divine Miss M (aka Bette Midler) and the highly publicized revival of Hello Dolly! Finally I watched Glenn Close get ready for her closeup in the revival of her star vehicle, Sunset Boulevard.

Hello Dolly! is the show you'll want to watch if you think lots of laughs, a few catchy songs, pretty sets, and an old-fashioned star vehicle for a diva is your idea of the perfect night at the theater. Jerry Herman's score still bubbles along with tunes that I'm sure are being hummed from here to Yonkers and beyond by all who were in the audience tonight. Director Jerry Zaks seemed determined to recapture as much of the original Carol Channing production as possible. The sets and costumes by Santo Loquasto are bright and cheery. Based on some sleuthing (aka Google Images) the sets look almost identical to the original Oliver Smith designs. The choreography was officially credited to Warren Carlyle but closely followed the original Broadway production, or so I was told by someone who saw the OBC. This was an exercise in nostalgia, so it makes sense that the production is so similar to the original. The enthusiasm of the audience was overwhelming -- parts of Waiter's Gallop and the title song were almost drowned out by cheering. It was deserved though -- Waiter's Gallop is one of the most charming dance numbers I've ever seen on Broadway.

Bette Midler as Dolly Levi lives up to the hype and then some. She's funny, she can SING (and dance a little!), and she exudes a warmth and energy that is infectious. She seemingly ad-libs so many comedy bits -- her few lines about the length and repetitiveness of the "Hello Dolly" production number had the audience in stitches, and she's amazing at physical comedy too -- watch what she does with her turkey-and-beets meal in Act 2. She does preserve her voice for the big numbers -- she is 71 after all. But when she lets out that big generous voice in "Before the Parade Passes By" or "Hello Dolly" the audience goes giddy with glee. She's so sincere of a performer that the just-bordering-on-corny monologues to her late husband come across as heartfelt. Very often star diva vehicles end up being self-indulgent vanity pieces. Not here. The Divine Miss M completely loses herself into the role of the salt-of-the-earth matchmaker.

Baldwin, Midler, Feldstein and Trensch, photo @ Sara Krulwich

Her supporting cast is generally excellent. Gavin Creel (Cornelius) and Kate Baldwin (Irene Molloy) almost steal the show right from under Bette's blond curls. Their chemistry is so strong that their love story actually becomes the heart of the show. Creel is handsome, ardent, funny. Baldwin is beautiful with a lovely, wistful voice. When the curtain goes down you want these two to live happily ever after. Creel's "It Only Takes a Moment" and Baldwin's "Ribbon Down My Back" are going to be hard-to-beat Tony submissions. Taylor Trensch (Barnaby) and Beanie Feldstein (Minnie) were also a charming pair of young lovers. Will Burton (Ambrose) and Melanie Moore (Ermengarde) started off strong but faded more and more as the show progressed as Creel and Baldwin stole the spotlight.

The only sour spot of the night (and I'm sure many will disagree with me) is David Hyde Pierce's Horace. I just didn't believe in Dolly and Horace -- Hyde Pierce's portrayal was so priggish that I actually envision his half-million dollars being needed for a divorce settlement. Also, DHP really can't sing at all, which makes the inclusion of "Penny in My Pocket" a puzzlement. The chemistry between Midler and Hyde Pierce was not particularly warm. As a result, the Dolly/Horace romance unfortunately became the least interesting storyline arc of the night. I do think Hyde-Pierce is a talented actor, but he just isn't well integrated into the production. Hopefully this will change as right now it's still in previews.

But that's a small quibble when one thinks of the overall joy of the show. Are parts of the show dated? Yes. Does the marriage of Dolly and Horace come across as a mutual love of the cash register than an affair of the heart? Yes. But who cares? Hello Dolly! is corny, it's funny, it's an American musical in the best sense of the word. And Bette Midler is probably the best Dolly any of us are going to see in our lifetimes.

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Glenn Close at Sunset Boulevard, photo @ Sara Krulwich
A day later I was in the cavernous Palace Theatre for a very different kind of star vehicle. Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sunset Boulevard is receiving a limited run with Glenn Close reprising her closeup as Norma Desmond. First of all, let me just interject that if you want an unflinching, well-acted drama of aging Hollywood divas, there is nothing better than FX's Feud: Bette and Joan. Sunset Boulevard fans, if you're not watching Feud, you should be.

