Saturday, July 29, 2023

Hattie McDaniel: Always in the picture

The question, "Who gets to tell your story?" receives an emphatic answer in Joan Ross Sorkin's play with music "misUnderstanding Mammy: The Hattie McDaniel Story," starring Tina Fabrique and directed by Seret Scott, being performed at the Schoolhouse Theater in Croton Falls, N.Y. through July 30. 

McDaniel, an accomplished actress and singer, was the first African American actor to win an Academy Award. In 1939, she took home the prize for Best Supporting Actress for her performance as Mammy in "Gone with the Wind."

In this one-woman play, which debuted in 2007, McDaniel literally takes center stage to celebrate her "firsts" (the Oscar wasn't the only one), relate her many-sided entertainment career, answer those who criticized the cook and maid's roles she played (especially the NAACP's Walter White) and stake her claim to being not just a survivor but a star in Hollywood and American society.

Hattie McDaniel receives the 1940 Academy 
Award for Best Supporting Actress
The play is Schoolhouse Theater's second post-pandemic show (following the play "Red" last spring), and there's still a palpable sense of joy among the house staff that live theater is back.

Not that the path to "misUnderstanding Mammy" was smooth. Artistic Director Owen Thompson announced before the show that the originally-contracted star had to bow out due to health issues (it was Myra Lucretia Taylor). Fabrique agreed to take on the 80-minute role with two weeks' notice, so the audience shouldn't be surprised if "a script magically appeared," Thompson said. 

We see McDaniel near the end of her life, coping with breast cancer and wearing a lavender robe, in a room in the Motion Picture House in Los Angeles. She's obsessed by the post-WWII campaign that the NAACP's White launched against "mammyism" -- stereotypical depictions of grinning servants rather than fully-rounded characters in a variety of roles -- and against her personally.

Ruminating about her life and seeing White in her mind, she addresses him, noting that she is the "first colored patient" at the Motion Picture hospital. 

Hattie McDaniel as Mammy in
"Gone With the Wind"
Fabrique powerfully brings McDaniel to life, forcefully expressing her bitterness at what she sees as unfair criticism and lack of respect for her many talents. Born in Denver in 1893, she was the youngest of 13 children to parents who were formerly enslaved. "I sang everywhere," McDaniel says in the play, and Fabrique, with a fine gospel/blues voice, demonstrates McDaniel's talent as a songwriter as well as a singer. 

She performed in her father's minstrel show and other touring ensembles. In the 1920s, a new radio station debuted in Denver, and she recalls that "I was the first Negro woman to sing on the radio." Nothing kept her down for long. Stranded in Milwaukee by the Great Depression, she worked as a washroom attendant at a nightclub, but her talent could not be repressed and eventually she became a regular singer at the club.

However, more opportunity beckoned westward. "I arrived in Los Angeles with $20," and found her way to radio again, performing as "Hi-Hat Hattie," a bossy maid character. When radio work flagged, she worked as a maid. Gradually, she won parts in films, appearing opposite Mae West, Will Rogers and Jean Harlow. Look up the dinner scene in "Alice Adams," with Katharine Hepburn. McDaniel plays a maid who really couldn't care less and steals the scene. 

She was making very good money (the legend is she once said she'd rather make $700 a week playing a maid than $7 a week being one) when she auditioned for "Gone With the Wind," as she says, "dressed as Mammy."

She made $450 a week for "GWTW," in 1939, when a loaf of bread cost eight cents. "I was paid to act. Did you think I had control?" she asks, sharply pointing out that she took what she could get. "I was making those parts funny, honest, not demeaning ... I fought for our people, lifting them up to the silver screen," she protests.

She's clear-eyed about colorism as a heavyset, dark-skinned black woman. The implication is that she wasn't about to get the parts that went to Lena Horne or Dorothy Dandridge, light-skinned and glamorous. "I'm black as Africa and proud of it!" McDaniel declares, then needles Walter White for his name, his light skin and his white wife.   

Racism, as always, entered her career. The "GWTW" black actors were not allowed to attend the all-white Atlanta premiere of the film. It's not in the play, but the story is that Clark Gable threated to boycott the premiere, but McDaniel convinced him to go. In the play, she says disdainfully, "I said I was otherwise committed."
She did attend the Hollywood premiere and, of course, the Oscar ceremony, but was seated at a separate table with her black escort and white agent. 

If you doubt Hattie McDaniel's acting prowess or why she received that Oscar, just look at this scene from "Gone with the Wind":

Hattie McDaniel as Mammy tells Melanie
of Rhett's distress at the death of his child
Tina Fabrique is always riveting as Hattie, even with a script in her hand, leaving me to wish that she'd had the time to memorize the part and bring even more nuance to it. No matter, Seret Scott directs with a sure hand, keeping Fabrique's movement about the bedroom set interesting, whether she is reminiscing, excoriating Walter White or addressing us, her audience, both in the 1930s and now. 

By the way, McDaniel went on to star in the early 1950s in a popular TV show, "Beulah," where she played a maid yet again, but as always, she stole her scenes. When she died, five thousand people attended the church service and the funeral procession consisted of 125 limousines. Many of her Hollywood friends attended.

McDaniel was barred from her first choice of cemetery, Hollywood Cemetery, due to her race, and was buried at Rosedale Cemetery in Los Angeles. In 1999, Hollywood Cemetery erected a memorial to her. 

