Handel & Haydn's "Italian" & "Eroica" Symphonies: Striking a Chord

Richard Egarr conducts Beethoven's "Eroica" at Symphony Hall
(photo: Kat Waterman)

Boston's Handel and Haydn Society's recent performance of Mendelssohn's Fourth Symphony (the “Italian” ) and Beethoven's Third Symphony (the “Eroica”) at Symphony Hall was a revelatory experience, reflecting their similarities as well as their differences. The choice of two relative war horses from the orchestral repertory might have seemed an unusually safe one, but it was to prove an intelligent move given this orchestra's size which is closer to that which existed at the time of their composition (in 1833 and 1806 respectively). Both symphonies open with a forceful chord (in the Mendelssohn) or two (in the Beethoven) and a rising theme in their first movements, followed by a second movement of processionals, that of monks in the Italian, whereas in the Eroica, a funeral march. The third movements of both are based on dances, and the final movements harken back to the musical ideas introduced in their first movements. The pieces are thus quite similar in basic structure, but mostly opposite in their moods.

The Handel and Haydn Society Orchestra, under the baton (or, rather, lack thereof) of Conductor Richard Egarr was a treat to listen to as well as to watch. Aside from a slight glitch of one entry by the horns in the Eroica, it was a virtually flawless performance. The conducting style of this maestro is unusual to say the least. He conveys his desired tempi and volume often not only with his empty hands but also with various parts of his body, while standing without a podium, at the same height as his orchestra and without needing to consult a score. At the commencement of the Beethoven, he had scarcely reached center stage when he turned slightly to the orchestra to direct those two famous chords. This was indicative of his style throughout, always in command yet seemingly effortless. There was also a distinct response from the players, most visibly in the case of Concertmaster Aisslinn Nosky with her sharp, energetic and contagious artistry.

The ability to experience these works in a venue of this size with its acoustic perfection while with a smaller orchestra was an unexpectedly moving one, which the Handel and Haydn Society will be reprising on Sunday October 30th at 3 p.m. It's an opportunity that shouldn't be missed.

The remaining H & H Concerts for the current season are as follows:

Handel's Messiah
-Nov. 25, 26 & 27 at Symphony Hall

Bach Christmas
-Dec.15 & 18 at Jordan Hall

Mozart & Haydn
January 27 & 29 at Symphony Hall

Glories of the Italian Baroque
-February 10 & 12 at Jordan Hall

McGegan & Mozart
-March 3 & 5 at Symphony Hall

Monteverdi Vespers
-April 7 & 9 at Jordan Hall/Sanders Theatre

Handel's Semele
-May 5 & 7 at Symphony Hall


Huntington's "Tiger Style": Chinese Takeout

Ruibo Qian & Jon Norman Schneider in "Tiger Style"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)

Huntington Theatre Company's latest production is Mike Lew's new comedy Tiger Style that he has described as involving wrestling with his cultural upbringing as an Asian-American. What, he asks, “is our place as Asian-Americans in this country” where the stereotype portrays his only concern to be achievement, where families don't even love one another and fall into the “trap of letting labels reduce their understanding of themselves”. Given its world premiere a year ago at Atlanta Alliance Theatre, the play has reportedly had considerable tweaking. Though it has more than a few funny wisecracks, it feels as though that tweaking has led to more than a bit of padding. At this point, the play and its cast are reasonably successful at showing their stripes; their barbs, though, are scattershot.

The time is now, in California (or, as the program states whimsically, “Irvine, America”). It concerns two adult siblings of Chinese immigrants, software programmer Albert Chen (Jon Norman Schneider) and his oncologist sister Jennifer Chen (Ruibo Qian). Al (“I've been to the nerd mountaintop”) and Jen (“happy?...I don't know what that means”) are both stagnating in the face of the American Dream. Their Dad (Francis Jue) and Mom (Emily Kuroda) are true helicopter parents, hovering and micro-managing (e.g. forcing Al to take cello and Jen piano) in the very strict style of parenting supposedly typical of Asian Americans made famous by author Amy Chua's memoir Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother. At work, Al has to face the fact that others like Rus the Bus (Bryan Donovan) get promoted ahead of him. Jen complains to her therapist (Kuroda again) about failed attempts by her and Al to go “full Western”, leading to their shared decision to try “full Asian” with a “Freedom Tour” of China. Following a very funny encounter with an immigration agent (Donovan again) in “the Shenzen Special Economic Zone, China”, they find equal lack of success.