Having said that, Sunset Boulevard worked almost despite itself. I'll just get the negatives out of the way first. Number one: Glenn Close can't sing. No beating around the bush here -- even with a 40-member orchestra supporting her in the most loving way possible there was no hiding her thin, quavery voice. Number two: the numbers for Joe (a dapper Michael Xavier) and Betty (a pert Siobhan Dillon) are third-rate ALW muzak. And if you consider what "first rate" ALW-music is like ... well ... Number three: the production is a rather industrial, impersonal looking set of platforms and staircases that doesn't really evoke the morbid splendor of Norma Desmond's Hollywood mansion.

Ready for her closeup, photo @ Sara Krulwich
Having said that, I was deeply moved by the performance. Glenn Close can't sing, but she can act up a storm, and she made Norma Desmond a real person rather than a grotesque caricature. She has help from the musical book, which sticks closely to the Billy Wilder movie. But Close doesn't try to recreate Gloria Swanson's iconic portrayal. Close's Norma is more filled with obvious self-doubt. Her artistic choices elevated the material beyond camp into something moving and sad. I knew from the moment I saw her cradling the dead chimpanzee that Close had the ability to make the absurd believable. In her two big numbers "A Perfect Year" and "As If We Never Said Goodbye" she knew exactly how to turn her face towards the light, to show the audience what it meant to be a star. Even her shot voice ended up being strangely effective -- you sort of wondered how much Close was hanging onto stardom by taking on such a challenge as a septuagenerian. It's like Midler and Dolly -- the Close/Norma pairing was an great fusion of artist and role and I feel privileged to have seen both portrayals in one weekend.

The other star of the evening was the large orchestra that was at the back of the stage. This full-sized orchestra not only filled the huge Palace Theatre with a lush, gloomy sound, but also supported the voices in the best way possible. They filled out the vocal lines when Close's voice was failing and boosted her up when she was able to rise vocally to the occasion. Fred Johanson wasn't able to make Max quite as sinister as Erich von Stroheim in the movie but he acted the role very well. Michael Xavier also didn't have William Holden's world-weary, cynical, washed up persona, but he was glibly handsome and thus believable as a screenwriter-turned-rent-boy. Only Paul Schoeffler as Cecil B. DeMille was a real disappointment -- his scenes with Norma had no affection, no sense that this director still cared about Norma.

Here is a snippet of the loving curtain calls this afternoon. I unfortunately didn't tape Close's heartfelt speech about how HIV affected the theatre community.

Strallen and Tutu, photo @ Caitlin Ochs
The Encores! presentation of Cole Porter's The New Yorkers has none of the star power of Hello Dolly! or Sunset Boulevard but it was a fun fabulous evening. The "storyline" (and I use that term loosely) is about various romantic entanglements that happen when society gals meet bootleggers. This musical was first presented in 1930 and has Cole Porter's trademark combination of cynical lyrics and bubbly-as-champagne melodies. The most well-known piece from the work is probably "Love For Sale," which was banned from the airwaves for its frank ode to the world's oldest profession. And Encores! decided to interpolate "Night and Day" and "You've Got That Thing" into the festivities. But really, the joy was hearing many of the racy Porter songs together with the joke-a-minute book by Herbert Fields. Some of the jokes are dated but a great deal of them are not. The bizarre Act One ending song "Wood" just added to the silliness.

The production and cast were lovely. The set was an art deco platform that looks straight out of an Astaire/Rogers movie, the costumes evoked the Jazz Age, and Chris Bailey's choreography wasn't memorable but it got the job done -- lots of tap numbers for the talented cast. Scarlett Strallen as Alice Wentworth had a light, bell-like soprano voice and a sweet, winning manner. She can also dance pretty well. Tam Mutu as bootlegger Al Spanish is a rare breed -- a musical theater hunk who can also really sing. Their lovely duet "Where Have You Been" was a highlight. Arnie Burton was a scene-stealer as Feet (short for Effete) McGeegan, and "Let's Not Talk About Love" stopped the show. Kevin Chamberlain played the Jimmy Durante role with a good natured irreverence. Another standout was Ruth Williamson as Alice's mother Gloria. Gloria sang my personal favorite song of the evening, "Physician" with lyrics like "He simply loved my larynx/And went wild about my pharynx/But he never said he loved me." Only disappointment was Cyrille Aimée who sang the anthem "Love For Sale." She simply didn't really catch one's attention. But overall it was a lovely evening of time travel froth -- you were brought back to Prohibition-era New York where lyrics mention drinking so much that everyone realistically would be dead from alcohol poisoning or cirrhosis.