If you can, you should make Hattie McDaniel's acquaintance in this play.  






Saturday, April 22, 2023

The secret Ava Gardner

Elizabeth McGovern as Ava Gardner

A week's sojourn in Los Angeles developed a Hollywood theme - a visit to the Academy Museum of Motion Pictures, a tour of Sony Pictures Studio and a play, "Ava: The Secret Conversations," at the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood.

Elizabeth McGovern, who played Lady Grantham in "Downton Abbey," wrote the play and stars as actress Ava Gardner, who arrived in Hollywood at age 18 and attracted attention from the beginning for the kind of looks that society deems extremely beautiful.

The drama is based on the book, "Ava Gardner: The Secret Conversations," written by journalist Peter Evans after a series of interviews with the actress in the late 1980s.

What could have been a very talky play has been turned into a nifty piece of theater by director Moritz von Steulpnagel and scene, lighting, sound and projection designers David Meyer, Amith Chandrashaker, Cricket S. Myers and Alex Basco Koch.

Ava Gardner as Julie in
"Show Boat" (1951)

In publicity materials for one of her movies, Gardner was described as “The World’s Most Beautiful Animal.” She possessed dark eyes, full lips and a cascade of brunette hair that all apparently turned men's nerves to water, with a cleft in her chin that only added delicious intrigue. Her gaze was direct and a devastating sexual come-on, and her appeal was that of a classy goddess.  

Although Gardner never expressed much confidence in her acting talent, she had a top-notch career, with her best-known movies in the 1940s and ‘50s (“Show Boat,” “The Barefoot Contessa,” “The Killers”). Her private life was equally in the headlines, with marriages to Mickey Rooney, Artie Shaw and Frank Sinatra, as well as a long affair with Howard Hughes.

When we first meet Gardner, in her London apartment in 1988, she is 65 years old, in a grey sweatsuit and not in good shape. A stroke has affected her left hand and she needs money, she informs her interviewer-to-be. “It’s either do the book or sell the jewels and I’m kinda sentimental about the jewels,” she tells him, in a voice redolent of cigarettes and whiskey.

Aaron Costa Ganis as Peter Evans
Evans, played by Aaron Costa Ganis, intrigued that she called him, breaks the fourth wall, speaking to offstage agent Ed Victor (Ryan W. Garcia) and agrees to take on the project. There’s a bit of “Sunset Boulevard” vibe, with the writer fascinated by the aging star.

They enter a dance of biographer and subject, punctuated by Gardner’s desire to tell her story on her terms and the writer’s awareness that the commercial market wants to know about her sex lives with “Mickey,” “Frank,” “Howard” and a legion of others.

She plays the game (“I loved to f---!”), then jumps back (“Let’s begin the book with my stroke.”)

McGovern beautifully inhabits the mercurial Gardner, with a touch of the Grabtown, N.C. accent that was so thick, MGM gave her voice lessons to modify it. Unintimidated by the starmaking machine, she rose to the top, but also says, “They took away my voice.”

In her sessions with Evans, Gardner seeks to know herself, in all her real and fantasy roles. “I was the woman men dream about. Where’s my third act?”

She’s amusing, tough and honest about her bittersweet lives with famous, strong-willed men. Divorced from the philandering Rooney and bullying Shaw by age 23, her marriage to Sinatra was a tempest of alcohol and nightclubs, but both also produced very solid work such as “Mogambo” (her only Oscar nomination) and “From Here to Eternity” (an Oscar win and career resuscitator for him). She reveals Hughes physically assaulted her, (“Oh, he pinned me to the couch.”) in a matter-of-fact tone that appalls Evans.

Frank Sinatra and Ava Gardner
In addition to Evans’ dialogue with the unseen agent, Steulpnagel skillfully uses projections of the real Gardner, Sinatra, etc., lighting changes that flow with Gardner’s moods and Evans’ confrontations and costume changes by Toni-Leslie James that by the end see the fragile actress restored to glamor in a glittering black dress.

While McGovern is magnetic to watch, Ganis actually has the more difficult role. This extraordinary actor plays the British Evans in addition to Rooney, Shaw and Sinatra, in scenes from Gardner’s life.

Ganis doesn’t “do” imitations of each man, but subtly inhabits each persona and voice - including Rooney and Sinatra's very well-known voices. Leaving the theater, I heard more than one person remarking on Ganis’ great skill.

One question one has to ask is what relevance does this all have today? Much of the audience were people old enough to remember Gardner’s films and era (she died in 1990). In an age when women in show business have much more power – look at Beyonce, Lady Gaga? Kardashian? for example – how does Gardner’s story resonate?

For one thing, she’s not forgotten. There’s an Ava Gardner museum in Smithfield, N.C., not far from where she grew up, that welcomes 7,000 visitors per year.

Then in Hollywood, there’s no doubt women still face predatory men – witness the #metoo movement spurred by the sexual abuse charges against producer Harvey Weinstein. Actresses still face the challenge of balancing sexuality as performers with personal values and a sense of who they are.   

Maybe there’s a lesson in the way Gardner never seems to be a victim, unlike perhaps another stunning beauty, Marilyn Monroe. Gardner certainly was not always in control and wild behavior hints at a deep unhappiness, but her core of steel told the world it would not get the better of her.

