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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.