Huntington's "Choice": Wicked Good?

Johanna Day, Ken Cheeseman, Connie Ray & Munson Hicks in "Choice"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

What can one say about a play with a character named Zipporah “Zippy” Zunder? Zounds! It so happens that she's the main protagonist in Huntington Theatre Company's latest offering, a new play by Winnie Holzman (who wrote the Book for Wicked for the Broadway stage and My So-Called Life for television). Not long into the play (and thus this is not a spoiler) it's revealed that a successful journalist, the aforementioned Zippy (Johanna Day) is concerned with a new polarizing social phenomenon having to do with the belief that people can be reconnected with the souls of their aborted children (through an organization named CLAF, for “Children Lost and Found”). She's supported (or not) by friends and family, namely her aging husband Clark Plumly (Munson Hicks), her daughter and recent college grad Zoe (Madeline Wise) ), her best friend Erica (Connie Ray), Erica's boyfriend Mark (Ken Cheeseman) and Zippy's new assistant Hunter Rush (Raviv Ullman). The only other characters are The Other Mark (also played by Cheeseman) and Leah or Lena (Wise again). The place is identified in the program as “Near and in New York'; the time as “Now”. Advance word was that the work was to be about a woman's right to choose.

What it turns out to be about is an unpleasantly annoying group of people you wouldn't want to get stuck with at a cocktail party and whose idea of humor is making cruel fun of elderly issues like deafness and forgetfulness, and even one character's awkward recovery from a stroke. They all have an irritating tendency to interrupt one another or finish one another's sentences. While the actors are all fine (and much better than the material warrants), and Director Sheryl Kaller tries valiantly to construct a dramatic arc that's not there, the plot is just plain bizarre. Once in a great while there's a line with some import, such as Clark's admonition that “you don't get to finish everything”. More often there are such head-scratchers as “we made something not happen” and “that's so 'Freaky Friday' of us”, betraying a knack for successful situation comedy with a paranormal bent.

Kaller has stated that what Holzman is trying to say is “we create our choices”. And as Holzman herself has put it: “Our generation of women didn't really see having choices modeled”. She quotes her character Erica: “we looked at our mothers and we thought 'I can't live that life'. But then how am I going to live?”. The playwright deals with our choice to view ourselves and our past choices in a new light, but doesn't offer much insight. The creative team includes several Boston University alumni and faculty, such as Scenic Designer James Noone, Costume Designer Mariann S. Verheyen, and Lighting Designer Rui Rita, with Sound Design by Leon Rothenberg. All make positive contributions, most notably Noone, especially with his meticulously decorated, versatile kitchen about the size of the galley on a cruise ship.

Somewhere a playwright is composing a work that will tackle the problems of discrimination against women in its many guises and will actually pose questions about the ramifications of a soul surviving after an abortion (such as what sort of relationship would be appropriate, what responsibilities that might entail, and what impact that would have on both the philosophical and theological worlds). But this, disappointingly, isn't it. It was nonetheless a gutsy choice of a topic for a comedy, but not a wicked good one. Sondheim put it best (in the song “Move On” from Sunday in the Park with George): “I chose and my world was shaken. So what? The choice may have been mistaken, the choosing was not...you have to move on”. Sound advice for all concerned.


Speakeasy's "Casa Valentina": Crass Dressing?

Will McGarrahan, Sean McGuirk, Robert Saoud, Thomas Derrah & Eddie Shields
 in "Casa Valentina"
(photo: Glenn Perry)

What theater does best is transport us to places we can only imagine, expose us to people we find unfamiliar and fascinating at the same time, and provoke us to new ways of thinking. As the tagline for “Casa Valentina” puts it, this play is about “gender identity, self-acceptance and the struggle to find the right pumps”, thus establishing from the very beginning that this will be tragicomedy of a world alien indeed to most of us. It's SpeakEasy Stage Company's current production, a New England premiere, of Harvey Fierstein's Tony-nominated 2014 play. Based on material from the non-fiction book “Casa Susanna” by Michael Hurst and Robert Swope, it's the story of a group of men, self-described as heterosexual, who found a safe haven in a bungalow colony in the Catskills back in the early 60's for their shared unusual preference for cross-dressing, that is, dressing and acting as women. Fierstein has trod this sort of ground in previous works (such as La Cage aux Folles, Kinky Boots, and Torch Song Trilogy), but this tale takes us to a plane we've not been to before. And in truth, crass dressers they are not, as their accessories alone are to die for (for that period, that is); their choices in garb and in life are sensitive, by and large refined (with the exception of a schmata or two), and intelligent. It sure isn't Kansas.

