National Theater Live "Follies": But Wait, There's More

The Cast of "Follies"
(photo: National Theatre Live)
It was a typical winter evening in Boston when the Colonial Theater opened its run of a new Broadway-bound musical on February 1971, in what was then the common practice of trying out a new work in a theater-loving city (like Boston, Philadelphia, Washington or Toronto). It was to be the first time the public would be able to see Producer Hal Prince's Follies, with Music and Lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and Book by the late James Goldman. Since it was to be a lengthy tinkering and tweaking period of a month, many theater buffs did the typical routine of seeing a show in its first week of performances, and (if it had promise) in the final week of the show before its move to the Great White Way. Many a straight play or musical would, in its last week or so, prove to be unrecognizable from the production first seen right after opening. It could be a thrilling and indescribably communal experience not unlike giving birth (or so they say who have done so). In the case of Follies, (first called The Girls Upstairs, but changed by Prince who preferred the wordplay suggested by the title referencing not only the former Zeigfeld-like “Weissman Girls” but also the follies of several of its characters), it was to be a watershed in musical theater history. In his seminal book about the evolution of Follies written by the show's gofer, Ted Chapin (now President of the Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization), Everything Was Possible (a title taken from the lines “everything was possible and nothing made sense”) outlines how the late inclusion of the entire sequence of “Loveland” songs, to be described below, dramatically changed the show (and perhaps musical theater in general) forever. Though it was a financial flop (Such costumes! Such a set! So many performers!) it was beloved by true aficionados of the form. Years later, there would be more tinkering and tweaking, leading to ever greater successes, culminating in the National Theatre Live HD broadcast of its current version, which defies description; so let's describe it.

"Beautiful Girls" from "Follies"
(photo: National Theatre Live)

The year is 1971; the place: the venerable (but now vulnerable) Weissman Theater, about to be torn down to make way for an office building. Dimitri Weissman (an elegantly suave Gary Raymond) has invited all the living “girls” from his annual “Follies” to share and to celebrate those bygone productions. Those women include Sally Durant (a luminous Imelda Staunton) and Phyllis Rogers (a brilliantly brittle Janie Dee) and their respective husbands, traveling salesman Buddy Plummer (a captivating Peter Forbes) and successful ex-politician Benjamin Stone (a heartbreaking Philip Quast), each shadowed eerily by their former ghosts, which becomes evident in the first song, Beautiful Girls, as the ladies descend the no-longer grand staircase, beautifully sung by Roscoe (Bruce Graham) then and now. Before the night is over, each of the “girls” will get a follow spot solo or two. And each one will assure you it's your favorite turn, that is, until the next one. In this virtually plotless work, there are so many stellar solos you'd think you were in Sondheim heaven. Right after Staunton tears us apart with the bleakness of In Buddy's Eyes, you're hit by the trio of Rain on the Roof (the novelty number by the dancing duo the "Whitmans", Billy Boyle and Norma Atallah), Ah, Paris! by the fading chanteuse Solange (Geraldine Fitzgerald) and the show-stopping Broadway Baby by Hattie (the mesmerizing Di Botcher). Then there's Quast's painfully bare The Road You Didn't Take (“the Ben you'll never be, who remembers him?”), followed by the courageous mirror number, Who's That Woman? defiantly delivered by Stella (Dawn Hope) and the “Follies girls”, and the incredibly powerful I'm Still Here dished out by Carlotta (Tracie Bennett) with all the withering world-weariness you could imagine. And let's not forget the harrowing and plaintive duo Too Many Mornings by Quast and Staunton, nor the regretful The Right Girl by Forbes, not to mention the hauntingly lovely duet One Last Kiss by Josephine Barstow as Heidi and Alison Langer as her younger self (“all things beautiful must die”), and the pitch-perfect chill of Dee's Could I Leave You? (“Guess!”).

Imelda Staunton in "Follies"
(photo: National Theatre Live)
But wait; there's more. Just as old wounds are revealed and painful regrets are laid bare, the surreal “Loveland” sequence (introduced at the end of the original Boston try-out) delves deeper into the remains of the psyches of the four principals in the form of their earlier selves, Young Sally (Alex Young), Young Phyllis (Zizi Strallen), Young Ben (Adam Rhys-Charles) and Young Buddy (Fred Haig), each spot-on, in the contrapuntal You're Gonna Love Tomorrow/Love Will See Us Through, followed by the the true follies of Buddy (The God-Why-Don't-You-Love Me Blues, never better performed), Sally (with her chillingly desperate Losing My Mind), Phyllis (with her self-deprecating The Story of Lucy and Jessie), and, ultimately, Ben (with his achingly real breakdown, Live, Laugh, Love). Has there ever been a more glorious score, full of pastiches as homages to, among other composers, the work of Cole Porter, Harold Arlen, Romberg and Friml, Noel Coward, Jerome Kern and the Gershwins?

And has this ravishing score ever been better heard and felt? Rarely has perfect casting been so crucially evident, from the vocal power to the amazing American dialect (overseen by Dialect Coach Penny Dyer) evidenced by this pluperfect cast (including an Australian, Forbes). And it's gorgeous to see as well, from the magnificent costumes (overseen by Irene Bohan) to the extraordinary revolving set by Designer Vicki Mortimer to the brilliant Lighting Design by Paule Constable to the exquisite Sound Design by Paul Groothuis. All, of course, was in the precise hands of Director Dominic Cooke and Choreographer Bill Deamer. Even the orchestrations, by Jonathan Tunick with Josh Clayton (including the use of a honky-tonk piano playing some numbers cut early in the show in Boston, such as Carlotta's Can That Boy Foxtrot) are cleverly effective. Last, but certainly not least, there is the wondrous rendition of that score by Music Director Nigel Lilley and his orchestra of twenty-one musicians. (That number, coupled with the reality of a cast of thirty-seven, tells you why this show doesn't get produced more often).

"Who's That Woman" from "Follies"
(photo: National Theatre Live)

The only complaint one might register with this whole production is that it's perhaps too perfect and might deter other talents from future versions and visions of their own. One could pick a nit here or there (sometimes the lighting was too dim or the revolving stage used too often?) but in the end this was close to definitive, the ultimate definition of the word “class”. A show like Follies demands reinvention by its very complexities, and defies its own lyric: no, not all beautiful things must die.


