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Saturday, February 24, 2018

Parsifal Marathon #2

Cast of tonight's Parsifal

I attended my second performance of Parsifal this season. I did not come to this decision lightly. Originally I had a ticket for tomorrow night's Semiramide. But the thought of experiencing Parsifal with René Pape and Peter Mattei was tempting, and I agonized all week about whether to swap out my Semiramide ticket for Parsifal. This included making a poll on Facebook and drawing up pros and cons on an index card. Yeah, I know. But finally after listening to a less-than-impressive livestream of the Semiramide premiere and also armed with the knowledge that there were only 2 performances of Parsifal left while Semiramide is likely to improve during its run, Parsifal it was.

Parsifal marathon buddy
The performance tonight was made more enjoyable because I got to experience it with my friend Bart who flew in from Florida. Wagner is tough to see alone -- those 50 minute intermissions can seem lonely. But with Bart the six hours -- well they didn't fly by but they seemed shorter. I also was sitting in the grand tier tonight as opposed to the orchestra the first night and there really is no comparison with regards to the sight and sound -- the Grand Tier wins unilaterally. You can see the patterns of Carolyn Choa's choreography better, you can see the set better (the blood on the floor of Act 2 and the shallow graves in Act 3 can barely be seen from the orchestra), you can hear everyone better. No wonder seats are so expensive in the Grand Tier.

As for the performance René Pape was not in very good voice tonight -- he seemed to struggle especially in Act 1. I couldn't believe his long monologue which sounded so powerful two weeks ago was barely audible tonight. However, Peter Mattei was even more beautiful and heartbreaking than in the previous performance and Klaus Florian Vogt and Evelyn Herlitzius were vastly improved.  Herlitzius's voice really warmed up in Act 2. It's not my favorite type of voice but much of the thin shrillness was gone. Her acting also improved -- it was less melodramatic, more human. Vogt's acting was way more detailed with less of him being glued to the prompter. I decided I just don't like his interpretation for Parsifal as an extremely detached cold fish and I also am not crazy about the sound of his voice. But Vogt is musical and I'm happy to have finally heard what the fuss was all about. Nikitin is a hoot as Klingsor. Yannick Nezét Séguin's conducting still favors the blustery, dissonant portions of the score but the overall reading was tighter (and faster) than the previous performance I attended. The chorus was amazing.

Another thing about the Girard production: Act One ends with Parsifal peering into the vagina and putting his fingers inside out of curiosity (naughty boy). Act Two takes place in the bloody vagina. At the end of the act the bed even has menstrual blood stains all over it. In Act Three Parsifal puts his spear into the Grail which is being held up by Kundry. Kundry then falls dead from ecstasy (the French call an orgasm "le petite mort"). So I guess Parsifal and Kundry finally consummate the relationship but in a healthy way? So it is a totally "Biblical" experience!

Parsifal and Kundry's consummation?

During intermissions I had a bit of fun imitating the various arm movements of Choa's choreography. Here's a video I made. First I'm the Knights, then I'm Klingsor, then I'm the Flower Maidens. Compare it to the actual video. How'd I do?

Anyway it was a wonderful night. This opera only gets richer upon repeated viewings. In the Met program notes there is a quote by Cosima Wagner that Parsifal "is all so direct!" I hate to agree with Cosima but she is 100% correct -- the love, forgiveness and healing can hit anyone in the solar plexus. Doesn't matter if you're an opera newbie to a hardened opera veteran.

In other news for the past two weeks I've been glued to the Winter Olympics. I love the summer Olympics but the Winter Olympics has sports that really scare the bejeezus out of me. And of course I love figure skating most, where skaters are asked to form the most vertigo-inducing skills while skating in fancy, flimsy costumes. So many memorable moments but my favorite has to be Aliona Savchenko and Bruno Massot's gold medal winning performance. I had seen Savchenko in three previous Olympics with a different partner. She was always a powerful skater, but not necessarily a graceful one. But with Bruno Massot she achieved that rare combination of athleticism (those throws! Those lifts!) with artistry. She improved so much in speed, presentation, grace. Who said an old dog can't learn new tricks?