The setting is the resort owned by George/Valentina (Thomas Derrah: “we are simply the outward expression of the interior female”) and his preternaturally understanding wife Rita (Kerry A. Dowling: “do you know what makes a man irresistible...thinking that you're the only woman in the world who understands him”). Huddled around and about are Bessie (Robert Saoud: “personally I think of being a boy as my day job”); the Judge/Amy (Timothy Crowe: “I stood staring at a gown open-mouthed with desire”); Jonathon/Miranda (Greg Maraio, quoting his wife: “any man who'd go to these lengths to make me laugh owns my heart forever”); Terry (Sean McGuirk: “oh, the terrible things I'd do to get punished and wear my precious gowns” when the common punishment was to demote a mischievous child back into petticoats); and Gloria (Eddie Shields: a hetero stud mesmerized by his women's “discarded clothing on the ground”). The seemingly close-knit troupe is about to be shaken and stirred by the arrival of Charlotte (Will McGarrahan: “I've gone to jail so that you don't have to...It's the curse of the Y chromosome and it's punishable by dearth..any male would have to be certifiable not to want to be female at least part time”). Charlotte has brought along his own political agenda, even though, as Bessie puts it, “politics and prosthetics don't mix”. And late in the play there's the sudden and invasive descent of the daughter of one of them, Eleanor (Deb Martin).

What develops among this group is almost subservient to the experience of sharing their alien world and how it functions (and at times dysfunctions). Strewn with hilarious one-liners and barbed banter, Fierstein's penchant for aiming for the jugular has never been as accurate and engrossing. Although the original Broadway run was a mere seventy-nine performances, it's a shame it didn't get more exposure, especially if it was enacted by a smashingly stellar stable of sequined stallions as this ensemble is. Led by Derrah in yet another deftly defiant portrayal in an incredibly prolific career, the cast effortlessly evades stereotyping even as they exemplify a rainbow of recognizable types. Dowling is the supportive partner personified, enhancing rather than enabling her spouse's dual lifestyle. Saoud spews devastatingly timed epigrammatic arrows (often thanks to a seemingly bottomless font of bons mots courtesy of Oscar Wilde) while McGuirk and Shields expertly parry them. Meanwhile, both Crowe and Maraio provide differing catalysts for what develops over what threatens to become a catastrophic weekend. Even Martin in a brief supporting role resonates. But it's McGarrahan who creates the juiciest character in perhaps his most memorable turn in an extraordinarily versatile professional history. As terrifically directed by Scott Edmiston, there's not a single false note, even when Fierstein goes quite a bit melodramatic near the close of the play. The creative team is also in synch. From the wonderfully evocative multi-level Scenic Design by Janie E. Howland, to the perfectly chosen Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley, to the effective Lighting Design by Karen Perlow and Sound Design by Dewey Dellay, this is an eminently watchable production.

All of this would be reason enough to see this show if it were solely dependent on its humor, but even more lies in store for any theatergoer hungry for heartbreaking humanity and heart. In very subtle ways (such as presenting some characters only in their cross-dressed selves, and identifying these characters in the cast list only by their female names), Fierstein conveys that even though they have a lot they have shared among themselves, they discover that they don't know one another as well as they had assumed. Add to this the growing realization that, as accepting as they are of their own enclave, there lies beneath many of their facades an ugly undercurrent of latent homophobia. McGarrhan's character in particular prophesizes (quite inaccurately, as it happens) the future marginalization of homosexuals alongside the (even more inaccurate) eventual acceptance of the cross-dressing alternate lifestyle.

This is easily the best reason for going to regional theater this season. It's what theater is all about. You'll laugh until your corset hurts and cry until your mascara runs, but if you miss this one you have only yourself to blame. And let's not hear another word about your not having a thing to wear.


