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Tuesday, October 17, 2017

The Band's Visit - It Wasn't Important?

Katrina Lenk and Tony Shalboub, photo @ Sara Krulwich
The Band's Visit, an off-Broadway musical that is now in previews on Broadway, begins and ends with the statement that an Egyptian banded visited the Israeli town of Bet Hatikva, but no one knows about it, because "it wasn't very important." Those words are meant ironically, as obviously, the whole musical is about the visit. But at the end of last evening's performance it also crossed my mind that, well, uh, it wasn't important. I admired many things about David Yazbek and Itamar Moses's adaptation of the 2007 film, but ultimately I didn't really care about the characters. The music (a charming mix of pseudo-Middle-Eastern pop and folk music) didn't really grab me. It was charming, it was pleasant, but, yeah, it wasn't important.

The story is simple, and actually a well-worn trope in musical theater: the Alexandria Ceremonial Police Band accidentally are sent to the wrong town in Israel when there is a misunderstanding between Bet Hatikva and Petah Tikva. So for one night they are stranded in a sleepy Israeli village where people introduce themselves with the song "Welcome to Nowhere." Of course, before the night is out, people from two different cultures find out they have more in common than they expected, and of course, the thing that unites these people is music. So Band's Visit is a musical about music. I love musicals about music bringing people together. Show Boat. The Music Man. The Sound of Music.

But in order for these sorts of musicals to work, they need to have great music. One of my favorite moments in musical theater is in Show Boat when Magnolia desperately auditions for a nightclub singing the song Julie taught her as a child. The song is rudely dismissed. Magnolia bristles: "That's the most beautiful song in the world. If you don't like it I'm sorry for you." Since that song is "Can't Help Lovin' That Man of Mine" we are on her side. It is a beautiful song.

David Yazbek's score has been praised to the high heavens but what I heard was a bunch of great music ideas and motifs played without being explored for the big payout. Only the jaded cafe owner Dina's (Katrina Lenk) anthem "Omar Sharif," as well as the final number "Answer Me" really develop a motif from the start to the end. But the whole evening is snippets of a great tunes here and there that are abruptly cut off. Musical coitus interruptus. It's ultimately unsatisfying. Actually the best moment of the evening was an encore after curtain calls, when the "band" plays together for the first time. It's a rousing folk theme and it gets audiences going. Why have that be after the curtain calls? Beats me.

Another problem I had were the stylistic choices. Because the Israelis and Egyptians don't have a common language they speak in English together, and the cast (bless their hearts) really tries to speak with authentic Middle-Eastern accents. However, as the evening progresses the director seems to forget that English is not the first language of these characters and the slow, stilted way they talked at first gives way to casual American slang, and characters of the same ethnicity stop speaking Arabic or Israeli to each other. A guy's an "asshole," etc. For a musical that tries to create exact verisimilitude those details matter.

The Band, photo @ Sara Krulwich
There are some wonderful things about this musical. Katrina Lenk deserves praise for her beautiful voice as well as her characterization of Dina. She's the exact dreamy/jaded heroine musicals love, and "Omar Sharif" is a beautiful I Want song. Tony Shalhoub also is wonderful as Tewfiq, the conductor of the band. He forms a bond with Dina throughout the night that becomes the heart of the story. There's other charming moments, like the band's clarinetist serenading a crying baby to sleep, a fun scene at a roller rink, and the final number "Answer Me," a sort of primal scream of loneliness. But since there was little build-up to that cathartic number, it seems out of place. Like an 11 o'clock number where nothing happened at 10 o'clock.

Ultimately I expected more from a musical that's been so praised and is being promoted as the big Tony hope. Maybe that's my problem -- the fact that I set the bar very high for musicals about music. I feel like for these sorts of musicals to work the music has to hit you in the solar plexus. You have to believe that this music is so powerful that people who don't have any reason to be in the same room together have a meeting of the mind and soul. It can't be "oh that was nice and pleasant." David Yazbek's score was nice and pleasant but that was it. It wasn't important.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

NYCB Fall Season: Hello New Works, Goodbye Robbie

Fairchild in some of his best roles at NYCB
After two weeks of Swan Lake NYCB returned to its usual mixed bills. As is often the case the all-Balanchine program reaffirmed Mr. B's genius, the "Here/Now" program revealed which modern works had staying power and which didn't, and the "all-new" works were a mixed bag. NYCB said goodbye to two principals: Rebecca Krohn and Robert Fairchild.

First things first: the Balanchine triple bill of Square Dance/La Valse/Cortegé Hongrois showed that the state of the union of NYCB is strong. Square Dance is in good hands with the allegro technicians of Megan Fairchild/Anthony Huxley. La Valse is trickier -- it can become a cheesy Halloween horror show. But with Sterling Hyltin as the simultaneously delicate and demented socialite and Justin Peck as a hovering, creepy Death, that wasn't an issue. Cortegé Hongrois is not top-drawer Balanchine -- it's heavily derivative of both Petipa's Raymonda and Balanchine's earlier takes on Glazunov's score. Raymonda remix, basically. Sara Mearns and Tiler Angle were fine as the classical couple (the role taps into Mearns' imperiousness, which is one of her best qualities) but more surprising was the vigor with which Georgina Pazcoguin and Ask La Cour danced the "folk" czardas.

But Balanchine's a genius. We all knew that. More uneven was the "Here/Now" mixed bill of Wheeldon's Liturgy/Polyphonia, Ratmansky's Odessa, and Justin Peck's The Times Are Racing. The Wheeldon works were set on Wendy Whelan and have not aged well -- all the gynecological maneuvering of female limbs is tiresome. Liturgy was just dull, Polyphonia not much better. Unity Phelan and Zachary Catazaro (newly promoted to principal) tried and they made gorgeous shapes but these let-twist-Wendy-into-a-pretzel-500-times-in-30-minutes works belong in the ballet dustbin. Ratmansky's Odessa remains an odd, elusive ballet. Is it a dark, violent view of male-female relations, or is it a lighthearted boys-loses-girls-boys-gets-girls fairy tale? The violence between the couples has been toned down, the romance turned up in this revival. And in the midst of all this Megan Fairchild has quietly become an excellent Ratmansky dancer, so able to "get" the composer's offbeat humor. She and Daniel Ulbricht made perhaps the most famous moment in Odessa (the "dream" sequence where she's held aloft by a swarm of guys who eventually become rough and sinister) the right mix of surreal and disturbing.

Stanley and Applebaum, photo @ Michael Kirby Smith
Justin Peck's The Times Are Racing is the closest thing NYCB has to a modern megahit. The pulsating music of Dan Deacon, plus Peck's skill at moving the corps de ballet in exciting ways merged together to make an anthem that had the crowd on their feet and screaming at the ballet's conclusion. The whole ballet bursts with excitement and energy. The NYCB dancers' unique musicality is so obvious -- the way their bodies pulsated visibly to the music is something you often find on the streets of NYC but rarely among classical trained ballet dancers. Time will tell if the work retains its power but my bet is that it will. It's probably the best thing Peck has danced -- in classical ballet his technique is limited, but in tose black t-shirt, jeans and sneakers, his tall handsome build and fast footwork made him the epitome of cool. Neatly inserted into this revival was a sex-change -- the pas de deux originally set on Tiler Peck and Amar Ramasar became a same-sex duet between Taylor Stanley and Daniel Applebaum. The duet between Peck and Ramasar came off as a bit impersonal, like a Tinder hookup. With Stanley and Applebaum it smoldered with intensity.