For whatever reason NBC doesn't allow embedding but you can watch their amazing gold-medal winning performance here.

Sunday, February 11, 2018

Parsifal Lifts the Spirits and Heals the Soul

Parsifal, photo @ Ken Howard

Five years ago I survived my first ever live Parsifal. I had a lot of problems with the storyline back then. Since that time I've seen the error of my ways, boned up on my Schopenhauer, and eagerly awaited a return trip to Richard Wagner's final work. And so with my Parsifal prep package of snacks, juice, a pen to take notes, and ipad to read during the 40+ minute intermissions, off I went.

Looking back the 2013 production really assembled a dream cast. Jonas Kaufmann, René Pape, Peter Mattei, Evgeny Nikitin were just about perfect and Katerina Dalayman was very good. It was with some trepidation that I approached the 2018 revival cast. I'd never heard Klaus Florian Vogt and Evelyn Herlitzius live but what I had heard of them through videos and recordings I hadn't particularly liked. And Parsifal is one of those works where you better like those voices, because you're stuck with them for six hours.

Pape and Mattei, photo @ Ken Howard
So how was the revival? The good news first: René Pape (Gurmenanz) and Peter Mattei (Amfortas) anchored the first and third acts with performances that were every bit as fine as their 2013 portrayals. Pape's voice has lost a bit in volume -- in the third act monologue he actually was drowned out by the orchestra. But the richness and beauty of his voice are very much intact, and as a result he could make the long monologues really sing. For example the expository monologue on Klingsor's "unmanning" can meander but with Pape's magnificent bass I was riveted. He's not much of an actor though. Pape has always been about The Voice. I do wish his Gurmenanz could have been more specific with the acting but that's a small gripe.

He is capable of much more detailed acting. Just look at this clip of him in the Tcherniakov production:

Peter Mattei's Amfortas is a master class of what Wagner sounds like when sung with legato 100% of the time. There's no barking, there's no snarled consonants. Amfortas' anguished monologues actually sounded like bel canto mad scenes, with his voice flying and soaring. Blood poisoning never sounded so beautiful. "Mein vater!" was especially heart-rending. Dramatically he hit all the right notes. He's naturally one of those tall handsome barihunks but his lanky body crumpled over with pain. And his handsome face added another dimension to this Amfortas -- one could totally believe that once upon a time this King was a ladies man. Bravo. This is a classic performance. He got by far the loudest ovation of the night at the curtain calls.

Nikitin chewing the scenery, photo @ Ken Howard
Evgeny Nikitin also reprised his portrayal of Klingsor and was a fun, over the top villain. His voice is very different from the mellifluous voices of Pape and Mattei. There was definitely some Bayreuth bark in his voice but it was appropriate, and he chewed the scenery and left blood on the stage (pun intended). The Flower Maidens sounded absolutely lovely, like real sirens, and I love their look: the dark hair, the spears, the white nightgowns.

Herlitzius and Vogt, photo @ Ken Howard
Evelyn Herlitzius has one of those thin, screechy shrill voices that somehow always find their way to Kundry/Elektra/Ortud. Dramatically she throws herself into the part, but vocally there's nothing seductive or sensuous about her sound, so her as the raison d'etre of Klingsor's Castle of Temptation strains belief. She does do the big octave drop in "Ich sah ihn und lachte" well. And she does a good cackle. But this is a voice I just don't want to hear again.

Klaus Florian Vogt's voice was definitely a surprise. I had heard him on recordings and always wondered how that high boy soprano sound would carry in a big house over a Wagnerian orchestra. Well Vogt has plenty of volume. You could always hear him. And that flute-like voice is preferable to the old fashioned helden-barkers. What he does not have is a voice that has enough color to make the big moments have any real impact. For instance "Amfortas! Die wunde!" is Parsifal's epiphany and I remember when Jonas Kaufmann sang it 5 years ago it shook me out of my seat. The same moment went for nothing with Vogt. I realize I'm in the minority on this one but I preferred Kaufmann to Vogt.