“Love is nothing,” is her conclusion, yet her vivid narration shows she held onto life with both hands and had few regrets.

In the end, the book project as it was envisioned in the beginning never came to fruition. Gardner withdrew her involvement when she learned Sinatra had sued Evans for mentioning certain Mob associations.

Years later, Evans wrote about doing the interviews in the book this play is based upon, but the text is more about him than her. The play sometimes feels disjointed, with too much attention focused on the less-interesting person.

In the end, Gardner remains an elusive character, to the biographer and possibly to herself. 

Wednesday, April 12, 2023

'Camelot' -- the once and future musical

If the original production of My Fair Lady was my first Broadway show, in 1961 at age seven (as I posted here), then Camelot was my second, in 1962 at age eight.

I even know exactly when my mother took me to the show, since she bought a program and memorialized it on the cover.  - "Saturday matinee, September 8, 1962" (black line added digitally to photo).

There was very good reason that this was my second show - the lyricist-librettist/composing team of Alan Jay Lerner and Frederick Loewe were following up their megahit (Fair Lady) and both shows were relatively family-friendly, but with complex adult themes.

Based on British author T.H. White's version of the King Arthur legend, "The Once and Future King," Camelot tells the story of Arthur and Guenevere's romance and marriage, Arthur's establishment of the Knights of the Round Table as a force for good, Lancelot du Lac's arrival from France to join the Round Table, Guenevere and Lancelot's illicit affair and its destructive force upon Camelot and the ideals of the Round Table. 

Among other characters, the two main schemers conspiring to bring down Arthur's rule are his illegitimate son, Mordred, and Mordred's mother, Morgan Le Fay.

Sixty years later, Camelot is getting the full Lincoln Center Theater revival treatment -- 30-piece orchestra, Bartlett Sher directing, original Robert Russell Bennett and Philip Lang orchestrations.

I went to a preview performance, three days before opening night, set for April 13, 2023. Lerner's book has been rewritten by Aaron Sorkin; there's a more-diverse cast and there have been a few other tweaks for modern sensibilities, some of which work and some, I think, do not. 

Hearkening back to the original show, one has to understand its impact. Ticket sales were slow until the Ed Sullivan show featured Richard Burton as King Arthur and Julie Andrews as Guenevere singing a couple of numbers.

The score was acknowledged to be extraordinary -- full of wonderful melodies and elegant lyrics -- but critics thought the show couldn't settle on a mood -- lighthearted in the first act, somber in the second -- and Lerner's book was criticized as being too talky and slow.

Nevertheless, the score became so popular that the LP was found in many an American household, the songs played and sung over and over. 

The show also rocketed a Broadway unknown - Robert Goulet - to stardom. Although he is the third in the Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot love triangle, he was listed below Roddy McDowell (Mordred) and Robert Coote (Sir Pellinore) on the album cover. 

Goulet was astonishingly handsome, with a rich baritone voice like chocolate and red wine, and he made millions of hearts melt when he delivered the ballad that Lancelot sings to Guenevere, "If Ever I Would Leave You."

My fashion editor mom, Florence De Santis, had interviewed him for her celebrity fashion column, so we went backstage after we saw the show and he autographed that program. I remember him smiling and chatting and being very charming to a little girl. 

Camelot also became associated with the three-year administration of President John F. Kennedy, since shortly after his assassination in November, 1963, his widow Jacqueline said her late husband loved the lyrics, "Don't let it be forgot/That once there was a spot/For one brief shining moment/That was known as Camelot."

Andrew Burnap as King Arthur
Phillipa Soo as Guenevere,
Jordan Donica as Lancelot
Photo/Joan Marcus
So - rather a lot of baggage for one show, and Camelot arrives at Lincoln Center with a lot of anticipation.

From the opening scene, when the courtiers are awaiting Guenevere's bridal carriage at the top of the hill, only to realize it is stopping at the bottom of the hill, creating a confusing new tradition, Sorkin's snappy, sitcom-quick dialog is playing for laughs, which it gets. 

One of the courtiers, however, complains consistently that "things are changing too fast," possibly foreshadowing future uneasy changes.

Arthur (Andrew Burnap) drops out of a tree, musing in song that his people are thinking, "I Wonder What the King is Doing Tonight?" Terrified at the idea of his unseen bride, he replies, "He's scared." 

Guenevere (Phillipa Soo) runs from her retinue, none too thrilled at the idea of an arranged marriage. She is one tough cookie, showing up in black leather pants, with a pack and knife, yet she also bemoans "The Simple Joys of Maidenhood," in which girls could get a few knights to fight over them before they had to get married. I guess she wasn't wearing that outfit in the carriage and changed clothes going up the hill (?).  

When Arthur realizes who she is, he sings of his kingdom's lovely climate and winsome qualities in "Camelot." However, in Sher's staging, Guenevere constantly interrupts his singing with snarky comments, undercutting the song with which Arthur is supposed to be winning her over.

Phillipa Soo and Andrew Burnap as
Guenevere and Arthur. Photo/Joan Marcus
Nevertheless, Burnap and Soo's beautiful singing voices and excellent diction deliver the essence of the first three witty numbers.

One of Sorkin's declared changes to the book was that he was going to "get rid of the magic," to focus on the human relationships.