Preston Chamblee and Taylor Stanley in Not Our Fate, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The evening of new works was a mixed bag, as these things always are. Let's get the bad out of the way: Troy Schumacher's The Wind Still Brings was godawful. It was set to a difficult, dense score (William Walton's Piano Quartet in D minor), had ugly costumes (Jonathan Saunders' creations looked like those loose one-piece bathing suits women of a certain age like to wear to the beach), and repetitive steps that were the epitome of "effects without causes." After a chipper opening the stage apparently became a graveyard where all the dancers lay dead, and then each one of them got up to do a zombie turn before returning to the grave. And then the final movement everyone came back to life and jumped around for no particular reason.

More charming was Gianna Reisen's Composer's Holiday rookie effort. Reisen is an SAB grad and only 18 years old. It shows off two extremely talented apprentices, Gilbert Bolden and Roman Mejia, and two talented junior corps members, Emma von Enck and Christina Clark. The costumes by Virgil Ab-doh were pretty tutus for the girls and dapper black suits for the men. The music by Lukas Foss was mildly jazzy. The piece was lighthearted, with fun body drops for women and a few witty parodies of Balanchine motifs. The most memorable was when a male dancer walked to the edge of the stage to pull a girl onstage, only to find himself dragging several girls in a very Balanchine-like daisy chain. Was it great? No, but it was fun.

The most interesting work of the night was Lauren Lovette's sophomore choreographic effort. Last season's For Clara was a pleasant surprise. Now with her second piece Not Our Fate (inspired by a poem by NYCB corps member Mary Elizabeth Sell) Lovette is already displaying two important virtues in a choreographer: the ability to pick of piece of music that is responsive to dance (Mark Nyman's pulsating score reminds one of Phillip Glass), and willingness to push dancers outside their comfort zone. The duet between Preston Chamblee and Taylor Stanley is an interesting take on same-sex partnering -- Chamblee is obviously the "male" and he partners Stanley completely like he would partner a ballerina. Supported finger pirouettes and fancy lifts and the whole nine yards. Stanley while being partnered danced on ballerina-like high demi-pointe. The duet between Ask La Cour and Olivia MacKinnon was actually more gender neutral, with many contemporary poses that suggested neither traditional male or female roles. Ask La Cour can often be stolid but Lovette brought out an intensity in him. The piece was occasionally overwrought but it held interest. Lovette is a more interesting choreographer than she is a dancer and I look forward to her next works.

Pulcinella, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Justin Peck's Pulcinella Variations closed out the evening. The costumes by Tsumori Chisato were amazing -- they suggested commedia dell'arte but with a modern twist. The choreography was more uneven. As the title suggests this is a ballet of two pas de deux and several distinct variations. Stravinsky's music for these variations differed in their danceability. For instance the "Serenata" between Sara Mearns and Jared Angle was rather sluggish. Neither of them are able to move their bodies with the speed that the music demands. Blink and you might miss Sterling Hyltin's brief solo. Indiana Woodward's costume (half nude unitard, half yellow flower) was more interesting than her solo which was perky but unmemorable. But the Tarantella danced by Anthony Huxley blazed and was by far the best part of the piece, while the "Gavotta" between Tiler Peck and Gonzalo Garcia actually captured the flavor of commedia del'arte. Justin Peck's work is always stimulating, and it was a fine closer for the evening. As for its place in the Peck "canon" I think it falls somewhere in the middle. Not a real clunker a la The Most Incredible Thing but without the direct appeal of Rodeo or The Times Are Racing.

Fairchild and Hyltin, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Sunday, October 15, last day of the fall season, and the company bid adieu to Robert Fairchild. Oh boy. This one is hard for me to write about. It wasn't a surprise that he left, since for the past three years he's danced only intermittently with the company. He became a Broadway star with An American in Paris and is leaving to pursue more musical theater opportunities. Plus his marriage to Tiler Peck is over. Still, seeing him one last time onstage with Sterling Hyltin in Duo Concertant reminded me of the dancer he was. At his best he could do the classical and neo-classical roles with a boy-next-door freshness and simplicity. His Apollo was magnificent -- unaffected, endearing, a young god finding his sea legs. His Who Cares? with Tiler Peck often became a hot-ticket item when casting was announced. He partnered Wendy Whelan as the Poet in her farewell to the company. To the rest of the world he's a ballet star. To me he'll always be a ballet dancer who was on the cusp of being a great artist before Broadway took him away forever.

Having said that, it was a beautiful performance. Actually the whole afternoon was wonderful. Teresa Reichlen and Russell Janzen gave a very different interpretation of Cortegé Hongrois -- Reichlen is elegance personified. Whereas Sara Mearns powers through steps, Reichlen glides like Elsa from Frozen. Lovely. I'm not a fan of Sara Mearns in La Valse -- she dances it well but I prefer the fragility of Sterling Hyltin. Ashley Bouder absolutely hit Square Dance out of the ballpark. She's one of the few ballerinas who is able to really articulate the gargouillades with clear swings of both calves. Taylor Stanley was not chopped liver either.

Then the lights came up to the piano and violin, and Robbie and Sterling transported the audience in a heart-meltingly tender Duo Concertant. Hyltin has a way of bringing out the most in her male partners -- I remember a Dances at a Gathering where Fairchild (Brown Boy) was struggling technically. Then the Brown Boy and Pink Girl (Hyltin) danced together and all the struggles melted away and it was so beautiful. You could tell how long Hyltin and Fairchild been dancing together from the natural way Sterling rested her head on his shoulder and in how much their bodies mirrored each other. The final image of Fairchild in the dark, with the spotlight dimming for the final time was bitter-sweet and a testament to how Balanchine knew how to end ballets like no other choreographer. Of course afterwards came the flowers, the confetti, the cheers. Fairchild looked happy, like he was eager to start the next stage of his career.

Here are the curtain calls:

Afterwards I went to the stage door and expressed my appreciation to Robbie and Sterling. I also met a bunch of other City Ballet dancers -- Adrian Danchig-Waring, Megan Fairchild, Maria Kowroski, Daniel Ulbricht, Joseph Gordon. But Robbie and Sterling were so gracious with the fans. I keep telling myself that this won't be the last I see of Fairchild -- he's doing Brigadoon at City Center in November and he has more projects in the pipeline. But part of me still feels sad that the memories of seeing him dance Apollo, Stravinsky Violin Concerto, Duo Concertant, Who Cares?, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, and a host of other roles will be just that -- memories. But what memories!

Saturday, September 30, 2017

NYCB Fall Season: 4 (!!!) Swan Lakes

NYCB Swan Lake, photo @ Paul Kolnik
When the 2017-18 season for NYCB came out last spring, I saw that the first two weeks of the season were devoted to Peter Martins' Swan Lake. I thought "Oh good, giving my wallet a break." This was one production I was in no hurry to revisit. I saw it once with Sara Mearns and that was enough. Or so I thought. Flash forward to September. I found myself buying tickets to see four (!!!) different Swan Lake casts. The struggle is real, y'all.

I still hate the production. I hate the mish-mash of Balanchine/Martins/Ivanov choreography in the lakeside scene. I hate the hideous decors by Per Kirkelby. I hate the mismatched green costumes in the first act. I hate the Jester. I hate the hilariously bad Russian dance in which one female dancer usually slinks as if doing a Middle Eastern belly dance. I hate the cold, non-sensical ending (Rothbart is defeated, but as dawn approaches Odette still goes back with her swans and Siegfried is alone). The only part of new choreography I like is the ballroom pas de quatre. The difference is now NYCB has such a strong roster of Odette/Odiles that I wanted to see what they could do with this iconic role. The casts I saw were: Reichlen/Janzen (Sept 22), Hyltin/Catazaro (9/29), Fairchild/Garcia (9/30), and Peck/Finlay (10/1). Yes, I really sat through this production three times in three days. God help me.