Directed by Moritz von Stuelpnagel, the cast is topnotch, as is the creative team, from the Scenic Design by Wilson Chin to the Costume Design by Junghyun Georgia Lee, Lighting Design by Matthew Richards, Sound Design and Original Music by Palmer Hefferan, and Projection Design by Alex Koch. Some of the funniest lines are headline-topical; some not so (e.g. “ultimatum...or ultimaybe”, or “there's always 'rash” in 'rational'”). Fortunately, the timing of the entire cast of five, especially the over-the-top Jue, is pluperfect, making some of the less impressive jokes ring stronger than they might otherwise in lesser hands. It often strains credulity, as when Al (in China) throws away his fanny pack containing all their money and passports in an illogical response to locals not speaking any English. The two siblings seem more than merely neurotic at several points in the plot.

Francis Jue, Ruibo Qian, Jon Norman Schneider & Emily Kuroda in "Tiger Style"
(photo: T. Charles Erickson)
In these days of pre-election angst, a good comedy is just what we all need, and this work will satisfy for the moment, though it may read better than it plays. It may suffice as an antidote to all the hysterical hoopla. One feels, though, about an hour after digesting this play, as with some takeout, hungry for more substantial theater.

Lyric Stage's "Warrior Class": Polishing the Armor

Steven Barkhimer & Michael Tow in "Warrior Class"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Warrior Class, Lyric Stage Company's current production of a three-character play by Kenneth Lin, would seem to be nothing if not topical and relevant to these politically hyperventilated days. The playwright poses the question of one's right to be given a second chance and if a person being considered for political office can really change from a previous toxic reality.

Republican Party operative Nathan Berkshire (Steven Barkhimer) is in the vetting process for a “hot new” potential candidate for a congressional seat, Julius Lee (Michael Tow) called “the Republican Obama” after a recent barnburning local speech. Lee seems on the surface the near perfect choice, a Christian and former Marine who served in Kuwait and on the Harvard Law Review. Nathan goes to Baltimore to vet Julius' old girlfriend Holly Eames (Jessica Webb), who is at first friendly and polite but suddenly balks at signing papers attesting to the benign nature of her previous relationship with Lee. Eventually, a skeleton pops out of the closet about how their affair ended, with no record at their college of what happened (having been expunged at Nathan's request). She even suggests a quid pro quo for her compliance.
There is a parallel made between Odysseus and Julius, now “just polishing armor” after a presumably illustrious military career. Whereas in the case of Odysseus, who was “seen and can be heard”, Julius feels he is more invisible as an assimilated Asian-American (or perhaps a Chinese-American would be more appropriate in discussing this work). Reference is made to the fact that local elections are more like traditional hiring practices. Aspiring to higher office inherently involves more fact-finding. Alex Wagner in The Atlantic is quoted in the program about “Asian” being a “label that masks the diversity among its peoples...(that) encompasses a vast array of cultures, languages, religions and histories” and posits that their biggest obstacle to poltitical involvement is their invisibility. Also quoted is writer and director Tom Huang with respect to the “danger of racial identifiers” providing us with convenient shortcuts to tell stories that thus turn out be untrue.