Here's a back to back comparison of the two tenors in the same moment:

I was also disappointed by Vogt's acting. He looked bored much of the time. In Act Two there was no sense that Parsifal is tempted by Kundry and exploring his own sexual desires. Vogt's body language conveyed nothing but "I better not get any blood on my clothes." He also spent 95% of the time staring at the prompter, which sometimes involved a pivot of the head that Joey from Friends immortalized as "smell the fart" acting. In Act Three Vogt looked disengaged. Parsifal is supposed to be a "pure fool, enlightened by compassion." Vogt plays the "pure fool" bit well but doesn't give his Parsifal enough of an emotional arc so his final anointment as the leader of the Knights of Grail has less impact than it should.

Yannick Nezét Séguin led a performance that was better in the more dissonant, exciting portions of the work. For instance the stormy music that continues throughout Act Two had incredible momentum. He did less well with the quieter, more contemplative moments of the score. The Vorspiel sounded beautiful but the Transformation was oddly ponderous and the Dresden amen music was not as ethereal as it could have been. The orchestration calls for seven harps for chrissakes! The performance was also anchored by the magnificent Met chorus, who were stunning in the Transformation Music and the finale of the opera.

The Francois Girard production is a mixed bag. I think Act One is the best-staged with the men and woman on opposite sides of a chasm that looks suspiciously like a female genital organ. Girard depicts the knights as a closed society/cult, and the rot within the society is a result of its narrow minded worldview. At the end of Act One the crevice opens to a visible vagina and Parisfal lies down on his stomach and peers into the hole. Very subtle. But in general this act conveys the ambiguous feelings about women and sexuality that the knights have.

The infamous bloody vagina, photo @ Ken Howard

Act 2 opens in the infamous bloody vagina which actually dilates (heh) at Parsifal's entrance. The Flower Maidens have the toughest job of all in this act -- they are onstage for the entire 70 minutes or so. One Flower Maiden passed out an a crew guy walked onstage via the stage right wing and carried the poor thing offstage. The idea for this act might have been clever but I've seen two casts and it's hard to make this act work dramatically when singers seem so uncomfortable. Both Kaufmann and Vogt fought a valiant fight of emerging from Act 2 without blood on their hands (pun intended), while Dalayman and Herlitzius struggled to come across as seductive while their nighties were soaked with the fake blood. Also one of the biggest moments of the opera came and went -- when Klingsor "throws" the spear at Parsifal in this production Vogt just turned his back and made a "talk to the hand" gesture to Klingsor. This not-so-polite brushoff freezes Klingsor and voila the spear is Parsifal's and Klingsor's Castle falls apart but not before the Flower Maidens dip their hair in the blood one more time. This actually elicited giggles from the audience.

Vogt and the Grail, photo @ Ken Howard
Act 3 is a barren post-apocalyptic world (of course), and onscreen projections seem to indicate a lunar eclipse. But this is where Girard sort of runs out of ideas. Parsifal is anointed the "redeemer" by ... getting a fresh white shirt. (For those keeping track, unlike Kaufmann Vogt does not go shirtless in this production.) During the final moments of the opera the Knights of the Grail also dramatically shed their dark jackets and all are wearing white shirts. The women now co-mingle with the men. Kundry takes out the grail and gives it to Parsifal. The end.

I think that there's quite a few things about the Parsifal libretto that are disturbing -- the fact that Amfortas is punished so severely for one moment of temptation and the linking of Kundry to Herodias brings some icky feelings of misogyny and anti-Semitism into the work. However it should be noted that Kundry is the only explicitly Jewish character Wagner ever wrote. There's theories on Alberich, Beckmesser and Mime but they are just theories. And Kundry the not-so-nice Jewish girl is treated with compassion by Wagner.