Lyric's "Saturday Night/Sunday Morning": Weak End

Jasmine Rush, Meagen Dilworth, Keith Mascoll & Cloteal L. Horne in "Sat.Night/Sun.Morning"
(photo: Glenn Perry)

The current production from Lyric Stage Company, Katori Hall's “Saturday Night/Sunday Morning”, raises pressing issues. That's “pressing” as in the historically common process of straightening the hair of African Americans. Hall has stated that she believes that because she is an actor as well as a playwright, she tends to base her characters on real people, and her play initially seems to succeed at capturing a group of believable people in a setting that is sure to prove revelatory for many audience members, namely a Memphis beauty salon in 1945. She spends the first act presenting the beauty parlor as a cultural center, where gossip and community information provide a source for both camaraderie and activism, through the interactions of seven women. As Directed by Dawn M. Simmons, the setting is conducive to the playwright's satirical intent. Beneath the superficial level of heated metal combs and harsh chemicals, there are a number of other pressing issues threatening to surface.

Miss Mary (Jasmine Rush), proprietress of Miss Mary's Press n' Curl, at one point asks “who's ready to get burnt?”, which can be taken several ways. There's the literal sense of the cruel physical procedure, as exemplified by two of her boarders, Taffy (Meagen Dilworth) and Mabel (Cloteal L. Horne), not to mention customers Dot (Ramona Lisa Alexander) and Jackie (Jackie Davis). But there's also the more metaphorical sense as in the portrayals of vulnerable fellow boarder Leanne (Jade Guerra) and new arrival Gladys (Tasia A. Jones). Their almost impenetrably female world is from time to time interrupted by the appearance of their mailman Buzz (Keith Mascoll), whose polio rendered him undraftable, and remembered images of Leanne's enlisted beau Bobby (Omar Robinson). For the most part, this is clearly not a man's world, as evidenced by some of the best lines, such as Mary's rule that “boarders shall not bitch” or her depiction of her salon as “half fixin' hair, half fixin' poor souls”, or Mabel's contention: “men always better when they away”. It's also of course not an integrated world in those times, as demonstrated by their keen awareness of “colorism”, prejudice against darker skins, with lighter skins associated with privilege and beauty.

The depiction of a world totally alien to the majority of theatergoers will be fascinating for them as it is familiar for the minority, at least for the duration of the first act, which qualifies as insightful social satire (though a good deal of dialogue is lost in the dialects, especially in the rapid fire banter at the very beginning). The problem is that, with the arrival of the second act, the playwright has seemingly transported us to a different play, more melodramatic than ironic. There's also a jarring scene of magical realism that is inconsistent with the integrity of the play as a whole. This shift of tone is also accompanied by a shift in focus as a new central character emerges, though this, and a major reveal that accompanies it, won't come as a surprise if you've been paying attention to how Hall and the actors telegraph it. Fortunately, the whole cast is so fine that it doesn't ruin the effect of the author's purposes. As Hall has also noted, it's about not trying to “live up to some other standard; the heart of this play (is to) be true to yourself in all its manifestations”. The technical crew are all in keeping with Lyric's usual level, from the wonderful Scenic Design by Mac Young, to the Costume Design by Elisabetta Polito, Lighting Design by Ian W. King and Sound Design by Kelsey Jarboe.

Hall's play (as is true in her other work, “The Mountaintop”) is evidence that a major talent is developing and deserves to be heard. Though it stops, rather than ends, in a disappointingly flat manner, it will have been a worthy and welcome exposure to a hitherto unexplored segment of our country's formative years. Sometimes the devil is in the details of everyday life that mirror the revolutionary winds of social change. Pressing issues, indeed.


Goodspeed's "Wonderful Life": Only 62 Shopping Days...

The Cast of Goodspeed's "A Wonderful Life"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

You'd be hard pressed to find a stage of any size anywhere in this country that could match the performing triple threat talent (actors/singers/dancers) on view in Goodspeed Musicals' “A Wonderful Life”. The tale has a fabled history, having first seen life as far back as 1943, as two hundred holiday greetings in the form of a very short story, “The Greatest Gift”, sent to friends by the author, Philip Van Doren Stern. Frank Capra took the work and made it into his 1947 film “It's a Wonderful Life”. Though its initial reception was mixed in the U.S. (it won not a single Oscar), and negative in the U.K., its annual Christmas showing on television led to its becoming one of the most beloved films of all time, as noted by Jeanine Basinger in her “The 'It's a Wonderful Life' Book”. It was subsequently adapted for the stage as a musical in 1991, by the team of Joe Raposo (Music) and the prolific Sheldon Harnick (Book and Lyrics). Consisting of some thirty scenes, it was performed in numerous venues over time, and recently revised by Harnick for this production. Its simple (some might say simplistic) treatment of the way different people view the American Dream (happiness, owning a home, or material wealth) struck a chord with audiences then and now. One's enjoyment of this version will no doubt be influenced by her or his feelings about the sentiment or sentimentality in the original film, as this show is by and large quite faithful to its source.

