Friday, December 08, 2006

Like Eliza on the Ice

My friend Emily once said, in the middle of a very, very long story, "There is a point to this story. I'm famous for always getting to the point." I think we should all be famous for something, don't you? Even if nobody knows who the hell we are? I, for instance, am famous for just going ahead and saying it even though it's stupid.

Now is the part of Shprockets ven ve commit blasphemy. You're going to run around clutching your heads acting like Jews #1-5 when Herod gives the go-ahead or rather the go-behead, but I'm going to say it anyway.* Naturally, in December the mind turns to making lists of the best and worst things that happened over the year, if one is a particular sort of ninny, and I am. Not to get all Oscarific, the Best Male Performance I saw all year was pretty likely Rene Pape as Phillip II. And the second best was...

Raul Esparza in the brilliant revival of Sondheim's Company playing at the Barrymore. Now, don't faint or anything...I'm not exactly equating the two things. Esparza gets to sing into a microphone in a small theater. From the standpoint of quasi-athletic achievement, it doesn't take the same kind of chops, though Esparza's production is indeed well schooled and easy. Main thing is, he convinced me that a role I never really liked is actually a magnificent piece of writing. Favorite performances of the year aren't about being convinced, though; they're about being shaken or stirred (anyone feel like a martini?) I left the theater quite moved. I'll have to see it again, I think.

Actually, I reevaluated the whole show, not just Bobby. Please understand: I really like the original cast recording, in a certain sense of the verb "to like." I enjoy the story behind it, have watched the documentary with everyone staying up all night to record it. I listened to it a bunch before I ever saw the show, and once I got past the annoying opening chorus, I found the writing delightful. I think almost all of it, however, is improved upon by this cast, and I can't wait for their recording.

Highlights include: 1) Heather Laws' so-fast-it's-physically-impossible delivery of Amy's mad scene/patter song "Not Getting Married." Her deliver, also, is so funny as to almost diminish my monomaniacal love for the platonic-ideal that is Beth Howland, creatrix of the role's original reading. (Amy Justman as Susan also displays formidable musicianship in the opening bars, shrieked rather hellishly on the 1970 version.) Bear in mind all these people are traipsing around the stage playing various instruments. The one that struck me as particularly funny was Barbara Walsh as Joanne, laconically playing the triangle.

Walsh is the cast member most likely to be raked over the coals of comparison, of course. But, what can I say. Blasphemy #2: while I admire the ferocity in Elaine Stritch's account of the show's best known tune, "The Ladies who Lunch," (and it is ferocity that Walsh lacks, a little) I've never really bought her as Joanne as the book and score present her: a well heeled society gal who's hard-as-nails as an acquired accent to her basically classy nature. Yes, she's screaming inside, but she has mastered the WASP trick of not letting it out, and when she does, it's a party trick.

Stritch, in delivery and vocal persona, is a bit too much the broad. She doesn't sing with any introspection, so I've never totally bought her as Joanne, and you can disinvite me to your Sondheim karaoke party now, though I think I'd do a nice "Ladies who Lunch." Barbara Walsh isn't 100% convincing in the scene that leads up to the number, but her delivery of the song itself has a certain refinement to it that I think is necessary. [In moderation. Check out this hilarious disaster to see what happens if things get too genteel.] Not that Company is big on coherence, but "Ladies who Lunch" really can pop out of the frame excessively if it turns into a real bar brawl. Walsh makes it a contained breakdown--the availability of vibrato, for instance, reminds us who the character is. Not a trick Stritch had in her bag.

The production has a cold and sophisticated look, and the "look, ma--no band" idea works very differently than it did in Sweeney Todd, but equally well I think. I'm thinking if I shut up about the concept and the staging and all that, though, a certain other blogsterino might take up the topic better than I can.

I realize this makes me sound like a whore, but truthfully, I'm not getting paid to urge you to run out and see this, if you like musical theater at all. Last season's gem, The Drowsy Chaperone, just recouped its investment and another jukebox musical just closed (who knows which one, and who cares?) So my point here is go see high quality stuff, vote at the box office, and maybe good revivals and good new musicals will seem like a good investment to the people who fund this stuff and we won't have to live under the constant threat of a musical version of Mean Girls or Sometimes I Give Myself the Creeps: The Green Day Musical.

Oh, not for nothing, I made the title of this posting what it is as a sort of string around my finger to remind me to ask if anyone knows what the hell this line from "Not Getting Married" refers to ("Why/Watch me die/Like Eliza on the ice?") since I've never known.

*Right, yes, I'm pretending anyone who reads this is an opera fuddy-duddy. I know it's not true, but for some reason it's more fun if I imagine you're going to be scandalized.

13 comments:

Chalkenteros said...

If you're seriously asking, "Eliza on the ice" refers, I think, to the most famous scene from Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin in which Eliza literally flees by crossing a frozen river. Embarrasingly, I've never read the book, but we had a copy in the house when I was a kid, and there was a lovely drawing of said scene with the caption, "Eliza crossing the ice."

Maury D'annato said...

You're my hero. I've never read it, so I had no idea, seriously, what it referred to. I kept trying to fit it into Pygmalion/My Fair Lady but there's no ice and she doesn't die.

Is it really embarrassing not to have read Uncle Tom's Cabin? I wasn't sure middle schools were forcing it down anyone's throat anymore, and remember hearing it was of historical interest but poorly written.

Burns said...

Mr. Chalk is correct!

You must be equally baffled by Thelma Ritter's assessment of Anne Baxter's sob story in "All About Eve": "Everything but the bloodhounds snappin' at her rear end!" (Eliza was being tracked by men with dogs).

And the girls in "The King and I" who sing "Run, Eliza!" in "The Small House of Uncle Thomas" ballet!

Maury D'annato said...

See, but Thelma Ritter's remark is funny without any explanation, in part because she's Thelma Ritter. It just sounds like she's deflating Eve's rather overblown story. So I wasn't all that baffled.

And I've never seen The King and I.

Maury D'annato said...

p.s. to Burns: I don't suppose Uncle Tom's Cabin will help me understand the ballet in Act II of Nixon in China, will it? Or the entire libretto to Die Frau Ohne Schatten? Harriet Beecher Stowe is beginning to seem like Da Vinci, through the lens of Dan Brown. Was she a mason?

Anonymous said...

This last comment is beyond brilliant. Thank you for making my day, nay, year.

rysanekfreak said...

I want the next Met Gala to feature Jane Eaglen doing "Ladies Who Lunch on Other Ladies Who Lunch."

Chalkenteros said...

lol

yeldarb said...

Eliza also makes an appearance in Comden & Green's lyrics to Subways Are For Sleeping...

Anonymous said...

Please God don't someone tell Thomas Pynchon about this...

meretrice i. d'oscena said...

Thanks for that youtube link; along those same lines of 'not getting it'
check out the clips of Miss Shore and the magnificent Mahalia Jackson (who could have- but very graciously didn't- literally sung Miss Shore off the stage).

Maury D'annato said...

Isn't it kind of priceless? My favorite moment is, "And one for Mahler...yay!"

Baritenor said...

I really, really need to get out to New York. Right Now.