The first performance was the most disappointing. Teresa Reichlen gave the kind of constricted, expressionless performance she often gives when she has a bad case of the nerves. She's an amazing dancer but her bloodcurdling Siren, her incomparable Rubies Tall Girl or her majestic Firebird (some of her best roles) were nowhere to be seen in her Odette/Odile. She didn't differentiate between Odette and Odile -- both were stony and passive. She got through the role, and that was about it. Her and Janzen did not really bother telling the story with their bodies. Janzen's partnering was also off. The black swan pas de deux had not an iota of sex appeal. They're both wonderful dancers but this ballet brings out the least in them. The corps was also obviously underrehearsed and often out of the step with the music and their arms looked sloppy.

Hyltin and Catazaro, photo @ Kent G. Becker
What a difference a cast (and a week) makes! The next couple I saw (Sterling Hyltin and Zachary Catazaro) were so exquisite that I felt like I was truly getting the Swan Lake experience, and not just the neo-classical, abbreviated Martins' Swan Lake. Catazaro from his entrance was telling a story -- his Prince was young, curious about the world. He took his bow and fussed over it the way a young man would. Hyltin as Odette was breathtaking -- so slight, but with such soft arms, pliant back, regal posture, that you forgot she was the shortest of all the swans onstage. Unlike Reichlen she stretched those iconic poses to beautiful effect. She and Catazaro made the white swan pas de deux (here with that allegro ending which I dislike) truly sing with heart-melting tenderness. Hyltin's Odette variation was wonderful. Her sissones in her variation burst with longing to be free. You believed in Catazaro and Hyltin because it was clear they believed in Swan Lake.

The black swan pas de deux was amazing. Hyltin's body language was completely transformed and she and Catazaro really ACTED not with their faces but with their bodies. Loved the way Hyltin's Odile would beckon Siegfried with a hand and then turn her whole body away. Her variation was fine, with those double pirouettes followed by the pirouette in attitude only lacking the ability to balance longer to show off those poses. For those who were counting the fouettés, Hyltin got through all of them -- started with a triple, then did singles with some doubles thrown in. She started traveling downstage a bit but ended on a triple (!!!) right with the conclusion of the music. Catazaro is not a virtuoso dancer but his variation was also very clean, very musical, and again, the emotional investment he put into this role showed.

Hyltin, photo @ Paul Kolnik
Martins' ending to the final lakeside scene actually made sense with Hyltin. She was able to convey to Siegfried that he had broken his vow and there would be no happy ending. Their final duet was beautiful. Finally at dawn as the apotheosis music played, you saw Hyltin transform herself back into a swan. The back straightened, the arms started flapping, and she bourreéd offstage with her flock of birds forever. What was muddled and confusing with Reichlen and Janzen was heartbreakingly clear with Hyltin and Catazaro. Bravo.

Other shoutouts in this performance: Harrison Coll was a wonderful Benno, and handled the demands of the pas de trois with excellent double tours. Spartak Hoxha's Jester made the most of what is a very irritating part. And Adrian-Danchig-Waring (welcome back!) and Emilie Gerrity managed to make something of the Russian dance. The swan corps were much improved -- their arms even had a softness and flow that I don't usually associate with this company.

Here is the beautiful couple in their curtain calls:

Fairchild as Odette, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Performance three: Megan Fairchild and Gonzalo Garcia. This is Megan's debut in the role, even though she's been a principal at NYCB for 12 years. One can see why she wasn't given this role before: she's short, with the proportions of a soubrette. She also tends to do best in comedy -- she was absolutely wonderful as Ivy Smith in On the Town. Fairchild and Garcia gave a decent, respectable performance, but it didn't match the poetry of Hyltin/Catazaro. Megan is technically very strong, but her physique really limits how expressive her body can be in this role. Her movements lacked grandeur. Gonzalo Garcia is a good partner and a sincere actor, but there's something so joyful and pure about his persona that the angst of Siegfried's plight doesn't come naturally. Their white swan adagio was well-danced, but lacking in drama. I thought Megan would do better with the Black Swan pas de deux than the White Swan adagio but oddly that wasn't the case -- she just wasn't very convincing as the vampish Odile. Her Odile variation was very secure, but her fouettés were not -- they traveled quite a bit and looked shaky. The final scene was disappointing -- unlike Hyltin, Fairchild didn't completely transform herself back into a swan as the apotheosis music played, but chose to simply bourreé backwards with her and the flock of swans closed Siegfried off.  It was a good effort, but it didn't quite cut the mustard. The highlight of the performance might have been the pas de quatre -- Joseph Gordon, Ashly Isaacs, Unity Phelan and Lauren Lovette danced up a storm.

Peck as Odette, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Tiler Peck and Chase Finlay were the final couple I saw. This run of Swan Lakes is also Tiler and Chase's debuts in the ballet. Tiler Peck is probably the company's strongest technician. Scratch that. She's probably the ballet world's strongest technician. There's nothing she can't do. However roles that require a lot of acting and drama have never been her forte -- I remember her flawlessly danced but decidedly un-magical La Sylphide. So therefore I was curious to see her tackle Odette/Odile.

Before I start on Tiler let me say that Chase Finlay was the only prince to act in a realistically royal way. It's part of Martins' staging that the jester in the first act sneaks onto the throne. All the other princes good-naturedly swatted the jester away. Chase shoved the jester and drop-kicked him for good measure in full Joffrey mode. It would have made Cersei proud. His blond bouffant hair was perfectly coiffed, and he exuded a distinct narcissism.

Final curtain calls, photo @ Kent G. Becker
From Tiler's loud entrance applause you knew she was the audience favorite. With that said her Odette is clearly a work in progress. Her superhuman strength in par terre dancing means that her back and upper body are stiff boards. Her swan arms need work -- way too much wrist flapping, not enough movement of the shoulders and back. Her white swan act was actually a disappointment -- her and Chase did not have much rapport, and as I mentioned, the lack of softness and flow in her upper body was detrimental. BUT her Odile really blew all the other NYCB Odiles out of the water. That's not a surprise -- the Black swan pas de deux is meant to showcase technical strength, and Tiler has a surfeit of strength. Every pose was perfectly held. The control she had in her variation was remarkable -- those difficult double pirouettes to pirouette in attitude were like child's play to her. And she rocked the fouettés -- all doubles in the first half, switching to singles in the second half, minimal traveling. The thrill on Tiler's face was palpable -- she even cackled at Chase. At the end of the pas Tiler and Chase both came forward for three bows, Bolshoi style.

Here's a video NYCB released of Tiler's fouettes:

Chase and Tiler's last act was not as heartbreaking as Sterling and Zachary's. Tiler for one didn't have the swan arms to make that final transformation back into a swan at dawn quite as effective. But it worked, because Chase's portrayal of the prince was so selfish and full of self-regard that Odette leaving him alone in his grief seemed like just punishment. And Tiler, who was passive and expressionless in the earlier lakeside scene, ratcheted up the emotion for an affecting farewell to Siegfried. She's a remarkable dancer, and she will clearly grow in this role. She and Chase got 7 raucous curtain calls. Also: Aaron Sanz, Sara Adams and Kristen Segin were IMO the most charming of the pas de trois that I saw.

