Boston Pops: In the Room Where It Happened

Renee Elise Goldsberry of "Hamilton"
(photo: Boston Pops)

The focus of the Boston Pops schedule says it all: a season-long homage, Leonard Bernstein Centennial Tribute, celebrating not only the centennial of the birth of the prolific composer but also the 133rd season of the Boston Pops in Symphony Hall. As noted earlier this season, the program faced an embarrassment of riches. Any retrospective of the composer's life work would have to include some of the more obvious choices, such as the overture to Candide, his early evolution into On the Town, and the hugely successful groundbreaking West Side Story. In some respects, choosing from the depth and breadth of his works is easy; in some other respects, it's well nigh impossible, since he made his mark on the symphonic stage, opera, Broadway, art songs and one film score.

After a new Pops favorite, the selection To Lenny! To Lenny! by John Williams, and the Candide overture, the program segued to the more fully developed musical that was to be On the Town. With lyrics by Comden and Green (created by a trio who were all in their mid-twenties), the program included the stirring New York, New York and West Side Story, introduced by Conductor Keith Lockhart with his oft-told story about the latter work's creation. Arguably his most beloved work, West Side Story, it was correctly noted, was to have been East Side Story, about Jewish and Irish gangs; fortunately the composer went with West Side Story and its Latino conflicts that could entail jazz and other musical influences, as demonstrated by “Mambo”. The program continued with a selection from Bernstein's sole film score from On the Waterfront (the love scene and finale) and an explanation from Lockhart as to why the composer never wrote again for the silver screen. Bernstein felt that music should always be paramount, rather than relegated to the background and the necessary restrictions inherent in scoring for the movies. One couldn't help but think of frequent Pops conductor John Williams to appreciate fully the demands of such focus on a composer. The first half of the program also included the “Simple Song” from Bernstein's Mass, which isn't heard as often as one might wish.

After intermission, Lockhart introduced (though, as they say, needing no introduction) Renee Elise Goldsberry, an accomplished Broadway luminary known best for her Tony-winning role as Angelica Schuyler in the smash hit Hamilton, an American Musical. Greeted with truly thunderous applause, she gave rousing performances of songs from On A Clear Day You Can See Forever (the title number), Carmen Jones (the translated Habanera), The Lion King (her Broadway debut), and Hamilton itself. Goldsberry then introduced her stage sister (as Eliza Hamilton from Hamilton), Phillipa Soo, also to a huge audience response, who sang numbers from Into the Woods (“Children Will Listen”) and more of Hamilton. The two singers joined together for yet more from Hamilton. Goldsberry ended the evening with a medley of songs from Rent (in which she played Mimi in its final run on Broadway) and a heartfelt rendition of “You'll Never Walk Alone” from Carousel. The audience truly loved them both.

Anyone hoping for another dose or three of Bernstein need not fear. The Pops schedule will complete its homage to “Lenny” with a concert version of his West Side Story at the end of this week, concluding its current season. But wait, there's more. The BSO calendar for Tanglewood will include a semi-staged production of his On the Town, his opera Trouble in Tahiti, his Chichester Psalms, the entire score to his West Side Story (accompanied by a showing of the film version), a Bernstein Songfest, his A Quiet Place (a sequel to his opera Trouble in Tahiti), and fully-staged presentations of his Fancy Free and Candide. To which one can only respond: Lenny! Lenny!


Boston Pops: Thoroughly Modern Foster

Sutton Foster at Boston Pops
(photo: Boston Pops)

A Broadway Celebration with Sutton Foster with the Boston Pops at Symphony Hall last night was proof that Foster has had a remarkable career over the past couple of decades or so. Here, in more or less chronological order, is an amazing list: Les Miserables, Grease, Annie, The Scarlet Pimpernel, Thoroughly Modern Millie, Little Women, Drowsy Chaperone, Young Frankenstein, Shrek the Musical, Anything Goes and Violet. Along the way she has received countless nominations and awards including winning Tony Awards for Thoroughly Modern Millie (her “overnight” starring breakthrough role in 2002) as well as Anything Goes. She's also performed in concert versions of Chess and Funny Girl and is currently in the cast of television's hit show Younger, in which she plays a forty-year-old woman who passes as twenty-six to win a job. It could serve as a metaphor for Foster herself, in that she looks (and much more importantly, sings) younger than ever.