The protagonist's sense of failure and having wasted his time, an individual's belief in himself, the social ideal of egalitarianism vs. capitalism (with its goal of material prosperity), and ultimately one's finding a place where she or he belongs, are all themes explored by this seemingly lightweight story. Often maligned in its various iterations, there is more to this story than initially meets the eye. Underlying the central narrative is the knowledge that the choices one makes in life determine more than we realize, for ourselves and also for others. This musical version has been described as a “romantic tragicomedy”. It may well be time to take a a second look at the wonder behind a life, or as Capra put it, the worth of the individual, quoting the fifteenth century writer Fra Giovanni Giocondo: “There is a radiance and glory in the darkness could we but see...and to see we have only to look”.

The story, in case you're not familiar with it, (what, you never turned on the TV at Christmas?) takes place in Bedford Falls, New York (1928-1945) where the Bailey Building and Loan Association employs family man and banker George Bailey (Duke Lafoon) who long ago longed to travel, go to college and become an architect. All of these goals went unmet thanks to his other priorities, namely the family bank and the family itself. He did manage to marry the shy but lovely Mary Hatch (Kirsten Scott) and have three children. But it was his ne'er-do-well younger brother Harry (Logan James Hall) who got to see the world, and his chum Sam Wainwright (Josh Franklin) who seems to have it all. It's no wonder that George, contemplating suicide, needs a visit from apprentice Guardian Angel Second Class Clarence (Frank Vlastnik), himself in need of earning his wings. Clarence shows George what the world would have been like if he'd never been born, and what the town would have been like if the miserly old banker Mr. Potter (Ed Dixon) had gotten his way. George also sees how he's influenced the lives of many of his neighbors, from Bert the cop (Kevin C. Loomis) to Ernie the taxi driver (Ryan G. Dunkin) to his scatterbrained Uncle Billy (Michael Medeiros) to his matriarchal mother Millie (Bethe B. Austin). By the end, it's no surprise when Clarence is awarded those wings by Executive Angel Matthew (George McDaniel, who also plays George's father Tom Bailey and bartender Mr. Martini).

While the performers are (as Mr. Potter's song puts it) “First Class All the Way”, unfortunately the Book and Score are not. Although Harnick has made a noble effort to reinvent the more maudlin aspects of the story (with some awful puns such as “Frank Lloyd Wrong”, and many predictable rhyming lyrics), the show is hampered by Raposo's largely mediocre score. Only a couple of songs (“Wings” and “In a State”) stand out in the threadbare musical numbers. Director Michael Perlman has stated that the creative team envisioned their approach to the work as that of snow globes into the lives and very souls of the townfolk (reflected, as it were, in the collage of windows in the disappointingly spare Set Design by Brian Prather). As such it became for them a timeless piece, (as Perlman puts it, “at once familiar and new”), though period elements appear in the briefly enjoyable Choreography by Parker Esse (who devised the more extensive dancing in Goodpeed's “Fiddler on the Roof” last year), and the evocative Costume Design by Jennifer Caprio (from the 20's to the 40's). The fine Orchestrations are by Dan DeLange, with the smooth Musical Direction by Michael O'Flaherty (in his twenty-fourth season with the company). The Lighting Design by Scott Bolman and Sound Design by Jay Hilton (which could use some tweaking with the balance of singers and orchestra) are up to Goodspeed's usual level.

The musical's central character, George, had never grasped his influence on the lives of others, how his efforts made owning a home possible for so many of his neighbors, and how he's made use of his life to effect the greater good of his community. He's never seen personal wealth as an end in itself, or the lives of others as commodities. But he's reminded by Clarence that “no man is a failure who has friends”. This is of course followed by the sound of that tinkling bell signaling that another angel (guess who) has just received his wings. Those who love the film will be delighted with this version; those with a low treacle tolerance will not.