Last spring at ABT much ado was made of the fact that so many of the ABT principals could not complete the basic requirements of Odette/Odile including those famous fouettés. It's therefore remarkable that NYCB, that doesn't do 32 fouetté ballets regularly, went 6/6 with Odiles who made it to 32. But that's the strength of the company right now. I tip my hat to this amazing group of dancers. And the performance of Sterling Hyltin and Zachary Catazaro will live in my memory as one of the most moving accounts of this ballet I have ever seen.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Opening Night Norma: Business as Usual

Opening night Norma, photo @ Ken Howard

Last night was one of my personal firsts: attending an opening night at the Metropolitan Opera. The opera: Bellini's Norma. I thought at the very least it'd be fun in a special occasion sort of way. Instead it was one of the most normal, average nights I've ever spent at the Met. It wasn't a bad performance so much as a terribly routine one.

The new production by David McVicar looked like something that was raided from old sets of Die Walkure. Norma's house looks a lot like Hunding's hut, and the centerpiece of the Druid command center was an enormous tree. I really thought Norma was going to pull a sword from the tree. The costumes by Moritz Junger were nondescript dark drapes for most everybody. It was a safe, inoffensive production for the most part, save some odd directorial choices. Why does Norma begin "Casta diva" by crawling on her hands and knees to the little treehouse platform, and why does she scurry under the tree to sing "Ah bello a mi ritorna"?

But the fault of last night's dull, unenthusiastic performance lies not with McVicar, as really, what CAN a director do with Norma? This is such a singer-centered opera. Very hard to make a regie-Norma. It was instead the flawed performances by ALL the principal singers that made this night not-so-memorable. No one's voice was working the way it needed to work to pull this opera off.

Let's start with the big one: Sondra Radvanovsky. Norma isn't a new role for her. She's sung it many times in many houses, including the Met. She was a replacement when Anna Netrebko decided "nyet" on Norma. The Russian superdiva's primo ottocento skills are suspect but she might have brought a measure of glamour to the evening.

Sondra's Druid Priestess, photo @ Ken Howard
I wanted to like Radvanovsky's Norma. She certainly works hard. But her Norma didn't work for me musically or artistically. Part of it I think is her voice -- it's large and powerful, but can be unwieldy. Notes often become thin and scratchy, the tone wavers and sounds harsh. Cabalettas are a struggle for her -- after a mostly lovely "Casta diva" she sang a bumpy, approximate "Ah bello a mi ritorna." But most of it is her musical choices. Simply put, she's not a very musical singer. It's amazing that after so many years singing Italian repertory, she still pronounces Italian phonetically, with all vowels distorted to an "eee" or "aww" sound. Like many non-Italian singers she also over rolls her r's. Listen to Pavarotti and Scotto. Did they ever roll their r's in such an exaggerated way? Another issue is her inability to sing a clean, unfussy vocal line. She sounds like she's spacing out the music in chunks so she can use two of her favorite special effects: the soft, floated high note, and the blasted, fortissimo high note. A Norma that can't sing Bellini's vocal lines in a clean, instrumental way is a non-starter, in my opinion. Her voice also started to give out during "In mia man." The cascades of sound that Radvanovsky usually supplies just wasn't there at the very moment it needed to be there. And "Son io" was oddly muffled and rushed, so the impact of the Big Reveal was totally lost.

La Divina in Norma
Her dramatic choices were also off. She just didn't exude the authority needed for the role. Look at pictures of Maria Callas in this role: no doubt who was Boss. Her interactions with her two children were off too -- at the beginning of Act 2, Norma contemplates killing them. The scene when done right is supposed to tear your heart out. But Sondra barely looked at them, and the childrens' interactions with Clotilde (an excellent Michelle Bradley) were warmer. Sondra also needs lessons on how to make some stage business more convincing: she held her dagger like a Halloween costume prop all night. No sense that this woman was teetering on the edge of murder.

DiDonato and Radvanovsky, photo @ Ken Howard
Joyce DiDonato (Adalgisa) had the opposite problem. Her slender mezzo soprano was an odd fit for this role, which was originated on a soprano (Giulia Grisi, who would go on to sing Norma) and if sung by a mezzo needs one with a secure upper register. Alas, Joyce has never had a secure, free upper register and especially didn't have one last night. In the first act duet "O rimembranza" she tried to match Norma's high C, got nowhere close to the note, and hastily improvised a descending cadenza. She didn't even try in the second act duet "Mira o Norma." Her voice sounded like it had reached its ceiling all night. One wonders why there weren't some transpositions to accommodate Joyce's range. (Correction: I've been told by someone way more versed in music than myself that Joyce's solo at the start of the Act Two duet was transposed, but that was the only transposition.)

But Joyce does so much with such a limited vocal capacity. She's an intensely musical singer who communicates with the audience in a direct, sincere way. When she sang, you knew exactly what she was singing about, what the character felt, and for once, Adalgisa's drama became more compelling than Norma's. She shaped Bellini's vocal lines beautifully -- even when she was reaching for another high note that wasn't there, you could admire the way she made you "see the music." Her diction was clear and there was always a connection to the text. So when she sang those duets with Norma it was like one side (Sondra) was garbled and mushy vocalise, and the other side (Joyce) was a lieder recital.

Calleja as Pollione, photo @ Ken Howard
Joseph Calleja (Pollione) has, like Radvanovsky and DiDonato, a tight, constricted vibrato that is not always easy on the ears. His tone is warm and his stage manner earnest. Too earnest. The McVicar vision of Pollione is a jerk with wife-abuser-vibes. Calleja tried mightily but couldn't quite pull off that persona. Vocally he was fine. Matthew Rose (Oroveso) must have been having a bad night because he sounded shaky and wobbly all night and he usually is reliable.

As usual the Met's orchestra and chorus saved the day. For this production we were spared the overindulgent Marco Armiliato and/or Maurizio Benini. Carlo Rizzi led a sensitive, detailed account of the score, with the melancholy melodies taking center stage. The chorus was as always amazing.

At the end of the evening the principals got a polite if not overwhelming ovation. When the production team was brought out there were neither cheers nor boos, just silence as most people were already shuffling out of the auditorium. As I said, just business as usual at the Met. Not a very promising start to a season that seems designed to be very safe and dull.

Sunday, September 3, 2017

My Last Day as a Cometeer

Dave Malloy as Pierre
So Natasha, Pierre, and The Great Comet of 1812 closed this afternoon. It was certainly not the ending fans of this show expected when it opened and was making millions per week. The demise of this musical has been endlessly discussed here, there, everywhere. Today I'll just talk about the thrilling, wonderful experience of being a Last Cometeer.

I almost didn't go to this show. Tickets sold out early and I had seen the show four previous times. But then an opportunity opened up and of course I pounced on it. My day as a Cometeer started at the NJ Transit train station where I was waiting for the train -- a mother and daughter were talking about "what goes on behind those doors." I quickly deduced that they were also Cometeers and indeed, they were headed to NYC for the same reason as me -- to see this show for their third time.

From then on I basically ran into one hard-core Cometeer after another. At ticketing I was standing in front of a girl who was made up exactly like Princess Mary. I was seated in front of a co-producer, who then was talking to a nice gentleman, "Mr. Benton." Yes, Denée's dad. It was such a joy to run into all these Cometeers. And then during intermission, I noticed a bunch of people approaching a skinny man in the orchestra. Yes, it was Josh Groban! I debated approaching him since I had no pen (stupid!) but was like fuck it, I'll just go when the co-producer assured me he was "very sweet." He was very sweet and also very low-key. On this day, he was just another Cometeer. When Amber Gray clinked my glass during "The Abduction" that was just the cherry on top.

