Thursday, June 26, 2008

More Reasons to Love Living Here

...include stumbling upon little mixed-bag productions of Boheme, staged with milk crates, in neighborhood parks. To remove this from the abstract, I am speaking of a production by, hm, the Moose Hall Theatre Co. under the auspices of the Inwood Shakespeare Festival. Obviously opera's not a rarity here, even in the summer, but you have to understand, living in Inwood is like living in a nice little town outside of NYC (Radio City, you might say, were you a stewardess in a musical) and the fact that opera pops up even here is just one more thing to make one insufferable about this city. Just imagine, one might say, as one's friends got out socks full of horse manure, we're practically bursting with artistic expression here, yesirree. The performance was accompanied on synthesizer, and amplified which of course makes it difficult to tell high quality vocalism from shinola, but there in the shadow of the bridge on a humid evening near the solstice, it was just what the doctor ordered. In any case some artful vocalizing was certainly produced by Eleni Calenos, the evening's Mimi, and to my ear best of all, Matthew Singer, the Marcello, who appeared to be a barihunk of the bearihunk subspecies. They're doing it again Saturday, so if you're not afraid of the upper reaches of the 1 train and what I'm describing sounds fun rather than shoddy, c'mon up!

Thursday, June 12, 2008


It always seemed to me a very practical thing the way Rossini and to some extent Donizetti and Bellini built little applause platforms into the end of their arias, musical nothings, the equivalent to "And that's what I did with my summer vacation" that might as well be clapped over, because they're going to be. The gong rang, the e-flat's over, here's something to drown out with your applause.

Broadway audiences like to applaud. I sometimes think it's their favorite part of a play. And I think (though I'm going to have trouble explaining it) there's a special kind of applause that happens a lot at Broadway shows, in the middle of a show. You hear it start sometimes and not catch. It comes after a particularly well-placed one-liner, and I'm not sure if it owes its existence to sitcoms or, primally, to the bel canto opera--in fact it reminds me of the spontaneous applause after a piquant high note as much as it does the "you go girl" ovation after, I dunno, Courtney Thorne-Smith puts down Jim Belushi for leaving the toilet seat up on whatever that nightmarish cesspool of mediocrity they're on is called.

This kind of applause is more and more common. Maybe I'm just telling stories to make a point, but I'd swear I even heard it in The Year of My Entire Goddamn Family Dying with Ms. Redgrave. No that's probably just a lie. But you can hear people itching to do it, the nascent "oh no she didn't" applause rippling almost to a start in the mezzanine like the flashing lights before a migraine. Not to be a horrid curmudgeon. It has its place.

The 39 Steps, at the small and comfortable Cort Theater, is built around an audience's need to applaud. In the first act there was a blackout or the mugging end of a funny exchange about every three minutes, cue mid-act applause. With this wind-up it sounds like I mean that as a bad thing. As a matter of fact, given such indulgent permission, it's not an odious or even irritating thing. Only a few lines are truly funny, if you ask me, but it's a good time, a trifle.

Ok. I'm trying to be a good sport. The fact is I didn't love it. There's a lot of swell physical comedy, and some virtuosic timing, and even a whimsical little joke in the program bios. The thing is I found the comedy, under the perfectly enjoyable performances, just a little stale. By the end I had the distinct sensation of having watched the best episode of "Whose Line is it Anyway?" ever. Yeah, the American version. Like...not to spoil anything, the attempt to slip in the names of as many Hitchcock films as possible, and the audience roared at each, and said to each other "Vertigo! Did you hear?!" I think it may actually be a meme we can blame on stuff like Dreamworks animation, wherein references to things outside the frame are automatically funny.

And seriously, the reactions of the audience were those of pure pleasure, and what kind of sniffly Puritan would I be to piss on that, so, let's just say The 39 Steps is a real crowd pleaser, only I'm not much of a crowd.


