WHEN MOST CONTEMPORARY OPERA composers are a mere cyber-blip, there will be Sondheim. Unless we bump ourselves off the planet, centuries from now our great great great grandchildren will have “Sweeney Todd.”
“Sweeney” is an opera for people who avoid opera. It’s musical theater for people who disdain “Hairspray” and “Beauty and the Beast” and song recitations disguised as musicals. Read more…
FROM THE OPENING gun blasts it is clear that this production of Shakespeare’s Macbeth is not going to be set in medieval Scotland. Or if it’s not clear then, by the time the punk-rockers and a flashlight appear on stage, you have received the message. But, thank goodness this is not one of those trendy re-settings of classic plays that struggle to be different just for the sake of being different.
If you haven’t visited Macbeth since high school, get thee to Lou Trapani’s production at the Center for Performing Arts at Rhinebeck. His adaptation honors the bones of the story, retains its most cherished and familiar lines and shuns most examples of obscure Elizabethan vocabulary.
Best of all, however, is Trapani’s direction. The stage is intensely alive from first moment to last with hundreds of telling details, movements and behaviors that add color, humanity and mood to the bard’s words without ever violating them.
The costumes speak relentlessly throughout (created by each actor for himself, we are told). Although Trapani says that the setting is a post-apocalyptic world, to this viewer the costumes kept saying that the lust for power is always with us-everywhere-in the Middle Ages, in World War II, in Vietnam, in contemporary rock-star egomania, in Dickens’ London, in prehistoric savagery in the whole violent panoply from the birth of the planet to a possible future: an earth-raped dystopia. All that in costumes? (Among my favorites are a gun-toting Patty Hearst ready to rob the bank and a servant who is a booted, belted, beaded and bare-chested frenzy of self-adoration.)
There must have been some rollicking, free-association orgies when Irina Brook and Anna Brownsted and their actors were creating Cindy Bella. This play with music istheir reworking of the Cinderella story by way of Rossini’s La Cenerentola, Max Sennett, Puccini, basic story–telling, Disneyland, Grimm Brothers, ’50s juke box, pop-star Prince, and a philosopher with fairy dust, finger cymbals, and a magician’s hat.
It’s for adults and precocious children. I think.
Most of its fun arrives when time periods, cultures, traditions go careening up against each other like some sort of molecular process that makes a little chemical bump and a little audience frisson, if not an altogether new substance. Sometimes it’s a gas, à la Frank Sinatra as well as the stuff that propels your automobile.
Occasionally (when the cast members start wading through the audience, for instance) you may think you have wandered into a Saturday morning performance of the 5th grade at Lincoln Elementary School. Then they hit you with some especially witty dialogue or one of Brook’s sparkling gems of visual humor.
The role of Cindy is rather thankless, but they do give her a nice bump at the end, when, after a typical scene of self-effacing “ingénuism,” she grabs her accordion and exits with the prince shouting, “Bye guys!”
There are lots of moments like that. I especially enjoyed the one in which the storybook prince returns to the palace to tell palace security they must focus all monitors on the grounds in search of a fleeing girl with a missing shoe.
A couple of gorgeous babes play the “ugly” sisters. They screech a lot. You know how directors sometimes tell actors, “Go ahead. Take it over the top. I’ll bring you back, if it’s too much.” Brook forgot to bring them back. A relentless forte soon delivers small return.
In contrast is the Alidora of Renée Margaret Speltz. With giant eyes, doughy cheeks, and delicate word clarity, she creates the philosopher-fairy-godmother-eastern mystic-moralizer-fake beggar woman in a sweet mezzo piano. Too bad she was stuck up on the underused catwalk for such a long time conducting actors changing the set.
Though Benjamin Luxon is well-cast as Don Magnifico (father of the babes), his second act is too breathless and his aria too long for this production.
Best of all were a couple of leading men, both of whom grasp the art of full-blown and understated comedy, along with the necessity for thoroughly grounding it in reality. As the prince’s chauffeur (who switches place with his boss, the real prince) David Joseph is yummy. He was probably meant to reference the “Prince” of pop fame, but that Prince, on his best day, was never as smooth-moving, sexy, and subtle as David Joseph. The story’s real prince was played by Scott Renzoni, and by the time he was through with us, we all wanted to marry him.
The set, with a row of costumes on hangers strewn across the back, is disappointing; but the costumer (wardrobe mistress Kara D. Midlam?) really gets it, often providing witty, incongruous ensembles. One nice costume moment occurs when the philosopher-fairy-godmother-eastern mystic-moralizer-fake beggar woman places her magician’s hat on Cindy (an unlikely complement to her ball gown), giving her wisdom and magic. Or does she give her neat tricks and Masonic secrets?