Huntington's "Tartuffe": May the Farce Be with You

The Cast of "Tartuffe"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Cunning old scoundrel, deplorable cad, one sees him pious though most see him bad;
Today he'd be viewed as a jester or goof; for more than three centuries, known as Tartuffe. (Craib)

Huntington Theatre Company takes on the challenge of Moliere's seventeenth century farce, generally considered one of the world's best plays. Since its satirical targets are feigned religious piety and hypocrisy, (perhaps as a result of the playwright's early Jesuit schooling), it's had, and continues to boast, quite a long shelf life. First presented in a briefer version in 1664, originally in rhyming alexandrine verse (twelve syllables per line), it was subsequently suppressed by Louis XIV for a period of five years. Huntington's current version is translated by Ranjit Bolt, in octameter verse (eight syllables per line), here directed by the company's Artistic Director Peter DuBois. While Bolt is no Hammerstein or Sondheim, his text manages by and large to succeed, with a few missteps that don't really rhyme (“been”/”mean”) and a lot that are way too predictable. Still it's a gutsy challenge he undertakes, and most of the cast carry it off, though it can be taxing to comprehend (think two hours of listening to the cadence of Frost's “whose woods these are I think I know”, and you'll get the idea). Opening night jitters seemed to cause several members of the cast (some with estimable past acting credits) to deliver their lines much too rapidly, or swallow their punch lines, but this should work itself out as they grow more familiar with the demands of the play. That said, anyone expecting subtlety from French farce may miss the point; what one may rightly expect is that doors (and rather massive ones in this case) will be slammed, and scenery will be chewed (intentionally). When directed and played as broadly as in this production, one's reaction will depend greatly on personal taste for that sort of approach. For centuries, this work has survived and flourished.
Tartuffe (Brett Gelman) is a faux zealot and religious hypocrite, a fact that is obvious to virtually everyone except a gentleman named Orgon (Frank Wood), his sole credulous follower in the play. Tartuffe oozes his way into Orgon's household intending to marry his daughter Mariane (Sarah Oakes Muirhead), seduce his second wife, Elmire (Melissa Miller) and run off with the family fortune. Recognizing his true colors are Orgon's son Damis (Matthew Bretschneider), his Maid Dorine (Jane Pfitsch), his brother-in-law Cleante (Matthew J. Harris), his mother Madame Pernelle (Paula Plum), his mother's maid Flipote (Katie Elinoff) and Valere (Gabriel Brown), who is engaged to Mariane. The other characters are Tartuffe's acolyte Laurent (Steven Barkhimer), Monsieur Loyal, a bailiff (Barkhimer again) and an official of the Court (Omar Robinson).

Frank Wood & Brett Gelman in "Tartuffe"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

In the wrong hands, farce can overplay the aspects of slapstick inherent in this type of work and forget that its purposes are “to correct the faults of men” (Moliere) and “escape through anarchy into a surreal world; joy in verse is the contrast between the discipline of the form and the ludicrous nature of what's being described” (Bolt). It's a dual challenge when one factors in speaking in rhyming couplets. Let it be said that the miracle of this production is that it spans and even connects the dots of a few centuries of satire. Though the play reeks with timeless (and timely) references, it's fundamentally its immediacy that transports (and transforms). Save for the obligatory homage to the use of meter, this could have been written yesterday (or tomorrow). This is in large part due to the content supplied by Bolt and the form as helmed by DuBois, not to mention the assembled cast of caricatures, especially Gelman in the title role, looking and acting like a cross between Rasputin and Tevye. Since this is live (and lively) ensemble theater, the contributions of the creative team are more crucial than ever, from the clever Scenic Design by Alexander Dodge to the varied Costume Design by Anita Yavich to the effective Lighting Design by Christopher Akerlind and Sound Design by Ben Emerson. Add in the (unexpected) Choreography by Daniel Pelzig and Original Music by Peter Golub and you have quite a pre-holiday package of delights for lovers of the visual and the verbal even when they are totally lacking in nuance.

At a running time of two hours with one intermission, this remains a roller coaster of a trip. And one might ask the obvious question: are there echoes of Tartuffe today? (When was the last time we heard disingenuous reference to “our thoughts and prayers” as a piteously pseudo-pious official response to the latest tragedy, and how easily such insincerity comes tripping off administrative tongues?). Make no mistake about it, if you like this style of comedy, this is as good as it gets.

May the farce be with you, through December 10th.


BLO's "Burke & Hare": Incisive

The Cast of "Burke & Hare"
(photo: Liza Voll)

Hear ye! Attend the tale of Burke and Hare. That is,The Nefarious, Immoral but Highly Profitable Enterprise of Mr. Burke and Mr. Hare, a marquee buster if there ever was one. It's a dark and stormy opera (in its world premiere) about cadaver supply and demand; think Sweeney Todd but with an added level of import given its underbelly of the treatment of immigrants, relegated to 1828's Edinburgh in its grim Old Town of poverty, while the rich folks enjoyed New Town's elegance. With Music by Julian Grant and Libretto by Mark Campbell, this work was Commissioned by the Music-Theatre Group with the support of Boston Lyric Opera as part of its New Works Initiative, grown out of BLO's Opera Annex. One knows, when Boston Lyric Opera schedules a production in a venue such as the Cyclorama at Boston Center for the Arts (with Set Designer Caleb Wertenbaker strongly suggesting a pure white operatory), you're in for an unusual operatic and theatrical experience. Yet this one is closely based on a darkly true story, with occasional dark humor, as told through the experience of the victims.

Edinburgh's schools of surgery at that time were suffering from a shortage of cadavers for use in dissection lessons, since there were few legal ways to obtain them. Coincidentally, two men, William Hare (bass-baritone Craig Colclough) and William Burke (baritone Jesse Blumberg), find the dead body of Donald (baritone David Cushing), a lodger in the boarding house they help manage. Deciding to sell the corpus delecti to the surgical school run by Dr. Robert Knox (tenor William Burden), they deliver same to Knox's assistant, Dr. Ferguson (baritone David McFerrin). At a local pub, Burke and Hare celebrate their good fortune with their significant others, Helen McDougal (soprano Michelle Trainor) and Margaret Hare (mezzo-soprano Heather Gallagher). They decide to take their efforts to a new level, murdering one of the local pub drunks, Abigail Simpson (soprano Marie McLaughlin). Meanwhile, elsewhere in the pub, Dr. Ferguson engages with a young prostitute he's been courting, Mary Paterson (mezzo-soprano Emma Sorenson). Burke and Hare ply Abigail with whiskey, as she is choked to death and her corpse sold to Knox's school. Local killings escalate, profiting all the main characters. Then the dead body of James “Daft Jamie” Wilson (tenor Michael Slattery) is delivered to Knox's school, making Ferguson voice his suspicions to Knox, who dismisses them. Later when the corpse of his beloved Mary arrives at the school, Ferguson denounces Burke and Hare, but Knox coerces him into complicity. Burke and Hare murder their final victim, Madge Docherty (soprano Antonia Tamer), and are seen by prospective lodgers. They (and Helen and Margaret) are arrested. Knox and Ferguson deny any knowledge of the crime. Only Burke is found guilty and subsequently publicly executed.

The Cast of "Burke & Hare"
(photo: Liza Voll)

Ironically, in real life, Burke was hanged and his body was dissected at the University of Edinburgh; his skeleton has been on display to this day. Throughout the nineteenth century, as the children of London did about the real-life progenitor of Sweeney Todd, children of this city learned a ghoulish nursery rhyme (quoted in the opera program by Lacey Upton):

Up the close and doon the stair,
But and ben' wi' Burke and Hare.
Burke's the butcher, Hare's the thief,
Knox the boy that buys the beef.

One need not worry about “where's the beef?” in this production. As ably Conducted by David Angus, with excellent Stage Direction by David Schweizer, eerie Costume Design by Nancy Leary, complicated Lighting Design by Robert Wierzel, and terrific Movement Direction by Melinda Sullivan, this clocks in at a speedy ninety-five minutes. The music is mostly quite accessible, with notations peculiar to specific actors ( music hall tunes for the two malevolent wives, hurdy-gurdy viola for “Daft Jamie”, a nod to Irish folk music, and so on); even the choice to eliminate the violin and stress the piccolo, for example, underscores the composer's intent. It's obvious how interrelated the work of the creative team of composer Grant, librettist Campbell and finally director Schweizer was in the evolution of this piece.

