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Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Once On This Island; RIP Dmitri Hvorostovsky

Alex Newell and Hailey Kilgore, photo @ Joan Marcus
The revival of Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty's Once On This Island has been getting insanely good word-of-mouth in early previews. I went to see what the fuss was all about last night. First of all, Circle in the Square is exactly the right theatre for this show. The boxed-in seating allowed director Michael Arden to make the entire set an "island." The pre-show involved the cast milling about a sand-and-water-filled set complete with goats and chickens. The ceiling of the theater had bunches of laundry lines. They obviously were trying to recreate the feel of a real Caribbean island. A little cheesy, but it worked.

The island set
The story is simple and sad: it is about Ti Moune, a peasant orphan who falls in love with Daniel (Isaac Powell) after she saves his life after a car crash. She tenderly nurses him until he is well enough to return to his home. She impulsively decides to follow him into his world. Unfortunately Daniel is separated from Ti Moune by not just class but race -- he is descended from the French colonial rulers, and their love story can only be a fleeting fling. Ti Moune is given an impossible choice: save herself or save Daniel. The predictable heartbreak ensues. This musical is really "Little Mermaid in the Caribbean With a Touch of Colonial Racism."

Hailey Kilgore
The revival is strongly cast. It is anchored by Hailey Kilgore's radiant portrayal of Ti Moune. Kilgore makes Ti Moune an absolutely enchanting wide-eyed romantic. She runs onstage, and we love her. She sings "Waiting For Life" (the I Want song), and we want what she wants. She dances, and we want to go onstage and dance with her. She weeps, and we weep. She has a beautiful voice, and an unaffected, winning stage presence. It's an amazing performance.

Here she is in a snippet from "Waiting for Life":

Actually the whole cast is strong. The ageless Lea Salonga is still beautiful in both voice and face as Erzulie, one of the island goddesses. Merle Dandridge is terrifying as Papa Ge, God of Death. Kenita R. Miller got huge applause as Ti Moune's adopted mother. Alex Newell's "Mama Will Provide" was a big hit with the audience. The story is framed by a little girl named Emerson Davis who was adorable. And Isaac Powell is believable as the kind of callow playboy who nonetheless harbors real feelings towards Ti Moune. The final farewell of Ti Moune and Daniel was heartbreaking.

Cast of OOTI, photo @ Joan Marcus
Another strength of the production is the choreography by Camille A. Brown. There is a real attempt to imitate the easygoing, natural rhythms of Caribbean music and dance. Perhaps the greatest moment is Ti Moune's dance in front of Daniel's society. She is in red high heels, and she cannot dance in them. She kicks off the shoes and does an exciting, seductive dance that obviously titillates the upscale crowd. In one moment she shows Daniel's society what they can never have -- this freeness and generosity of spirit.

But, but, but. If this show had limited itself to being a wistful fable of love found and lost again, the charming, colorful score might have been enough. However, the story actually takes an extremely tragic, bleak turn at the end. And Flaherty's score simply does not have the depth to convey the tragedy that is built into the musical's book. I mean, think of the opera Rusalka (which has an almost identical storyline). Rusalka has lasting power because Dvorak's score always underlines the tragedy of the story. If a musical wants to break our heart, the music has to do the major legwork. Think Carousel. West Side Story. Or, in more recent times, Dear Evan Hansen and Fun Home.  In Dear Evan Hansen songs like "Waving Through a Window," "For Forever," and "Words Fail" made the audience feel Evan's pain and loneliness. Fun Home ended with the heartwrenching "I'll Fly Away" with all three Alisons singing to Bruce Bechdel. People around me were sobbing. Flaherty's score is wonderful in conveying Caribbean local flavor, it has enough melancholy to carry the love story, but when it comes to the heartbreak and tragedy that make up the last third of the show, the music simply does not take us there. "A Part of Us" and "Why We Tell the Story" seem like weak attempts to finish the show.

Would I recommend Once On This Island? Absolutely. It's a fun theatrical experience. But the musical I think was intended to be more than "fun." It was intended to be a heartbreaker. And Flaherty's score didn't break my heart.