Fathom Events' Met Opera's "Otello": Venetian Blind with Jealousy

Sonya Yoncheva, Aleksandrs Antonenko & Cast of the Met Opera's "Otello"
(photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera)

The Metropolitan Opera opened the current season last month with its new production of Verdi's “Otello”, perhaps the most successful and revered operatic adaptation of a play by Shakespeare. The libretto by Boito is one of the primary reasons for its acceptance and endurance, as he kept the central story very close to Shakespeare's tale, although omitting and condensing some characters. Consisting of Verdi's more mature and complex orchestrations, it remains one of the finest works in all of opera, with one of opera's clearest and most credible stories. Initially, the decision not to utilize dark makeup for the role of the Moorish Otello for this production evoked some controversy, but in these days of nontraditional casting, in the end it was easily forgotten, despite some early pleas: “please sir, may we have some Moor?”.

Otello (tenor Alexsandrs Antonenko), the “Lion of Venice”, arrives home from a triumphant win over the turkish army, only to be met with not very veiled suspicions spread by his ensign Iago (baritone Željko Lučić) about Otello's wife Desdemona (soprano Sonya Yoncheva). Iago tells the young Roderigo (tenor Chad Shelton), who has fallen in love with Desdemona, that he will help him win her, meanwhile managing to get Otello's newly-promoted officer Cassio (tenor Dimitri Pittas) drunk and into a fight with the former governor Montano (baritone Jeff Mattsey). This leads to Otello's withdrawal of Cassio's promotion. Iago gets Desdemona to intercede on behalf of Cassio, making Otello more suspicious and jealous, and steals her handkerchief that her maid Emilia (mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano) has retrieved, planting it in Cassio's room. At last Iago has his twisted revenge as Otello strangles his (innocent) wife, then stabs himself, as the crowd (including bass Gũnther Groissbőck as Lodovico and baritone Tyler Duncan as a Herald) enters. Otello seeks one last kiss and dies.

In this production (updated to the late nineteenth century), as with most performances, its impact depended greatly on both excellent singing and acting, both heightened of course in an HD Live Broadcast. This cast provided both. Antonenko and Luĉić were magnificent in solos and duets, and Yoncheva was poignant and heartbreaking. The Metropolitan Opera Chorus (once again under the direction of Chorusmaster Donald Palumbo) gave a wonderful performance (but inexplicably got no curtain call). The HD Host for the broadcast was Eric Owens, who was excellent and had done his homework for the intermission interviews, when Bartlett Sher (whose production this was) mentioned that they decided to use glass sets when it was noted that Boito stated that he and Verdi had created “glass cages” for their characters to inhabit. The Conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin was terrific, energetic and involved. Sher's production was great, and very ably Directed for Live Cinema by Gary Halvarson, with Set Design (the transparent panels were perfect for plotting) by Es Devlin, somber Costume Design by Catherine Zuber (all harmoniously created to enhance the complex political intrigues), even more somber Lighting Design by Donald Holder and superb Projection Design by Luke Halls (especially the storm scene in the first act).

Overall, this was a very moving and memorable revisit to the operatic dramatic shores of the Mediterranean, yet another example of how ubiquitous the presence of the Metropolitan Opera has become. The last outing, of the company's “Trovatore”, was in fact number eleven on the box office list of grosses in the current issue of Variety. The HD Live Broadcast series has proven to be more popular than ever.

Encore presentation of "Otello" to be broadcast Weds. Oct. 21 at 6:30pm at participating theaters.


ART's "Song of a Convalescent": Art As Open Heart Surgery

Michael Yates Crowley (as Tinky Holloway) in "Song of a Convalescent..."
(photo: ART) 

The title of ART's latest offering at their Oberon venue, “Song of a Convalescent Ayn Rand Giving Thanks to the Godhead (in the Lydian Mode)” doesn't exactly come trippingly off the tongue. Nonetheless, the performance piece created and performed by Wolf 359, in the persons of Michael Yates Crowley and Michael Rau, is an example of the meeting of several creative minds leading to some impressive verbal gymnastics. In addition to the genius of the two actors themselves, the production profits from historical input from the likes of such greats as Beethoven, Emily Dickinson and Ayn Rand herself, all in the pursuit of presenting the medical (and artistic) history of migraines. On the part of Crowley, it's a very personal search, as his diary shows in its meticulous chronicling of his own lifelong frequent bouts with intense headaches. After encountering the theory of pain as expressed by Rand (namely that it's imaginary), Crowley developed this piece consisting of a theme and twenty-four variations, about whether you can think your way out of pain. He suggests that you approach the work as though you were attending a concert of words, ideas and characters. It focuses on Rand and her seemingly deliberate silence about pain and the suffering it causes, insisting that it not be taken seriously. The same could be said about this production, which, tongues firmly in cheek, proceeds to tackle the subject via portrayals of the sublime (Beethoven) to the less so (Alan Greenspan, Maury Povich), a drag queen at an open mic session in a strip club in Peoria (“a stage is a stage”), a teenager on You Tube, various doctors who assure you won't be cured but it will still cost you, and a love scene from Rand's “Fountainhead” that climaxes (so to speak) in pain. All this in a rapid-fire ninety minutes.