But ... this is the most important part. When Parsifal finally healed Amfortas with the spear and as the  mesmerizing Dreden Amen music played I started crying. Not just a few tears. I was having an ugly cry in my seat. The ending of this opera is full of beauty and hope. In 2018, the idea of compassion, forgiveness and healing is so powerful. Parsifal is not just an opera , it's an experience that lifts the spirits and heals the soul.

By the way, here's my Parsifal prep packet;

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Winter Season Diaries: The Groundhog Says Six More Weeks of Winter ...

Amazing Groundhog Day Four Seasons cast
February 2, 2018 - Groundhog Day. And according to the weathermen, the groundhog predicted six more weeks of winter! It was fitting then that NYCB's second week of the winter season showed a company getting its mojo back. The first week had a few uncharacteristic stumbles, bloopers, and sloppiness, but after the Groundhog Day performance of, fittingly, The Four Seasons, all felt right with the world. The fact that last night was one of those ART series performances where all tickets were $30 and they gave free beer and kaleidoscope glasses to everyone after the show sweetened the deal.

The evening actually started out rather unpromisingly: an unexpectedly sloppy performance of Square Dance with Ashley Bouder being off the music (the coda was particularly bad, as she seemed to be on a different beat than the rest of the corps), with leaden jumps. The gargouillades and coupé jetés usually bring about applause but not tonight. She also displayed her worst instincts of constant mugging to the audience. If this was another ballerina we'd probably say "good job" but Bouder has set the bar so high on this, one of her trademark roles, that when she's below par it's immediately noticeable. Taylor Stanley was very fine in his adagio solo. Very flexible back. I went back to a later performance on February 6 and the Ashley got both her jumps and her speed and musicality back. This time her feet did go "wickety wack" so much that it got spontaneous applause.

Bouder and Stanley in Square Dance, photo @ Paul Kolnik

Oltremare suitcase pose
Then we got Mauro Bigonzetti's Oltremare, or Ellis Island Orgy as I like to call it. The whole stage is dressed in vaguely early 20th century clothing. They are all carrying suitcases. They start the ballet sitting on their suitcases in a semi-circle. Then they dance. And there's basically one step for an entire minute ballet: man turns woman upside down, woman spreads eagle and in an upside down crotch baring split. There were two main pas de deux (Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle, then Tiler Peck and Peter Walker) but they basically contained that same move. Only difference: Maria's long legs made those upside down crotch splits slightly more aesthetically appealing. The worst part is: this went on for about 35 minutes. This is one of those "never again" ballets.

The ageless Joaquin de Luz and Tiler Peck in "Fall", photo @ Andrea Mohin
Thankfully Robbins' Four Seasons saved the evening. It was one of those "perfect" performances. By perfect I don't mean not a step was out of place and there were no mistakes. But the performance had a joy, energy and momentum that made you leave the theater on a high. Props must go to Joseph Gordon, Harrison Coll, and Indiana Woodward for their debuts in Winter -- this is the one part of the ballet that can be a bit precious with all that shivering but this trio (and the wonderful corps) was so naturally ebullient that it was cute rather than cutesy. Spring brought a charming, lyrical performance from Sterling Hyltin (subbing for an injured Sara Mearns). Jared Angle partnered her admirably. Their "walking" duet was particularly lovely. The move in Spring that brought about the biggest applause was when the four corps men (Daniel Applebaum, Spartak Hoxha, Lars Nelson, and Sebastian Villarini-Velez) did their simultaneous frog leaps. On February 6 Sara Mearns was back in Spring with Jared Angle and she brought a very different kind of grandness to the role.  I love them both.

