Fiddlehead's "Little Mermaid": "Squid Pro Quo"?

The Cast of "Little Mermaid"
(photo: Eric Antoniou/Fiddlehead Theatre)
Squid pro quo” is, as puns go, outrageous, one of many in the current Fiddlehead Theatre Company production of Disney's “The Little Mermaid”. Most of them went right over the heads of the sea of urchins (human, not the marine type) assembled for a recent matinee, but the adults in the audience lapped up the more painfully over-the-top lines. One's tolerance for this level of humor and the Borscht Belt delivery might be strained, but in the end a good time appeared to be had by all. It's their last stand at the Strand venue in Dorchester, so it will be interesting to see how they do in the Shubert Theatre with their mounting of “Showboat” next spring.

For the moment, thanks largely to the excellent Choreography by Kira Cowan Troilo, the inventive Costume Design by Director Stacey Stephens, the lively Music Direction by Charles Peltz, clever Scenic Design by Mac Young, and complex Lighting Design by Zach Blane, they're in a good place. There is also fine Sound Design by Brian McCoy and sometimes pesky Flying by Foy. It's in the source material where the show too often (you should excuse the expression) flounders, with hopelessly over-padded music and dialogue. The original film's Music by Alan Menken and Lyrics by Howard Ashman (with some additional lyrics by Glenn Slater) included several such top-drawer songs as “Part of Your World”, “Kiss the Girl” and of course “Under the Sea”. These three numbers continue to delight, but most of the musical numbers added for the stage are instantly forgettable (with the exception of “If Only” sung by the impressive Andrew Giordano as King Triton), some even irritating, such as “Positoovity”.

The cast, every member proficient both in singing and dancing, is led by Jesse Lynn Harte as Ariel, ably supported by Eric (Jared Troilo), Sebastian (Jay Kelley, especially notable for his movement in the “Under the Sea” sequence), and other characters with such names as Grimsby (Ray O'Hare), Flotsam (Chris Pittman), Jetsam (Carl-Michael Ogle), Scuttle (Eddy Cavazos), and, yes, even Flounder (Scott Caron). Standouts are the prance-on role of Chef Louis (Andy Papas) and the powerful voice of Ursula (Shana Dirik). In the acting department, most could profit from a dose of subtlety, but that might be too much to expect from a show with this target audience in its sights.

The main weakness of the show is the Book by Doug Wright, a real surprise, given his noted previous work (“I Am My Own Wife”, “Grey Gardens”). There are a few other relatively minor quibbles (the too-visible wires that make characters “fly”, the mermaids with quite discernible feet, the occasional mugging) but in the end it's the enjoyment of the children (and the childlike adults accompanying them) that truly matters. While the 1989 film remains far superior, and, though it sounds fishy, a non-animated film is in the pipeline, this version, in its across-the-nation popularity, has proven that Hans Christian Anderson's heroine still has legs.


Fathom Events' Met Opera's "Lulu": Iced Berg

Marlis Petersen as Berg's "Lulu"
(photo: Metropolitan Opera)

The Metropolitan Opera's latest HD Live broadcast is Alban Berg's "Lulu", his sordid tale of the complicated temptress who disrupts the lives of all who surround her. Unabashedly lurid, this is a challenging piece to say the least, especially with its relatively unapproachable music. It's not a particularly popular work, though its fans are avid. However, it's undeniably unsavory, and, as opera plots go, this one is a real lulu.

In a prologue, the Animal Trainer invites us to visit his menagerie, including “the serpent Lulu”, the cold-as-ice “heroine” of this story. Lulu (Marlis Petersen) is sitting for her portrait by The Painter (Paul Groves), with her lover Schön (Johan Reuter) in attendance, when her husband The Physician rushes in, discovers her and collapses in shock, dying. Later, after Lulu and The Painter are married, they are visited by the aged Schigolch (Franz Grundheber) who is either her father or a former lover, when she hears Schön has become engaged. Schön tells her husband about her lurid past, causing him to cut his throat. Lulu is indifferent to the suicide, convinced Schön will marry her. His son Alwa (Daniel Brenna) composes a ballet for Lulu to perform but she refuses when she sees Schön in the audience with his fiancée. Lulu convinces him to break off his engagement. Later, now married to Schön, she continues to attract admirers, including Alwa and the lesbian Countess Geschwitz (Susan Graham), causing Schön to insist that Lulu shoot herself to protect his reputation. Instead, she shoots and kills him. Committed to a hospital with cholera, she plans her escape by arranging for The Countess to take her place. Alwa reaffirms his love for Lulu and agrees to take her to his Paris mansion, where they have a raucous birthday party for her, broken up by the police just as she leaves. Later, Alwa, living in a cheap London garret, confronts Lulu, now a prostitute, as she brings home her first client. The Countess enters with Lulu's portrait. Lulu brings home yet another client, who is killed by Alwa. Schigolch drags away the body and disappears. The Countess contemplates suicide when Lulu brings home another client, who turns out to be Jack the Ripper (Reuter again). Arguing about money, they go into her room. Her screams are heard as she is killed by Jack. Attempting to help, the Countess is also stabbed by Jack, who leaves as the Countess, dying, cries out one last time for Lulu.

The Met is fortunate that Petersen, who has made this role her international signature, has consented to perform it for one last run. Even those opera fans who detest twelve tone works will find her performance, both in acting and singing, truly magnetic. The entire cast sang the difficult score very well, and Conductor Lothar Keonigs led the orchestra superbly. The creative team was another matter, as Set Designer Sabine Theunissen and Projection Designer Catherine Meyburgh, in this production by William Kentridge, repeated their work seen in the Met's “The Nose”, but overly so, producing very drab visuals. The same could be said for Costume Designer Greta Goiris and Lighting Designer Urs Schönebaum. The expressive Live in HD Broadcast Host was Deborah Voigt.

It may never be one's favorite opera, but as it stands in this current version, it's at least never boring. But then, sin at this level rarely is either.

Encore broadcast will be shown on Wednesday December 2nd at 6:30pm at a theater near you.


Huntington's "Confederacy of Dunces": Flatulence Will Get You Everywhere

Nick Offerman & Cast of "A Confederacy of Dunces"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Ignatius J. Reilly”; say it soft and it's almost like praying. Or so think some multitudes of avid readers (including this critic) of this antihero of the 1981 novel “A Confederacy of Dunces” by John Kennedy Toole. In the forward to the book by its primary advocate, novelist Walker Percy, Ignatius is described succinctly as a “slob extraordinary, a mad Oliver Hardy, a fat Don Quixote, a perverse Thomas Aquinas, rolled into one who is in violent revolt against the entire modern age...who between gigantic seizures of flatulence and eructations is filling dozens of Big Chief tablets with invective”. The title refers to a quotation from Jonathan Swift: “When a true genius appears in the world, you may know him by this sign, that the dunces are all in confederacy against him”. Percy was introduced to Toole's novel by the author's persistent mother years after her son's death by suicide at 31. Percy was blown away by it, championed it until it was finally published, and basked in reflected glory when it subsequently won the Pulitzer. It was the object of several proposals over the years for a film version, none of which ever saw the light of day, save for a reading of a Steven Soderbergh screenplay in 2003. Some began to believe the effort was jinxed, as alluded to in the non-fiction work by Cory MacLaughlin (“Butterfly in the Typewriter”) about the author's struggles with himself and the world. Now, at last, Huntington Theatre Company is presenting the world premiere of a fully staged version adapted by playwright Jeffrey Hatcher. Fingers and sphincters crossed, Ignatius' legion of fans waited in hushed anticipation mixed with more than just a touch of anxiety and dread.

They need not have been concerned. Though the concept of bringing this 300-pound bloviating bellower of bovine banality was a daunting one in thought, it's a haunting one in execution. Ignatius has been described as “excessive in all things”, “huge,obese, fractious, fastidious, a latter-day Gargantua”, “Falstaffian” with “echoes of Shakespeare and Wilde”, “a grand comic figure”, “a brainy, obnoxious, gassy, hefty center of gravity”, an outlandish “slovenly cynic whose snobbery is even more off-putting than his distinct lack of hygiene”, a “classic archetype”, and a “legend in his own mind”. On the page, he considers himself the center of the universe; on stage, he's all this and more. The play, as did the book, throws together the great social forces of the counterculture of 1960's America, such as race, and whether an original like Ignatius can outwit the nitwits. As Hatcher has said, “a lot of the people in this play are trapped. The way out for them may be success, it may be freedom, it may be leaving New Orleans. Ignatius is frightened of leaving New Orleans but he must. Like the rest of them, he's trapped and looking for a way out”. His is a difficult personality to embrace. Unless he's present in the person of one Nick Offerman.

Offerman is a perfect deadpan choice for our central character in a work full of characters of all sorts and sizes (fifteen or more). Though we're spared the book's describing his favorite flops of the cinema (such as two Doris Day films, “Billy Rose's Jumbo” and “That Touch of Mink”), he's still an omniscient critic of all in his wake. Offerman manages, with the raising of an eyebrow, the haughtiness of his tone, and his pontificating delivery, to embody this fantastic creature. Then there's his mother Irene (Anita Gillette, fondly remembered for delivering some of Irving Berlin's funniest lyrics ever, in the song “The Secret Service Makes Me Nervous”, from Mr.President). Gillette remains a cosmic comic force to be reckoned with. The remaining cast of characters: a caustic Burma Jones (Phillip James Brannon), an overly swishy Dorian Greene and wimpy Mr. Gonzalez (Arnie Burton), a domineering Lana Lee and protofeminist Myrna (Stephanie DiMaggio), a hilariously comatose Miss Trixie (Julie Halston), as well as Officer Mancuso (Paul Melendy), Mr. Watson and Mr. Clyde (Lonnie Farmer), Darlene (Talene Monahon), Claude Robichaux (Ed Peed), Gus Levy and Sergeant (Steve Rosen), Santa Battaglia (Lusia Strus, with a voice that could shatter glass), Mrs. Levy and George (Stacey Yen), a Bartending Pianist (Wayne Barker, who also provided Music Direction), and a Trombonist (David L. Harris). It's a cast of fifteen, an anomaly in these dramatically underpopulated days. As Directed by David Esbjornson they're mostly wonderful and crucial. Equally important are the creative team contributions: inventive Scenic Design by Riccardo Hernandez (with countless short scenes defined with the help of sliding panels), painstaking Costume Design by Michael Krass (with Ignatius' hunter's cap, suspenders, and untied boots, he's a vision in plaid), complex Lighting Design by Scott Zielinski (which also helps to designate scene changes), and, perhaps most vital, the perfect Sound Design by Mark Bennett and Charles Coes (reminisicent of movie post-production Foley sound effects work, with the cast's pantomiming replacing props, which are heard but not seen), excellent Original Music by Bennett (lending a helpful New Orleans feel) and fine but restrained Projection Design by Sven Ortel.

Thus there's a great deal of talent on display all around. The question remains whether the script itself is sufficiently insightful as to make its central character as unforgettable “live and in color” as he has been in written form. Hatcher has said that no one is indifferent to the book; people either love it or toss it across the room. A similar fate seems likely for this staged version. Audiences will love it and loathe it, depending on their tolerance for Ignatius himself. With consummate pagecraft, in written form he was weirdly lovable; with the parameters of stagecraft, Ignatius in living color is someone who, though still fascinating, wouldn't necessarily be one's first choice as a companion on a transcontinental road trip (or trans-city, for that matter). Many will welcome him; after all, nothing succeeds like excess. The play has already broken box office records, as the second highest grossing production by the company (after last season's wondrous Jungle Book).

All's well (or maybe not) that ends well as our hero presses Myrna's pigtail to his wet mustache in his poignant approach avoidance in the final scene. This adaptation is often brilliant, wildly creative and engrossing (in more ways than one). While at this point in time it needs a Weight Watchers regimen to reach its full potential, it's already a wacky wonder that captures the essence of a much beloved book as few such adaptations do. As was the novel, this play will have its advocates as well as detractors. In its present form, all signs lead one to hope for a leaner but no meaner future. Let Ignatius himself have the last word: “I refuse to 'look up'; optimism nauseates me”.


PPAC's "Book of Mormon": This Is the Place

Monica L. Patton, David Larsen & Cody Jamison Strand in "Book of Mormon"
(photo: Joan Marcus)

Have faith. The “Book of Mormon”, that outrageous musical that took Broadway by storm (and continues to do so with sold-out performances), is back proselytizing the Book, Music and Lyrics by Trey Parker and Matt Stone (South Park), and Robert Lopez (Avenue Q). Irreverent, blasphemous and bawdy, it was a huge commercial and critical hit, surprisingly so when one considers some of the words and plot points. Against all odds, this raunchily creative wonder won nine Tony Awards including Best Musical of the 2011 season. Now, four years later, it's still easy to see why it has been so successful. There are so many fine points to this show that you can easily overlook its over-the-top political incorrectness and in-your-face humor. If you haven't experienced it yet (or even if you have and need a refresher course of not-so-old-time religion), be advised that, to paraphrase Mormon founder Joseph Smith, one can safely say of the Providence Performing Arts Center that this is the place to be.

The story begins in ancient upstate New York, where the prophet Mormon gives golden plates (about the history of his people) to his son Moroni, who buries them in hopes that someone will someday dig them up. Fast forward to a few centuries later, and that's exactly what happens, as the Church of Latter Day Saints is founded when they are rediscovered by Joseph Smith (Edward Watts). The modern story concerns the assignments of a group of young Mormon missionaries (“Hello”), including Elder Price (David Larsen) who had hoped to be sent to Orlando but instead finds himself headed for Uganda, with his fellow missionary Elder Cunningham (Cody Jamison Strand), ("Two by Two”). Cunningham is the less confident of the pair, though Price has enough confidence for the two of them (“You and Me, but Mostly Me”). In Uganda they encounter their guide Mafala (James Vincent Meredith) and his daughter Nabulungi (Candace Quarrels), who joyously sing “Hasa Diga Eebowai” (and do not expect a translation here, there may be children present) as well as Elder McKinley (Daxton Bloomquist), who advises Price to go slowly (“Turn It Off”) and has yet to baptize a single convert. The local General (David Aron Damane), in fact, decrees that all of the tribal women must be circumcised. Meanwhile, although Cunningham has assured Price of his loyalty (“I Am Here for You”), the people are unimpressed (“All-American Prophet”) especially about the paradisiacal “Sal Tlay Ka Siti” (yes, that's Salt Lake City). Price and Cunningham have a falling out, leaving the missionary work in Cunningham's inventive hands, as he vows to “Man Up”.

The story continues in the second act wherein, thanks to a few major embellishments in his communicating the Mormon story (“Making Things Up Again”), Elder Cunningham manages to convince ten volunteers to be baptized (“Baptize Me”), rescuing Price from his depression (“Spooky Mormon Hell Dream”) and restoring his faith (“I Believe”). The Mormon authorities are thrilled until they learn exactly what stories the people have been told. Elder Price, said to have been eaten by lions, suddenly reappears before the people and they proclaim their belief in this miraculously reborn messenger prophet as he proclaims his oneness with the people (“I Am Africa”). The tribe puts on a pageant (“Joseph Smith, American Moses”) which exposes the made-up message conveyed by Cunningham. The Mormon heads are horrified and leave in disgust, while the people promise their new-found Book of Arnold (Cunningham, that is) will change everyone's life, for “Tomorrow Is a Latter Day”.

The show is a love letter to Broadway, with references, some subtle and some not, to such previous works as “Bye Bye Birdie” (in its opening number, “Hello”), “The Lion King”, and “The King and I” (with its hysterical take on “Small House of Uncle Thomas”). Thanks to the efforts of its Co-Directors, Parker and Casey Nicholaw (who also created the unforgettably lively choreography), as well as a swell cast led by the electric Larsen (a superb singer who moves extraordinarily well) and the powerful Quarrels, the show has been kept fresh in several senses of the word. Only the unrestrained performance of Strand detracted, though he seemed toned down in the second act, perhaps adjusting to the venue; he was hilarious, in fact, in his delivery of his mangled names for Quarrel's character, Nabulungi, from “Neosporin” to “Neutrogena”. The Set Design by Scott Pask, Costume Design by Ann Roth, Lighting Design by Brian MacDevitt and Sound Design by Brian Ronan were all on a par with the New York version, and all ended well save for the Doctor (Melvin Brandon Logan) whose repeated refrain was “there are maggots in my scrotum” (and no, that's not a typo).

One could understand why the New York Times reviewer proclaimed this (a bit prematurely) “the musical of the century”. The four years since have given us such milestones as “Fun Home” and, most especially, “Hamilton”. Nonetheless, this is way up there with the finest of Broadway-birthed productions, and to all its rave notices one can only respond Amen! Let's admit it: they had us with “Hello”.


ArtsEmerson's "U Carmen": Carmen's Marimbas

Ayanda Tikolo, Luvo Rasemeni, Pauline Malefane, Mhlekazi (Whawha) Mosiea,
Bongiwe Mapassa, Noluthando Boqwana & Zoleka Mpotsha in "U Carmen"
(photo: John Page)
ArtsEmerson's current offering is “U Carmen”, created and performed by the South African theatre company The Isango Ensemble, so memorable for their production last season of Mozart's “Magic Flute”. This time around they've adapted the popular 1875 opera by Bizet, setting it not in the bullrings of Spain but, as the program says, “a land which somehow borders France, Spain and South Africa”. (Elsewhere in the past in print it was identified as the Capetown township of Khayelitsha). At 100 minutes including a twenty minute intermission, it's a very truncated version of the original “Carmen”, which might profit from being presented as a one-acter. It must also be said that Mozart lent himself more to marimbas than does Bizet. One missed the more dramatic orchestrations that this story of passion necessitates.

This adaptation follows the narrative of the original opera reasonably closely, though some familiarity with it would be of benefit. Whether it was due to diction issues or the balance between musicians and singers, much of what remained of the libretto was incomprehensible, and might as well have been sung not in English but in Xhosa, one of the eleven official languages in South Africa. (Then again, perhaps this was a blessing given some of the intelligible lyrics such as “in this neighborhood your timing wasn't good”). But the singing was on the same extraordinarily level as it was on the company's visit last year in solos, duets, trios and choral work. While all were excellent, the standouts were Pauline Malefane as Carmen, the gypsy girl, and Mhlekazi (Whawha) Mosiea as Don José, corporal of the dragoons. Much of the singing was a cappella this time around.

Under the direction of Mark Dornford-May (who was also responsible for the adaptation from a translation by Rory Bremner), The Isango Ensemble shone once again, especially in the fabulous choreography by Lungelo Ngamlana and the lively Music Arrangement by Conductor Mandisi Dyantyis. The effective Lighting was by Chloe Kenward, with the set (unattributed) the identical one utilized last season for “The Magic Flute”.

Any visit from this talented ensemble is a welcome one, and “U Carmen” is a production that's been identified with the company from its inception. One looks forward to savoring an annual performance as the company develops and expands its repertoire. For now, one can sit back and admire the gypsy in their souls, and, since it's another unshod performance, their soles.


BLO's "In the Penal Colony": Harrowing Punishment

(From top) Yury Yanowsky, Neal Ferreira & David McFerrin in "In the Penal Colony"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

One would be hard pressed to imagine a more challenging venue for attending an opera than the Cyclorama Building in Boston's South End, but that's precisely where Boston Lyric Opera's current production, “In the Penal Colony”, is being performed. A one-act chamber opera by Phillip Glass, with a libretto by Rudolph Wurlitzer (in English), it was first produced in 2000 in Seattle. It's about eighty minutes long; Glass termed it his “pocket opera”. Based on Kafka's 1914 dystopian short story, it features a death machine, namely a harrow, a farm implement with spike-like teeth intended to level soil, but used for medieval torture. It's at the center of this dark tale of the breakdown of civil society, about crime and unusual punishment, set in a penal colony. Written and composed to feature three performers and a string quintet (two violins, viola, cello, and bass), the work turned out to be a perfect choice for this venue (as part of the BLO's Opera Annex program), thanks to some ingenuity on the part of the creative team, especially in overcoming potential acoustical concerns.

The story begins as a Visitor (tenor Neal Ferreira) arrives at the penal colony, invited by its new commander to witness an execution, conducted by the Officer (baritone David McFerrin), of a Man (actor Yury Yanowsky). The condemned man doesn't know his fate and has had no chance to defend himself; “guilt is always beyond doubt”. The machine is constructed to emboss a description of the man's crime into his flesh during twelve hours of torture until the “transfiguring moment of redemption as the victim realizes the nature of his crime”. The Visitor is appalled but feels he has no right to intervene. When the machine malfunctions, the Officer frees the prisoner, climbs in, and discovers that “he never found what he sought and what all the others found...no sign of redemption...none at all”.

Throughout the piece, with its pulsating “ostinatos” (Glass' typical musical perseverations), ranging from forceful surges to more meditative calm, with its plaintive sections for the violins, inquiring cello, and sudden pauses, there was conveyed a feeling of dread, most especially with the abrupt silence after the climax. Thanks in large part to the superb interpretation of Conductor Ryan Turner and his quintet, and the marvelous Stage Direction by R.B. Schlather, with effective Set Design by Julia Noulin-Merat, clever Costume Design by Terese Wadden and wondrously original Lighting Design by JAX Messinger, this was a somewhat creepy and chilling experience, precisely as it was intended to be. McFerrin and Ferreira were both in fine voice, managing to fill the hall with their intensely dramatic singing and movement, which also involved former Boston Ballet star Yanowsky, a tremendous asset to the performance. The efforts of the entire team made for an unforgettable production. Even the surtitles (by John Conlin and Allison Voth) became an integral part of this portrayal of a disintegrating society.

Some of the audience may not have been devotees of the composer's oeuvre before this; this brief but spellbinding opera could break that Glass ceiling. It's arguably his most approachable music, and, as presented by the BLO, a true triumph in the company's history.


Curtain Call's "Next to Normal": Still Poles Away from the Norm

Sam Patch, Steve Perry & Ann McCoy in "Next to Normal"
(photo: Curtain Call Theatre)

It isn't the norm for this blog site to review community theatre productions, as they rightfully require that they be seen through a different lens from that employed in assessing more “professional” efforts. A rare exception is Curtain Call's current production (in Braintree), the musical “Next to Normal”, which merits consideration right up there with previous versions seen on Broadway and in a regional Boston company. As noted by this critic in the past, this 2009 Broadway musical is poles away from typical musical fare, especially in its subject matter, about a damaged woman suffering from what was once called manic-depressive mental illness. It defies classification just as it (almost) defies description. In its defiantly through-composed form it is undeniably operatic, but its story is intimate and immediate. Its music (deservedly honored with Tony awards for both score and orchestration) is modern but not really rock, powerful and memorable. Yet, even with some three dozen musical numbers, it yields not a single stand-alone standard. While it has moments of humor, mostly in the form of irony, it is decidedly not a musical comedy; rather, it’s the theater’s first truly bipolar musical, in more ways than two. It is also one of the few musicals ever to win the Pulitzer Prize for drama, a feat matched only three times in the last three decades, the others being “Rent” and “Sunday in the Park with George”, and only eight times in the entire history of the Pulitzer. Nominated for eleven Tony Awards, it won only three. It was the year of “Billy Elliot” (which shared the award for orchestration with “Next to Normal”) which had fifteen Tony nominations and won ten of them.

In this production, Director Jim Sullivan has assembled an astonishing cast, led by Ann McCoy as Diana, the bipolar wife and mother. From the moment she sang the show's opening line, “They're the perfect loving family”, it was clear that one would be witnessing a stellar performance. McCoy shares the stage with an incredibly talented ensemble. In this version, we truly feel the pain shared by the whole family as they deal with her inability to cope, to think, to feel. Above all, “Next to Normal” is about being there for one another. Sam Patch, as her treasured son Gabe, whom she insists must be there for her, Meghan Ryan as Natalie, her almost invisible daughter, craving the attention that her mother completely sucks out of the atmosphere, and Bryan George Rowell as Henry, Natalie’s unflaggingly sweet boyfriend, are all unforgettable. Kevin Fortin ably fills the roles of two of Diana’s practitioners. Then there is Steve Perry as Dan, the faithful husband and father, whose survival depends on repression, what he calls a “slower suicide”; as he also sings, “who’s crazy, the one who can’t cope or maybe the one who’ll still hope?”. He's a perfect match for Patch's astounding voice, Rowell's sincere sensitivity and Ryan's heartbreaking vulnerability. It's a dream cast in a nightmarish story. It's gratifying to see the memorable work presented in this production. The music by Tom Kitt and book and lyrics by Brian Yorkey are perfectly served by Music Director Jose Merlo, Jr. and his musicians, terrific throughout their two-hour workout. The Lighting Design is by Mollie MacKenzie, Sound Design by Peter Kates, and Scenic Design by James Gross.

This is no romanticized view of mental illness and the stigma with which society often views it, but a balanced presentation of the complexity of treatments (including what used to be referred to as electric shock therapy) for bipolar disease. Medications are a trade-off, what with their frequent side effects, requiring intelligent choices. As Diana puts it when she is medicated to the point of not feeling anything, she misses the mountains, the magic of the manic days, as well as the pain. (Her therapist’s response to her lack of feeling: “patient stable”). She wonders “what happens if the cut, the burn, the break was never in my brain or in my blood but in my soul?”. Toward the end of the play, Diana, still wounded but hopeful, comes to a decision that rather than have chance take her, she’ll take a chance. Earlier she had said that she had “seen this movie, and I walked out”. As she carries out her decision, she sings that “the price of love is loss, but still we pay; the darkest sky will someday see the sun”. As Natalie put it, one doesn’t “need a life that’s normal, but something next to normal would be okay”. Though some hurt never heals, and some ghosts are never gone, in the end “there will be light”. In this production, there's more than enough wattage to fill the compact black box stage. In choosing such challenging material and presenting it so successfully, Curtain Call Theatre gives new meaning (and depth) to the term “community theatre”.


Fathom Events' Met Opera's "Tannhauser": Marathon Man

Johan Botha & Eva-Maria Westbroek in the Metropolitan Opera's "Tannhauser"
(photo: Marty Sohl)

It's been a decade or so since the Metropolitan Opera has revived their production of Wagner's mighty “Tannhäuser”. It's a favorite of Met Music Director James Levine, so it should be no surprise that he chose himself as its Conductor. The production by Otto Schenk is an aging one (almost forty years old in fact) but the freshness of the singers' voices was what made the day. Since it's been a while since the Met has presented the opera, perhaps a brief synopsis might be helpful.

Minnesinger Tannhäuser (tenor Johan Botha), after a year in the underground realm of Venus, Goddess of Love, (mezzo-soprano Michelle DeYoung), yearns to return to the human world, angering Venus. He enlists the aid of the Virgin Mary and is transported to a valley near Wartburg Castle (in medieval Germany). After some pilgrims on their way to Rome pass by, a hunting party of knights known to him and led by the Landgraf Herman (bass Günther Groissböck) arrives. One of them, Wolfram (baritone Peter Mattei), begs him to return with them, as Tannhäuser's singing once won him the love of Elisabeth (soprano Eva-Maria Westbroek), the Landgraf's niece. When Tannhäuser hears her name, he decides to join them. Back in the Hall of Song in Wartburg Elisabeth tells Tannhäuser how she has missed him and the Landgraf declares that love will be the subject of a song contest, with the winner able to request anything from Elisabeth. While Wolfram sings of idealized love, Tannhäuser sings of more earthly pleasures, ending with a prize song to Venus, horrifying the guests, which leads to the knights drawing swords against him. Elisabeth stands between them and begs mercy. Landgraf decrees that Tannhäuser may go free but only if he joins the pilgrims headed for Rome to do penance. At that, Tannhäuser falls at her feet, then rushes out. Months later, Wolfram finds Elisabeth praying at a shrine as a band of pilgrims passes her on their way back from Rome. Since Tannhäuser isn't among them, she prays that the Virgin Mary receive her into heaven. A lone pilgrim arrives; it is Tannhäuser. Having been told by the Pope that he could no more be forgiven than the papal staff sprout green growth again, he summons Venus, though Wolfram brings him to his senses by mentioning the name of Elisabeth. At that very moment, her funeral procession is wending its way past him and Venus cries out and disappears. Begging Elisabeth to pray for him in heaven, he collapses and dies. As dawn arises, another group of pilgrims passes, spreading the news of a miracle: the Pope's staff, which they are carrying, has blossomed.

The singing was exquisite, including DeYoung and Westbroek, but it was the male singers who truly shone. Botha was magnificent, as was Mattei, and even the mezzo shepherd solo by Ying Fang was memorable. Levine's love for the piece was evident in his wonderfully nuanced conducting. The Chorus under Chorusmaster Donald Palumbo once again stole the show. The Set Design was by Gunther Schneider-Siemssen, with the Costume Design by Patricia Zipprodt, the dark Lighting Design by Gil Wechsler and the Choreography by Norbert Vesak.
It was a marathon outing for both performers and musicians, not to mention the audience, a solid five hours, but worth every minute of it.