Her choices for songs to share with a very simpatico audience of fans fell into categories such as numbers she herself has made popular, others from lesser known composers whom she has championed, and even those that evoke memories of her own family. Beginning with a nod to Rodgers and Hammerstein's South Pacific (“Cockeyed Optimist”) mixed with lesser known Sondheim in his famous flop Anyone Can Whistle (“Everybody Says Don't”), she went on to Cole Porter's somewhat obscure Paris (“Don't Look at Me That Way”) and his more familiar Can-Can (“C'est Magnifique”), to his even less known DuBarry Was a Lady (“Give Him the Ooh-la-la”). Then she alluded to a show her brother Hunter Foster had been in, the recent Bridges of Madison County (“It All Fades Away”) by composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown. Then it was back to Cole Porter territory with Anything Goes (the title song, in the show for which she earned one of her two Tony Awards), followed by a nod to her late mother and one of her favorites, John Denver's “Sunshine on My Shoulders”, a folk song that turned out to be her only regrettable choice, at least as over-orchestrated in this performance. After a second brief nod to “Cockeyed Optimist”, she segued to a really unknown (except to avid fans of Sondheim) “Take Me to the World” (from the televised Evening Primrose musical). She ended with the title song from the Maltby/Shire review, Starting Here, Starting Now, with an encore from her first big break, Thoroughly Modern Millie, “Gimme Gimme”.

And give she did. Interspersed with personal reflections (such as being a new mom and having a starring role in a television series in its fifth season), she demonstrated just how deeply she continues to invest herself in live performing. She acknowledged that Broadway is her first love, and went on to prove it. The Pops gave her great support in most of her chosen repertoire (a good deal of it from her brand new album, Take Me to the World). As always, they performed superbly under the baton of Conductor Keith Lockhart, with pianist Michael Rafter as Foster's accompanist.
An added bonus at this concert were the five winners of the 2018 Fidelity Young Artists Competition awards, starting with the amazingly controlled countertenor Sam Higgins, a fifteen-year-old freshman from Milton High School who sang Bereite dich, Zion from Bach's Christmas Oratorio. This was followed by Arlington High School's Giulia Haible on cello and Caroline Dressler on violin performing Cassel's The Glass Case of Emotion and Kohler's Hornpipe, in near perfect synch. Then soprano Sydney Penny from Needham High School delivered a smashing coloratura rendition of Dell'Acqua and van der Elst's Villanelle, truly reminiscent of the young Barbara Cook (making one wish to hear Penny deliver “Glitter and Be Gay” from Candide, especially in this year of Bernstein). The final performer in the group, Wellesley High School cellist Michael Arumainayagam, beautifully played Dvorak's finale from his Cello Concerto in B Minor, acknowledging his teacher Eugene Kim, Boston Pops cellist.

Much of this program continued the series of performances centering around Broadway hits, from the previous offerings this season of Disney's Broadway Hits and On the Town, with upcoming concerts by two stars of Broadway's hit musical Hamilton: An American Musical , Renee Elise Goldsberry (Angelica Schuyler) and Phillipa Soo (Eliza Hamilton) substituting for the originally programmed An Evening with Leslie Odom, Jr., due to a scheduling conflict for Odom), and the highly awaited concert version of West Side Story. It's a season of Broadway and Bernstein, and who could ask for anything more?

The program was given an encore performance at Symphony Hall on Thursday June 7th.


Greater Boston's "Calendar Girls": Cheeky Britcom

Karen MacDonald, Kerry A. Dowling, Sarah deLima, Bobbie Steinbach,
 Maureen Brennan & Mary Potts Dennis in "Calendar Girls"
(photo: Nile Scott Shots)

One might as well grin and bare it, theatergoers, that cheeky 2003 British film comedy, Calendar Girls, has had a change of life, now being presented as a live theatrical production by Greater Boston Stage Company in Stoneham. Adapted in 2009 by Juliette Towhidi and Tim Firth (who also co-wrote the screenplay), the play version, as was the film, is based on a true story about eleven members (six, in this version) of the British ladies' club, the Women's Institute, in their small and peaceful village of Knapeley in the Yorkshire Dales. After Annie (Maureen Brennan) loses her husband John (Sean McGuirk), a “sunflower” of a gent, to leukemia, the other members set out to raise money for the Leukemia Research Fund (to provide a replacement for a “man-eating” settee for a hospital waiting room) by selling calendars featuring the ladies themselves nude (“not naked”, as they twice point out).