What did break my heart was that last night when I came home from Once On This Island a friend of mine told me that things were looking very grave for Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the Russian baritone who has been battling brain cancer for over two years. I went to bed saddened. When I woke up I saw that he had passed away overnight. He was only 55. I last saw him in an emotional performance of Il Trovatore in September 2015. The ovation at his entry was so loud the orchestra had to stop completely. He gave us a beautifully sung Count di Luna. At the end of the evening the Met orchestra threw roses at him and his colleagues were standing back and crying openly. I never saw him perform again. I guess God wanted to listen to his voice. RIP to this magnificent singer and artist.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Brigadoon's Music Wakes Up Audiences; Thaïs Scorches

Kelli O'Hara and Patrick Wilson, photo @ Sara Krulwich

When New York City Center announced that the chief Encores! presentation of their season would be Lerner and Loewe's Brigadoon, tickets sold out so quickly that you would have thought the musical only came around once in a hundred years. Oh wait ...

Anyway tonight's performance was one of glorious highs and depressing lows. Let's start with the positive here: this was a lavish, fully-staged performance. They spent good money on this. It didn't have the feel of a semi-staged concert at all -- there were colorful costumes, enough props and some background projections to evoke the world of the Scottish highlands. This is a production that could transfer to Broadway with minimal adjustments. A few more sets (a ramp served as an all-purpose entrance and exit tool) and less amateurish projections and we'll have a great show.  Of course if it moved to Broadway it probably wouldn't have had the full orchestra of 30 players led by Rob Berman. The orchestra really played Loewe's score with love and they got the loudest applause of the evening.

Other highs: it is so good to hear Frederick Loewe's score really sung -- the MGM musical with Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse became an almost all-dance extravaganza, remade to fit Kelly's dancing skills and vocal limitations. But with the beautiful, soaring soprano of Kelli O'Hara as Fiona and other musical theater veterans in the lead roles, the music became the star, as it should be. "From This Day On" was absolutely glorious. O'Hara wasn't the only beautiful voice onstage. There was Stephanie J. Block who was very funny as Meg, the "earthy" girl to O'Hara's more romantic heroine. Block made the anti-love song "The Love of My Life" a show-stopper. Before tonight I had never heard of Ross Leiketes (Charlie). I certainly do now. Ny god, what a VOICE! "Come to Me, Bend to Me" became one of those melodies you just never wanted to end.

Fairchild and Esty, photo @ Sara Krulwich
Also excellent: Ex-NYCB principal Robbie Fairchild also stepped out of his wholesome nice-guy persona as the Jud-Fryish Harry Beaton. He scowled and sulked convincingly but his most expressive moment was the Sword Dance that ends Act One. Fairchild was able to make this number (which seems heavily derivative of the original Agnes de Mille choreography) a dance of rage and rejection. He's still finding his sea legs as an actor but this is a very promising start to his full-time theater career.

The mediocre: the Tommy (Patrick Wilson) and Jeff (Aasif Mandvi). I wonder what it would have been like had the originally announced Steven Pasquale not dropped out of the production. Wilson and Mandvi weren't bad but they were very bland and basic and just sort of there. Granted their characters aren't all that inherently interesting but they faded into the background. Wilson's lighter, grainy baritone couldn't match O'Hara's soprano and Mandvi was overpowered by Block. Sara Esty (Jean) was a good dancer but acting-wise was also vacant. It was good to have veteran actors like Dakin Matthews (who played Joe in Waitress) in smaller roles.

Asaf Mandvi, Patrick Wilson, Dakin Matthews and Kelli O'Hara photo @ Joan Marcus

And now the bad: this whole project was directed and choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. And there's just no getting around the fact that I dislike his choreography. In the program there is a line that says "Original dances created by Agnes de Mille" but what I saw was a bunch of Wheeldon clichés -- the men with the women lifted at shoulder length and twirled over and over again, the usual sliding of women between the men's legs to be semi-dragged on the floor, the women somehow ending upside down with legs in the air. The one piece that seemed truly inspired by de Mille was the Sword Dance and that was by far the most thrilling dance set piece of the night. But the other choreography often looked like the same filler he used in An American in Paris.

One really tasteless number: the funeral dance of Harry. Patricia Delgado (Maggie) is a wonderful dancer -- I saw her when she was with Miami City Ballet. But she was in a brown rag dress that was looked half Martha Graham, half Mark Morris, and instead of a heartfelt dance of grief for the troubled Harry Wheeldon made her wriggle all over his body and of course her legs had to spread eagle in the air. This faux-modern dance concoction really took the viewer out of the Scottish village romance mindset. It stopped the show in all the wrong ways.