The revival of Les Liaisons Dangermouse gracing I forget what theater* is something I'm actually a little more comfortable dismissing though for my own reasons, namely that I would donate a kidney to Sian Phillips if she needed or in fact merely fancied one, I was happy to see it. Laura Linney, it goes without saying, is among our finest, able and often required to redeem the worst kind of crap. (See also: her scenes in Love, Actually if you need proof, or watch the moribund bustle opera of House of Mirth, wherein her entrances are the only signs of life.) In good company, she's a revelation, as in You Can Count on Me, perfectly capable of wallops of joy and pathos in brief utterances. But not here, for some reason. The fact is, the Marquise de Merteuil is not a deeply interesting character, illuminated only by a faint glimmer of grand-guignol camp such as Annette Benning provided in the better filmic adaptation, Valmont. It seems to me Linney was searching for some kind of pathos, perhaps inspired by Glenn Close's risibly serious turn in the lesser filming of the book/play/movie/opera we are so well familiar with now.** There was little there to find. It's how teenagers think adults might behave badly, and it's still around and adapted so much, I think, because it's nostalgic to revisit that. My companions noted the awkward physicality of the direction. And for god's sake, if you're going to have cast in minor parts sing Handel arias, ask them to do it rather more idiomatically and without all the pomo ambient reverb, or at least get an Italian diction coach. Ombra my foo, indeed. Ombra your own.

Yeah, I have this and that I'd been meaning to post about including a link to some music I'm thinking you'll like a lot. Maybe that'll happen next week.

*I thought of it, and maybe was blocking it out because I wish theaters still had classy names, all of them, instead of being named after corporations. I hope people in Chicago are still calling Comiskey Park Comiskey Park because no matter my indifference about baseball, there can never be any poetry in something called Cellular One Field.

**I'm speaking of English language films, btw. I haven't seen the French. Actually it appears there's a miniseries of some sort with Catherine Deneuve, too.

Monday, June 02, 2008

Pre-Tony Roundup, after a fashion (TLDR)

It's a regrettable impulse, or perhaps one would have to call it an inhibition, that keeps me at home on my couch much of the year where theater is concerned, only to bound (wallet recklessly open) to the box office the moment shows are nominated for the yearly awards. For one thing, what's a Tony mean? As I was recently reminded, Bernadette Peters lost to Marissa Janet Winokur (who was good, but c'mon) so even if it weren't limiting from the outset to think only of shows moneyed enough to open on Broadway, a Tony nom is hardly a guarantee of quality.

It's just that the broadcast really is a lot of fun to watch if you have a dog in the fight, and the more the merrier. And so, with the regularity of old faithful or of Ed Rosen mentioning he knew Richard Tucker (did I ever mention my Opera-L drinking game? Well it was a little mean-spirited but you can imagine) early June finds me scrambling for mezzanine bargains at the Booth or the Brooks.

To wit, in the space of about a week and a half: the justifiably ballyhoo'ed revival of Thursday in the Zoo with Lloyd, the not-so-talked-about-because-it's-a-play revival or perhaps Broadway premiere of Caryl Churchill's Top Girls, and the inevitable but not unwelcome elevation of Patti LuPone into the very highest level of gay iconography by way of Gypsy.

Last things first: I understand most of Caryl Churchill's work is more like the rambling, bizarre, but usually gripping first act of Top Girls than its more or less traditional, even more gripping second and third acts. You may have read, and if you go to see it you should probably know going in (to make limited sense of things), that the first act is an imagined soiree the protagonist, here played with ardor and certainty by a Elizabeth Marvell, throws for herself upon being promoted within her agency of some sort or other. I wonder if the half act set in said agency was an exotic glimpse into a corner of the working world when the play was new. It ain't now, which isn't a gigantic problem, but it does mean that the rest of the play is less familiar and more gripping.