Dieck, LaFrenier, Farley, Frances, Chamblee, photo @ Paul Kolnik 
Reichlen and Danchig-Waring, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Teresa Reichlen and Adrian Danchig-Waring looked like sultry mythical deities in Summer. Tess shines in roles where she is asked to be sexy. Danchig-Waring seems to be getting stronger in every performance. He did have a slight problem with the final lift which goes from a fishdive to a shoulder sit. Finally, Tiler Peck, Joaquin de Luz and Daniel Ulbricht as the Puck figure brought down the house in the bacchanalian Fall. Peck of course did multiple fouettés, de Luz is in his 40's but still has fresh legs and amazing pirouettes a la seconde, and Ulbricht continues to maximize his limited stage appearances. It's hard to compete with the virtuoso technique of a role that was created on Mikhail Baryshikov but de Luz did himself proud. In the second performance he even did those mid-pirouette jumps which were a Baryshnikov speciality. What a lovely performance of a ballet City Ballet dancers obviously love doing.

Second cast of Divertimento
February 3 - the last of the Divertimento #15/Four Temperaments/Chaconne all-Balanchine bill. The second Divertimento #15 cast had stronger men (Chase Finlay/Joseph Gordon/Cameron Dieck) but women who while on their own are fine dancers were just unsuited to the lyricism of this ballet. Indiana Woodward, Erica Pereira, Unity Phelan, Ashly Isaacs and Ashley Bouder all have strong, straightforward technique but except for Woodward they aren't very lyrical. This was especially apparent in the andante, when none of the women could really transport you to another world. This included perhaps the most famous moment of the ballet, when the men and women both make a circular "petal" pattern -- you could see that the women were not really stretching their fingertips to maximize that effect. Perhaps the most disappointing was Unity Phelan as the third variation -- compared to Ashley Laracey Phelan projected nothing but a rather geometrical strength. Mozart needs to be about more than that.

Four Temperaments also was less taut and exciting than last week -- there were some last minute substitutions and the ballet had an under-rehearsed look. Mearns was out of Sanguinic and Savannah Lowery replaced her. She's good, but doesn't have the sharp attack of, say, Tiler Peck or Sara Mearns. In turn Megan LeCrone replaced Lowery in Choleric. Lecrone is one of those soloists who works hard but is rarely compelling to watch. Olivia Boisson (who danced the first theme) had a scary wipeout in Choleric -- she just toppled over and the audience gasped. Later she seemed to have trouble holding herself up in a supported arabesque. Hope she's not injured. Sean Suozzi is an old hand at Melancholic. Russell Janzen shone in Phlegmatic -- he really emphasized the arm twisting positions of the variation more than any recent Phlegmatic that I can remember. There have been better performances of 4T's.

Adrian and Maria
Thankfully Chaconne saved the day. Maria Kowroski is much more suited for Chaconne than Mozartiana. This role allowed her to show off what she still has -- long, beautiful lines and pleasing adagio work. Adrian had an easier time partnering her than he did Sara Mearns and his solo work continues to get stronger as he's danced every Chaconne since the season started. Harrison Coll and Lauren King were a very charming and spritely in the "blue" pas de deux. In the Mandolin trio Andrew Scordato overdid the strumming (it looked more like air guitar) but Ashley Hod and Isabella La Freniere continue to be two of the loveliest female corps members. Overall a good performance of a rather fragile ballet.

dance odyssey, photo @ Andrea Mohin
February 9 - Went to this performance mainly to see the sole "new ballet" of the winter season, Peter Walker's dance odyssey. This is Walker's second ballet for the company (the first being ten in seven) and other than a pretentious e e cummings-like disdain for capital letters, Walker has some good instincts as a choreographer. The first is that he's not afraid to make his ballets pretty. The curtain goes up and the stage is awash in a palette of pastels -- lavenders, aquas, blues. There is a neon strip-light that emits a warm glow. The music by British composer Oliver Davis is similarly tuneful, pleasing to the ears. There's no screeching dissonant violins.