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As for the performance, the screaming started as soon as Dave Malloy entered with his accordion. He acknowledged the cheers with a brief bow to the audience. Every main character got huge cheers. Unlike previous performances where I've seen Denée and Lucas pace themselves, the whole cast sang at full throttle -- no more holding back. There were loud ovations after every song, including a standing ovation after "Dust and Ashes." Other numbers that got screaming ovations: "Charming" by the incomparable Amber Gray, "Sonya Alone" with Brittain Ashford singing her heart out. But perhaps the moment that got to me the most was during the huge second act production number "Balaga" Lucas Steele sang one verse of "Goodbye, my gypsy lovers ..." and then pointed the bow of his violin at the audience and motioned for us to sing. Much of the audience started singing along, including, I noticed, some ushers behind me who were quietly wiping away tears. The crowd was in such a frenzy that Dave Malloy had to be reminded to ring the cowbell. By the final two numbers "Pierre and Natasha" and "Great Comet of 1812" the audience was sniffling, and I noticed Denée was crying for real. I wish the audience hadn't started applauding BEFORE the final light on the "comet" went out but hey, can't blame them for the enthusiasm.

Denee and Lucas

Then of course the bows, more cheers, and a brief but heartfelt speech from director Rachel Chavkin who implored the audience to go to "new works." By then the whole amazing ensemble was gathered onstage, and I was just thinking of the first time I went to the show (saw it on TDF and was curious to see Josh Groban in a fat suit -- it didn't go much beyond that), and how I then managed to see the show four more times in less than a month. Each time, the show got better, and it didn't matter much who was Pierre (I saw Josh, I saw Oak, I saw Scott, and I saw Dave). I think the first time I saw the show I was sort of overwhelmed by all the things going on -- the pierogies, the egg shakers, the rave party, the dancing up and down aisles, etc. etc. But upon each successive viewing I realized that the star of the show was The Score. Like all great musicals it's anchored to a score that gets better with each listening. I have a feeling that many numbers of this score will become musical theater favorites for divas and divos to steal -- "Sonya Alone," "No One Else," "Dust and Ashes." But really, it's the minute-to-minute greatness of the score, the continuity, the way Dave Malloy constantly goes into the minds of all these characters even when the sometimes awkward lyrics can't do so, that makes The Great Comet. And goshdarnit, Dave makes these character so lovable. Anatole might be a wastrel playboy, but I defy anyone not to love him when he sings "Goodbye, my gypsy lover ..."

Lucas Steele a few weeks ago posted this classy but strong rebuke to the charges of racism that clouded the show's final days. Here is the video, deserves to be seen in its entirety for it shows what a diverse cast this was:

This show developed such a loyal following among theater nerds that part of me still can't believe it's over. But then again, isn't that what comets do? They shine brightly and make the sky beautiful for a brief moment, and then they're gone, leaving us with wonderful memories.

Here is a video I took of the curtain calls. Farewell Cometeers. This cast is so talented I'm sure they'll sprinkle the sky again soon with new projects. But the alchemy of having them all in one room will never again happen, and that's why I feel so honored to have been part of this bright star, having traced its parabola, with inexpressible speed, through immeasurable space. Onto a new life, Cometeers, but never forget the old one.

This recording only captures a fraction of the frisson in the room:

ETA: On September 15 I also went to Groundhog Day's closing show. Also a beautiful experience. I went to the stage door and wow, what a sweet cast! I got my entire playbill signed by the cast members. This is another show that also deserved a longer run.

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Saturday, August 19, 2017

Theater diaries: Prince of Broadway, Government Inspector, and more

Government Inspector, photo @Carol Rossegg
Over the past week for whatever reason I've seen 5 shows. Two were revisits (The Great Comet, closing on September 3, and Groundhog Day) and three were new to me: The Play that Goes Wrong, Government Inspector, and Prince of Broadway.

Of all the shows by far the biggest highlight was Government Inspector. It's playing in the off-Broadway New World Stages theater. GO SEE IT BEFORE IT CLOSES ON AUGUST 20. Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation of Nikolai Gogol's famous play had a synergy of great casting, direction, and production values. The whole evening had the audience in stitches. Gogol's satirical play has lost none of its bite and relevance -- the snobbery, ignorance, selfishness, and corruption of the public officials in the play could be transplanted to modern times without any adjustments.

Urie and Burton, photo @Carol Rossegg
Plaudits have to go to the entire 14-person cast, many of whom had to double or triple up in roles. Michael Urie as the wastrel Ivan Hlestakov who is mistaken for a government inspector was brilliant -- shallow, a total dandy, but charming and funny enough so that we could watch him for 2 hours and still like him at the end. He's first seen trying to kill himself but not before getting his poofy hair just so. He has two huge set-piece scenes -- in the first, he drunkenly brags that he ghost-wrote Alexander Pushkin's novels, for starters. In the second, he shakes each corrupt official for rubles with increasinly efficiency and seduces the mayor's sullen daughter Marya (Talene Monahan).

Steven DeRosa as the corrupt, pompous mayor of a tiny Russian village matched Urie scene for scene, laugh for laugh. His officiousness and cowardice are covered up by a bland good-guy persona. Mary Testa as the mayor's horny wife and Arnie Burton were the other standouts. Burton doubled both as the nosy postmaster who reads every letter that comes through the mail and Ivan's cynical servant. When he caught Ivan trying to kill himself again his response was a nonchalant "We do this everyday."

Alexis Distler's clever two-tiered set perfectly captured the cheesy bourgeoisie tastes of the Mayor as well as the seedy ramshackle inn. Tilly Grimes' costumes also capture the feel of people who don't have much money but spend their lives pretending to have more money than they actually have. Director Jesse Berger's directions ensures that the laughs are almost constant, even if those laughs are often icky and uncomfortable.

Play That Goes Wrong cast, photo @ Jeremy Daniel
Henry Lewis's The Play That Goes Wrong also got almost constant laughs from the audience but in this case, the source of the humor wasn't political satire but a good old-fashioned British farce (it transferred to New York after winning the Olivier Award for Best Comedy in London). The premise is simple: Conley University Drama Society is presenting a creaky murder mystery play called "The Murder at Havisham Manor." Of course everything that can  go wrong does go wrong -- the "corpse" refuses to act dead, the leading lady is knocked out with a concussion, there are constant set and wardrobe malfunctions, one young actor Max Bennett (a hilarious Dave Hearn) can't help but ad-lib and mug constantly for the audience, and the "lighting and sound operator" Trevor (Rob Falconer) only cares about his Duran Duran cd. Is it really a deep and meaningful play? No, but it is a lot of fun, and the set design (by Nigel Hook) is amazing. There are so many times when the set has to fall apart just so and it always does. The players also throw themselves completely into the pratfalls of the play, so much so that I worried they'd actually hurt themselves.