The music (a little Rossini, Puccini, and Irving Berlin, and lots of deliberately bad pop) pops up like breakfast tarts or ads on your computer, often with canned accompaniments and unceremonious dramatic preparation.
Take your precocious child to see it through December 20. For tickets, call (413) 637-3353 or go online:
My Fair Lady By Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe, at Capital Repertory Theater, Albany
“Ah-ah-ah-ow-ow-ow-oo!” mocks phoneticist Henry Higgins. He is making it clear why uttering the English language can nail you to your social class faster than head lice or a Rolls Royce. If you listen to many American women of the television classes (pitching voices high and whining through their noses in what novelist/pundit Mark Helprin calls “North American chipmunk”), you may sympathize with Higgins. Where are the language snobs when you really need one? Most people are familiar with the path of Lerner & Loewe’s “fair lady” from filthy wretch to filthy rich by way of lovely spoken English. Seldom have class distinctions been so thoroughly defended and so thoroughly skewered as in George Bernard Shaw’s Pygmalion, the play from which the musical is filched. (Shaw did and undid both classes so well that you may even detect a touch of snob in the old socialist.) The scenes in My Fair Lady that are directly lifted from Pygmalion are at the core of the musical’s appeal. It is My Fair George and My Fair Alan J, the word-people, who shine. The score is ordinary. (Oops! Sorry. Big minority opinion there.) Capital Rep’s Allison Spratt belongs with some of the best of all the Eliza Doolittles. Her look is perfect. She has exuberant freedom and a physical ease that can only come from discipline and right connection to the script. Savvy direction from Maggie Mancinelli-Cahill probably doesn’t hurt, either. Vocally, Spratt knocks a riveting high C out on to Pearl Street; however, the scrapiness in “Just You Wait” does not serve Eliza’s rage, “Show Me” could be more “sung,” and Spratt’s vibrato is spotty. Fred Rose as Henry Higgins makes more of Henry’s bratty boorishness than the show’s creators may have intended. That, coupled with his high-pitched speaking voice, robs the character of some of his believability as an advocate of beautiful speaking and educated, upper-class worldly wisdom. He is attractive enough physically, but there needs to be enough character-attractiveness to make us accept the wobbly Shaw/Lerner ending. Much could be said about that ending, for which there is no room here, but why does Eliza return to him? There is little in her behavior that suggests masochism. Rose is especially effective in a rousing “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man,” enhanced by brilliant in-the-door-out-the-door staging. (It would be fun to see Fred Rose in Wilde, Feydeau, or Frayn.) Except for setting an occasional “face,” and gluing it determinedly front, Larry Daggett is a spectacular Colonel Pickering, squeezing lots of charm, liveliness, and humor out of a role that often emerges as merely an upper-class British stereotype. In addition, he plays a mean on-stage piano, joins the ensemble for quartet duty, and moves around as if he is on good terms with dance studios. Whew! Underpaid, no doubt. Georga Osborne is an especially appealing Mrs. Higgins, the warm, reasonable, moneyed mother of Higgins. She suggests an upper class devoutly to be desired, though probably non-existent. David Beditz is a delightful Alfred Doolittle, and Emily Mikesell as Mrs. Pearce can make you long for a calm, intelligent, long-suffering housekeeper. Except for ensemble member Ian Lowe, dancing suffers in this production. Thank goodness for Michael Hicks’ Freddie! As my theater companion said, “‘On the Street Where You Live’ usually lands with a thud!” This Freddie flies about the street with big-voiced gusto and silly, beaming devotion. He’s a treat. However, Hicks’ musical direction leaves a ragged cockney quartet and some occasionally questionable piano-playing by cast members. His overture and entr’acte experiment involves singers standing in for orchestra parts. With the two pianos, they “bum-bum” their way through a kind of vocal orchestration. It seems like a good idea; but it doesn’t quite work, especially when they “bum-bum” some inner harmonies to the foreground. The two pianos alone are mostly satisfactory in the rest of the show. Which brings us to the piano-positioning—up-center in a space-eating, raised half circle—and to the decision to have actors double as musicians. Placing pianos center stage allows the performers to glide out of their characters, on to a piano bench and back with minimal delay. Actors doing their own accompaniment is a gimmick made popular by John Doyle in England and used fairly successfully in Broadway revivals of Company and Sweeney Todd. We’ve become accustomed to actors (in addition to saying lines, singing, and dancing) having to push furniture and sets around in the absence of stagehands. Now they have to be the orchestra, as well! (Which union can cover all this?) The device minimizes personnel and can sometimes pass as “innovation,” but, in the case of My Fair Lady, it serves the bottom line without serving the musical. This lady needs the whole stage. Many scenes are damaged by lack of performing