The party, too, in fact, begins to feel stylistically archaic, while the third act bids well to be ageless, as does the brief scene in the second, both of which consist of Elizabeth Marvell and Martha Plimpton knocking you dead over and over with their acting chops. (Now I have forced myself to picture Martha Plimpton beating someone senseless with a large pork chop. Poor Martha Plimtpon to be subjected to such a things, even in the limited space of my head. It is an ignominy on par with The Goonies, but without the fun Cyndi Lauper song.) If you do go, please let me know why you think Marisa Tomei is so utterly chameleon-like in the last act and so perfectly tin-eared in the first. As noted in the I think Times review, the Scottish accent alone is a cry for help.

I feel almost like discussing Sunday and Gypsy in one rhetorical breath, as they share a certain kind of self-referentiality; Sunday being (at the risk of belaboring the obvious) a work partly about Seraut that is, in its individual elements, nothing special--no single song could hope to compare with the best of A Little Night Music or Company--but as a whole, a deeply affecting work of perhaps genius. I ended the sentence there because it was getting umanageable. And Gypsy being a work partly about the death of an earlier kind of musical theater, in which the songs and scenes that represent it are so tiresome you understand in an emphatic, at times visceral way why nobody wanted to watch that kind of thing anymore.

Both are flawed, but Sunday is unquestionably a better chunk of art. LuPone as Mama Rose is larger than life and for much of the show delightful--there's a kind of idiomatic "I Know What Broadway is About and I'm Going to Tell You" quality to numbers like "Some People" that just fits, like Gedda in French opera type of thing. But Gypsy is very end-loaded; "Rose's Turn" is the masterpiece and absolutely central to the success of the performance. This is why Bernadette Peters, fach-wise not really a Mama Rose, pulled it off and should've won the big T her year. Watch her Tony broadcast performance of "Rose's Turn" on youtube and bite your lip and try not to be moved. (Your chances are approximately as good as listening to "Little Lamb" in the current production or really any production and not wanting to walk to the Hudson and drown yourself. Seriously, even a production in L.A. I think I'd start walking toward the Hudson with stones in my pockets.)

LuPone's performance throughout is more forceful, less vulnerable than her immediate predecessor's, and rather than just sustain that level of volume in "Rose's Turn" it's as if she yanks the volume knob off its...its...somebody run get me a new metaphor. She stops singing the notes at all and engages in the kind of behavior that, let's say, goes fine in certain lines of Elektra, but even there, you have to maintain some contact with the vocal line as written. For me the effect in sum was riveting but jarring, especially given what she could have done, given her vocal resources. I mean LuPone sounds for sure like she could sing this stuff without the mics, to the point that with them, she sounds a little bit ridiculous. "Rose's Turn" is too loud in a number of ways.

The supporting cast is very much in the shade, but Laura Benanti is essentially succesful as Louise. She, too, rings a little false late in the evening, in that she doesn't really convince as a devastating sophisticate, even a fabricated one. The three stippers got enormous laughs in "You Gotta get a Gimmick" but it's that kind of number and it was that kind of crowd.

God this is long.

So long, in fact, that I'm just going to say of Tuesday at the Lake with Clem that it has its issues but only a desperate curmudgeon would note them much. The performances are ensembley rather than individually brilliant, and the design is just ingenious in a way I won't slobber all over with my four word visual vocabulary. (Hey not for nothing, the design and the music were top notch in Top Girls, too.) Also, last thing, the very last gesture of the production is something that brought tears to my eyes not only as it happened but the next thirty times I thought about it including, hey, just now.

Coming soon to this space: blathering about Les Liaisons Dangermouse most likely, and The 39 Steps, and if I lose my mind entirely and opt for financial collapse, In The Heights. And if you're really good, I'm going to link to a wonderful performance of a terrific piece. As usual, it actually doesn't matter if you're really good; I'm going to do it anyway.

Bonus Review from Sources Who Have Not Stated Whether They Wish to Be Identified but Texted Me so Here You Go: Boring Boring! It was really dumb. Great looking production...think Noises Off but totally cliche and predictable. The audience was roaring with laughter at all the SHOCKING DOUBLE ENTENDRE!

Well that's enough to keep me away...