As for the performances, they are truly impressive. The level of singing, as well as acting and movement are of the highest order. While there's not a clinker in the bunch, as they say, there are some standouts, especially in the case of Burden's Dr. Knox and two memorable victims, Slattery's “Daft Jamie” and Tamer's Docherty. There does appear to be a need for clarification in the beginning of the work, as it's difficult to discern who is who among the quartet of perpetrators (though delineating the victims is handled much more clearly), and the device of having the victims, even before their respective demises, dressed in ghoulish attire makes for a few odd moments (such as when Dr. Ferguson dances with the lower-class ghostly Mary, in a part of town you wouldn't expect such a dignitary to frequent, much less to romance a shrouded partner).

The tag line for the opera declares that the people of Edinburgh are not dying....quickly enough. Burke twice echoes Sweeney Todd's Mrs. Lovett (“what an awful waste” in the prelude to the grimly funny song Have a Little Priest) when he declares “I got a thought”. Wisely, the dispatching of victims consistently occurs off-stage, as “Daft Jamie” sings about turning a blind eye to society's inequality. This taut musical thriller will likely find its proper place on the agendas of many an opera company looking for a challenging yet satisfying example of enjoyable contemporary opera.

Catch it Thursday Nov. 9th at 7:30pm, Friday Nov. 10th at 7pm and on Sunday Nov. 12th at 12 noon and 4:00pm. Before supply is outstripped by demand.


Lyric's "Souvenir": A Legend in Her Own Mind

Leigh Barrett & Will McGarrahan in "Souvenir"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Barrett. McGarrahan. Veloudos. That's about all you need to know about the current revival of the play all three of these artists previously presented at Lyric Stage Company about a decade ago: namely Souvenir, a Fantasia on the Life of Florence Foster Jenkins, by Stephen Temperley. If you saw it then (or off-Broadway in 2004, or on Broadway in 2005, or in the movie about the same real-life person just this past year), you owe it to yourself to see how all three of these artists now recreate their hilarious depiction of one of history's most memorable performers. As helmed by Spiro Veloudos, Producing Artistic Director of the company for the last twenty years, there are brought back to life treasured memories, by the entire cast. They would be Leigh Barrett in the title role of aspiring classical concert diva and Will McGarrahan as her accompanist Cosme McMoon. And you're probably laughing already at that improbable duo. As Veloudos notes in the program, in music the term “fantasia” implies improvisation, and this play does precisely that. If you've never encountered these uniquely ungifted characters (played by uniquely gifted actors) before, one must admit to feelings of envy, as there's nothing like coming across this twosome for the first time.

Unless it's the second time. Which is inexplicably even better. Perhaps it's the shock of plain recognition that, yes, they were and are that absurdly enthralling. Maybe it's the most earth-shaking fact that actors, even if they seem perfectly cast, can on second viewing seem recast as amazingly new, fresh and improved. When we first encounter McMoon (oh, that name just makes one swoon) at a Greenwich Village supper club in 1964, we can immediately grasp the depth and density of their commitment. The crowning moment (or nadir) of the public life of this wealthy socialite who sold out Carnegie Hall is at one and the same time a howling success and a career-breaking end. It's a simple demonstrable fact, as evidenced by Jenkins' actual recording of her performance of, among other pieces, the Queen of the Night's solo aria from Mozart's Magic Flute. Friends of this critic who possessed a copy shared it (and may never be spoken to in polite circles again).

Will McGarrahan & Leigh Barrett in "Souvenir"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

How an actor can present a fully grounded character who is totally believable yet impossibly bizarre is a wonder. Barrett has proven her comedic and singing chops before (most recently in the Lyric's version of Gypsy), but this time out she's ready to surprise us again with a drive that entertains relentlessly while subtly revealing how intricate and complex Jenkins was as a celebrity, long before social networking and the internet cloud; she reigned on a cloud of her own in which her audience, then and now, is sublimely complicit in her blissful unawareness. And let's not overlook the reactive contribution of the steadily, increasingly incomprehension on the face of McGarrahan as he accompanies both her and us on this journey (he is also the program's Music Director). They're a perfect match made in auditory heaven (or hell). Either way you see and hear it, it's cause for rejoicing. Never before has such bad been so good.

Creative accompanists include Scenic Designer Skip Curtiss (repeating his terrific work on the 2007 version), Lighting Designer Chris Hudacs and Sound Designer David Wilson, but most especially, Costume Designer Gail Astrid Buckley, whose work on this piece alone should evince belly laughs. But the utmost praise is due to that triple threat of Barrett, McGarrahan and Veloudos, responsible for an uncanny cascade of mind-boggling side-splitters, rib-ticklers and knee-slappers galore. Your attitude toward musical performance may never be quite the same after you've experienced this souvenir of a bygone era. (Or error).

It's become a cliché to praise a piece of comic theater these days as being an escape from the madness of the current White House, but it's true; you couldn't ask for a more entertaining cure (for two hours at least) of madcap mayhem, on offer until November 19th. By all means, go!


SpeakEasy's "Curious Incident": It All Adds Up

Craig Mathers & Eliott Purcell in "Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime"
(photo: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots)

As its title suggests, the play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time promises to be an unusual experience. What piques our curiosity is not just the strangeness of the title but the equally strange journey it suggests. Based on the popular 2003 novel by Mark Haddon, adapted by Simon Stephens, the play's West End premiere took place in 2012. Subsequently brought to Broadway in 2014, it became the longest running Broadway play in the past decade, winning five Tony Awards including Best Play. It was no wonder that sound, lighting and set design all won 2013 Olivier Awards in London, and lighting and scenic design for the 2015 Tony Awards. These technical aspects are crucial to the mathematically intricate light and sound cues of the play. In the present production by SpeakEasy Stage Company, the Scenic Design is by Christopher and Justin Swader, and the Lighting Design is by Jeff Adelberg, with Sound Design by David Remedios and Costume Design by Gail Astrid Buckley. Each deserves special up-front mention given the sheer complexity of light and sound cues, and visuals. But technical achievements aside, what most distinguishes this theatrical treat is its amazingly involving storytelling, translated and transformed from page to stage by Stephens. But, as they say about restaurants with dazzling design, you can't eat the décor.

What you can take in and digest is the convoluted yet totally absorbing tale of a fifteen year old (presumably with autism) who discovers the titular canine done in by a pitchfork and proceeds on a quest to solve the murder in true Holmes-ian fashion, appropriate since the title of the book and play reference a quote by the great fictional detective himself from Conan Doyle's short story Silver Blaze. But this is not a mystery in the deductive sense. What matters in the end is not the solution but the process of reasoning, primarily by Christopher John Francis Boone (Eliott Purcell), and those with whom he intersects along the way, from his teacher Siobhan (Jackie Davis) to his father Ed (Craig Mathers) to a crucial discovery at the termination of his quest, involving his mother Judy (Laura Latreille). The play also conveys a sense of humor, as when Christopher remarks that “the word 'metaphor' is a metaphor”, “acting is like lying”, or when the obvious is stated by his father: “we're not exactly low maintenance, are we?”. The amazing reality for anyone familiar with the novel is how Stephens managed to adapt the source given its multi-level form. It stands as a major theatrical accomplishment.