This show has a lot of built-in dancing and Wheeldon of course beefed up the dancing even more. But when the choreography is so uninspired I often just zoned out waiting for the next beautiful song to come up. Thankfully those beautiful songs did appear over and over again all evening. Lerner and Loewe's score deserves to be heard way more than once in a hundred years. I could listen to it every day. The story is quaint but charming, and really loops us into an earlier time, when such an unabashedly romantic score graced the Great White Way.

And also: now I know where Andrew Lloyd Webber got the opening melody to "Music of the Night."

Listen to "Come to Me Bend to Me." There's more than a passing, "accidental" resemblance.

Pérez, photo @ Chris Lee
A day later I make one of my increasingly rare trips to the Met. The opera: Massenet's Thaïs which isn't performed often despite having a drop-dead gorgeous score, a compelling storyline, and meaty roles for both soprano and baritone. When I arrived on the rainy night I saw a slip inserted into my program -- Gerald Finley was out, Bradley Garvin was in as Athanaël. Turns out Garvin has been singing comprimario roles at the Met since 1993, and has racked up 183 performances. His current assignment at the Met is the Commissioner in Madama Butterfly. But in life, when you get an opportunity to shine, some people seize that spotlight and that's what Garvin did tonight. He's a tall, handsome singer with a big, robust bass-baritone voice and if he had any nerves he didn't show it. He even added subtle details to his portrayal that one might expect of someone experienced in the role -- for instance, in Act 3, as he dropped Thaïs off at the convent there was a subtle shift in body language as you realized that the monk now wanted the reformed courtesan in a biblical way. His desperation as he begged for Thaïs in the final duet was palpable. At the end of the evening Ailyn Pérez pushed Garvin forward for another solo bow. Bravo. He killed it.

Bradley Garvin
The whole evening was actually way more inspired than I had expected. Ailyn Pérez in the title role has a pleasing, warm timbre and is sexy in a Rubenesque way. She isn't the Thaïs of my dreams but she was thoroughly competent and professional. One problem: her upper register is inconsistent -- the high C at the end of the first act was harsh and wiry. The high D in the famous Mirror Aria was sustained but the note was just sort of yelled. It didn't bloom. In the final duet she made those difficult ascents to high D but again, you got the feeling that she had reached the absolute ceiling of her voice and those notes were squeezed out rather than truly sung. The role requires a kind of gleaming upper register to make its full impact and Pérez doesn't have that. But I'm nitpicking. This is a more than creditable performance.

Borras and Pérez, photo @ Chris Lee
Jean François Borras sang the role of Nicias, Thaïs's libertine lover. Borras is that rare specimen on the Met stage: an idiomatic French lyric tenor. The role isn't big but it's always great to hear his stylish, unforced voice sing non-phonetic French. Now will the Met puh-lease bring him back for a FULL RUN of Werthers? David Pittsinger as Palémon was wobbly and hoarse.

But seriously? GIVE THIS OPERA A CHANCE. There's way more to it than the famous Meditation. I don't know why this opera hasn't been revived since the initial production with Renée Fleming but my god, it's a beautiful opera and the production by John Cox is delightlful in a kitschy sort of way. The orchestration is stunning -- it runs the gamut from the flighty, fanciful flourishes of Thaïs's life to some vaguely Middle-Eastern music to almost Wagnerian grandeur. Emmanuel Villaume's conducting emphasized the Wagnerian grandeur more than the delicacy of the score. This opera deserves to be heard. And this Met cast isn't perfect but they do justice to Massenet.

I mean isn't this gorgeous?

Saturday, November 4, 2017

People, Places and Things: When 12-Step Is Just the Beginning

Denise Gough and Barbara Martens
One of the most popular genres of autobiography is the addict-recovery memoir. The format usually follows a tight script: the promising beginning, the descent into drugs and misery, the harrowing "rock bottom" moment, and then the recovery process by which the addict finds strength from God. The result is usually uplifting and tidy. How engaging these books are depends on the narrator (and editor). My personal favorite addict-recovery memoir is Darryl Strawberry's Straw. Strawberry sounds like a very typical jock who muses about how much his batting average would have been had he "juiced" on steroids and described his ex-wife as "drama, drama, drama." The authenticity and lack of pretension is appealing. I also like Mike Tyson's memoir if only for the honest epilogue in which he admits that he hasn't recovered, is still an addict and working through issues.