The title, in case you were wondering (as you no doubt were) refers to an extraordinarily long movement in a Beethoven string quarter which uses an ancient tonality known as the Lydian mode. It was written by him in response to his apparent recovery from illness (which proved to be illusory) and his gratitude to God. Heard at the beginning of the show and repeated at the end, it bookends the process that Crowley experienced in confronting his pain from suffering from a scourge that is very little understood even after centuries of research. While this might sound a bit too dry and scholarly a topic, its presentation is anything but. Crowley is a master of understating and Rau is as dry and droll as they come. Written by Crowley (who also provided some of his own original music) and Directed by Rau, it starts out as (intentionally) rather amateurish and disheveled, but swiftly becomes more focused on their treatment of a condition that has no treatment, a disease with neither known cause nor cure. The technical contributions are all suitably minimalist, from the Scenic Design by Sara Walsh to the Costume Design by Valérie Thérèse Bart, the Lighting Design by Derek Wright, the Sound and Video Design by Asa Wember and the Music Direction by Josiah Reibstein.

As the aforementioned drag queen, Tinky Holloway by name, puts it, “life is depressing, but at least I wrote a song about it”, and even more tellingly describes her art as open heart surgery. It's not a show for everyone, especially those who aren't fans of performance art in general; this show might even give them a headache. But if you're open to a novel approach to an unusual subject, you might well find yourself amused, bemused, and provoked to thought. Again in the immortal words of the irrepressible Tinky Holloway, may we “all have long and rational lives”.


New Rep's "A Number": All My Sons

Dale Place & Nael Nacer in New Rep's "A Number"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

The current production-
by New Rep-
A Number”-
as in “a number of"...
a short 2002 work-
by Caryl Churchill-
five brief scenes-
just under an hour of...
often a subject without-
sometimes a predicate without...
nature vs. nurture-
a two-hander-
sort of...
but not-
and in the end-
rather than resolutions...

Welcome once again to the fragmented communication typical of the dystopian world of Caryl Churchill, a sort of theatrical haiku. It's hard to process the fact that Churchill, known for such works as Far Away, Cloud 9, Top Girls and Serious Money, was first heard of as far back as almost fifty years ago. In program notes by Eden Ohayon, this play is described (as was the case with several others by her) as questioning our identity in the sense of what makes us individuals in the face of scientific threats to make individuality meaningless. Elsewhere in the program, Director Clay Hopper notes that this play is an exploration of several themes, “the intersection of genetics, identity, masculinity, abuse, neglect, redemption, and ultimate responsibility”, and of course the relationships between fathers and sons, all in the context of biological determinism. To reveal anything more specific would be to unravel the metaphorical onion that Churchill very painstakingly reveals, slowly, tantalizingly, and frustratingly (and only partially). There are allusions to others as “things” that weaken one's identity, events that are unforeseen and unforeseeable, “always not being happy”, sparing someone vs. squashing, and where some one finds joy. Mention is made of the fact that humans share 99% of the same genes with other humans, 79% with chimpanzees, and 30% with lettuce (the last conveying to one person a sense of belonging). And that's all that will be divulged here (except perhaps for the slight spoiler in the header above).

The entire cast consists of Dale Place (as Salter) and Nael Nacer as (Bernard 1, Bernard 2, and Michael Black), with the setting succinctly given as “where Salter lives”. The two actors are positively brilliant in their portrayals of a father and his progeny. Place and Nacer have never been better, and Hopper keenly brings out of them the intensity their roles demand. Their excellence is matched by the extraordinarily apt black and white stark Scenic Design by Cristina Todesco in tandem with the monochromatic Lighting Design by Mary Ellen Stebbins, as well as the minimalist Costume Design by Penney Pinette (with elements such as the subtle appearance of a wedding ring), and suitably eerie Sound Design by Phil Schroeder.