There are a number of charged issues addressed. For example, Lin writes somewhat presciently that a “political party is a thing of the past” and “not accountable for “something (he) said yesterday”, but most are sketchy at best. At issue here is whether or not this particular potential candidate is “fit for public office”. Therein lies a problem for a work this brief (less than eighty minutes in length). Despite a very predictable end, we learn scant little about the lead character of Julius in an underwritten role, though Tow and Director Dawn M. Simmons manage to leave a handful of clues. All three actors, in fact, could hardly be better, with Webb given perhaps the hardest role in which to evolve, and Barkhimer a standout both in appearance and performance. It's just that there are only the bare bones of what could have been a more complex, deeper and more involving longer work. The creative team, typically for Lyric Stage, provides stellar support on this small stage, from the extraordinarily flexible Scenic Design by Jenna McFarland Lord to the realistic Costume Design by Chelsea Kerl, effective Lighting Design by Daniel H. Jentzen and eerie Sound Design by Elizabeth Cahill.

At one point Nathan remarks “I was from the warrior class”, while Julius notes that “following foot soldiers leads to the grave”. These were hints at what a more developed play might ask about and perhaps begin to answer, especially given this admirable level of playwriting. In former days in theater, this might have served well as a curtain-raiser. In its present form, a promising author is pretty much only polishing the armor.


SpeakEasy's "Scottsboro Boys": Taking the Cake

Members of the Cast of SpeakEasy Stage Company's "The Scottsboro Boys"
(photo: Nile Hawver/Nile Scott Shots)
John Kander and the late Fred Ebb have provided a considerable number of musical theater productions that have often involved a good deal of risk. The musical Scottsboro Boys was controversial even in its title, echoing how a group of African American youth aged thirteen to nineteen were referenced as “boys”. Based on the true story of how these young men were unjustly jailed and (mis)treated, Scottsboro Boys opened on Broadway in 2010 and lasted just 49 performances, despite the reputation of Kander and Ebb (Music and Lyrics, their last collaboration), and David Thompson (Book), and despite being nominated for twelve Tony Awards including Best Musical (unfortunately for this show, in the same season as “Book of Mormon”). Its genius was to tell the story via a minstrel show, but this may also have led to its undoing. Intended as satire with minstrelsy songs, jokes, and dancing, and, yes, even blackface, it was picketed by people who never actually saw the show, and thus missed the point, namely the exposing of the evils of the system. Kander and Ebb once again revisited the Great Depression and the racial unrest of the thirties (as they had in “Steel Pier”, and, much before that, “Flora the Red Menace”), all held together in this show by an interlocutor as the host speaking directly to the audience. What resulted is a piece of musical theater like no other, in a class by itself, arguably Kander's and Ebbs' most inventive and unforgettable work.

Though the story is on record as part of this nation's checkered history, its anonymity requires a bit of a synopsis. (Fair warning: there are a few almost-spoilers). The lights come up on a lady (Shalaye Cavillo) carrying a cake box and waiting for a bus, which is late. She smells the cake, bringing back memories. The scene changes to a minstrel show in 1931, arranged by the Interlocutor (Russell Garrett), who introduces the nine youths, including Haywood Patterson (De'Lon Grant), who hop a freight train through Alabama. Just outside of Scottsboro, the men are pulled off the train, along with two white girls Victoria (Darrell Morris, Jr.) and Ruby (Isaiah Reynolds). Afraid they'll be arrested for prostitution, the girls accuse the men of rape, who are then brought to trial. Found guilty, they are condemned to death. The youngest, Eugene (Wakeem Jones) has nightmares about the electric chair. Just before the scheduled executions, word comes that the Supreme Court has overturned the verdicts and they are given a chance for another trial. One of the accused, young Roy (Sheldon Henry), teaches Haywood to write. And write he does, about their plight, making many in the North outraged. The Communist Party takes up their defense by hiring famous lawyer Samuel Leibowitz (Brandon G. Green) to take their case, raising some anti-Semitic issues. In her testimony, Ruby admits the men are innocent, but they are found guilty and sent back to prison. Haywood attempts unsuccessfully to escape to see his dying mother. After several additional trials, all with guilty verdicts, and after even Victoria recants, a deal is made to release four of the youngest boys, leaving the remaining five in custody. As one character blurts out, “you are guilty because of the way you look”. Haywood is promised parole if he admits guilt. He refuses and is sent back to jail where he dies twenty-one years later, having written their story. The Interlocutor announces the finale of the show but this time the Scottsboro Boys refuse to do the cakewalk, wondering if it has all been worth it and if people will remember.