Yazbeck in "The Right Girl"
There's not much to say about Prince of Broadway -- it's an old-fashioned revue of some of Hal Prince's most legendary productions. As you might expect the small cast, tiny orchestra, lack of an ensemble and barebones sets negates a lot of what made Prince the King of Broadway. The small cast means we got some truly grade-A talent (Tony Yazbeck tap-dancing up a storm in "The Right Girl" from Follies and singing some beautiful excerpts from West Side Story, Brandon Uranowitz as a surprisingly creepy Emcee from Cabaret) to the very good (Emily Skinner in two Sondheim classics "Send in the Clowns" and "Ladies Who Lunch", Bryona Marie Parham in selections from Show Boat and Cabaret) with the odd (Chuck Cooper doing a decidedly unorthodox rendition of "If I Had a Rich Man") with the appalling (Janet Dacal trying to sing Evita and failing miserably, Michael Xavier giving the thinnest, wimpiest rendition of Phantom ever). It was worth it to see once just for Yazbeck's tap number of rage. Hal Prince is 95 and except for Phantom which is still running on Broadway all his productions will eventually fade from memory but the evening proved that you can't put on a great show without great talent.

View from the banquet. The set is by far the greatest I've ever seen
I revisted The Great Comet and Groundhog Day because both shows are due to close soon. The Great Comet's box office took a dive after Josh Groban departed, and audiences never warmed to his replacement Okieriete "Oak" Onaodowan. The show then fired Oak in favor of Mandy Patinkin, which caused a twitter uproar, then Mandy withdrew, and without a new Pierre and any advance sales the show will play its final performance September 3. You can read all about it here.

The Great Comet I saw on August 13, the last day for both Oak and Ingrid Michaelson (Sonya). It was a very cool experience because this time I sat onstage in the right banquet, and the performers were sometimes inches away from me. Many of the characters enter through the back staircase right where I was sitting. I caught a pierogie, they gave us shakers, and I almost got a torn page of War and Peace. And the show remains a creative, wild, uneven, theatrical experience. It also has one of the best opening numbers ever -- a total earworm. I still have "Anatole is hot/Marya is Old-School/Sonya is Good/Natasha is young/And Andrey isn't here" stuck in my head. Props go out to this amazing cast and ensemble. Of the original cast, I thought Denée Benton (Natasha) sounded weaker than she did in February, Amber Gray is still funny as the "slut" Helene and she also has one of the strongest alto voices in the business (she knocked "Charming" out of the park), Nick Choski (Dolokhov) is still a twinkly eyed trouble-maker, Lucas Steele (Anatole) was still the force of nature -- a singing, dancing punk rock dynamo that rightfully steals every scene he's in. In the huge second act production number "Balaga" I was fortunate to sit close to Lucas Steele and the effort and energy he put into that one number was astonishing. He was heaving and sweating bullets towards the end. As for the new cast members, Ingrid Michaelson was actually a disappointment. I love her music, but her slender pop voice sounded overwhelmed and she didn't bring much emotion to "Sonya Alone.". And how was Oak? He was pretty great. His voice isn't as mellifluous as Josh Groban's but he was dramatically convincing as homely, alcoholic Pierre and the final number ("The Great Comet of 1812") was gorgeous. There was another new member: Courtney Bassett (Princess Mary) I actually liked more than Gelsey Bell. It's a crying shame this beautiful inventive show is closing September 3. Go see it before Labor Day!

The two Phils: Bill Murray and Andy Karl. Murray saw the show twice 
Groundhog Day is also closing on September 17. This show never caught fire with the general public, and didn't have the consistency in quality of Dear Evan Hansen or The Great Comet. Not even a visit by Bill Murray could increase buzz for this show. Nevertheless it was a wonderful, entertaining, touching musical and Andy Karl's performance on August 15 was even funnier and more charming than when I saw him in May. It's very hard to walk that line between "asshole" and "lovable" without tipping the balance too much to one side, but Karl does it. His dry sense of humor and deadpan delivery made me laugh with him when he made yet another patented snide "Phil" remark. Barrett Doss has also grown in the part of Rita. One of the flaws of the original film was that Andie McDowell was simply too bland to go toe-to-toe with Bill Murray. Doss is feistier, with more of a personality. This show also has an ingenious set that alternated between loud blaring reality (the "small-town USA" Groundhog Day festival) and surreal (the drunken driving car chase) that reinforced the idea that "February 2" is really a metaphor for finally Getting Things Right. It's a shame Groundhog Day had to close so soon. I hope we see Andy Karl again, SOON.

UPDATE: I went to see Great Comet again on 8/22 and saw my third Pierre, Scott Stangland. I was seated front row mezzanine -- probably the best seats in the house. Scott's voice is a gruff but powerful baritenor and he was very believable and moving as Pierre. The ending is quietly beautiful: the "comet" of 1812 is represented by a large chandelier that gradually fades until there's only one night and finally the stage darkens completely. Denée Benton was in great voice last night, and from the front row mezzanine you really see more of her facial expressions. It was nice to see Gelsey Bell (Mary/Opera Singer) and Brittain Ashford (Sonya) return to their roles.

MORE UPDATES :I went AGAIN on 8/29 for the fourth time to see the show's creator/composer Dave Malloy as Pierre. As far as voice goes his voice is not as mellifluous as Scott Stangland or Josh Groban. But there's something special about seeing a composer interpret his own music, and so it was last night. At one point I saw Dave in "Pierre's tavern" absolutely immersed playing the piano. The audience was so enthusiastic. Maybe too much so -- they started applauding before the final light goes out in the "great comet" finale, and thus I couldn't hear the beautiful, quiet ending to this amazing score. I am so sad to see this beautiful show go.

Thursday, July 27, 2017

Taming of the Shrew; Waitress Hat Trick

Katharina and Petruchio, photo @ Jack Devant

The Lincoln Center Festival chugged along with more Bolshoi Ballet -- this time they were dancing Jean-Christophe Maillot's Taming of the Shrew. After the excitement of Superjewels, this seemed anti-climactic. I went to see the opening night performance and while it was a perfectly pleasant way to spend a summer evening it's not something I'll rush to see again.

The ballet has some virtues. One, its brevity. With an intermission and the prolonged Russian-style curtain calls you were still out of the theater within 1 hr 45 minutes. Two, the score. The music is piecemeal Shostakovich which meant it was always listenable and often very fun. Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin (Bianca and Lucentio) have two calm, glamorous pas de deux that establish these two remarkable dancers as the foremost classicists of the company. The role of Hortensio is one of those Bolshoi bravura cameos that gets the entire crowd yelling, especially when danced with the explosiveness of Igor Tsvirko (seriously, wow! He has a pretty cool Youtube channel where you can see him dance other roles).

Bianca and Lucentio (Smirnova and Chudin), photo @ Jack Devant
But, but, but. Maillot ran into the same issues choreographers always run into while adapting Shakespeare: the Bard is all about the Words, and dance is all about the Moves. Unless you have a score at the caliber of Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet or Mendelssohn's incidental music to Midsummer's Night Dream, pure-dance lends itself very poorly to Shakespeare. You might ask, what about Kiss Me Kate? And again, two words: Cole Porter. Plus, a musical allows for dialogue and lyrics that take you farther into Shakespeare's world than a pure-dance work. Many of the nuances of the play are gone in Maillot's work. One of the biggest is Bianca's manipulative, passive-aggressive personality that is so important in the play -- it's Shakespeare's way of reminding all men that your perfectly sweet, obedient, virtuous wife-to-be probably isn't any of those things. In Maillot's version she's just a glamorous Stepford wife. Smirnova does manage to insert a slightly smug, bitchy look that hints at Bianca's darker side. 