It's a very cerebral effort, and you could easily have heard the proverbial pin drop during the course of the performance, as the audience seemed suitably rapt. Since Churchill is concerned with posing complex ethical questions rather than providing simplistic answers, the whole exercise may well leave you wanting more. And maybe that's the point. If you enjoy being challenged by witty and clever prose delivered by two actors in their prime, this is a verbal rollercoaster you just have to see. And hear...


Fathom Events' Met Opera's "Trovatore": Anvil Salesmen

Dimitri Hvorostovsky in the Metropolitan Opera's "Trovatore"
(photo: Met Opera)

The Metropolitan Opera's first live in HD broadcast of the season is “Il Trovatore” by Giuseppe Verdi, with Libretto by Salvadore Cammarano, based on the play by Antonio Gutierrez. In this production by David McVicar, the Met has prudently chosen to combine Acts I and II for a single first act, with a thirty minute intermission, followed by Acts III and IV, also combined, for a single second act. The relatively brisk result helps immeasurably in glossing over the more glaring absurdities of Cammarano's libretto. Supertitles almost did it in, giving away the ridiculousness of the plot (she threw the wrong baby into the fire?). But, first performed at the Met in1883, it remains one of the Met's most popular pieces, having been produced 636 more times since then, the eleventh most performed opera in the Met's history. Its original debut in Rome in1853 was some ten months after “Rigoletto” , and just a couple of months before “La Traviata”. So the opera, even with its laughable libretto, endures.

And quite a libretto it is. Spain is torn asunder by civil war. Count di Luna (baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky), commander of the Prince of Aragon's troops, is in love with Leonora (soprano Anna Netrebko), a member of the queen's court. Ferrando (bass Stefán Kocan), captain of the guard, tells the story of a gypsy woman burned at the stake years ago for bewitching the count's infant brother. The gypsy's daughter sought revenge by kidnapping the (wrong) child and throwing him into the flames. The Count has looked for that daughter ever since. Meanwhile, Leonora is being serenaded by a strange troubadour, who turns out to be Manrico, (tenor Yonghoon Lee), leader of the partisan rebels. Di Luna challenges him to a duel to the death, which occurs between acts (as much of the plot does).

Manrico won the duel but spared the Count, and Manrico's mother the gypsy Azucena (mezzo Dolora Zajick) nurses Manrico back to health, even as she laments that she had meant to kill the Count's infant son years ago but mistakenly threw her own son into the fire, perhaps the opera's most preposterous plot point. News arrives that Leonora, thinking Manrico dead, plans to enter a convent, so he rushes off to find her. Both the Count and Manrico storm their castle, and the lovers escape in the confusion (of which there is much in this libretto). The Count pursues them and captures Azucena, who is recognized by Ferrando as the gypsy who is believed to have murdered the Count's son. The Count orders her burned at the stake. Inside the castle, the lovers are about to wed when they learn of Azucena's capture, so Manrico prepares to save her. Between acts (again), Manrico is defeated and both he and his mother are condemned to death. Leonora offers herself in exchange, though she has taken poison in the meantime. She dies in Manrico's arms. The Count arrives in time to witness her death, sending Manrico to his death. Azucena cries out that at last her mother is avenged, as the Count has killed his own brother. Now, what could be simpler?

As Zajick put it in an intermission interview with Met Opera hostess Susan Graham, there's a priceless bottle of rare vintage wine in a bar somewhere which awaits the first person who can relate successfully a sensible synopsis of the plot of this opera, as yet unclaimed. Fortunately, the vocal performances effortlessly manage to distract us from nagging holes in the story, notably by Zajick herself, who first sang the role of Azucena twenty-five years ago at her Met debut, and has played it numerous times since, still strong and forceful. Netrebko's Leonora is lovely to see and hear, in her tenth Live in HD broadcast. But it's Lee's Manrico that's the surprise, as he hit every high note with perfect pitch (though his grimaces made it look painful for him, a mistake that further broadcast exposure should help him correct) . And the stalwart Hvorostovsky's Count, despite his recent battle with brain cancer, truly resonated with the audience and his fellow musicians; his courageous performance was the high point of the opera. Even those in more supporting roles, such as Ines (Maria Zifchak), a Gypsy (bass Edward Albert), a Messenger (tenor David Lowe) and Ruiz (tenor Raúl Melo) all excelled. Conducted by Marco Armiliato, with Set Design by Charles Edwards, Costume Design by Brigitte Reiffenstuel and Lighting Design by Jennifer Tipton, it was memorable on many levels. The chorus (most notably heard in the famous “Anvil Chorus”), was once again under the leadership of Chorus Master Donald Palumbo. With such famous arias as “di quelle pira” and “stride la vampa” (the latter while watching an immolation), the opera is a real favorite with today's audiences, and justly so. Now if they could only tackle that libretto.....