Haywood was urged to “write it all down, the truth” even as he was asked “who's gonna learn from it?” . The lights come up on the lady who has been waiting, who then demonstrates the impact of their story on her and on history. The tagline for this production describes it as “a true story that changed history”. Rounding out the team are the characters of Ozie (Reynolds again), Andy (Darren Bunch), Willie (Taavon Gamble), Olen (Steven Martin) and Clarence Norris/Preacher (Aron Michael Ray). And then there are Mr. Bones (Maurice Emmanuel Parent) and Mr. Tambo (Green again), about whom more later.

What initially grabs one is the quality and variety of the score, encompassing fast ragtime to slow rag to folk song and of course cakewalk. There are echoes of Mr. Cellophane (from Chicago) in the plaintive Nothin' and Ruby's song Never too Late (to atone) as well as You Can't Do Me and Southern Days, their a cappela revision of a long-revered plantation song. Some of the subjects in the show's numbers, like parts of the book, are discomforting and macabre (“Daddy hangin' from a tree”, the electric chair or burning crosses), intentionally so. Yet there are also hearfelt songs like the bittersweet Go Back Home, the best number in the show, and one of the finest in the Kander and Ebbs pantheon. The score and book are deceptively upbeat in the initial minstrel show set-up, but they soon turn darker and more daring. The structure subliminally follows that of traditional minstrelsy: an introductory song-and-dance routine, then what was called the “olio” (a series of entertaining bits) and the “afterpiece” in the form of an extended skit or burlesque. But, as with their other serious works, especially Cabaret and Chicago, the message is as vital as the medium.

This is a brilliant piece of theater both in conception and (excuse the expression) execution. Wonderfully directed by the company's Producing Artistic Director Paul Daigneault, with fine
Musical Direction by Matthew Stern, and rousing Choreography by Ilyse Robbins, with very effective Scenic Design by Eric Levenson, Costume Design by Miranda Kau Giurleo, Lighting Design by Daisy Long and Sound Design by Donald Remedios, it's a creative marvel. But its true glory is in the performances. Parent and Green, in historically stereotypical roles as Mr. Bones and Mr. Tambo, excel in other multiple roles, as does Reynolds as Ozie and especially as Ruby. Grant is mesmerizing as the central figure of the case (though artistic license is at work here, as the real Haywood was focused on because he was the “ugliest” of the group, certainly not an adjective anyone would ever apply to Grant). But then, every member of the cast is a stunner, each with great vocal and acting chops and (you should also excuse this expression) rhythm.

SpeakEasy Stage Company, and Daigneault in particular, have always been known for their expert hand with musical theater. This may not be the best-known work by Kander and Ebb, but it deserves to be seen by any serious theater buff. With its sardonic black comedy (one final expression you should excuse), awe-inspiring dancing and all-around transcendence, it's the finest work thus far this season. “The truth: who's gonna learn from it?” Guess.


Met Opera's "Don Giovanni": Meanwhile, Back in Hell

"Don Giovanni" in Hell
(photo: Met Opera) 

A serial womanizer on the brink of self-destruction? Sounds as though ripped from the newspaper headlines...of 1787. We may have been all-consumed these past months with the fiery political campaigns, which have left many of us feeling as though we were living in one endless hell, but for its current HD broadcast, the Metropolitan Opera has chosen a popular favorite as a partial antidote. The opera is about that womanizer, namely Don Giovanni, one of Mozart's finest works, first performed in 1787 in Prague, reaching American audiences about forty years later. While true to the libretto by Lorenzo DaPonte, it simultaneously breaks new ground. The opera has had its champions over the years, from Tchaikovsky to George Bernard Shaw to Stendahl, blending as it does the comic and serious into what Mozart himself called a “dramma giocoso” or jocular drama. It's a story portraying the timeless battle of the sexes and classes.. Don Giovanni is still the narcissistic playboy, still the self-destructive sex symbol, who will ultimately meet his dramatic comeuppance, as indeed will certain politicians.