Kryasanova and Lanatrov, photo @ Jack Devant
Maillot also doesn't have the choreographic vocabulary to bring Katharina and Petruchio's love-hate relationship to life with any degree of subtlety. Instead the long pas de deux that culminates with the consummation of their marriage is just a sort of a PG-13-rated S&M-lite: think Fifty Shades of Grey without the shade. Taming of the Shrew has enough built-in tawdriness to tolerate the predictable Maillot style: as you might expect, Katharina is manhandled, dragged to the point where you fear for her shoulder sockets, pushed, pulled, lifted in about 50 different crotch-baring ways, etc. etc. etc. It's to the credit of Ekaterina Kryasanova (Katharina) and Vladislav Lanatrov (so gorgeous, but alas, given practically no dancing to do -- he does look nice shirtless though) that they do all these steps without ever seeming cheap and they're able to generate heat despite the overwrought choreography.

The choreography has some other affectations that irritate: for instance, the house lights go down and the housekeeper (a glamour girl with a chic bob, played by Yanina Parienko) sits in front of the curtain lazing around as the orchestra warms up in cacophony. After about 5 minutes of this nonsense the conductor finally walks to the podium. 

The company, photo @Mikhail Loginov
It's a testament to the strength of the Bolshoi dancers that this was even watchable. Tonight's performance just reaffirmed what I thought of them in Superjewels -- that they have the finest male dancers in the world. Their feet! Their faces! Their HAIR!!! They're not just pretty though -- they have enough horsepower to get the crowds screaming. As for the females, Taming of the Shrew is not a fair judge of their talents -- they don't have much substantial dancing to do, but as always with these Russian companies you admire the heart, the energy, the tirelessness. Today in the first act a fire alarm went off and beeped incessantly. We in the fourth ring were told to vacate, as were other sections of the house. It was chaos for about a good 10 minutes. During that time the dancers were onstage, completely oblivious, dancing with the same ease, and still remembered to close their feet for a tight fifth position.

This is a great company and I can't wait to see them again. Just not in Taming of the Shrew.

Sara Bareilles and Betsy Wolfe, from @Waitressmusical twitter
On July 22 I went to see Waitress again -- third time in three months. I rarely do musical hat-tricks but Waitress has become the musical for which I have the most personal affection. I went back mainly because there's been quite a cast reshuffling -- Betsy Wolfe replaced the amazing Sara Bareilles, Drew Gehling returned as Dr. Pomatter (I saw his replacement), Jeremy Morse (Ogie) and Joe Tippett (Earl) are reprising the roles they created when the show was at American Repertory Theatre.

The good news first: Drew Gehling was a much superior Dr. Pomatter than Chris Diamantopoulos. There was nothing wrong with Chris but Drew really captured the persona of the nerdy, slightly awkward doctor whose good manners and shyness appeal so much to Jenna. Caitlin Houlihan (Dawn) and Charity Angel Dawson (Becky) continue their excellent work, as did OBC members Eric Anderson (Cal) and Dakin Matthews (Joe). Jeremy Morse (Ogie) was not quite as outrageous as Christopher Fitzgerald but very funny and endearing as well. His pint-sized stature helped. Joe Tippett's Earl was different from Will Swenson's. Will was more overtly intimidating, whereas Joe was able to code switch between the charming layabout that he presents at the diner with the abusive drunk at home. I found Joe to be more believable -- he's that guy at the local dive bar who is always bitching about women.

The bad news: Betsy Wolfe has an amazing Broadway belter voice, but in many ways was miscast as Jenna. She lacked the down-to-earth sense of humor that Sara Bareilles had in spades, and approaches this role as she might approach any other ingenue character. Her two expressions were a bright showgirl smile and a sulky pout. Sara was great at conveying that Jenna's everyday reality is not happy, and she's accustomed to it, and so she takes everything with a matter-of-factness and sense of humor. Even Wolfe's poofy platinum blond wig was all wrong -- Jenna's not supposed to look like a Southern pageant queen. Also, although the voice is impressive the nasal sound was too much to take at times and grated on the ears.

But the musical just gets better every time you see it. Jenna is already a classic musical theater heroine, with just about everything. A rousing "I want" song ("What Baking Can Do"), a huge 11 o'clock number ("She Used to Be Mine"), and finally an empowering anthem ("Everything Changes"). So many women in the audience identified so much with Jenna they yelled things out during the show (woman next to me yelled "what an asshole!" after Earl took Jenna's hard-earned tips). I usually never do this sort of thing but when you walk out you can leave 'guest checks' and pin them to the lobby. This is mine:

Friday, July 21, 2017


Original Jewels cast, photo @ Martha Swope
In 1967 George Balanchine decided to make a three-act plotless ballet. And then he hit upon marketing gold -- the three sections would be named after gemstones -- Emeralds, Rubies, and Diamonds. And voila! An indestructible cash cow was created. Jewels has in these 50 years filled the coffers of not just the NYCB but ballet companies across the world. It's a hit wherever it goes. Balletomanes love their jewelry and Diamonds are a ballet company's best friend.

Lincoln Center Festival decided to capitalize on Balanchine's foundation by creating a One Time Only (!!!) Event -- a Very Special Jewels in which each section was danced by a different company. Ticket prices were through the roof but the event sold out anyway. The Paris Opera Ballet took Emeralds, while the NYCB and the Bolshoi took turns swapping between Rubies and Diamonds. I attended the first two performances so I saw both combos -- NYCB Rubies/Bolshoi Diamonds and Bolshoi Rubies/NYCB Diamonds.

Seeing three different companies dance the three different sections of Jewels is sort of strange -- the ballet is supposed to be a display of company versatility. On the other hand, it is a One Time Only Event -- Superjewels. The audience absolutely loved it -- there were loud ovations after every ballet, audiences refusing to leave their seats until dancers came out for yet another solo bow. I have to remind myself sometimes that not everyone gets to see Jewels as often as those who live near NYC do and for those people it's a very special treat.

Reichlen (top), Smirnova/Chudin, Pujol/Ganio
The opening night performance combined some of the best Jewelry-related dancing I've ever seen with some of the worst. The weakest section was Emeralds. The Paris Opera Ballet dancers are as always tasteful and refined. Their corps uniformity is amazing, and all of them have beautiful feet with highly arched insteps. They are also incredibly boring dancers. Part of this is personal preference -- I dislike their overly stiff torsos, their extremely deliberate epaulement that is stuck in time -- the music moves, but their upper bodies don't. What bugs me the most is that they dance through the steps rather than respond to the music. They also airbrush everything to the point of deleting the choreography -- for instance, in the "walking" pas de deux the Myriam Ould-Braham and Mathias Heymann did not do the famous arabesques in which the legs and arms are raised in a staccato manner and held at different heights -- to see what I'm talking about watch this at 22:50. That's one of Emeralds' iconic moments. They just did a regular arabesque. I was shocked. Dramatically they were off too -- the walking pas de deux is supposed to be danced as a trance, but the two dancers were constantly looking at each other and smiling. The lead couple was veteran Laeticia Pujol and Mathieu Ganio. Pujol is retiring after these Emeralds performances. She's a fine dancer, but simply doesn't project anything. In the Violette Verdy solo she also did a lot of distracting head-bobbing. Ganio is one of the most elegant danseurs I've ever seen -- he's Paris's David Hallberg. I have fond memories of him in Giselle. But he couldn't inject much energy either. The "walking couple" of Ould-Braham and Heymann was different dancers, same story. The trio of Marc Moreau, Hannah O'Neill and Sae Eun Park -- again, same thing. Fine technically, but so so dull. Even their costumes lacked the sparkle of most Jewels costumes.