So, the magician/Arthur's tutor, Merlyn (Dakin Matthews), makes only a brief appearance in the first act. The nymph Nimue is gone, and so is her enchanting song, "Follow Me," that lures Merlyn away from Camelot.

I have to wonder, though, about taking magic out of a mythical person and place, in this era besotted with Harry Potter and accustomed to filmed entertainment that uses computer animation to be even more magical. 

Merlyn does get a good Sorkin line, however, as he realizes Arthur's plans - "A powerful man, determined to do good. Things can get dangerous."

Determination of steel characterizes Lancelot, convinced that he's the perfect knight for the Round Table, in the song "C'est Moi." Jordan Donica was out for several performances, unusual for a preview so close to opening night, so at this performance, Lancelot was played by understudy Matias de la Flor. I certainly look forward to hearing his voice develop further, because his control of breath and volume was not up to the task. 

Guenevere and the court celebrate May Day with a country festival, a maypole and "The Lusty Month of May," made more obvious by Guenevere's way-off-the-shoulder dress and handsy behavior with the guys. Put off by Lancelot's boastful manner, the queen goads three knights to challenge him at the jousting tournament ("Take Me to the Fair").

Lancelot easily bests two knights, then Arthur challenges him - a plot change from the original, in which Sir Lionel is the last challenger. So here, it's Arthur, not Lionel, who is grievously wounded (Or is he? He gets up pretty fast.) and brought back to life by Lancelot's intense faith and prayer. I suppose it raises the emotional stakes for the trio. It's certainly the first time in this production that Guenevere has shown she cares for him at all.

Lancelot (Donica) and Arthur (Burnap)
in combat, as Guenevere (Soo) looks on.
Seeing Arthur defeated felt unsatisfying to me since it seems Burnap has been playing him as a bit of a wimp, and Guenevere continues her snarky ways.

There's little chemistry between the two, and in a conversation about their relationship, he calls her, oddly, his "friend and business partner."

Dramatically, if two romantic leads just continue to snipe at each other, and there's no heat, boredom sets in. The young woman next to me was shifting in her seat and attempting to read her program in the dark. 

Guenevere and Lancelot are supposedly falling in love, but again, little chemistry. But nothing can harm my favorite ballad in the show, Guenevere's conflicted desire to see Lancelot go away - "Before I Gaze at You Again."

Along the way, I realized that the snappy rhythms of Sorkin's dialog didn't jive with the long notes and lush Broadway sound of the score's original orchestrations, which the production proudly cites in its publicity. 

Sorkin again brings us down to earth with a Lancelot speech that argues against magic and God -- well, so much for his faith. But Lancelot has to wrestle with his faith, his conscience and his image of himself as a godly man -- as he pursues his adulterous love for Guenevere. In turn, both of them must feel and express great love for Arthur, as husband, as friend, as king, which makes their sin all the more tragic. Unfortunately, the feeling isn't there with enough force. 

The second act still turns dark, with the appearance of Mordred. Now we're getting a more nuanced picture of the king. He's made mistakes in his youth. Burnap's performance really shines, as he acquires gravity and seriousness as an older Arthur, wrestling with his ideals and with human nature. 

One of the most charming songs, "What do the Simple Folk Do?" where Arthur and Guenevere try to imagine how "ordinary people" cheer up, is staged frustratingly. The final stanza is "they dance," but Guenevere, instead of dancing with Arthur, keeps running from him and their dance lasts just a minute.  

Lured away from the castle, Arthur visits Mordred's mother, Morgan Le Fay, a sorceress in the original and here, a scientist -- which makes no sense. Back at the castle, with Arthur gone, Mordred stokes conflict among the knights and Lancelot comes to Guenevere's bedroom. The scenic video design and lighting (by 59 Productions and Lap Chi Chu) are outstanding here, toggling back and forth between Morgan's lair, with branches and stone floor, and the castle, depicted by shafts of light.

The lovers are discovered, Guenevere is arrested, Lancelot fights his way free and she is to stand trial for treason. To my eight-year-old mind, the most thrilling song is here - "Guenevere" -- which, to a galloping, ominous rhythm, details the danger she is in. I accepted the switch to a more-grave second act. Maybe because mom read stories aloud and I read a lot on my own, I knew that life can turn quickly from light to dark, and that something very grown-up and serious was going on.

Arthur's agony is heartbreaking: Adhere to your declared rule of law and you kill the woman you love. Let her go, and you're a hypocrite. Events drive toward an inevitable climax, but Camelot ends on a note of hope.    

Burnap as Arthur
The show is worth seeing for that magnificent score and Burnap's journey as King Arthur. His struggle with his own nature ("I shall have a man's vengeance!"), his ideals and his love are so affecting that I had the tissues out.

I was also reminded of an event that will take place in three weeks - the coronation of another king of England - Charles III. He, too, is exploring, perhaps struggling with, what it means to be a king. 

For the other leads, it's a shame that Soo has been directed to make her character unlikable and I had no way of evaluating Donica's Lancelot. 

It's a truly bad actor that can't make the most of a great role such as Mordred and Taylor Trensch is a terrific actor, delivering his character's creed, "The Seven Deadly Virtues," with panache. Marilee Talkington is a striking, red-haired Morgan Le Fay and Dakin Matthews embodies old folks' wisdom and comedy in the dual roles of Merlyn and Sir Pellinore. 

If you go, just realize that there might be a couple of places in the show where you think, "hunh?"

Footnote: In the sheer-coincidence department -- my father and brother were/are named Arthur and I just discovered that Robert Goulet's granddaughter is named ... Solange. 







Wednesday, August 31, 2022

Wagner fans find Valhalla in Vermont

The emerging post-pandemic world is witnessing all kinds of artistic miracles but one of the most astonishing I've seen took place last week -- the resurrection of a wild, improbable idea that Richard Wagner's daunting operatic Ring cycle could be produced in the town of Brattleboro, Vermont (pop. 12,000).

The Latchis marquee also advertised
films in two of the theaters - "Emily"
 and "Beast."
Theatrical reawakening took place with two performances each of Das Rheingold and Die Walküre, two of the four Ring operas, in a semi-staged performance at Brattleboro's historic, ornate Latchis Theater.

They were produced by a new company called Tundi Productions, the brainchild of conductor Hugh Keelan and soprano Jenna Rae, who are married.

With accompaniment by highly-skilled local orchestra players conducted with verve and finesse by Keelan, a company of professional opera singers threw their hearts into the work, communicating with dynamic beauty the essence of Wagner's deeply-felt insight into men, women and the gods of legend. 

There were excellent costumes, minimal stage furnishings and props, and video effects and surtitles on a scrim between the upstage orchestra and the downstage playing area. The focus was on the music. 

But first, some background, dating from pre-pandemic times.    

In August, 2019, Tundi staged Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, possibly as a four-hour hors d'oeuvre to the 21 hours of the Ring

Tristan (which gave its name to the production company, i.e. "T und I") and the Ring are usually performed by major companies since they require a full orchestra (plus some instruments that Wagner added, such as anvils and his invention, the Wagner tuba) and the kind of big, tireless voices that can soar above all that sound.

Though I had seen the company's Turandot in 2018, I'd never seen Tristan, coming late to the Wagner canon since my father had had a run-in with the Nazis (a small matter of a year in a prison camp) in World War II and, as a result, Wagner was never heard in my opera-loving household.
I'd had my first taste of the Bard of Bayreuth in the 1990s in Toronto, with Der Fliegende Holländer and my eyes were opened. What was this extraordinary sensory flow of constant music, somehow awakening deep emotion? How did he do that?

However, Götterdämmerung, at the Metropolitan Opera about a decade ago, was my entry portal to the Ring. Now, I'd made fun of those Ring crazies who'd pay many, many dollars to fly around the world for many, many hours of what had to be dense, tedious opera. I wasn't the only one. Who hasn't seen Elmer Fudd chasing Bugs Bunny in What's Opera, Doc?, singing "Kill the wabbit!" to the tune of "Ride of the Valkyries?" 

However, a tenor friend was an extra and offered me a ticket in the top ring of the opera house. I came equipped with a sandwich for this 5 1/2-hour marathon -- and was completely blown away by the music and the drama.

Why was Brunnhilde's family so awful and why was she so unlucky in love? Never mind that joking about a horned helmet and stout soprano, Brunnhilde met every betrayal with moral courage and was the true hero of the whole story! I was in tears at Siegfried's funeral music. I was aghast as Brunnhilde rode her faithful steed Grane into that enormous fire at the end.

I staggered out of the opera house, determined to go back and see the other three parts of the Ring - Rheingold, Walküre and Siegfried. I took my then-14-year-old daughter to see Rheingold at the opera house and saw the other two (saving $$) at the Met in HD at a local movie theater.  

The cast of Die Walküre (including the Valkyries)
takes a bow at the Latchis Theater.
Forward to Brattleboro. Tundi's Tristan, with tenor Alan Schneider and Rae in the title roles, measured up to the Met in the most important realm - vocal quality.

As the story of the lovers gave a new dynamic to “I hate you but I love you,” Schneider and Rae poured forth fabulous waves of sound, with Keelan conducting.

You can read that Tristan features "Wagner's unprecedented use of chromaticism, tonal ambiguity, orchestra color and harmonic suspension." Or you can simply marvel at the way the master storyteller keeps you wondering, musically, what's coming next.  

Jenna Rae
The two Ring operas again featured top-notch singers, with Rae as a passionate Brunnhilde, Cailin Marcel Manson as a dignified Wotan (the supreme god), Sondra Kelly as Wotan's wronged wife Fricka, Brian Ember as a riveting Alberich (the resentful dwarf who steals the Rhine gold) -- but it's difficult to single out particular cast members, as the entire ensemble was very strong.

Veda Crewe and Todd Lyon are credited in the program with costume design and I was particularly taken with Crewe's costumes for the giants, Fafner and Fasolt, who build Valhalla for Wotan. They looked like living columns of rock.

Possibly more love could have been given to the sparse stage furnishings and the program, with tiny type and no story synopsis.   
Hugh Keelan

I liked such staging delights as the three Rhinemaidens swirling strings of green lighted cords to symbolize the river's waves and the Valkyries using the balcony and side levels of the theater to join in their "ho jo to ho" battle call. 

With the orchestra driving the "Ride of the Valkyries" and eight sopranos, playing swaggering, badass women flying on magic horses, in full throat, the effect was absolutely thrilling. 
If Tundi can come out of a two-year pandemic pause with such vigor, then its future remains bright. A Ring cycle in maple syrup country? Sign me up!


Monday, August 8, 2022

Traveling down Heartbreak Road

"Fellow Travelers," a story set in the 1950s era of political paranoia dominated by U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy, is the contemporary work in this year's Seagle Festival opera program in the Adirondack mountain town of Schroon Lake, N.Y.

A work with a tender heart by composer Gregory Spears and librettist Greg Pierce, "Fellow Travelers" is based on the novel by Thomas Malton, which traces the doomed love affair of Timothy Laughlin and Hawkins Fuller, federal government employees.

McCarthy's zeal to root out supposed Communists in the State Department and the U.S. Army also included homosexuals who, the theory went, were security risks as they could be blackmailed by a foreign agent who might threaten to reveal their sexual orientation.

McCarthy (R-Wis.) exploited genuine concern about the rise of the Soviet Union, the Iron Curtain of repression across Eastern Europe, China's conversion to Communism and the conviction and execution of the Rosenbergs for passing classified nuclear weapons information to the Soviet Union.

Throughout the mid-50s, he and his lawyer ally, Roy Cohn, led or influenced campaigns of persecution, accusing people in government, academia, Hollywood and the military of being Communists, Soviet spies or sympathizers, i.e., "fellow travelers."

Daniel Esteban Lugo and Joel Clemens
 in "Fellow Travelers." Photo/Seagle Festival
In the opera, Fuller doesn't have to travel far to find Laughlin, who is a young reporter sitting on a park bench at Washington, D.C.'s Dupont Circle, reviewing the notes he took for a story about McCarthy's wedding. 

In a pre-show lecture, Seagle Artistic Director Darren K. Woods noted that Dupont Circle was a noted gay cruising area. As homosexual acts were illegal in many states, men often met clandestinely in public places, but were also vulnerable to arrest by undercover police. 

Laughlin, played with shy sweetness by Daniel Esteban Lugo, is drinking milk with his lunch, prompting the self-assured Fuller, known as Hawk, playfully to dub him "Skippy." Fuller, smoothly played by Joel Clemens, recommends Laughlin for a speechwriting job in the office of Sen. Potter, Laughlin sends him a thank-you gift and Fuller drops by Laughlin's apartment.

Daniel Esteban Lugo and Joel Clemens
 in "Fellow Travelers." Photo/Seagle Festival
Laughlin falls for Fuller's tough, savvy magnetism, tinged with danger - "I'm your first. I own you," Fuller tells him.

Spears has written music that brilliantly matches these vocal parts and characterizations, brought to life by Lugo's supple tenor and Clemens' thrilling baritone. They have a lovely duet, relaxing in Laughlin's apartment, just two men on a bed, singing about placing "my head on your arm."

After their sensual encounter, Laughlin has a slight problem - he's a devout Catholic, a denomination that to this day considers homosexuality "disordered." In a wonderful aria, he begins with "Forgive me, Holy Father, I confess," but ends with "Thank you, Holy Father, for sending him to me." Is there a more poignantly conflicted expression of love and faith, expressed without rancor?

From left, Daniel Esteban Lugo, Emily Finke, 
Joel Clemens and Shannon Richards in 
"Fellow Travelers." Photo/Seagle Festival
Although gay couples have lived peacefully together since the dawn of time, in this very different mid-century world, Laughlin and Fuller can't settle down together. 

Fuller doesn't even want to, proposing a threesome to the shocked Laughlin, then telling him he's not the monogamous type. 

In this shadow world, women play particularly fraught roles. Hawkins' assistant Mary Johnson is attracted to him, but accepts reality. In another gorgeous aria, Shannon Richards' glowing soprano expresses Mary's concern ("I worry") about the fates of the two men.

In a plot turn that seems to be dropped in from nowhere but has obvious ramifications to today's news, Johnson reveals she is pregnant from a one-night stand but "knows a doctor in New Orleans" who "takes care" of such things. 

When Laughlin, attempting to escape his anguished relationship, enlists in the Army, Hawkins marries another office worker, Lucy (Emily Finke), and tries to take up the life of a good suburban heterosexual husband. It was, and is, an all-too-common sham that devastated both men and women.

In the last few scenes, the story leans toward soap opera and seems to meander to its inevitable heartbroken farewell, but does reflect the ambivalence of each man's tie to their relationship.  

In his lecture, Woods said that composer Spears' inspirations are George Frederic Handel and Philip Glass -- 18th century Baroque and modern minimalism. Glass' typical repetitive musical phrases and Handel's graceful embellishments give Spears' music a shimmering beauty and endless interest. Seagle's cast of "fellow travellers" and the dual pianists, Music Director Neill Campbell and Assistant Music Director Lindsay Woodward, made the most of it. 

Under the overall stage direction of Richard Kagey, Evan Johnson's spare set design perfectly melded with Liza Schweitzer's lighting design. 

"Fellow Travelers," was co-commissioned by G. Sterling Zinsmeyer and Cincinnati Opera, premiered in 2016 and has had nine productions by major opera companies. It deserves many more. 

Thursday, February 10, 2022

‘The Music Man’ and Hugh Jackman: Seventy-six Trombone Therapy

Joy, joy, joy.

I needed a dose of the j-medicine badly, grousing through a mid-winter week that was gray, long and dispiriting.

COVID, Ukraine and the ordinary run of downers in the news galvanized me to buy a ticket to the Broadway revival of Meredith Willson’s “The Music Man,” starring Hugh Jackman and Sutton Foster, in previews now with a Feb. 10 opening.

It worked. Dr. Theater put his stethoscope to my heart and wrote out a prescription for two and a-half hours of musical brilliance that put a smile on my face under my mask for just about the whole time and kept the wintry blues at bay.  

Megastar Jackman as con man “Professor” Harold Hill and Foster as Marian Paroo, the librarian who resists his charms, light up this wonderful revival of the American stage classic that shot Robert Preston and Barbara Cook to stardom in the 1950s.

Jackman’s incandescent sex appeal and singing/dancing chops perfectly fit the character of a man who can convince an entire town to believe in phantom musical skills.

His dynamism and irresistible smile seduce the audience as well as the folks of River City, Iowa in such great numbers as “Ya Got Trouble” (convincing the town they need a band rather than a pool hall), “Seventy-Six Trombones” (overselling the magnificence of the band-to-be) and “Marian the Librarian” (dancing to the rhythm of readers opening and shutting books as he tries to woo Miss Paroo).

Foster’s shining, wholesome charisma stays under wraps early as Marian tries to interest the townspeople in literature, copes with loneliness and vows not to settle for the wrong man, but glows later as she realizes that forgiveness and understanding can inspire the wrong/right man.

From left, Shuler Hensley, Hugh Jackman and
 Sutton Foster in "The Music Man."
Her clear soprano voice explores Marian’s emotional depths in the lovely “Goodnight, My Someone” and “Till There Was You,” and most remarkably in a song that one needs to see on stage, since it never made it into the 1962 movie. In “My White Knight,” she seriously defines what she wants in a man. “I would like him to be more interested in me than he is in himself/And more interested in us than in me.”

This production tunes up “The Music Man” for a modern age but retains all its heartland charm, thanks to a team of veteran Broadway masters at the top of their game: director Jerry Zaks, choreographer Warren Carlyle, costume and scene designer Santo Loquasto, orchestrator Jonathan Tunick, lighting designer Brian MacDevitt, sound designer Scott Lehrer, music director Patrick Vaccariello.

A tip of the hat also goes to Jackman and Foster, at ages 53 and 46, in great shape, although Jackman was breathing a bit heavily after a couple of numbers. Eight shows a week! I’m in awe.

This group, with decades of shows and awards in their back pockets (Tunick is 83!), freshens the show’s strong nod to female empowerment and presents a cast that’s about one-third African-American. Hill’s pursuit of Marian, which today could seem like creepy stalking, is given a light touch, especially in the library number.  

Loquasto’s red barn scrim and scenic green farmland backdrop strike the right Iowa country notes and the opening number, “Rock Island,” is one of the greatest, giving “The Music Man” the title of “first rap musical,” according to no less than Stephen Sondheim.

Jackman as a teenager auditioned for the show, playing all eight parts:

A motley crew of traveling salesmen riding the Rock Island line sound off – in the rhythm of the train – about a swindler named Harold Hill selling boys’ band instruments and uniforms to the unsuspecting rubes, except that “he don’t know one note from another” and skips town with the money.

Listen to the lyrics, because these 1912 salesmen are also talking about change that sounds very modern: "It’s different than it was.” “The Uneeda Biscuit in an air-tight sanitary package made the cracker barrel obsolete.” “Gone with the hogshead, cask and demijohn/Gone with the sugar barrel, pickle barrel, milk pan." “Why it's the Model T Ford made the trouble/Made the people wanna go.” “Who's gonna patronize a little bitty two by four kinda store anymore?”

Right from the start, that’s the answer to those who dismiss “The Music Man” as old-fashioned hokum, or “dated,” as two women said in the row in front of me. Yes, Zaks retains the silly, giggly girls in the ensemble, just a little, and the pressure on Marian not to be “an old maid” doesn’t line up with today’s sensibilities.

But the show has a tough spine, witnessed by the very next song: “Iowa Stubborn.” Willson wrote that “The Music Man” was “an attempt to pay tribute” to his home state, but he saw it with a clear eye: “There's an Iowa kind/A kind-a chip-on-the-shoulder attitude/We've never been without that we recall.”

At the end of “Rock Island,” a man who has been quietly listening behind a newspaper stands up – “Gentlemen you intrigue me. I think I’ll have to give Iowa a try.” His suitcase says “Professor Harold Hill,” and Jackman received a huge ovation.

The audience seemed to be saying, “Welcome back to Broadway and please use your awesome star power to help the theater return to health!” (Only 19 shows are running in Broadway’s 41 theaters.)

Hill is welcomed to town by an old friend, Marcellus Washburn, played with earnest good nature by Shuler Hensley, a memorable Jud Fry in the 1998 “Oklahoma!” revival that starred Jackman as Curly.

Jayne Houdyshell as Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn
Among the supporting characters, Jefferson Mays and Jayne Houdyshell tear up the stage as River City mayor Shinn, a sputtering bully, and his wife, the majestic Eulalie Mackecknie Shinn, who directs the town’s historical pageants featuring herself as the Statue of Liberty and “Columbia, Gem of the Ocean.”