In a recent issue of Opera News, the plot was summed up in a single sentence, paraphrased here: In Seville, the servant Leporello (bass-baritone Adam Plachetka) keeps watch as his master, the titular bed-hopper Don Giovanni (baritone Simon Keenlyside) is pursued by a lover, Donna Elvira (soprano Malin Bystrom), whom he spurned, a husband, Masetto (bass Matthew Rose), of a woman he assaulted, Zerlina (mezzo Serena Malfi), a noblewoman, Donna Anna (soprano Hibla Gerzmava), who spurned him and whose father, the Commendatore (bass Kwangchul Youn), he killed, and her fiancé Don Ottavio (tenor Paul Appleby); but it's the murdered man's graveside statue that finally drags the unrepentant philanderer down to hell. That's it in a nutshell, with almost three hours of glorious music.

As with virtually all of Mozart's twenty-two operas, however, it's not the plot that matters most; it's all about the music, both sung and played. The company excelled in both of these departments, with memorable contributions by the Met Opera Orchestra led by Conductor Fabio Luisi and the singing by the entire cast, a varied ensemble. Every one of the principals gets a chance to shine in a solo aria or two, and none disappoint. Keenlyside, who makes an unforgettably dashing figure in the title role, almost manages to make us forgive the Don's excesses with his superb voice and believable acting. All three women are equally memorable, with Bystrom, Malfi and Gerzmava each delivering lengthy arias in great displays of technique and sound. The same could be said for Rose, Youn and Appleby in their supporting roles. The hit of the performance was probably Plachetka's Leporello which is perhaps as it should be, though it's a tough call in such an excellent cast as this was.  The Production was by Michael Grandage, with technical aspects suitably in harmony, from the Set Design and Costume Design by Christopher Oram to the dramatic Lighting Design by Paule Constable. The HD Host was Joyce DiDonato and the HD Broadcast Director was Matthew Diamond.

This was one of the company's best offerings, with a score full of hit tunes and a cast that really delivers them.

Fathom Events will have an Encore presentation next Weds. Oct. 26th at a theater near you.


New Rep's "Good": The Evil of Banality

Benjamin Evett, Michael Kaye, Alex Schneps, Tim Spears & Will Madden in "Good"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

Both ethical and theatrical ambiguity are at the heart of the 1981 play-with-music Good by C. P. Taylor, now playing at New Rep Theatre (a co-production with the Boston Center of American Performance). Described as a work that is “not political philosophy but tragedy inspired by historical events”, it traces the concurrent downward moral spiral and upward professional spiral of an unexceptional fictional character, 1930's German Professor John Halder (Michael Kaye), as he incrementally accepts the insidiously growing reach of the Third Reich. Echoing Hannah Arendt's controversial Eichmann in Jerusalem : A Report on the Banality of Evil, it's an exploration of the often confounding truth that apparently “good” people (“whatever that means”, as one character says) are capable of extraordinary malice as a result of, among other things, apathy and denial.

When we first meet Halder he is a seemingly moderate intellectual, a sort of musical Walter Mitty with a fantasy life revolving around the frequent hearing of music in his head (opening with Bing Crosby's rendition of I'm Always Chasing Rainbows). He also happens to have written a novel about euthanasia that comes to the attention of some rising Nazi leaders. His mother (Judith Chaffee), conveniently for this story, is more and more being overtaken by her dementia, and his wife Helen (Christine Power) is largely apathetic. There are mundane marital and matriarchal squabbles, as well as more philosophical ones with his Jewish psychiatrist friend Maurice (Tim Spears). He develops a relationship with one of his students, Anne (Casey Tacker) and is offered a position on the Committee for Research into Hereditary Disorders by Oberleader Bouller (Benjamin Evett), an ostensibly benign entity created for purely scientific purposes. This new job morphs, as do most of the peripheral agencies of the time, into a significantly more insidious one, all the while requiring moral compromises of our anti-hero. The other roles in this dangerous game include Adolf Eichman (Evett again), a Doctor (Jesse Garlick), a nun (Lily Linke), Freddie (Will Madden), Elizabeth (Linke again), a Dispatch Rider (Garlick again), and Bok, (Alex Schneps), a character with a strangely strong Bostonian accent. And, of course, Hitler (Schneps again), herein frequently portrayed in a Chaplinesque satirical manner (not completely successfully, any more than Chaplin himself or Mel Brooks ever did). The balance of the play is by and large predictable.

At one point Halder solves one of his own personal family issues by putting his mother out of his misery; at another, he questions whether his whole life has been a performance. It's an expressionistic work with a stream of unconsciousness format that develops the plot via frequent trains of thought rather than chronology, thus more fragmented, unstructured and, on the whole, undisciplined and even hyperventilated. That said, under Jim Petosa's direction, it's a pleasure to watch such a well-developed turn by Kaye (always on stage) and his energetic supporting cast, notably Spears, Chaffee and the always-amazing Evett. If things are here and there a bit over-the-top (and sometimes a lot), there's a lot of intelligent work afoot. And while this production doesn't go in for much subtlety, it could of course be argued that Naziism itself completely lacked nuance. Halder's musical fantasy life runs the gamut from yodeling to klezmer to jazz (described as “decadent negroid swamp jungle music”) to operetta (You Are My Heart's Delight and The Drinking Song) to Dietrich's Falling in Love Again to classical (Wagner's Das Reingold, Bach's Jesu, Joy of Man's Desiring) to a Jewish wedding song and My Blue Heaven. His intellectual outlook fails to condemn his first book-burning (“as long as I keep my copy”) and his idealism (“common interest before self”) has its own hierarchy as he claims “I have a whole scale of things that could worry me: the Jews and their problems....are very far down, for Christ's sake...way down the scale”. For Christ's sake indeed.

At the end of the rainbow, there is happiness: “I am happy.....absolutely”, Halder haltingly declaims. He has accomplished his role “humanely” and asserts “we're not monsters”. So much for massive denial. Is he then a monster or clown? Or, as Arendt put it, someone who learned to sing his conscience to sleep, or just a joiner? And why must we insist there cannot be a dichotomy? Why must it be either/or? Cannot a buffoon also be evil? It's important to keep in mind that this is an agenda-driven work of fiction and interpretation, with some convenient plot devices to maximize theatrical effect. Even the placement of the cast on stage virtually all the time, along with some audience members on stage for the whole performance in a choir-stall or more likely jury-style set-up is an underlying element to involve us all. The creative team is essential to the foreboding storm, from the simple Scenic Design by Jiyoung Han to the Costume Design by Megan Mills and Theona H. White to the effective Lighting Design by Bridget K. Doyle and Sound Design by Aubrey Dube. The visual book-burning, with the cast's hands evoking flames, is a striking, stunning image.

Today, we may bemoan not just the banality of evil but also the evil of banality. As New Rep's seasonal tagline says, “the past is prologue”. Who can overlook the present heart-felt if misdirected cries by some of the public: “give us back our country”? The political arena still requires choices; life demands choices. As Camus said, “Not to decide is to decide”. At one juncture in the play, Anne opines: “I don't believe in evil”; St. Paul, looking inwardly, saw it differently. And there is plenty of proof that one ought to believe in it, and the influence it has on the banal. We are in real life, as was Halder in fiction, surrounded by profiles in cowardice. The program for this play states that the current electoral mess has roots in such times as are portrayed in it. (One might also point to Orwell's Animal Farm). The vision of Halder's friend Maurice, of a weed struggling to emerge from its being trapped in concrete, is harrowing: “Concrete rots in the end; it can wait”.


Met Opera "Tristan and Isolde": Fifty Shades of Grey

Nina Stemme in "Tristan and Isolde"
(photo: Met Opera)

Richard Wagner's monumental work Tristan and Isolde was the opening production of the current season by the Metropolitan Opera. It's monumental on the basis of its glorious music as well as its demands on the stamina of both performers and audience alike, at nearly five hours in length, despite featuring only a half dozen singing roles and a fairly simple and concise plot.

Isolde (soprano Nina Stemme), an Irish princess, is being transported to Cornwall, for her wedding to King Marke (bass Rene Pape), on the ship of his nephew Tristan (tenor Stuart Skelton). Her maid, Brangane (mezzo Ekaterina Gubanova), tries to calm her when Tristan's companion Kurwenal (bass-baritone Evgeny Nikitin) ridicules the Irish women. Isolde suggests that she and Tristan drink from a cup containing poison but is in fact a love potion mixed by Brangane. After landing, Isolde waits for a rendezvous with Tristan while the king is off on a hunting party. Brangäne warns her about spies, particularly the jealous knight Melot (tenor Neal Cooper). When Tristan appears, Isolde passionately welcomes him. They agree that they feel secure in the night but Brangane's call warns that it will soon be daylight. Kurwenal rushes in to warn them that the king has returned, led by Melot, denouncing the lovers. Marke declares that it was Tristan who urged him in the first place to pursue Isolde and can't understand how he could dishonor him in such a way. Tristan cannot answer and asks Isolde if she will follow him to her death. When she accepts, Melot attacks Tristan, who falls wounded into Kurwenal’s arms. Later, the mortally ill Tristan is tended by Kurwenal. A shepherd (tenor Alex Richardson) inquires about his master, and Kurwenal explains that only Isolde, with her magic arts, could save him. The shepherd agrees to play a cheerful tune on his pipe as soon as he sees a ship approaching. Tristan, hallucinating, imagines that it is night when he will reunite with Isolde. He thanks Kurwenal for his devotion, then envisions Isolde’s ship approaching. He tears off his bandages, letting his wounds bleed. Isolde rushes in, and he falls, dying, in her arms. Kurwenal stabs Melot before he is killed himself by the king’s soldiers. Marke, overwhelmed with grief at the death of Tristan, had come to pardon the lovers. Isolde, transfigured, does not hear, and envisions Tristan beckoning her to the world beyond. She sinks, dying upon his body.

Stemme, universally known for her interpretation of Isolde, commandingly proved just how deserving she is of this renown. Her flawless singing was indelibly effective, enhanced by powerful acting and presence (especially in the final act's Liebestod). She was perfectly matched by Skelton, Nikitin and Pape, all of them making for an unforgettable ensemble, exquisitely conducted by Simon Rattle. Would that the same could be said for the production, which was ugly, bizarre and confusing. Most of the story took place (at least seemingly) on the ship conveying Isolde to Cornwall, then in a warehouse containing depth charges, finally in a hospital. All in fifty or more monotonously boring shades of grey, pewter and black, both in sets and costumes (save for a couple of white starched uniforms and one velvet dress the color of oxblood). There were some distracting choices, such as a silent Tristan as a boy, and in the most egregious and wrong-headed portrayal of Isolde's death, meant to be a transfiguring union with the dead Tristan, but reduced to a graphically disturbing suicide. For the record, the Production was by Mariusz Trelinski, Set Design by Boris Kudlicka, Costume Design by Marek Adamski and Lighting Design by Marc Heinz, the last being the only acceptable contribution to the proceedings.

On a scale of one to ten, give the visuals a minus one, and the singers and orchestra an eleven.

Fathom Events will re-broadcast this HD event this Wednesday October 12 at a theater near you.


Goodspeed's "Chasing Rainbows": Judy, Judy, Judy!