Reichlen in Rubies, photo @ Andrea Mohin
Rubies had the tried-and-true team of Megan Fairchild, Joaquin de Luz, and Teresa Reichlen. I've seen this trio many times. Reichlen is always a wonder as the Tall Girl -- no matter how many times I see her I never fail to be amazed at the control and strength she exhibits. I doubt I'll ever see anyone dance this better -- the nonchalant way in which she seems totally unaware about the men who are manipulating her limbs, those deep squatting pliés, the multiple unsupported arabesque pencheés including a final one held for what seems like an eternity, it's just perfection. With her endless legs and towering presence she is really an Amazon in a tutu. Fairchild and de Luz were their usual selves -- perky, more cute than edgy, but always technically excellent. Fairchild is a wonderful foil for Reichlen -- petite, bouncy, brisk allegro footwork, a cheerleader in a tutu. de Luz is one spry 41-year old: he finished his "jogging" variation with huge corkscrew jumps that exploded into the air like a cannon. The crowd went nuts for the home team, with screaming until Reichlen came out for a solo bow. In the final curtain call people even banged on the walls when the Rubies crew came out.

Smirnova and Chudin, photo @ Andrea Mohin
The Bolshoi's Diamonds was a great finisher. The Bolshoi corps is slower and more deliberate than I'm accustomed to with NYCB. It's not wrong, just different. But the soloists Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin were stunning. They too dance the ballet with a slightly foreign accent, but it's obvious they've studied and absorbed the Balanchine style. The respect they gave the choreography paid off. There was mercifully no "acting" (which I've seen from other foreign companies who dance Jewels), no exaggeration. It was just one long beautiful reverie. Smirnova has the soft Mariinsky arms and regal bearing, but it looks like she's also studied Suzanne Farrell. The way she holds her neck and chin is very Farrell-like. If I have one quibble it's that she doesn't go for the off-balance lunges the way a NYCB ballerina would -- she's more careful and studied. Chudin was elegance personified and his Scherzo solo with a long series of pirouettes a la seconde followed by a quadruple pirouette finishing in textbook fifth position got the loudest applause of all (how often does that happen?). Smirnova and Chudin have wonderful chemistry. Not of the sizzling, sexy kind. But they match each other in serenity. There is total trust and coordination between them. Their pas de deux was one of the most finest renditions I've ever seen. They alone were worth the ticket.

The curtain calls at the end of the night were lovely. Each company came out again (corps included), and the soloists all got flowers, and then solo bows in front of the curtain. Then the curtain rose again, corps came out for their bows, and Peter Martins, Aurelie Dupont and Makhar Vaziev also bowed to the crowd.

Jewels final curtain call. Thanks Andrea Becker for the picture!

The second night of Superjewels was very different from the first night. The performance was more homogeneous in quality -- unlike opening night there wasn't the case of some of the worst performances (POB's Emeralds) side by side with the Olympians (Teresa Reichlen, Olga Smirnova/Semyon Chudin). Everything averaged out.

Dorothée Gilbert, photo @ Julien Benhamou
First the good news: POB's second cast of Emeralds was much improved. Dorothée Gilbert was stronger technically than Laeticia Pujol -- her balances were longer-held, her torso more pliant, her dancing more energetic. She's also more charming, with a winning smile. A sore spot: she also does that annoying head-bobbing thing in the Verdy solo. Both her and Pujol bobbed their heads more than they moved their arms. Are they trying to imitate sea lions? Hugo Marchand was not as elegant as Mathieu Ganio but he made a fine partner. The walking duet was also much improved -- hurrah, the arabesques in staccato were back! Léonore Baulac and Germain Louvet also did a lot of glancing and smiling but at least one of the iconic steps was restored. The trio was pretty much the same -- Marc Moreau, Sae Eun Park and Valentine Colasante. I don't think the POB's style will ever be my favorite but this performance did restore faith in them. Sidenote: I watched the 2005 DVD of Jewels and wow what has happened to the POB? I know in recent years people have complained loudly of the deterioration of the French classic style but when you watch that video and then you see the company live, it really is noticeable. Are there no more dancers like Clairemarie Osta or Aurelie Dupont?

Bolshoi in Rubies, photo @ Damur Yusipov
Rubies was an awkward fit for the Bolshoi -- they obviously gave it their best shot, and there was nothing egregious about the performance, but it clearly is not their thing. First of all: THE MEN NEED JOGGING LESSONS. In that famous jogging lap around the stage the men rose to very high demi-pointe, stiffened their torsos, and sort of did this dainty hopping in one place with alternating legs. There was no sense that they were doing anything remotely resembling jogging. No forward push of the torso, no hiking of the elbows to propel the body, no distance covered. They need to watch some Usain Bolt videos before they ever do this again. The three soloists were technically without reproach but again, Not Their Thing. Ekaterina Kryasanova and Artem Ovcharenko in the pas de deux had no playfulness and flirtatiousness. Instead, Kryasanova swung her hips and legs but looked straight out at the audience with a huge showgirl grin. Ovcharenko is a beautiful dancer and that was the problem. He was way too pretty to be believable as a sporty all-American jock (which is how the original, Eddie Villella, played it). Yulia Grebenshchikova (Tall Girl) is also a lovely dancer -- beautiful legs and feet, great flexibility. But the Tall Girl is supposed to be Queen of Cool, and Yulia played her like the Sugarplum Fairy, all sweet smiles. She also didn't have the control to really sustain those unsupported arabesque penchées in her solo. As a whole the company just didn't get the jazziness, the sportiness, the off-center swing.

A reminder of how this ballet is supposed to look:

Mearns and Angle, photo @ Andrea Mohin
NYCB took Diamonds. I say this is a draw with the Bolshoi from the previous evening. Sara Mearns and Tyler Angle did not have the pristine elegance of Olga Smirnova and Semyon Chudin. Mearns in particular didn't have the soft flowing arms and classical line of Smirnova. But Mearns got the fast off-center arabesque lunges, the sudden changes in the center of gravity that are a hallmark of Balanchine style. Mearns is also a more inherently dramatic dancer than Smirnova. She projects emotion to the point of being overwrought. Tyler Angle was as always a wonderful partner and he did his best in the Scherzo solo but he really needs to point his feet more. In white tights his unpointed feet were so obvious. I do wish the NYCB would put forth an alternate cast for Diamonds in this run -- this ballet looks very different when, say, Teresa Reichlen dances it. The biggest difference between the Bolshoi and NYCB was the corps. The Bolshoi corps was stately and magisterial, sort of content to be the ballet blanc background of a Petipa ballet. The NYCB corps understands that Diamonds is a tribute to Petipa, and not actual Petipa. They had a speed and attack that made them seem like fairies darting in and out of this magical kingdom. The polonaise finale was deliberate and grand with Bolshoi. With NYCB it was a thrilling race to the finish with their trademark fast footwork and group acceleration until the whole stage is moving at the speed of light. Barbara Karinska's costumes with the soft flowing skirts add to this impression -- in the finale those skirts started flying up and down. With the Bolshoi you think "oh how lovely." With NYCB you think "Omg how exciting."

So this Superjewels actually lived up to its hype -- you learned things about every company's style. Their strengths, their weaknesses. Considering how many dancers of different companies I saw in the audiences I hope that they all learn from each other. Fifty years later, Jewels is the gift that keeps on giving. It challenges companies to absorb three very different styles in three different ballets. It gives great roles for principals, soloists, and the corps de ballet. And it makes arts organizations lots and lots of money. Thanks, Mr. B.

Here's a video I took of the opening night curtain calls: