Lyric's "Stage Kiss": Lips Together, Teeth Apart

Michael Hisamoto, Gillian Mackay-Smith, Alexander Platt, Celeste Oliva,
 Craig Mathers & Theresa Nguyen in "Stage Kiss"
(photo: Mark S. Howard)

Picture this for tautological theater: in a play-within-a-play, two long-lost lovers who are actors are cast as two long-lost lovers. The possibilities seem endless. But leave it to playwright Sarah Ruhl (In the Next Room, or the vibrator play, and many other works) and Director Courtney O'Connor (Buyer and Cellar) to come up with Lyric Stage Company's latest production, Stage Kiss. Soon after the two exes re-meet, one character, Kevin (the hilarious Michael Hisamoto), declares “what a strange job to kiss strangers in front of people and make it look like you know each other. Or kiss someone you know in front of people and make it look like a stranger”. This is Ruhl at her wackiest, proposing a challenge for her cast to convey her farce in all its unmitigated glory.

The character known only as She (the magnificent Celeste Oliva) later asks (with a split infinitive and all) “When I kissed you just now did it feel like an actor or a person kissing a person because I've kissed you so many times over the last few weeks I'm starting to not know the difference”. And the character known only as Husband (the very funny Craig Mathers) has his say: “You have kissed each other, let’s see, nine times a night, eight shows a week, four-week run, that’s two hundred and eighty-eight times. That’s not love. That’s oxytocin.” (Which the program notes correctly describe as “the hormone that triggers pleasurable and erotic feelings”). So the play is fundamentally meta-physically convoluted.

The other actor, referred to only as He (the fine Alexander Platt) also feels the confusion, though the director of the play-within-a-play, Adrian Schwalbach (the always dependable Will McGarrahan) is a bit out of it. The rest of the cast include comic turns by Theresa Nguyen (as several characters, Angela, Millie and Maid), and Gillian Mackay-Smith (as Millicent and Laurie). The creative team's efforts are on a par with Lyric's best, from the Scenic Design by Matt Whiton to the Costume Design by Amanda Mujica, Lighting Design by Chris Hudacs and Sound Design & Original Music by Arshan Gailus.

This is not Ruhl's best work, as it eventually falls into the trap of presenting “bad actors” in a “bad play” (think Meryl Streep, a terrific singer, purposefully off-key in the film Florence Foster Jenkins) for too long a time, threatening (but not succeeding) to become a bad experience for the audience. This production boasts a cast capable of carrying this central conceit, so the laughs survive the overly lengthy exposition. It's a case of performers being better than the material they're given. Still, even second-tier Ruhl is cause for rejoicing.

It's becoming a truism, or even a cliché, to allude to how deeply we all need a good laugh these days. So rest assured this is not fake theater, it's a rare opportunity to experience a cast (and audience) so obviously enjoying themselves.

Met Opera's "Rusalka": Turning the Other Czech

Kristine Opolais in "Rusalka"
(photo: Ken Howard)

The mysterious and under-appreciated opera Rusalka, a surprising turn from the Composer Antonin Dvorak, with a Libretto by Jaroslav Kvapil, based on the novella Udine by Friedrich de la Motte Fouque, was the latest Fathom Events HD broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera. The Production was by Mary Zimmerman, with Set Design by Daniel Ostling, Costume Design by Mara Blumenfeld, Lighting Design by T. J. Gerckens, and Choreography by Austin McCormick, featuring as always the Metropolitan Opera Chorus under the direction of Chorus Master Donald Palumbo. It was Directed for live cinema by Gary Halvorson with Matthew Polenzani as the HD Host. It was a revelation to many opera buffs not familiar with the work, perhaps due to its relatively strange storyline, though it certainly reminds one of the Hans Christian Anderson fairy tale The Little Mermaid. Its tone, however, is decidedly darker, and this is an opera, so a happy ending is never guaranteed.

The water nymph Rusalka (soprano Kristine Opolais) falls in love with a human, a Prince (tenor Brandon Jovanovich) whom she sees swimming in her lake, motivating her desire to become human. Her father the Water Gnome (bass-baritone Eric Owens) is horrified and tells her of the evils of living on land. He directs her to consult the Witch Jezibaba (mezzo Jamie Barton), who agrees to the transformation but warns Rusalka that if she fails to find true love, she will be damned, the man she loves will die, and, once mortal, she will lose her power of speech. Rusalka drinks the potion given her by Jezibaba. The Prince arrives with his hunting party, and, stunned by her beauty, takes Rusalka back to his castle. The Water Gnome and his water nymphs bemoan her loss. Once in the castle, Rusalka is sent by the Prince to dress for a ball, though he cannot grasp why she won't speak to him. She flees back to her father, telling him the Prince doesn't seem to love her anymore.
The Prince returns to the lake with a Foreign Princess (soprano Katarina Dalayman) and declares his love for the Princess, rejecting Rusalka, who disappears with her father into the lake. The Princess ridicules the Prince, telling him to follow his love into hell. Later, Rusalka begins to regret her fate. Jezibaba offers her a knife with which to kill the Prince, but she refuses, returning to the depths of the lake. When the Gamekeeper (baritone Alan Opie) and the Kitchen Boy (mezzo Daniela Mack) arrive at the lake seeking help from Jezibaba about this girl who has bewitched their Prince, the Water Gnome arises from the lake, blaming the Prince for bewitching Rusalka. Then the Prince himself arrives searching for Rusalka, who reappears to castigate him for his infidelity. She warns him that a kiss from her now would kill him, but he persists in asking for same. Once she kisses him, he dies in her arms. Asking for mercy for his soul, she disappears into the water one last time.

Obviously with such a slight story full of such fantastical and mythical creatures, with three of four overly long ballets that interrupt the storyline, this opera has to deliver some memorably lovely music, beautifully sung. Here Dvorak, and the Met, don't disappoint. Opolais was brilliant, as was Jovanovich, both in their singing and acting. Owens was at his dependable best, as was Barton (though her acting was at times distractingly over the top). The rest of the cast and chorus were up to the demands of the lush music, which was wonderful to hear, notably in Rusalka's best-known solo aria, Song to the Moon:
Moon, high and deep in the sky
Your light sees far,
You travel around the wide world,
and see into people's homes.
Moon, stand still a while
and tell me where is my dear.
Tell him, silvery moon,
that I am embracing him.
For at least momentarily
let him recall of dreaming of me.
Illuminate him far away,
and tell him, tell him who is waiting for him!
If his human soul is in fact dreaming of me,
may the memory awaken him!
Moonlight, don't disappear, disappear!

One hopes this nymph will reappear.

Fathom Events HD Encore broadcast on Weds. Mar. 1st at 6:30pm at a theater near you.


Disney's "Newsies": Extra, Extra...Extra Performance!

Kara Lindsay & The Cast of "Newsies"
(photo: Disney Theatrical Productions)
Special added showing: Mar.4th matinee (tickets on sale Feb.27)!

Extra, extra, read all about it! Stop whatever you're doing and go reserve tickets to one of the two remaining showings of the absolutely thrilling production of Newsies. Recent Fathom Events HD broadcasts of Broadway shows (the fabulous She Loves Me and surprisingly moving Allegiance) have given theater buffs hope for a secure future for this kind of hybrid. On a vastly superior level, Newsies, a collaboration from Fathom Events and Disney Theatrical Productions (hopefully the first of many such events) is a recorded-live musical right from the stage of the venerable Pantages Theater in Hollywood. Based on the 1992 Disney musical film about the real-life Newsboys Strike of 1899, this 2011 live stage version premiered at Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey (where a stage version of Disney's Hunchback of Notre Dame also premiered). It transferred to Broadway in 2012, where it was nominated for eight Tony Awards including Best Musical, and won two, for Score and for Choreography. That Broadway version ran for just over a thousand performances. It was a very unlikely concept for film or stage, written for the screen as it was by two theatrical neophytes, Bob Taudiker and Noni White, featuring a cast of kids in a period piece. Thanks to a star turn by relative newcomer Jeremy Jordan, a creative director in Jeff Calhoun, and the especially breathtaking genius of Choreographer Christopher Gattelli, this was astonishingly wonderful theater, an unqualified hit.

The Cast of "Newsies"
(photo: Disney Theatrical Productions)

Well, maybe a somewhat qualified hit, as the Book by Harvey Fierstein, as the “newsies” might put it, ain't poifect; occasionally somewhat sentimental and simplistic, but then, it is what it was. It begins up on a New York City tenement roof, as paperboy Jack Kelly (Jordan) sings to his disabled buddy (also a newsboy), Crutchie (Andrew Keenan-Bolger) that he hopes to leave New York someday for Santa Fe. Newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer (Steve Blanchard) announces he's upping the cost of newspapers to the “newsies”, forcing them to sell more papers just to get by. This rouses Jack to plan to rebel, but he's trying to avoid a run-in with the crooked Snyder (James Judy), who runs The Refuge, a juvenile jail from which Jack formerly escaped after being caught stealing food. Meanwhile, he's busy painting scenery for his friend performer Medda Larkin (a true Meadow Lark in Aisha De Haas), the proprietress of a vaudeville theater, but notices news reporter Katherine (the spunky Kara Lindsay) reviewing the show, and flirts with her, to no avail. Since Jack isn't comfortable with public speaking, fellow newsie Davey (Ben Fankhauser) rallies the troops to strike and Seize the Day. Crutchie is beaten, captured by Snyder, and sent to The Refuge. Jack, again on the tenement roof, feels guilty yet reprises his dream-of-escape anthem, Santa Fe.

Act II finds Kathryn cheering up the newsies with the front page article she wrote about their strike. They break into song imagining wealth (King of New York), and convince Jack to take the risk of freeing Crutchie. He confronts Pulitzer, who tells Jack he knows about his criminal record, but promises he will ensure Jack's safety from prosecution if he ends the strike, also revealing that he is Katherine's father. Meanwhile, Spot Conlon (Tommy Bracco), the head of the Brooklyn newsies, declares they're in support of Jack's newsies. Jack tries to get them to agree to a compromise by Pulitzer, but they turn their backs on him. He and Katherine declare their mutual trust and love (Something to Believe In), which convinces Jack to reveal Pulitzer's blackmail attempt. With the paper effectively shut down, Pulitzer ultimately agrees to buy back all the papers from the newsies at a profit for them, Crutchie is freed, The Refuge is shut down, and the strike is ended. Jack is offered a job by Pulitzer as a political cartoonist, initially turning down the offer and deciding finally to head for Santa Fe. When Katherine says wherever he goes she will go, he changes his mind, decides she may be in his future, and takes the job as cartoonist. The newsies declare they are now truly Kings of New York.

Kara Lindsay & Jeremy Jordan in "Newsies"
(photo: Disney Theatrical Productions)
This recorded-live production boasts five principal roles played by the folks who originated them on Broadway: Jack, Katherine, Crutchie, Spot Conlon, and Les (Ethan Steiner, in a terrific turn that belies his young age). As a matter of historical interest, Jordan, after seeing the original film version at age nine dreamed that he would someday play the role of Jack (now at the ripe old age of thirty-two); he also appeared as one of the leads in the musical Bonnie and Clyde, as well as Finding Neverland and the television series Smash. This production features a much augmented ensemble cast from the Broadway and National Touring Companies, making the Tony-winning Choreography by Gattelli better than ever, and that's saying a lot: the dancing on newsprint number has to be seen to be believed. The rousing score features Music by Alan Menken and Lyrics by Jack Feldman, with terrific creative team contributions including the Scenic Design by Tobin Ost, Costume Design by Jess Goldstein, Lighting Design by Jeff Croiter, Sound Design by Ken Travis, Original Projection Design by Sven Ortel with Projection Adaptation by Daniel Brodie, Music Direction by James Dodgson and Orchestrations by Danny Troob. It should be noted that the theatrical version added six songs never heard in the film version (which at first failed to catch fire, but became a cult hit on DVD); the present production also includes a touching song written for the National Tour, Letter from The Refuge, sung by the character of Crutchie, and Keenan-Bolger delivers it with tremendous heart. Mention should also be made of the performance by Fankhauser with his memorable voice. But, in the end, it's Jordan as Jack and the Choreographer Gattelli who make this production soar.

The story of Newsies is a timeless one. It has more energy and excitement than a dozen musicals, and seeing it up close and personal, with every line of dialogue clear as glass and every facial expression captured, makes this a must. By all means see it and you too will become a “fansie”, as its numerous followers self-describe their devotion. As the newsies themselves might put it, Carpe Diem. Hey, and that ain't even English, that there's Latin.

Fathom Events will repeat “Newsies” Sat. Feb.18th at 12:55pm & Weds. Feb.22nd at 7:00pm.


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

Adam Langdon in "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time"
(photo: Joan Marcus)

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, its 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 and Best Direction of a Play (for Marianne Elliott, who helmed the London version as well as this touring one). Light years ahead of any theatrical production with its technical brilliance (and no fewer than 373 lighting cues), here are a few stunning facts about just how complex and complicated those tech elements are in this National Touring Company. Starting with five tons of steel in the floor and walls, there are fourteen one-ton chain hoists for the lighting rigging and motor to accommodate thirty-one variations of stage heights and rakes. There are 234 sound cues, consisting of some 2,593 differing elements. Its use of six projectors produces ten and a half million pixels across the stage. The results are absolutely mesmerizing (especially a harrowing subway scene). It's 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. In the present production, Scenic and Costume Design are by Bunny Christie, with Lighting Design by Paule Constable, Video Design by Finn Ross, and Sound Design by Ian Dickinson, all impeccable and all repeating their London contributions.

But technical achievements aside, what most distinguishes this theatrical treat is its amazingly involving storytelling, translated and transformed from page to stage by the playwright Simon Stephens. 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 or Aspergers Syndrome, but the play doesn't address diagnoses) 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 (Adam Langdon), and those with whom he intersects along the way, from his teacher Siobhan (Maria Elena Ramirez), to his father Ed (Gene Gillette) to a crucial discovery at the termination of his quest, Judy (Felicity Jones Latta). At some performances, given the demands of the role, Benjamin Wheelwright will play Christopher. But every member of this ensemble, including a dog (named Sandy) and a curious rat (named Toby), has been artfully chosen for maximum impact under Elliott's keen direction. 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, “we're not exactly low maintenance, are we?”.

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. There were some sound difficulties related to the more intimate moments in the play being performed in such a large venue, but ultimately this is a mathematically ingenious piece that succeeds in presenting a multi-faceted, time-warping, mind-boggling and satisfying resolution. 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.


New Rep's "Brecht on Brecht": Alien Nation

Matthew Stern (piano), Carla Martinez, Brad Daniel Peloquin, Jake Murphy, Christine Hamel
in "Brecht on Brecht"
(photo: Andrew Brilliant/Brilliant Pictures)

The 1961 off-Broadway revue with music, Brecht on Brecht, translated and arranged by George Tabori, surely is ripe for a revival by New Rep's Artistic Director Jim Petosa. It's a worthy inclusion in its series of “Prophetic Portraits”, with its obvious resonance in today's political climate. Bertolt Brecht, pacifist playwright, poet and theatrical director renowned for his political and social activism, is also known for his body of work against oppression in all its guises. Thus this compilation couldn't have been more prophetic given the present pathetic state of the union. Brecht, who ultimately fled Hitler's regime, had developed in Berlin his concept of non-linear “Epic theater” that should alter an audience's consciousness about scientific, political, and social issues. It could now also be seen as epoch theater, that spoke then and continues to speak now. Ironically, he would subsequently flee America as well when the House Un-American Activities Committee evolved with its own brand of oppression, and returned back to Berlin in 1949 where he would found the Berliner Ensemble with his wife actress Helene Weigel. Much of his work forms the forbidding framework for Brecht on Brecht with some occasional music by his collaborators Kurt Weill and Hanns Eisler.

For some idea of the parallel universes of two political administrations, Germany then and America now, consider the following excerpts: “from political ignorance is born...the worst thief of all, the bad politician, corrupted, and flunky of the national and multinational companies”; “things will improve for us...I don't ask when”; or “would it not be simpler if the government simply dissolved the people?”. He proposed some responses, illustrated here in excerpts from The Parable of the Burning House (“we should cultivate the art of non-tolerance”), Some Stories about Herr Kauner (“there is only one way to fight authority...outlive it”), To the Next Generation (“pay evil back with good...that is what wisdom is”) and Bad Times (“the revolt will be made by people who happen to be there”). There is also a (too-lengthy) scene from A Jewish Wife about saying goodbye to oblivious friends and family in which Brecht echoed a familiar Orwellian theme (from Animal Farm) that is particularly relevant today: “there are worthy people and less worthy people”. Equally chilling, from Arturo Ui: “If you could learn to look instead of gawking, you'd see the horror in the heart of farce...though the world stood up and stopped the bastard (Hitler), the bitch that bore him is in heat again”. And some solace in the Song of the Moldau: “the great won't stay great long; the small won't stay small...the night has twelve hours, then comes the day”.

It would have been easy (and disastrous) to present this piece with a wink-wink, nudge-nudge approach that would have diminished its power by overdoing the obvious. Wisely, Director Petosa and his cast of four have held true to Brecht's view that “art is not a mirror held up to reality, but a hammer with which to shape it”, and his adjunct belief: “In the dark times, will there also be singing? Yes, there will also be singing. About the dark times.” Brecht, as mentioned in the program notes for the revue, felt that illusion is successful when partial, meaning it becomes recognizable as an illusion and, by revealing the elements of the stage and keeping actors slightly removed from their characters, creates Verfremdungseffekt , usually translated as an alienation effect, but perhaps better as “distancing effect”. The audience would lose their perspective if they were to completely suspend belief in the theatre, hence this production's breaking of the fourth wall and in-your-face acknowledgment of needing more lighting for a scene. Brecht's work is nothing if not a didactic polemic, but it's a good deal more than that in the capable hands of the Mature Woman (Christine Hamel), Mature Man (Brad Daniel Peloquin), Young Woman (Carla Martinez) and Young Man (Jake Murphy). Each gets her or his turn to shine in the spotlight. As do the Music Direction and piano accompaniment by Matthew Stern, simple Scenic Design by Ryan Bates, appropriately tattered Costume Design by Alyssa Korol and striking Lighting Design by Bridget K. Doyle.

This production will challenge theatergoers, in refreshing their memories of past encounters with Brecht, with the stark realization that, as Santayana warned, those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. One of the countless roles of theater is the motivation not to repeal and replace that which is artful, but to rejuvenate and restore it. Brecht on Brecht is a timely and timeless reminder of why theater exists and persists.