The unanticipated celebrity that the success of their endeavors creates threatens to cause a cleavage between Annie and Chris (Karen MacDonald), Annie's best friend, who welcomes the notoriety. The other ladies with varying reactions include: Marie (Cheryl McMahon), for whom the Women's Institute is a trophy; Ruth (Sarah deLima) Marie's right hand person, emotionally abused by her husband; Celia (Mary Potts Dennis) a rebellious sort who decries materialism; Cora (Kerry A. Dowling), an inveterate joker; Jessie (Bobbie Steinbach), a mature teacher; and Lady Cravensire, (Kathy St. George), an imperious representative of the British upper classes. Two remaining female characters are St. George again, in a brief appearance at the start of the show as a guest lecturer, whose next lecture threatens to be “the history of the tea towel”, and make-up artist Elaine (Jade Guerra). There are also a couple more males in the cast besides the ailing John, namely Rod (Michael Kaye), Chris' husband, another jokester, formerly John's best mate, and Lawrence (Nael Nacer), a shy hospital orderly (or “porter”) who conveniently also happens to be an amateur photographer.

Some of the intended humor of the piece got lost in translation to the colonies (references to plum jam and such), and in the disturbing noise during the first quarter hour (yes, one clocked it) of noisy late arrivals who often drowned out the actors on stage. One can surely blame the management for the very misguided decision not to delay the “curtain” but to continue to allow late seating of what seemed like busloads of attendees. One can also place blame on already-seated theatergoers who must have thought they were watching a televised Britcom, giving a quite audible running narration. In decades of theatrical attendance, this had to have been the rudest audience ever. Those who had never seen the film must have been struggling to comprehend the dialog on stage, which of course was an unforgivable distraction for the actors themselves. One had looked forward to seeing this particular group all together on a stage in the all-together, but a weak script and interruptions fought against it.

The basically one-joke first act text is a very long lead-up to the visual punch line of the ladies more or less nude; the entire second act was anticlimactic and could easily have been radically trimmed to a short coda after the scene everyone was waiting for (which went off without a stitch, to quote a bank's ad in the program). It's a shame that this production's cast outclassed the material, as Directed by Nancy E. Carroll. The creative team included Scenic Design by Jenna McFarland Lord (an intentionally cluttered parish hall), authentically dowdy Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley and appropriate Original Music Composition and Sound Design by Dewey Dellay.

You may take time to enjoy the view until June 17th, as this cast is certainly not a bust.


Huntington's "Fall": The Price

Joanne Kelly, Josh Stamberg, Nolan James Tierce, Joanna Glushak & John Hikock in "Fall"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

"My name is Daniel Miller”; with those simple words of self-identification, the central character in a new play, Fall, by Bernard Weinraub, being given its world premiere in Boston by Huntington Theatre Company, begins this compelling depiction of a complicated father and son relationship. The father is famed playwright Arthur Miller (Josh Stamberg), best known for works that dealt with fathers and sons, and their mutual responsibility toward one another. Thus it came as quite an ironic revelation when a 2007 Vanity Fair article first made public one of Miller's deepest secrets, namely that for decades he and his third wife Inge Morath (Joanne Kelly) kept the fate of their son in the shadows, never sharing the stark reality that their son was born with Down Syndrome. That Daniel's birth was kept private should in no way be surprising, as it was generally considered in those days to be in a child's best interest to be brought up by specialists (in other words, institutionalized). It also reflected the profound shame that led to their decision about the 1996 birth of Daniel (Nolan James Tierce). Though identified a century prior by Dr. John Down, it was generally misunderstood. The Millers were advised, here in the person of their physician Dr. Wise (Joanna Glushak) to have the child placed in institutions and did precisely that, as did most parents at the time. What Arthur Miller did subsequently, however, is the crux of Weinraub's play: he not only never spoke publicly about their decision, but he essentially erased their son's very existence.

Josh Stamberg & Joanne Kelly in "Fall"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Though based on real-life events, the play is a fictionalized vision of the challenge faced by these two well-meaning parents. It portrays a true American tragedy in its failure both as a community and as individuals to deal responsibly with the dilemma that well-meaning people encountered in a less informed era. It speaks to the inherent shame and guilt that drove parents virtually to deny reality, and caused the Millers to leave their story untold. Weinraub chooses to imagine the motivations behind the public facade. In so doing he takes on the daunting task of creating imagined dialog and incidents, which is always problematic when dealing with high profile characters. There exists an inherent challenge in filling in such illustrious blanks where the factual and the fictional are so intertwined.