Peck and Catazaro, photo @ Paul Kolnik
Unfortunately the ballet doesn't ever develop beyond "nice." This isn't an "odyssey," it's more like a stroll in the park. There first pas de deux was between Tiler Peck and Zachary Catazaro. He lifted her high like a crane. She spread her legs towards the heavens. More turning, more lifting, more athletic partnering, more, more, more. But the duet remains blank and anonymous and at the end we don't know anything more about these two dancers than at the beginning. The final moments of the ballet are dominated by a slower pas de deux between Ashley Laracey (in a floaty lavender dress) and Peter Walker (subbing for Adrian Danchig-Waring). Similar type partnering, but again, anonymous. The corps have a flurry of steps that are too busy to give the feeling of jauntiness that I think Walker was aiming for.

The ballet's one moment that definitely had character was an idyllic pas de deux between the two male soloists Devin Alberda and Sebastian Villarini-Velez (subbing for Anthony Huxley). The two men dance playfully, mirroring each other's steps. The mood is light and flirtatious, much like a Fred-and-Ginger "getting to know you" number. The Michael Jackson moonwalk is cleverly referenced. This pas has all the intimacy and sweetness the ballet's heterosexual pairings lacked. It will be interesting to see where Peter Walker goes from here. Right now he definitely has talent, but not enough maturity to package it all into one great ballet. But that's okay. I recently revisited Justin Peck's Year of the Rabbit and found it rather amateurish.

Ratmansky's Russian Seasons closed the program. This work remains pretty much indestructible. I've seen numerous casts from numerous companies tackle this ballet and the effects work every time. The predictability makes it a bit limited but one can admire the craftsmanship. Ratmansky draws out qualities from dancers that aren't immediately apparent in other ballets. Unity Phelan made an arresting debut as the bride -- there could have been more fear in her eyes at the close of the ballet but that's a small gripe. Otherwise the ballet is dominated by the playful antics of a flurry of characters. Ratmansky as early as 2006 was not afraid to be different -- the ballet has many unorthodox steps like males lying on the ground kicking their legs in the air, or people running in place, or chasing each other offstage. Megan Fairchild reprised one of her best roles as the Green Girl -- in the pas de quatre she was with three guys (Cameron Dieck, Ask La Cour, and Sean Suozzi) who could surround and isolate her but  could not dominate her. In a show of strength she performed the ballet's most iconic moment in which she "stepped" up the staircase of male hands. The role brings out her best qualities: her humor and spunk. Other standouts: Joseph Gordon and Kristen Segin as the Purple Boy and Girl, Emilie Gerrity being more dramatic than I've ever seen her as the Red Girl. The ballet's closing moments are haunting: the crowd watches this joyless, ritualistic marriage and then fall to the floor. Have they died? Is it a spiritual death? Ratmansky is smart enough to keep the audiences thinking and guessing.

Some noticings about the interim team that's currently running the company: they respect seniority -- Maria Kowroski is being given more assignments than she's perhaps able to take on at this point in her career. At the same time they clearly are grooming a few corps de ballet members for bigger things. Harrison Coll and Devin Alberda are dancing more than they ever had under Peter Martins's reign. They seem more open to having older dancers coach the current crop: this photo shows Patricia McBride coaching Megan Fairchild. There's still some untidiness that one imagines Peter would have fixed quickly. But overall the feeling is that the company is being run by people who are scrupulous and conscientious, and that's a good thing.

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Theater diaries: Farinelli and the King; Return Trips to the Diner and Price&Son

King Philip's court, photo @ Sara Krulwich

In general I go to theater to enjoy it. I don't like to think that I spent my hard-earned money and time to see total "shite," as the Brits might say. Therefore I always am in a state of denial when I realize that I'm watching a total turkey. And so it was with Farinelli and the King.