Laura Latreille & Eliott Purcell in "Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nightime"
(photo: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots)

It should come as no surprise that Purcell (from the SpeakEasy mounting of Hand to God) is excellent in the central and crucial lead. He's fascinating to watch in a very challenging role, always completely in character. It's a star-making performance, and he nails it. The rest of the cast are all superbly chosen, from Mather to Latreille to Davis, well-supported by the small ensemble each enacting multiple roles: Christine Power, Tim Hackney, Cheryl McMahon, Damon Singletary, Alejandro Simoes and Gigi Watson. Under the precise direction by the company's Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault, with essential Movement Direction by Yo-El Cassell, this production may well be the best this company has ever presented, and that's saying quite a bit. By the end of the play you really believe you can answer Christopher when he asks: "Does that mean I can do anything?".   And attention must be paid to the critical work by Dialect Coach Amelia Broome.

There is little one can describe that wouldn't negatively affect the unanticipated but real joy of discovery of the play's revelations, even for those familiar with the source novel. Nothing one has heard about its visual and auditory splendors could possibly prepare a theatergoer for the overall impact of this work. It's most appreciated at a venue this size (the National Tour was seen at a nearby theater with some three thousand seats, a travesty). It cries out for a more intimate experience such as this one. If you think you've already seen this piece, think again. You owe it to yourself to see this up-close-and-personal version. Ultimately this is a mathematically ingenious piece that succeeds in presenting a multi-faceted, time-warping, mind-boggling, ultimately satisfying resolution. You simply can't quantify the value of leaving the theater with a huge smile on your face, especially in these worrisome times for our country. The level of astonishment is, well, immeasurable.

All for a piece that features the versatility of math. Go figure. As Christopher himself would no doubt put it: Q.E.D.


Odyssey Opera's "Siege of Calais": Well-Done Burghers

The Cast of "Siege of Calais"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

The opera Siege of Calais or L'assedio di Calais, by Donizetti, premiered in Naples in 1836, and word has it that the composer didn't care much for his own work, never arranging for revivals. Despite the popularity of his other bel canto operas, this one is still very rarely heard (though the Glimmerglass Festival featured it this past summer in its U.S. premiere). We have Gil Rose and his Odyssey Opera to thank for enabling Boston audiences to appreciate a long-neglected work. With a libretto by Salvatore Cammarano (performed here in Italian with English titles), based on the play of the same name by Luigi Marchionni, this is a fully-staged production at Huntington Theatre. It serves as a welcome element in the current five-opera season of operas dealing with Joan of Arc (though technically, this opera is a wee bit of a stretch, as it doesn't feature the French saint but does concern Edward III's year-long siege of Calais during the Hundred Years' War). It also partially answers the question as to why this particular Donizetti work has been by and large ignored. Both musically and dramatically, it's an undeniably inert piece, notable mostly for its unfamiliarity. For most of the opera there's not much to appreciate, though in the hands of superb choral singing (as is the case here) it makes the case for presenting this minor work by a major composer more frequently than once or twice every millennium.

The Cast of "Siege of Calais"
(photo: Kathy Wittman)

The year is 1346 and the forces under Edoardo III, King of England (John Allen Nelson) and his general Edmundo (Sumner Thompson) are laying siege to the city of Calais The heroic central figure Aurelio (Magda Gartner, in a trouser role, unusual for Donizetti, who typically limited such pants roles to supporting ones such as Orsini in Lucrezia Borgia or Smeton in Anna Bolena), is the son of the mayor, Eustachio (James Westman). His family starving, Aurelio attempts to breach the siege to steal supplies, but is seen, though he eludes capture. Eustachio and Aurelio's wife Eleanora (Lucia Cesaroni) assume he has died, but the burgher Giovanni d'Aire (Neal Ferreira) brings news of Aurelio's safety. When Aurelio returns, he asks his father if there is any hope, and gets a silent response. A group of citizens led by a stranger (Luke Scott) arrives to demand Eustachio's death and surrender to the enemy, but Eustachio unmasks him as an English spy, rallying the people to face death with courage and honor. Later, as Aurelio sleeps, Eleanora prays for the salvation of the city. Aurelio awakes from a nightmare in which he was about to be killed as he watched the murder of his infant son. Suddenly Giovanni brings news that terms of peace have arrived from the enemy namely that a pardon will be issued for the citizens if six prominent members volunteer to be executed. At first all are horrified, but Eustachio proclaims he will sign first. Aurelio offers to go in his stead, but is refused. The four burghers Giovanni, Giacomo de Wisants (Alan Schneider), Pietro de Wisants (James Demler) and Armando (Christopher Carbin) all sign. Aurelio again volunteers and this time he is accepted into the group of martyrs who lead a hymn to the country, joined by the citizens for whom they prepare to die. But all ends happily thanks to the intervention of Isabella, Queen Of England (Deborah Selig). Fans of Deus ex machina will be pleased.

This performance, Conducted by Gil Rose, with Stage Direction by Joshua Major, was often wonderful to hear. The singing by Cesaroni, Gartner and Westman was superlative. The creative team included Chorusmaster Mariah Wilson, Scenic Designer Dan Daly, and Lighting Designer Dennis Parichy. All had a hand in reviving this brief (just over two hours) work.

Don't let another few centuries fly by; if you missed this performance, October 28th at 7:30pm is your second and final chance to catch all these well-done burghers.


Goodspeed's "Rags": Making American Immigrants Great Again

Samantha Massell & Christian Matthew Camporin in "Rags"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The first thing that hits you as the revival of the 1986 musical Rags begins on the Goodspeed Musicals stage is how timely and eerily appropriate it is. In 1910, a hopeful group of immigrants looks for their future in this promising new world, as David Thompson who wrote the new Book for the show notes, and each must decide “what's to be gained and what's to be lost” in this world. Those who are courageous enough to face cultural assimilation head on, and who possess such qualities as “cheek”, are most likely to succeed, but nothing is guaranteed given the name-calling of the sort of Greek chorus (the “quintet”), labeling the new arrivals as “greenhorns”, and much worse. This is what might have happened to Tevye and his five daughters after the curtain fell on Fiddler on the Roof. Who would have anticipated that the trials and tribulations that are echoed today (and yesterday and tomorrow) for immigrants would be even more insidious and relentlessly fascistic than ever before? This revival has heart and sentiment but is rooted in harsh reality.

Looking back at a 1986 program from the pre-Broadway Boston tryout of the musical Rags, one is struck by an odd fact, namely that no one is given credit as the show's director; as it happens, there was a series of directorial changes over the run of the tryout. In his memoir Put on a Happy Face, Charles Strouse, who wrote the score for the show (with Lyricist Stephen Schwartz) describes a rather unique creative process that included his being punched by its star, opera diva Teresa Stratas who allegedly also threw a chair at him. She missed many performances during the Boston tryout, including a thrice-postponed opening night “related to bronchitis”. At the New York premiere it lasted only four performances, yet got five Tony Award nominations, including Best Musical. Having seen the show and its star during the Boston run, and one revival (in 2003 at Boston Conservatory Theater) this critic can also say it surely deserved better. The story is of the early 1900's Eastern European immigrants to America, fleeing prejudice, fear and cynicism, only to be met by the same in their new country; as Strouse asks, “remind you of today?”. He goes on in the memoir to enumerate the show's many musical influences: “music was bubbling in the streets, in brothels, in barrooms and at Bar Mitzvahs; Irish clog dancing met black rhythms and suddenly tap dancing was there.” While it centers on the tale of an immigrant woman's “loves, traditions and indestructibility”, for him, the story is its music. One might infer from the fact that the current production boasts an update of the original, and disappointing, Book by Joseph Stein (who was much more successful with his work in Fiddler on the Roof), here, as revised by Thompson, the libretto has finally had the attention it needed.

At the beginning of the show, a group of people arrive in America on the same boat: Rebecca Hershkowitz (Samantha Massell), a widow escaping from a village pogrom with her son David (Christian Michael Camporin), and Avram Cohen (Adam Heller) who temporarily houses them, Bella his teenage daughter (Sara Kapner) and Ben Levitowitz (Nathan Salstone), a real find, a youth in love with Bella. All find jobs: Rebecca as a dressmaker for the rich Max Bronfman (David Harris); Bella with piecework at home; Ben in a factory; and Avram and David peddling from a pushcart. Rebecca meets Sal Russo (Sean MacLaughlin),a labor organizer trying to unionize, and starts to fall for him. Meanwhile widow Rachel Brodsky (Lori Wilner) grows to love Avram. Tragedy leads to the radicalization of Rebecca. A strike leaves Rebecca, David, Avram and Ben to make new lives for themselves as another shipload of immigrants arrives. As they say, assimilation is everyone who moves in after you do.

The Cast of "Rags"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

The Quintet (J. D. Daw, Ellie Fishman, Danny Lindgren, Sarah Solie and Jeff Williams) noted above provides a threatening view of society's underbelly, and each sings superbly the score, with some new numbers (about the same number of songs as those that were written out of the show). Strouse and Schwartz (also responsible for Wicked and a little show called Annie that had its world premiere at Goodspeed) are still at the top of their game, with their score that includes memorable songs such as Children of the Wind, Blame It on the Summer Night, Brand New World, and the first act closer, Rags.

This production was Directed by Rob Ruggiero, with Choreography by Parker Esse, Scenic Design by Michael Schweikardt, Costume Design by Linda Cho, Lighting Design by John Lasiter, Projection Design by Luke Cantarella, Sound Design by Jay Hilton, and Musical Direction by Michael O'Flaherty. It's a bit of a Fiddler on the Roof Goodspeed reunion, with the same director, choreographer, scenic and lighting designers, and both former leads, Tevye (Heller) and Golde (Wilner). One could also include the same musical director, but that would be cheating, as O'Flaherty has served in that role here at Goodspeed for twenty-six seasons.

Rags is in terrific shape, having trimmed the number of players and focused on the humanity presented by this amazing cast. Massell is a wondrous find both as singer and actor, MacLaughlin is a suitably hunky lead, Camporin is a delight, and even the heavy, Harris, has a fabulous tenor voice. All are firmly and solidly directed by Ruggiero, and perhaps just need to lessen the few overly sentimental moments especially in the second act. As it stands, this new and improved version, with even stronger and more profoundly Jewish storytelling, is a winner.

See it again for the first time, through December 10th.


Huntington's "A Guide for the Homesick": What Happened?

Samuel H. Levine & McKinley Belcher III in "Guide for the Homesick"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

It was a dark and stormy night. So begins A Guide for the Homesick, the current Huntington Theatre Company production, a new play by Huntington Playwrighting Fellow Ken Urban, a fast-paced (and frequently too much so) 75 minute intermission-less two-hander. It was commissioned by New York's Epic Theater Ensemble (which advocates for social justice) as a play about international aid workers.  Urban, via interviews with Doctors Without Borders, discovered what problems they encountered upon coming home and facing the reality of life's readjustments. In January 2011, a young aid worker, returning from a six-month stint in Uganda, visits a shabby hotel room in Amsterdam rented by a fellow American.  The two strangers seek redemption from their pasts and confess to one another their (shared) fear that they may have betrayed the very people who had needed them most, and how each is haunted by the people they met.  Their initially passionate encounter becomes an opportunity to deal with the truth for both Teddy (McKinley Belcher III, seen at Huntington in Smart People and Invisible Man) and Jeremy (Samuel H. Levine, in his Huntington debut). In the case of Teddy, he has a tendency to fall in love with the wrong person. In the case of Jeremy, he questions: "How did I get here?".  And both could rightly ask: "What Happened?".
So could the audience. While providing some of his familiar effective devices such as very natural overlapping of dialogue (an approach put to better use in the playwright's earlier work A Future Perfect  three years ago at SpeakEasy Stage Company), in this outing Urban seems to have overlooked the need for a blueprint of sorts for those encountering this play for the first time. We do learn that Teddy, from Roxbury, is visiting Amsterdam with his best friend Ed, about to be married, while Jeremy's recent personal history echoes the real-life hysteria that surrounded Uganda's Anti-Homosexuality Bill and the long tradition of US medical intervention. We at first wonder “what happened” to Jeremy's friend Nicholas (also played by Belcher) and where Ed (also portrayed by Levine) is. In the play's non-linear form, we gradually begin to see what each man Teddy and Jeremy are running from. The room becomes a haven for each from his past; as the program notes explain, a “small sanctuary of a hotel room (and what is more haunted than that)...escape from chaos (that) offers the possibility of a different future.” They grapple with ethical issues, one's responsibilities, and the meaning of friendship; they aren't heroes or philanthropists, but basically selfish, or at least self-centered. The play here at least hints at the seeming dichotomy that people can do good while fulfilling their own need to be needed. There are some truths unearthed, such as when Teddy states that it's always “easier to believe that things will get better”, or the ranting of Ed about a “whale's frequency so high that no other whales can hear” (recognizing that no one understands his cry for help). Toward the end of the play, Teddy tells Jeremy: “it's not too late. To change. To face the truth.”

It's also not too late to rescue this work from its present hyperventilated state. As it winds up, with dizzying speed, it becomes more difficult to follow who's who in the present or past (despite the helpful but increasingly frenetic use of lighting by Russell H. Champa to delineate where we are and when). A major part of the problem was the fateful (and, alas, fatal) choice to have the two actors each play the roles of the other's antagonist, a decision that doesn't make it any easier for an audience to follow time and location changes at warp speed. Perhaps the author wanted to convey the similarities that could be found in each of these characters, but it makes for a confusing ride during which we don't learn enough about any of them while at the same time attempting to follow what actually does happen. The acting helps, as both players are intense and obviously committed to the piece, though the characters of Teddy and Nicholas are fleshed out more than that of Jeremy and Ed, giving Belcher more room to expand his roles than Levine's less defined ones.

Both Teddy and Jeremy are from from Boston, and this is no coincidental choice by the playwright, given the contradictory facts of the role of our Commonwealth in LGBT rights, and the interference in the politics of Uganda by certain far right religious Massachusetts bigots. The stark reality of anti-homosexual fervor has been portrayed in recent works as disparate as Witness Uganda and even The Book of Mormon. The creative team, as always with Huntington, is expertly involved, from the (appropriately tacky) Scenic Design by William Boles to the realistic Costume Design by Kara Harmon and ominous Sound Design and Original Music by Lindsay Jones, to the rapid-fire Direction by Colman Domingo.

Philosopher Jacques Derrida is quoted in the program notes: “To have a friend is to know that one of the two of you will inevitably see the other die. (This is) the mourning that we expect from the very beginning.” The playwright has hit upon a universal theme that surely merits attention, but here requires more clarification; as it stands it's a work in progress rather than fully satisfying theater.

This latest effort by Urban, testament to his developing career, is on view until November 4th at the Calderwood Pavilion at the Boston Center for the Arts. As a presentation of homophobic hysteria, in its current unfocused form, the play is a noble but only partially realized effort.


New Rep's "Oleanna": Rashomon Test

Obehi Janice &  Johnny Lee Davenport in "Oleanna"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

David Mamet's plays can be very frustrating when he continually fails to finish his-
It can be exhausting having to fill in the-
It's sort of like seeing a Pinter play without the British-
And the staccato delivery his prose requires can be monotonous when-
So one has to keep up with the sporadic dialog that-

Oleanna by David Mamet was both product and precursor of its time, and probably should be seen and heard in that context. Yet the issues the play raised then remain unresolved today and continue to effect the way we employ survival techniques in our current society. Both Hollywood and Washington provide modern templates for a contemporary revisit to the work's gender and power battlegrounds. At New Rep in Watertown, Director Elaine Vaan Hogue attempts to do just that. A clue to what's going to transpire is in Mamet's choice of title, from a satirical song made popular by Pete Seeger, based on the failed concept of a utopian society (Oleanna being one of four proposed towns) in Pennsylvania envisioned by a Norwegian violinist.

Any appearance by Obehi Janice, or Johnny Lee Davenport, automatically qualifies as worthy theater; an appearance by these two fine actors on the same stage makes for must-see theater, no matter the play. The fact that the play is one by Mamet written around the time of actual events such as the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas two-hander provides still more reason to attend this tale, given the current political state of affairs. While the play itself was written twenty-five years ago, sexual politics are unfortunately still alive and unwell in our society, so a revisit to this work should prove enlightening at the very least.

Obehi Janice & Johnny Lee Davenport in "Oleanna"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

The underbelly of the play, as is typically true with Mamet, is power. It may seem to be about the politically correct and the perception of reality from differing points of view, but make no mistake about it, the professor John (Davenport) and his student Carol (Janice) experience more than a mere misunderstanding or polarized inherent views of misogyny or feminism. With the incisiveness that one also has come to expect from Mamet, this time comes a reversal of those pivotal viewpoints, in one act heavy-loaded in one direction, in another the stark opposite, reminiscent of the film Rashomon or the song Someone in a Tree from Sondheim's musical Pacific Overtures. Is this bias or selective memory?

Mamet as usual provides little or no exposition; he has gone on record as concerned with the question of “What does the protagonist want...that's what drama is...what gives rise to the drama, what is the precipitating event, and how at the end of the play do we see that event culminated. Do we see the protagonist's wishes fulfilled or absolutely frustrated? That's the structure of drama”. There are other playwrights who share these concepts, but most of them provide a blueprint. Mamet, here and elsewhere, offers an opportunity for actors to shine, and both these actors do. Under Vaan Hogue's keen direction, Davenport excels in the less showy role, while Janice once again proves her astonishing range and depth. Aiding them are the Scenic Design by James F. Rotondo III (clever in its suggestion of a boxing ring), while the Costume Design by AJ Jones mirrors the actors' changing roles, and the precise Lighting Design by Bridget K. Doyle and Sound Design by Arshan Gailus are equally contributive.
You may share their verbal bouts through November 5th, but one might do well to move with haste, as before one knows it, the run of the show will be-


Fathom Events' Met Opera "Magic Flute": Who But Masons?

The Metropolitan Opera's "The Magic Flute"
(photo: Met Opera)

The Magic Flute by Mozart is known for its use of imagery and symbolism from Masonry, which influenced the visual approach taken by the masterful Julie Taymor, who not only created the Production but was also responsible for the Costume Design and (with Michael Curry) Puppet Design. Taymor's work is already a beloved staple at the Met that grounds the opera in the mysticism of its Masonic sources and clarifies an otherwise potentially confusing plot.

In a mythical land Prince Tamino (Charles Castronovo) and bird catcher Papageno (Marcus Werba) are sent by the Queen of the Night (Kathryn Lewek) to rescue her daughter Pamina (Golda Schultz) who is being held captive by Sarastro (Rene Pape) and his brotherhood of priests. Tamino falls in love with Pamina's picture and plans to win her. At the Temple of Sarastro they learn that it's actually the Queen who is evil, and Sarastro, realizing Tamino and Pamina are meant for each other, promises Pamina eventual freedom. Tamino first undergoes the trials of initiation into the brotherhood. Pamina is horrified when the Queen asks her to kill Sarastro, who tells her he doesn't seek vengeace. Meanwhile, Tamino and Papageno are forbidden to speak, which makes Pamina heartbroken when she thinks Tamino doesn't care. Papageno meets an old lady who flirts with him, and he considers suicide when he can't find a (young) girl for himself. Tamino and Pamina are reunited after many trials, and Papageno discovers the old lady is really a young girl named Papagena (Ashley Emerson) with whom he falls in love (they'll save a fortune on the monogrammed towels). Finally the Queen and her entourage storm the temple but are driven away. All hail the triumph of courage, virtue and wisdom.

Marcus Werba as Papageno in "The Magic Flute"
(photo: Met Opera)

As beautifully Conducted by James Levine, with simple Choreography by Mark Dendy, stunningly magical Set Design by George Tsypin, and brilliant Lighting Design by Donald Holder, it remains a visual treat, enhanced by the HD Direction by Gary Halvorson and the presence of HD Host Nadine Sierra. But it was the singing that truly immersed viewers, from Castronova and Schultz as the young lovers, Werba and Emerson as the comic duo, and the seasoned work of Pape and Lewek. It was a joy to listen to Lewek's aria especially, known as a challenging audience pleaser.

Thankfully this is not the highly truncated kiddies' version in awful English translation that the Met offers for holiday audiences, but a full (almost four hour) and fully satisfying journey.
Encore performance will be HD broadcast on Wednesday Oct. 18th at a theater near you.


BLO's "Tosca": Dying for Art and Love

Elena Stikhina & Daniel Sutin in "Tosca"
(photo: Liza Voll Photography)

Tosca, the beloved opera created in 1900, composed by Giacomo Puccini with scenario by Luigi Illica and libretto by Giuseppe Giacosa (the same trio that created La Boheme and later Madama Butterfly) is the season opener by Boston Lyric Opera (in a co-production with Opera Omaha). Based on an 1889 play of the same name by Sardou, set against the historical backdrop of the Napoleonic Wars, it's a true potboiler in the best possible meaning of the term.

What can one say about the plot of such a familiar work? Would it be a spoiler to allude to the fact that the date of this performance was Friday the thirteenth, and that bad luck awaited all three of the principals? Most opera devotees will already know that the story takes place in three real Roman settings, in each of its three acts. In the Church of Sant'Andrea della Valle, sensitive painter Mario Cavaradossi (tenor Jonathan Burton) is interrupted as he paints a portrait of Mary Magdalene, first by a Sacristan (baritone James Maddalena), then by his friend the political prison escapee Cesare Angelotti (baritone David Cushing, whose sister posed for the painting), whom Cavaradossi helps to hide. Then arrives the painter's lover, famed opera singer Floria Tosca (soprano Elena Stikhina), who is aware of his political beliefs but is herself apolitical. Finally appears the Chief of Police Baron Scarpia (baritone Daniel Sutin) who is hunting Angelotti. Subsequently, in his suite in the Farnese Palace, Scarpia summons Tosca to interrogate her while he has Cavaradossi tortured within earshot, finally getting her to agree to his lusty demands if he will set up a mock execution of her lover. Scarpia arranges with his assistants Spoletta (tenor Jon Jurgens) and Sciarrone (baritone Vincent Turregano) to pretend to carry out a mock firing squad, while actually using real bullets. Tosca then stabs Scarpia to death. Finally, atop the Castel Sant'Angelo, as a Shepherdess (soprano Sara Womble) sings, Tosca witnesses what she believes is a fake execution, but turns out to be real (not fake news?). She then makes her final statement of resistance.

Elena Stikhina & Jonathan Burton in "Tosca"
(photo: Liza Voll Photography)

From the first familiar chords, this was a production to cherish. Burton immediately impresses with his soaring presence, from his first entrance to his last act aria E lucevan le stelle, about how the stars shimmer but his life has come to nothing. Sutin also excels, notably in Scarpia's Hapiu forte sapore, as he foresees Tosca bending to his will. But it is the Russian soprano Stikhina, in her U.S. debut in the role, who makes this production a true gem, creating the title character with her magnificent vocalizing and acting chops, especially in the most famous aria, Vissi d'arte , about how she has lived for art (and love). She's a true find, a singing actress who even looks the part of a young opera star, rare indeed in a role that requires that a soprano deliver a polished sound and fury. She was the greatest source of pleasure even for opera buffs very familiar with the work, but by no means the only such reason to celebrate.

In a brilliant stroke of genius, the orchestra of fifty-eight players, under Conductor David Stern, was placed ten feet above the stage to compensate for the relatively small pit in the Cutler Majestic. It made Stern's conducting and his orchestra's playing more integral to the opera and enhanced the overall experience, as did the chorus under Chorusmaster Michelle Alexander. The more-or-less unit set by Julia Noulin-Merat worked very well without overwhelming the singers as some past productions of this work have been known to do. The strikingly apt Costume Design by Deborah Newhall and effective Lighting Design by Paul Hackenmueller and Sound Design by Joel T. Morain also contributed to the performance. And above all, the Stage Direction by Crystal Manich was solid and sometimes surprising (no spoilers will be revealed here), which may dismay some purists but for the most part served the opera quite well indeed. It's a wonderful treat to re-encounter an operatic war horse that displays such an original yet respectful approach.

Given the outcomes for the three headliners, this is opera's ultimate triple header for pessimists and lovers of tragedy, as well as, not coincidentally, those members of an audience who live for art and love, and great music.


Ogunquit's "From Here to Eternity": Life Is Still a Beach

The Cast of "From Here to Eternity"
(photo: Gary Ng)

The journey From Here to Eternity has been a lenghty one, but the 2013 London musical has finally arrived on our shores (well, the shores of Ogunquit Playhouse, anyway). This eagerly anticipated national rollout of the adaptation by Bill Oakes and Daniel Rice from the 1951 novel by James Jones (which won the National Book award for Fiction and was adapted as a film in 1953, winning eight Oscars including Best Picture), was not a success in London. Even with Lyrics by Tim Rice (who was also the Producer, with Lee Menzies) and Music by Stuart Brayson (of the band Pop), it lasted just over six months, and failed to garner any Olivier Award nominations. When it opened there, the most cynical critics referred to it as “From Here to November”. (The title derives from a work of Kipling: “Damned from here to eternity”). It was controversial, as it was actually based on the revised unexpurgated version of the novel released in 2011, which restored the author’s references to gay sex and prostitution. The stage show’s natural use of profanity and nudity may also have contributed to its early demise. Now that we’re able to judge the work for ourselves, even before its proposed transition to New York, one would have to say it surely deserved a better reception. It’s not without its flaws, but these might be overcome with some more careful editing. What has been changed thus far however causes one to question how promising its future is. The work as it stands seems to have lost its focus. It has the distinct feeling that it's the result of a cut and paste job, and there's a more pronounced emphasis on politically incorrect terms (by today's standards, that is) such as “queers”, “Jew boy”, “Krauts” and so on, all too common then, and presented here without much context. As a result, it has become a strange amalgam of unexplored themes out of context, bearing scant little resemblance to the London version.

The time is 1941, at the Schofield Barracks in Hawaii, just months before the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. In the solid tradition of wartime-based musicals of the past, such as “South Pacific” and “Miss Saigon”, the story concentrates on love affairs involving military men, in this case members of G Company: First Sergeant Milt Warden (Kevin Aichele), enters into an affair with Karen Holmes (Robyn Hurder), the wife of his superior, Capt. Dana “Dynamite” Holmes (Bradley Dean); Pvt. Robert E. Lee Prewitt (Derek Carley), a career military man, falls in love with Lorene (Jenna Nicole Schoen), one of the New Congress Club girls (a dance hall hostess in the film, but clearly a prostitute in this version), working for Mrs. Kipfer (Jodi Kimura); and Pvt. Angelo Maggio (Michael Tacconi), has love for sale, as a sort of gay hustler. The relationship between Milt and Karen is a dangerous one, but no less than Prewitt’s naïve obsession with Lorene, or the plight of Maggio and his night job. Added to the tension is the “treatment”, or bullying, which Prewitt receives from his company when he refuses to box for “Dynamite” Holmes, based on some bad personal history. Private Isaac Bloom (Jason Micheal Evans) has his own demons.

The musical numbers, played by a terrific band and sung by a superb cast, are still many and varied, ranging from ballads to blues to jazz, and big band to swing and even to somewhat anachronistic rock and roll (and sometimes with more brass than even the Army can handle). There are several standouts, such as “Thirty Year Man” (delivered by the hunky yet vulnerable Carley, who immediately captures and continually focuses our attention on his character), “At Ease” (a solo by Aichele, a tall, dark and handsome Warden with a magnificent voice), “Fight the Fight” (an anthem by Carley, and a real showstopper), “Run Along, Joe” (a beautifully sad lament by Schoen), “Love Me Forever Today” (a tender duet for Carley and Schoen), “Ain’t Where I Wanna Be Blues” (early rock and roll as sung by Carley and Aichele), the intricate quintet “Something in Return” (by the four principals and Tacconi), and the poignant “Boys of ‘41” (sung by the Women). When originally viewed as an HD broadcast last season from London, there were fouteen numbers in the first act and thirteen numbers in the second (here trimmed to a total of nineteen, including five reprises); some fine songs unfortunately had to be dropped (and one, not listed in the program, a solo for the character of Karen, “Another Language” has become a duet), but this slimmer version is aimed at a more theatrical experience. Whether it succeeds remains to be seen.

The Cast of "From Here to Eternity"
(photo: Gary Ng)

The huge cast of over two dozen singing and dancing actors include the men of Company G and the girls of the Congress Club. The technical credits included the terrific Set Design by Stanley A. Meyer and Costume Design by Dustin Cross (at least for the ladies, as the men’s outfits are uniformly alike), striking Lighting Design by Richard Latta, effective Sound Design by Kevin Heard, moving Projection Design by Chrsitopher Ash, and fine Musical Direction by Vadim Feichtner; the Direction and Choreography are by Brett Smock, who is also the Creative Producer. The overall direction is fine, but the choreography is mostly robotic except when the women are involved.

This is still a good show with great moments, superb singing and a lot of heart. It can be visually stunning (the attack on Pearl Harbor is amazingly portrayed). As often happens when a lengthy novel is adapted to the musical stage, it’s definitely plot and subplot heavy, especially in the expository scenes of the first act. The show as it now stands needs to clarify its presentation of a homosexual subculture on its way to becoming what it could be. You may see and hear for yourself through October 29
th. As it stands, it’s chock full of energy and vitality, with enough stirring numbers to rock a house from here to.....Broadway.


H & H's "Symphony No.9": Owed to Joyous Music

Conductor Masaaki Suzuki & Principals in "Symphony No.9"
(photo: Handel & Haydn Society)
It no doubt came as a surprise to Handel & Haydn Society audiences this past weekend to read that Beethoven's Ninth Symphony didn't even exist when H&H was founded; when the composer did write what would be his final symphonic work, H&H had already been around for almost a decade. Though it's been about fifteen seasons since it last appeared on their schedule, its return was eagerly awaited, especially given the orchestra's goal to recreate the piece as close to its original form and instrumentation as possible. This meant, among other things, that their performance of the work would entail no fewer than four French horns, and a contrabassoon of impressive proportions, portending a significant program.

First on the docket was a delightful curtain raiser, the relatively brief Symphony No.104 in D Major, better known as the “London Symphony”, written by Joseph Haydn in 1795, the year that Beethoven made his first public appearance in Vienna. A good companion piece for the Beethoven in its structure and feeling, it incorporates folk-inspired melodies, with its four movements developing from a fanfare to a shifting between major and minor (a technique for which Haydn would become famous), to a celebratory minuet passage invoking country dance to a final movement with the feel of a faster dance. Under the direction of Conductor Masaaki Suzuki, it clearly accomplished the composer's intent, as the program notes, to seize upon an idea and then developing and sustaining it so that it stays in the mind of an audience.

The same could be said for the main event of the concert, a perfect way to describe the Beethoven. Fascinated by the Friedrich Schiller poem An die Freude (“Joy”), Beethoven was driven to express in musical terms the emotions expressed in the source material. From the first of its four movements one is drawn into his music with its open intervals, followed by what can only be called tempestuous passion, then by the slower meditative section and ultimately the “Ode to Joy”, which of course included the remarkable H&H Chorus and four stellar turns by the principals, soprano Joelle Harvey, mezzo-soprano Adriana Zabala, tenor Tom Randle and bass-baritone Dashon Burton. Harvey's contribution especially stood out, given her last-minute substitution. But all were well up to the demands of the music, eliciting a thunderous justly-earned standing ovation the likes of which has rarely so rocked Symphony Hall. Suzuki was about as dynamic and expressive as one could imagine, and Concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky, with her typical ferocious attack, merely added to her already well-established reputation as H&H's not-so-secret weapon, perhaps the company's greatest gift to Boston.
Though of course neither was aware of the irony, these two works would prove to be the last symphonies each one was to compose; much would prove to be owed to this joyous music.


Fathom Events' Met Opera "Norma": Moonlight Becomes Her

The Metropolitan Opera's "Norma"
(photo: Met Opera)

Vincenzo Bellini's Norma, the first HD Broadcast of the current season by the Metropolitan Opera, with Libretto by Felice Romani, may require a brief synopsis of its somewhat convoluted plot, especially if this “moonlit” production obscures a few plot points here or there.

The story takes place in Gaul, in 50 BCE, during the Roman occupation. In a forest at night, the priest Oroveso (bass Matthew Rose) leads the Druids in prayer against the Romans. The Roman proconsul Pollione (tenor Joseph Calleja) admits to his friend Flavio (tenor Adam Diegel) that he no longer loves the high priestess Norma (soprano Sondra Radvanovsky), Oroveso’s daughter, with whom he has two children. He has fallen in love with a young novice priestess, Adalgisa (mezzo Joyce DiDonato). Flavio warns him against Norma’s anger. The Druids assemble and Norma prays to the moon goddess for peace. She tells her people she will lead their revolt, though she could never harm Pollione. Adalgisa asks for strength to resist Pollione, who urges her to flee with him to Rome. She agrees to renounce her vows. Norma tells her confidante Clotilde (soprano Michelle Bradley) that Pollione has been recalled to Rome. Adalgisa confesses to Norma that she has a lover. Norma, about to release Adalgisa from her vows, asks for the name of her lover. As Pollione appears, Adalgisa answers truthfully. Norma, her kindness turning to fury, tells Adalgisa about her own betrayal by the Roman soldier. Pollione confesses his love for Adalgisa and asks her again to come away with him, but she refuses and vows she would rather die than steal him from Norma.

The Metropolitan Opera's "Norma"
(photo: Met Opera)

Norma, dagger in hand, tries to bring herself to murder her children in their sleep to protect them from living disgracefully without a father. She changes her mind and summons Adalgisa, advising her to marry Pollione and take the children to Rome. Adalgisa refuses: she will go to Pollione, but only to persuade him to return to Norma. Overcome by emotion, Norma embraces her, and the women reaffirm their friendship. The Druids assemble at their altar to hear Oroveso’s announcement that a new commander will replace Pollione. Oroveso rages against the Roman oppression, but tells the Druids that they must be patient to ensure the success of the eventual revolt. Norma, stunned to hear from Clotilde that Adalgisa’s pleas have not persuaded Pollione, in a rage urges her people to attack the conquerors. Oroveso demands a sacrificial victim, and just then Pollione is brought in. Norma promises him his freedom if he will leave Adalgisa and return to her. When he refuses, Norma threatens to kill him and their children, and to punish Adalgisa. She calls in the Druids and tells them that a guilty priestess must die, then confesses that she is referring to herself. Moved by her nobility, Pollione asks to share her fate. She begs Oroveso to watch over her children and leads her lover to the pyre.

Bellini's composition, Conducted by Carlo Rizzi, includes such arias as Sola, furtiva, al tempio (Norma and Adalgisa), Oh! Di qual sei tu vittima (a trio by Norma, Adalgisa, and Pollione), and of course the justly famous Casta diva solo by Norma, all superbly sung (and acted) by the principals, especially Radvanovsky and DiDonato. It was quite an audible treat, if not a visual one; the Production by Sir David McVicar, Set Design by Robert Jones, Costume Design by Moritz Junge, and Lighting Design by Paule Constable, all managed to create a dark and ugly experience lit, as the libretto details, for most of the opera, solely by moonlight (which actually becomes no one). Fortunately, the Metropolitan Opera Chorus (mostly male, with a few females to ensure there'd be future druids) led by Donald Palumbo, saved the day, as did the Live in HD Director Gary Halvorson and charming HD Host Susanna Phillips.

It was a wondrously memorable performance for the ears, if not always for the eyes.