Weinraub largely succeeds in his attempt to present the complexities faced by a celebrated couple. He does so by including in his storytelling the real-life role of Miller's frequent producer, Robert Whitehead (John Hickok), who serves to illustrate for an audience what life was like for a respected playwright whose career had the usual highs and lows. Weinraub mostly avoids the pitfalls of other such “and then I wrote” dramatizations, while succeeding in informing theatergoers of the historical markers of Miller's journey of denial. He also uses the professional life of renowned photographer Morath as analogous to their private issues, as when she reveals how she captures the moment when her subjects truly reveal themselves. At the same time, Weinraub utilizes the character of Dr. Wise to show the gradual growth in understanding in the medical world.

Josh Stamberg, Joanne Kelly & John Hikock in "Fall"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

For most of this play, Daniel is not merely marginalized but basically forgotten. The focus is on Arthur's career as a reluctant celebrity, which allows Weinraub to interject some memorable humor, much of it topical, as when, bemoaning her son's Republicanism including working for Bush 43, Dr. Wise declares “it can't get any worse than Bush”. This is balanced by references to Nazi Germany's gassing of “mongoloids” as undesirable and “disposable”, and Arthur's life-long political activism in the era of McCarthy. And there is an ever-present cloud hovering over the Millers, expressed by Inge in words with which Arthur could easily identify: “we're going to pay a price for this”.

And so they did, not least in denying to themselves the opportunity to appreciate just how remarkable their son was. As briefly and beautifully enacted by Tierce (an actor self-identified as having Down Syndrome), the loss seems unfathomable for both parents and child, and Kelly complements with her poised phlegmatic portrait of a conflicted spouse and mother with moments of utter despair at her own version of Sophie's Choice. In their significant supporting roles, both Glushak and Hickok provide the story with depth and context. But it's Stamberg's choice that drives the play, a difficult task in humanizing an introvert agonizing over his guilt as a father at letting someone down and consequent shame at its permanent baring of his soul, leading to the “revenge” of a son. In the end it's Daniel's revenge to live an undeniably remarkable life.

Nolan James Tierce in "Fall"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

This production also succeeds on the creative level, with taut direction by Peter DuBois, some ingeniously fluid Scenic Design by Brandon McNeel, apt Costume Design by Ilona Somogyi, effective Lighting Design by Philip Rosenberg, Original Music and Sound Design by John Gromada, and Projection Design by Zachary Borovay.

This is one of Huntington's finest original works. Weinraub owes the entire small cast and creative crew a huge vote of thanks, as they manage to engage us in these roles even when some scenes could use some trimming. For a play that is being shared with an audience for the first time, however, it too is remarkable.

You may catch this Fall from grace through June 16th at the South End's Calderwood Pavilion.


Lyric's "Wiz": Everything's Up-to-Date in Emerald City

Martin, Borders, Green & Smith in "The Wiz"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Rumor hath it that a certain theater critic went kicking and screaming (well, at least reluctantly) to The Wiz, the final production of the season by Lyric Stage Company. Loosely based (very loosely) on the 1900 novel The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L. Frank Baum, this version, (as a Broadway show), won seven Tony Awards in 1972, including Best Musical and Best Score by Charlie Smalls (notably not for its Book by William F. Brown). The competition was weak that season, from the little-known-and-now-forgotten The Lieutenant (9 performances), a lovely flop Jerry Herman work about Mack Sennett, Mack and Mabel (66 performances), and the stage version of the popular film Shenandoah (1050 performances). The concept of an adaptation of “Wizard” with an all African-American cast was unusual enough to help it last for 1,672 performances, though a poorly executed 1984 revival lasted only 13 performances. A 1978 film version was a colossal flop though it became a cult film (preposterously starring Diana Ross as Dorothy, when Ross was thirty-three years of age, albeit starring not as a student but as a teacher). A 2015 version televised live received no bad news critically, but lost in the ratings to a football game. In all its incarnations, its score was considered merely serviceable (though with a few showstoppers), with a scant book. Yet it was acclaimed for its hopeful inspiration to “believe in yourself”. None of the various versions, however, came even close to that of the original film that took us over a much more melodic and colorful rainbow. All relied heavily on the quality of the performances.