Encore presentation of "Trovatore" on Wednesday October 7 at 6:30pm at participating theaters


BLO's "Boheme": Paying the Rent

James Maddalena in BLO's "La Boheme"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

“It's all about the music with this one”, as the program notes for Boston Lyric Opera's current production of Giacomo Puccini's ageless tale of star-struck lovers, “La Boheme”. As the title indicates, it was the story of a group of Bohemians in 1830's Paris. This version, updated to1968 during the Parisian student revolution, depending on one's taste, is either an enhancement or a distraction from the central love story (and more about this later). The music is intact and as sublime as ever. As Directed by Rosetta Cuchi and Conducted by BLO Music Director David Angus, this is easily one of BLO's most memorably sung offerings. It's an extraordinary cast which embodies this enduring love story.
It remains a simple story that has withstood the test of time. A near-starving poet, Rodolfo (tenor Jesus Garcia) and a painter, Marcello (Baritone Jonathan Beyer), along with their friends, the philosopher Colline (Bass-baritone Brandon Cedel) and the musician Schaunard (Baritone Andrew Garland), are about to leave for the Cafe Momus, to celebrate Christmas. They're delayed by the arrival of their landlord Benoit (Baritone James Maddalena) who's looking for his rent. They put him off and again start to leave. Staying behind briefly, Rodolfo meets his neighbor, the tubercular seamstress Mimi (Soprano Kelly Kaduce). They fall instantly in love (this is Paris, after all). At the Cafe they all congregate, including Marcello's old flame Musetta (Soprano Emily Birsan), who arrives with her new rich beau, Alcindoro (Maddalena again). Musetta dumps the new boyfrend for Marcello again. Weeks later, Mimi bemoans Rodolfo's jealousy. Rodolfo wants them to separate because he fears for Mimi's health in his destitute condition. They swear to remain together until spring. Later, having separated from their girlfriends, Rodolfo and Marcello express how lonely they are. Musetta arrives with Mimi, who is now mortally ill. Musetta runs off with Marcello to sell his coat to buy food and medicine, leaving Rodolfo and Mimi alone to relive their formerly happy days. Soon after the others return, Mimi dies, and Rodolfo is heartbroken.

In a small but potent ensemble, Garcia first stands out, not only for his powerful voice but also for his engaging acting. It's easy to see how he shared a Tony Award for the 2002 production on Broadway. Kaduce becomes his match when given the opportunity to sing and emote more fully in Act Two, especially in her last scene. Beyer, Cedel, and Garland all possess fine vocal chops as well, as does local favorite Maddalena. Birsan delivers in her Act I aria, this opera's most popular one (made permanently unforgettable in a pop song by Della Reese). The chorus, under Chorusmaster Michelle Alexander, doesn't disappoint. It's a joy to hear.

But not necessarily to see. While the concept of placing the story in mid-twentieth century Paris, with its atmosphere of student unrest, free thinking, free love and unencumbered creativity, is a bold one, it lends little to the central story (and pales in comparison with that other updated version, the rock musical “Rent”, which of course ditched all that glorious Puccini music). The mid-nineteenth century bohemian class was clearly in opposition to its well-to-do bourgeoisie class, but that backdrop worked well for the story of these struggling artists. The updating of the context with its revolutionary ideas of sexual liberation, experimention with drugs and burning idealism, its visual symbols of Che, Godard and such, while novel, simply doesn't work. It's rather like a schizoid dream (or nightmare) without a center. The technical contributions, while all expert, adhere to this overall concept, in the Set Design by John Conklin (including the scene of a checkpoint becoming a monochromatic barricade, as though designed by Louise Nevelson for a production of “Les Miserables”), Costume Design by Nancy Leary, Lighting Design by D.M.Wood, and Projection and Sound Design by Seaghan McKay.

As for the original story set to such wondrously moving music, one could do worse than to echo the words of the conductor: “the word that sums up Puccini's music is passion”, and this company has surely proven that in this undeniably passionate production.