Claire van Kampen's play that happens to star her husband Mark Rylance is one of those creations that takes an interesting premise (the real-life bizarre relationship between the famous castrato Farinelli and the depressed, mentally unstable King Philip V of Spain), and proceeds to drain the premise of any vitality and authenticity. Instead, we get cheap joke after cheap joke, and one self-indulgent soliloquy after another for Rylance, who plays Philip V so broadly and with so much artifice that it ends up reading like a bad SNL skit.

I knew things were not going to be good when the first 15 minutes or so of the play involve Rylance trying to fish ... out of a fishbowl that has a goldfish in it that he's named "Alfonso." Basically it's a one-note joke that doesn't have many places to go, and so it goes nowhere, but not before 15 minutes of this nonsense has elapsed. Obviously King Philip is "mad" and needs some therapy, and his enterprising wife Isabella (Melody Grove) thinks she's found the answer during a trip to London. She hears the of London's latest operatic sensation Farinelli and is convinced his voice can cure the king's ills. And that is what happens -- she brings Farinelli to the Spanish court, and the king is shaken from his melancholy and even builds an outdoors woodsy retreat where with the help of Farinelli's voice he  hears the "stars sing to each other."

Davies and Crane
It's one of the plays conceits that Farinelli is played by two men: the actor Sam Crane and the countertenor Iestyn Davies who shows up whenever Farinelli has to sing. This arrangement has two fatal flaws. One is that Sam Crane is very stiff and wooden as an actor, and his Farinelli remains a cipher. The other is that Iestyn Davies has a very nice countertenor voice (with a vocal technique that is completely different from the castrati of the baroque era) and sings a pleasing selection of Handel arias but this is not a voice that will set a whole city on fire or shake a mad king out of the depths of despair. You could imagine Maria Callas's voice changing someone's life. Iestyn Davies? He's like easy-listening classical music and nothing more. The Farinelli singing segments make a static play have even more static moments. The musical selections don't enhance the storyline in any way.

But as you might expect, after Farinelli shakes Philip out of his funk, the story arc is stuck with few avenues for development. So the second act is an overlong, excruciating attempt to make a story where there is none -- there's a cutesy "forest concert" where the actors act really surprised that there's such a huge "audience" (us in the theater) who have followed them to the woods to sing. There's horrible jokes -- when Farinelli talks about his brother Riccardo who had him castrated Philip gives the brother the nickname "Rick the Knife." In another moment he says a "casserole" is like "French paella." There's a love story so hackneyed I'm surprised the actors could even say the lines with a straight face. And the play chugs along to its prolonged, unexciting ending. By the time we make our way to the inevitable "Lascia ch'io pianga" I could barely care about the lovely Handel melody. I just wanted to get the hell out of there.

The sets by Jonathan Fensome are great -- it evokes an 18th century royal court. There is on-stage seating and a charming band that plays before the show. Actors like Jonathan Peel as the King's wily minister and Melody Grove as the king's loving but unhappy wife do the best they can with flimsy material. But in the end this is a pure vanity project for Mark Rylance. It's all dressed up with nowhere to go.

New Cast of Kinky Boots
These days a show that has been running for two years is considered a "long-running" show. By that definition, Kinky Boots (running since 2013) is practically a dinosaur and Waitress (running since March 2016) is well on its way to being a veteran show. In fact, Kinky Boots recently just celebrated its 2000th performance. I recently revisited Price&Son and Joe's Diner to see what it was about these shows that has allowed them to be successful long after the initial buzz has worn off.

The two shows have some things in common: both feature strong scores written by two talented female songwriters (Cyndi Lauper for Kinky Boots and Sara Bareilles for Waitress). Both shows have an appealing message of empowerment. Both have 11 o'clock numbers that have become classics of modern musical theater: Kinky Boots' "Hold Me In Your Heart" and Waitress's "She Used to Be Mine" have the sort of heart-on-sleeve emotionalism that gets to audiences every time.