Singletary, Odetoyinbo, Saxon, Smith, Green, Martin & Borders in "The Wiz"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

And so it continues to depend on its cast (and creative crew). You all more or less already know the story about Dorothy (Salome B. Smith) who leaves behind her Aunt Em (Carolyn Saxon) and Uncle Henry (Damon Singletary) and along her way encounters three characters, Scarecrow (Elle Borders), Lion (Brandon G. Green) and Tin Man (Steven Martin) all of whom have requests to submit to The Wiz (Davron S. Monroe). This updated version includes several witches, namely: Addaperle (Yewande Odetoyinbo), the Good Witch of the North; Glinda (Saxon again), the Good Witch of the South; and Evilene (Odetoyinbo again), the Wicked Witch of the West. Surprisingly this production by Lyric Stage departs from the Lyric's usual nontraditional casting, in that the cast consists completely of performers of color. And as for “I'll get you...and your little dog, too!”.....there's also, sadly, no sign of the famous mutt, only an off-stage bark. What there is, however, is a stupendous cast, from the powerful voices of Smith, Saxon and Odetoyinbo to the versatility of Borders, Martin and the Ensemble that includes Singletary as well as Soneka Anderson, Juanita Pearl, Pier Lamia Porter and Lance-Patrick Strickland, all of whom sing and dance their hearts out. And there is a Wiz to wonder at in Monroe with his grace and operatic presence. As in most versions of the story, the best-written role goes to the mesmerizing Green whose Lion would be a standout in any cast, always in character and always a delight, as he and the other road trippers challenge the Wiz's goals of power, prestige and money.

Singletary & Monroe in "The Wiz"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Over its long history, from the Broadway stage to the silver screen to television to (regional) stage, there has always been one thing in common: a silly pseudo-hip script and a score you'll either love or endure. These issues remain, but under the inspired vision of Director Dawn M. Simmons, and Music Direction by Allyssa Jones, all excel with fabulous Choreography (and a lot of it) by Jean Appolon, effective Scenic Design by Baron E. Pugh, hilarious Costume Design by Amber Voner, complex Lighting Design by Jen Rock and Sound Design by Rachel Neubauer. The orchestration has elements of creole music, as this Oz is set in New Orleans. And what the show has in abundance is wit and whimsy, as well as a heart, a brain and the courage to deliver sometimes painful puns (Lion: “I was an only cub”; Addaperle: if she'd revealed the secret of the slippers earlier in the show, “think of all the people I'd have put out of work”). In the end, this is almost certainly the best Wiz you'll ever see, and way more fun than a barrelfull of funky monkeys.

Pearl, Anderson, Odetoyinbo & Strickland in "The Wiz"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

You may ease on down the road until July 1st, so long as you don't mind a radically different and brilliantly creative Wizard of Oz that doesn't follow the original in Toto.


Boston Pops "Bernstein Tribute": Glitter & Be Gay

Andrew Tighe, Keith Lockhart, Aimee Doherty, Matthew DiBattista & David McFerrin
(photo: Hilary Scott)

The title of the Boston Pops says it all: Leonard Bernstein Centennial Tribute, celebrating not only the centennial of the birth of the prolific composer but also the 133rd season of the Boston Pops. As such, the program faced an embarrassment of riches. Any retrospective of the composer's life work would have to include some of the more obvious choices, such as the overture to Candide, his early accomplishments such as Fancy Free and its later evolution into On the Town, and the hugely successful groundbreaking West Side Story. In some respects, choosing from the depth and breadth of his works is easy; in some other respects, it's well nigh impossible, since he made his mark on the symphonic stage, opera, Broadway, art songs and one film score. Under the direction of locally renowned actress Paula Plum, five expert vocalists presented several of Bernstein's signature pieces, under the energetic direction of its long-time conductor, Keith Lockhart. He also provided back stories to some of the chosen works, much of it from memory, and made sure his audience would be struck by the famed composer's unmatched versatility. As he said at one point, Bernstein would have excelled in so many genres save for the fact that his talent was so expansive that he chose not to restrict himself in any one direction. And it was sobering to be reminded that the composer's first conducting role with a professional orchestra was with the Pops, in 1941.