The Cast of "Chasing Rainbows, the Road to Oz"
(photo: Diane Sobolewski)

Judy Garland (nee Frances Ethel Gumm) put it best: “The history of my life is in my songs”. Thus we have the new bio-musical Chasing Rainbows, the Road to Oz now being presented by Goodspeed Musicals. Originally developed at Goodspeed's Johnny Mercer Writers' Colony, and first presented by Flat Rock Theater Company in North Carolina, the show covers her formative years from vaudeville to Hollywood, from 1927-1938 (age five to sixteen). She made her theatrical debut at the ripe old age of thirty months, as Baby Frances, in Grand Rapids, Minnesota. This might be legitimately viewed, at least in a chronological sense, as the first in a trilogy (continued in The Wizard of Oz and Wicked), or maybe not, since this is really the back story and a prequel. Since its thirty-three numbers use songs made familiar by Judy herself, as well as some other numbers contemporary to her life span, it qualifies as that most derivative of musical theater forms, the “jukebox” musical (one that sorely lacks an original score). As such it shares the weakest aspect of such shows, namely that songs are inserted, often arbitrarily, without any integral connection to the arc of the Book by Mark Acito, who also co-wrote the recent Broadway musical Allegiance, (recorded by Fathom Events and coming this season to a movie theater near you).

Yet, as Judy was quoted above, many of the numbers tell the story of her life, so aren't quite as shoe-horned as with other such shows. The story was Conceived by Tina Marie Casamento Libby with Music Adapted by David Libby, and they've done their research well, such as the “Jitterbug” number recorded for The Wizard of Oz but scrapped, her father Frank (Kevin Earley) and his rumored personal issues, the allergic reaction to tin man makeup by Buddy Ebsen (Bryan Thomas Hunt) and the competition with Shirley Temple (Lea Mancarella) and Deanna Durbin (Claire Griffin). It's an unabashedly old-fashioned and sentimental show, yet it works, in large part due to an incredibly gifted cast. Even they can't rescue such lines as “rainbows don't last forever, but neither does the rain”, or the many (way too many) Gumm jokes (e.g.“Gumm, as in chewed up and spit out”). Then again there are more clever asides, such as several lines for George Jessel (Gary Milner) and L. B. Mayer (Michael McCormick): “This is Hollywood, why would we want 'different and original'?”.

The show is most reminiscent of the musical “Gypsy”, but with a less controlling mother in the person of Ethel Gumm (Sally Wilfert) supervising The Three Gumm sisters, Mary Jane (Griffin again), Virginia (Piper Birney) and Frances “Baby” Gumm, the youngest, (Ella Briggs, a real standout). The older versions of the Gumm Sisters are Mary Jane (Lucy Horton), Virginia (Andrea Laxton) and Frances (Ruby Rakos). Also featured are Karen Mason in two roles (Kay Koverman and Ma Lawlor, Mickey Rooney (Michael Wartella), Lana Turner (Berklea Going) and Clark Gable (Danny Lindgren). Obviously with such a large cast, there's not much room for subtle character development. As Directed by Tyne Rafaeli, with Music Director Michael O'Flaherty rounding out his twenty-fifth Goodspeed season, and Orchestrations by Dan DeLange, as well as Choreography by Chris Bailey, Lighting Design by Ken Billington, Sound Design by Jay Hilton, Scenic Design by Kristen Robinson and Costume Design by Elizabeth Caitlin Ward, the technical aspects are all superb. This is less a dance show than a singing one, and therein lies its success. With a series of numbers like I Can't Give You Anything but Love, You Made Me Love You, Broadway Rhythm, and, of course, Somewhere Over the Rainbow, all one needs is a cast who can sing.

And what a singing cast this is. Every one of them, individually and in chorus, are perfection, from the stellar leads to the briefest cameo roles, threatening to blow the roof of the theater off with their pipes. It would be criminal to single out one belter among so many fabulous voices, but it would also be criminal not to mention the breakout performance of Ruby Rakos in the role of a lifetime as the immortal Garland. While she's prettier than the role is described, with Mayer crudely referring to her being fat, (sounding eerily contemporary, no?), echoing the expression plus le change, plus la meme chose, she's totally believable from Judy's rocky start to her more confidant self; even her vocal chops grow along the way to the end of the rainbow with its pot of gold. Once in a great while a performer leaves an incandescent memory, and Rakos creates an unforgettable “Ruby's Turn”. Someday, on display in the Smithsonian, there just might be another famous pair of Ruby slippers.