space. The thrill of Eliza’s famous entrance in her white dress, for example, is totally lost as she squeezes on to the piano platform. Big, old-fashioned musicals need specialists: In addition to leading players with star qualities who can sing and act, big musicals need trained singers who perform in ensemble with no ragged rhythms and no wrong notes. They need very experienced musical directors and choreographers and trained dancers and instrumentalists whose life’s work it is to play instruments. Specialists. Given enough time, Cap Rep people could exploit their primary gifts and still bring their secondary skills up to standard, but in professional theater, time is money. Specialists are required because they are fast. For all the compromises that a small theater company must make to produce a traditional musical, one may wonder why they bother. In the available time, it simply asks too much of each individual. (Probably they do it of necessity—because audiences often prefer spending theater dollars on a compromised musical rather than a well-done drama.) Even though this show needs specialists and more stage space in which to waltz, march and rant, the production has things worthy of your attention. See it for some excellent acting and directing, its new way of looking at certain characters, and for its plucky attempt to pare down a big musical and still preserve its essence. See it once again for My Fair Lady’s iconic status in the history of musical theater, and for its important role in the genre’s effort to grow up. The show runs through December 20. Tickets are available at (518) 445-SHOW or www.capitalrep.org.
I Take Your Hand In Mine A play suggested by the love letters of Anton Chekhov and Olga Knipper by Carol Rocamora
Directed by Benedicta Bertau at Space 360, Hudson, NY
The radiant face of Bethany Caputo is an eyeball magnet; it sucks all eyeballs to itself. The face has beauty, but the important quality is its ability to take instantaneous cues from her imaginative brain. It allows the character of Olga Knipper, actress, lover, and wife of Anton Chekhov, to roll out with amazing vividness. Caputo is so accomplished that it is probably ungrateful to notice that her inner ingénue sneaks through just often enough to make one question that she could play Arkadina in The Sea Gull or Masha in The Three Sisters, an appropriateness that Olga’s life and this script demand. It is also probably ungrateful to notice an irritating nasality that creeps into her voice at certain decibels and the few extra pounds that may keep her from being cast in roles she is otherwise right for. But what an actress! I, for one, remain largely grateful. For many minutes of this play we are watching Chekhov in his consumptive years, so if a person knew nothing of the playwright’s life, s/he wouldn’t suspect the large amount of quality writing that he packed into his few decades on this earth. We are mostly treated to the playwright’s affection for Olga–his almost uxorious attachment to her, and David Anderson delivers it with humor and warmth. Chekhov’s pet names for her that pour out of the letters could be condescending, but not on Anderson’s tongue. (The “pet” in pet names is not metaphorical. A number of them are extravagantly borrowed from animal species!) It is fun to be told or reminded that Chekhov was often at odds with Stanislavski, his director at the Moscow Art Theater, and that the playwright insisted that The Cherry Orchard is a comedy. But I Take Your Hand In Mine is not about literature or theater; it’s about a loving relationship enjoyed by two extraordinary individuals. In the main, it is Olga’s story. The set by Katie Jean Wall (red walls with a few velvety, dark-patterned strips, and minimal furniture) takes us quickly to the period. Deena Pewtherer’s lighting transforms the 360 space and subtly underlines the feel of each letter. Transitional music by Jonathan Talbott might appear more frequently, but, as usual, it demonstrates his sensitive ear for the drama. Even though I Take Your Hand In Mine could be pruned in some spots, we are surprisingly happy to sit watching the same two people in a single setting for a full hour and a half. The play is well-constructed, and where the language of the letters leaves off and Rocamora’s begins, it is smooth. Director Benedicta Bertau has brought the whole to stage in the typical Walking-the-dog manner. In other words, in a sort of poetic shorthand. A little standing for a lot. Because the lovers are often many miles apart, she divides the stage and allows them to speak to each other facing straight front, vividly “seeing.” This has the effect of making us cherish the times when they address each other directly or touch. The moment in which Olga teasingly pulls Chekhov’s beard says more about their intimacy than an athletic sex scene; the moment in which they grasp arms and take one long unison step toward the audience says all about their decision to marry; and the moments in which he directs her acting and she responds with intuitive accuracy are all a telling shorthand. Walking the dog Theater, particularly when either Bertau or Anderson is directing, makes art of it. The show runs through November 29, with two shows on Saturday, November 28. Call 1-800-838-3006 for tickets or visit wtdtheater.org.