David McFerrin & The Boston Pops
(photo: Hilary Scott)

After a Pops favorite, the overture to Candide, (discuss amongst yourselves whether to consider this work an operetta or an opera), and an orchestral nod to the ballet Fancy Free with its distinct Galop, Waltz and Danzon, the program segued to the more fully developed musical that was to be On the Town. With lyrics by Comden and Green (created, as Lockhart noted, by a trio who were all in their mid-twenties), the program included the stirring New York, New York, the haunting Lonely Town, the hilarious I Can Cook, Too and the wistful Lucky to Be Me. The performers included local luminary Aimee Doherty (fresh off a smashing star turn in Moonbox Productions' recent Cabaret) the commanding baritone voice of David McFerrin, and the winning Andy Tighe, as well as another well-known local performer, Teresa Winner Blume. There was also a last-minute replacement, opera singer Matthew DiBattista, who stepped in for the ailing Matthew Anderson. All showed themselves to be well up to the task of conveying Bernstein's sultry slow moments as well as the jazzier fast tempi.

Matthew DiBattista & Teresa Winner Blume
(photo: Hilary Scott)

The program continued with a selection from Bernstein's sole film score from On the Waterfront (the love scene and finale) and an explanation from Lockhart as to why the composer never wrote again for the silver screen. Bernstein felt that music should always be paramount, rather than relegated to the background and the necessary restrictions inherent in scoring for the movies. One couldn't help but think of frequent Pops conductor John Williams to appreciate fully the demands of such focus on a composer. Happily, the mood changed abruptly with the next work heard, the crazy Wrong Note Rag from Wonderful Town, (best appreciated by true musicians who understand just how miraculous a composition this is), which introduced a medley of numbers from this show, again with lyrics by Comden and Green, including the witty What a Waste, the ironic A Little Bit in Love, and the concluding selection for the first half of the program, Conga, (with updated lyrics referencing border walls, Keith's band, and Brady's rings) with which the singers exited dancing through the audience.

Matthew DiBattista, Andrew Tighe, Aimee Doherty, David McFerrin & Teresa Winner Blume
(photo: Hilary Scott)

The second part of the performance began with selections from Bernstein's arguably most beloved work, West Side Story. Lockhart here correctly noted that the original title was to have been East Side Story, about Jewish and Irish gangs; fortunately the composer went with West Side Story and its Latino conflicts that could entail jazz and other musical influences, as demonstrated by Something's Coming, One Hand, One Heart, Tonight, and America! To end the program there was a segment devoted to the more “classical” songs, once again from Candide: The Best of All Possible Worlds, I Am Easily Assimilated, the rousing Make Our Garden Grow, and perhaps the composer's finest number, Glitter and Be Gay, hysterically delivered by Blume with her lyric coloratura. Standout renderings of the songs also included Doherty's wildly perfect I Can Cook, Too, McFerrin's heartbreaking Lonely Town, Tighe's irresistible Lucky To Be Me, and DiBattista's powerful Something's Coming.

And, just when we thought we'd heard everything Bernstein, the orchestra and soloists gave us an encore, perhaps as we had been secretly wishing, absolutely his finest song, at least in this critic's lexicon, the bittersweet Some Other Time from On The Town. It was the perfect ending to a well-thought-out and beautifully presented tribute.

And that some other time? The program will be repeated on May 17th, May 29th and May 30th.


BLO "Trouble in Tahiti": Skid a Lit Day!

The Set Design for BLO's "Trouble in Tahiti"
(photo: Liza Voll)

They had us with the nightclub set, or rather Set Designer Paul Tate dePoo III did, with what can only be described as giving a whole new dimension to the word immersive. Not since the work of Scenic Designer Mimi Lien (who created the visual world of Broadway's Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 a few seasons ago) has a visual encounter been so breathtakingly fabulous. Boston Lyric Opera has done it again, placing one of its seasonal offerings in an unusual and original setting, namely Leonard Bernstein's 1952 one-act opera, Trouble in Tahiti, presented at the Mass Department of Conservation and Recreation's Steriti Memorial Skating Rink in the North End. The venue has been totally made over to provide a smashing environment including all the supper club accoutrements one could possibly have anticipated, right down to the cabaret-style tables. Fittingly for a space that normally features hockey games, BLO has pulled off, with the set, lighting and costumes, the ultimate hat trick. But, as they say, you can't hum the scenery.