Most of all, both of these shows are still doing well because the producers have done an amazing job keeping the show fresh even with the usual cast turnover. They've resorted to some stunt casting (Brendon Urie sang Charlie for a few months, Jason Mraz is doing a stint as Dr. Pomatter) but they've kept the integrity of the show. For Kinky Boots, the original leads of Stark Sand and Billy Porter returned to the show for a few months. I saw them twice, including their final performance on January 7, 2018. There was nothing stale about their routine, no phoning it in. The tender rapport between Sands and Porter was evident throughout the show. But after Sands/Porter left, the show brought in the Scissor Sisters' Jake Shears to play Charlie and had J. Harrison Ghee return as Lola.

I saw Shears and Ghee recently. I didn't think anyone could top Billy Porter's Lola, but Ghee gave a very different but equally valid interpretation. Porter's Lola is petite, vulnerable and wears her heart on her sleeve. Ghee is a giant -- he towers over the cast and is built like a football linebacker. His Lola is flashier, with a glow of self-confidence that makes the perfect foil for Shears' pocket-sized, insecure Charlie. Shears does not make as strong of an impression as Ghee -- the British accent comes and goes and then just sort of disappears, and he interpolates some high notes to the end of "Step One" and "Soul of a Man" but doesn't seem to have made a real connection to the character yet.

The energy of the theatre however was incredible -- you would have thought this was an early preview audience with the way the crowd applauded and sang along and just had a grand rollicking time. Ghee's powerhouse vocals in "Lola's World," "Sex in the Heel," and "Hold Me In Your Heart" delighted the audience, but his Lola wasn't just flash. He was also wonderful in the quieter moments like "Not My Father's Son." I have a feeling that Price&Son and Lola's World will be running for a long time.

Here is the video I took of the final curtain call for Stark Sands and Billy Porter:

I also made a return trip to the diner today to see Sara Bareilles and Jason Mraz in their four week only (!!!) overlap. I last saw Waitress in July with Betsy Wolfe and thought she had an incredible voice but was sorely lacking the humor and personality that makes or breaks Jenna.

Well Sara's back in those white sneakers and she's even more incredible this time. She's gained confidence as an actress, and improved her comedic timing. It's amazing what a natural she is onstage -- she has a radiant stage face that catches the light in the best ways. She has a voice that sounds  so real and earthy, like the girl next door.  Her Jenna was full of sass, humor and heart, and of course she sings the s__t out of the score. The musical is best-known for the 11 o'clock number "She Used to Be Mine" but IMO Sara's best moment is "What Baking Can Do." She sings that I Want song with the hunger, drive and determination that foretells her future.

Pop singer Jason Mraz as Dr. Pomatter could be called stunt casting. Mraz is not as natural onstage as Sara. He plays Dr. Pomatter differently from Drew Gehling -- he's not so much awkward and nerdy so much as awkward and goofy. His hair is a little too perfectly spiked to be believable as the square OB-GYN. But his singing voice is lovely, and he's also fairly funny and he and Bareilles have a nice if overly cozy rapport. I think the show works better when Dr. Pomatter and Jenna are from two completely different spheres. Sara and Jason are too obviously old friends from from the indie-pop/rock sphere. With Jason and Sara their duets "It Only Takes a Taste" and "You Matter to Me" sound too much like a music video with the perfect harmonics.

There's been some turnover in the supporting roles -- Benny Elledge is now Cal, and Natasha Yvette Williams Becky. They're both fine although I miss the sarcasm and bite that Charity Angel Dawson brought to Becky. Props have to go to the cast veterans Christopher Fitzgerald (Ogie), Caitlin Houlihan (Dawn), Dakin Matthews (Joe), and Joe Tippett (returning to the role of Earl, which he originated at A.R.T.) These actors know this show inside out and their experience and enthusiasm anchor the show. Fitzgerald continually acts to his schtick as Ogie and gets more and more laughs each time.

The show obviously casts with care and Sara Bareilles (who wrote both the music and lyrics) remains heavily involved in the production. I have a feeling that Joe's Diner will be staying open for a long time to come.