Fortunately, things are just fine in the vocal department as well, for the five singers on stage are nothing short of spectacularly well prepared and easily up to the demands of Bernstein's intricate musicianship. This production is a far cry from its relatively modest beginnings at its 1952 premiere at Brandeis. The work was dedicated to Bernstein's close friend Marc Blitzstein (known for his anti-capitalist works) and was the only composition for which Bernstein wrote both music and lyrics. Performed in seven scenes (and two interludes), the forty-five minute work was described by the New York Times as “clever and appealing”. It was last seen locally in 2010 as part of a double bill produced by Boston Midsummer Opera with Judy Kuhn (with Lee Hoiby's Bon Appetit). Much has been made of the fact that Bernstein began composing it as his own honeymoon began. Whether this reflected his conflicted sexual orientation, or was a commentary on his parents' marriage, may never be resolved, but there's no denying its topicality given the lines about the sun's kissing everything, in Scarsdale, Beverly Hills, Wellesley and even Brookline.

The Cast of BLO's "Trouble in Tahiti"
(photo: Liza Voll)

The title Trouble in Tahiti comes from a romantic movie that a couple named Sam (baritone Marcus Deloach) and Dinah (mezzo-soprano Heather Johnson) attend, she for the second time (having gone by herself earlier that day to a matinee). After a day in the life of their miserable marriage, they find they can no longer communicate, or even where to start. The prelude, in the form of scat singing (Skid a Lit Day) by a jazz trio, (soprano Mara Bonde, tenor Neal Ferreira and baritone Vincent Turregano) represents according to Bernstein himself “a Greek chorus born of radio commercials”. The first scene finds the couple at breakfast in a” little white house”, deciding to discuss their marital woes later that same night. Then Sam is shown at work where he treats men applying for loans differently, sometimes because of personal hook-ups such as his handball tournament buddies. Next Dinah tells her analyst about a dream of her standing lost in a field of weeds (but hearing a voice promising to lead her to a “quiet place” in the work's loveliest aria, There Is a Garden), after which she and Sam accidentally run into one another on the street, both claiming prior lunch commitments (both non-existent). An interlude by the scat trio sings about possessions (including children) and “who could ask heaven for anything more?”. Later in the gym Sam sings of being a born winner, and that men are all unequal. Then there's the Island Magic dream. Finally, later that night, they decide to attend the same film, as Sam sings men will pay through the nose, neither having gone to Junior's play. And there is of course the unspoken irony of the title and melodramatic fable of the movie they go to see.

The Cast of BLO's "Trouble in Tahiti"
(photo: Liza Voll)

While not considered one of his masterworks, it was reasonably well received, so Bernstein composed a sequel, A Quiet Place, in 1983, taking place thirty years later, after Dinah dies in a car crash, and the kids (Junior and Dede, neither seen nor heard in the first work) come home. It wasn't generally well regarded, though it is sometimes still found on a double bill with Trouble in Tahiti , or both combined into one opera of two flashbacks. In this BLO version, the opera is combined with Bernstein's 1988 song cycle Arias and Baccaroles, with perhaps a more mature view of marriage and familial love, more informed, with deeper cynical wit. The title comes from a critique by none other than President Eisenhower: “It's got a theme, not just all them arias and baccaroles”. It was the composer's last completed work, consisting of nine pieces, solos and duets: a prelude, love duet, the brief story of little Smary and her lost Widdut (?), the love of their lives, some greetings, a song about a Jewish wedding (Oif mayn Khasneh), Mr. and Mrs. Webb Say Goodnight and Nachtspiel (in Memoriam). While this segment of the performance was less enthralling, it was a clever means of demonstrating the composer's growth over the years, with some atonal touches, cynical wit and whimsy. The pairing of the two pieces were actually redesignated as Sam and Dinah Say Goodnight, (Scenes from a Marriage).

Both principal singers impressed with their delivery of their roles, as did the jazz trio chorus. Superbly conducted by David Angus (also at the piano with Brett Hodgdon), with terrific Stage Direction by David Schweizer, pluperfect 50's Costume Design by Nancy Leary, fantastic Lighting Design by Jeff Adelberg, astoundingly effective Video Design by Johnny Rogers, and fluid Movement Direction by Melinda Sullivan, it just simply doesn't get any better than this.

In performances through May 20th, one can only add, in the spirit of a hockey venue: Goal!