Other standouts were the acrobatic dancer Gino Cosculluela as the local bad boy, Tommy, wanting to date Mayor Shinn’s daughter, Zaneeta (Emma Crow). Marie Mullen brings Irish spunk to Mrs. Paroo and Benjamin Pajak is a wonderful Winthrop, Marian’s little brother with a lisp who touches a level of compassion in Hill that he didn’t know he possessed. If that kid isn’t actually playing the cornet at the end with admirable skill, then I’m an Iowa cow.  

That this “Music Man” is finally opening on Broadway pays tribute to the courage and perseverance of all concerned. Rehearsals began in February 2020, with a planned fall opening. Oh, the anticipation. Hugh Jackman! Sutton Foster! A $30 million advance!

Then Jackman, Foster, Carlyle and then-producer Scott Rudin all came down with COVID and Broadway subsequently shut down for 18 months.

During that time Rudin withdrew from the show after accusations of abusive behavior with staff and the investing team brought in British producer Kate Horton.

Rehearsals began again in fall 2021, with previews starting in December – then Foster and Jackman tested positive for the latest go-round of COVID and the show shut down for 11 days in early January.

No matter. Though we may have had to line up outside the Winter Garden Theater with vaccine cards and IDs, and breathe into our facemasks throughout, when the full 25-piece orchestra struck up the first notes of the overture – the jaunty “Seventy-six Trombones” – we were in musical theater heaven.

In the end, “The Music Man” is about the transformative power of melody, rhythm and harmony - making a beautiful noise together. Harold Hill may have come to town looking for a wad of cash, but he really swindles Marian and the citizens out of their stiff-necked, rigid pride, while finally listening to his own heart song.

Strike up the band!


Saturday, October 23, 2021

Live theater in the mountains

 Before "Utopia,", I dipped a low-key toe in the water first with two performances at the Seagle Festival, the century-old summer program for blooming opera singers in the scenic town of Schroon Lake, N.Y., in the Adirondack Mountains.

The Oscar Seagle Memorial Theater
General Director Tony Kostecki and Artistic Director Darren K. Woods have, over the past few years, developed consistently fascinating programs that challenge their students and keep audiences engaged.

This year, love and romance was the theme. There was a mix of classics (La Boheme, Cinderella, The Fantasticks and a Broadway revue), along with and new or little-known works. Having seen most of the classics in years of opera-going, I'm most interested in the new and overlooked gems and this summer did not disappoint.
Who knew that Jacques Offenbach, who stepped firmly into the classics world with "Tales of Hoffman" and "Orpheus in the Underworld," wrote a little gender-bending confection called The Island of Tulipatan?

Written in 1868, this one-act operetta concerns a fantasy kingdom where the daughter of the steward of the supreme ruler (got that?) is a tomboy named Hermosa and Prince Alexis, son of the ruler, is a charming and pretty young man.

This is not an early dramatization of trans life, but due to some silly decisions by their parents, Hermosa -- who is actually a boy -- has been brought up as a girl and Alexis -- who is actually -- well, you get the picture. They genuinely fall in love and marry, now dressed in the clothing usually identified by their actual gender. 

Directed by Seagle alumna Meaghan Deiter, this frothy confection sparkled. Daniel Esteban Lugo was a suitably energetic Hermosa and Andrianna Ayala a graceful Alexis.

Last year, Seagle produced virtual performances, as did so many arts organizations. Arriving in person at the Oscar Seagle Memorial Theater in the woods, the live experience in 2021 didn't seem too much different from previous years, except for showing vaccination cards, wearing masks and not having intermission snacks or merch for sale. 

Seating was spaced out a little more for social distancing, but once the show started, it felt like being back in a comfy armchair. 

Several weeks later, I returned for the world premiere of Harmony, also directed by Deiter -- a very different work from Tulipatan.

Who knew (again) that the brilliant American composer Charles Ives fell in love with the daughter of a prominent Connecticut family that summered in the Adirondacks, that her name was actually Harmony, that Mark Twain was a close family friend and advised the Twichell family about Harmony and Charles' relationship?

It's all true, and the basis for this new opera with music by Robert Carl and a libretto by author Russell Banks, who is married to poet Chase Twichell, of that same family.
The action takes place completely in midsummer, 1908 at the Keene Valley, N.Y. summer home of the Twichells. The opera shapes the characters with great humanity and kindness. A central part of the plot is that Ives is a man with a secret. He has diabetes, which could not be treated at the time. All he can foresee is an early death and he loves Harmony too much to allow her to marry a sick man. 

Besides the fact that this is a work about Ives the composer told through music, the character of Ives in Harmony continuously refers to music, from the music of the spheres as he regards the summer night sky to a "tragic dissonance" in some words he hears. 

Charles Ives, besides being a successful, even innovative, insurance executive, was an astonishingly original composer.

In 1966, Igor Stravinsky said that Ives "was exploring the 1960s during the heyday of Strauss and Debussy. Polytonality, atonality, tone clusters, perspectivistic effects, chance, statistical composition, permutation, add-a-part, practical-joke and improvisatory music: these were Ives' discoveries a half-century ago as he quietly set about devouring the contemporary cake before the rest of us even found a seat at the same table."

It's probably not a spoiler to reveal that Charles and Harmony decide to get married as Twain advises them not to throw away love, wistfully recalling his late wife Olivia. Harmony is one tough lady. She has her eyes wide open; she is a nurse and understands Charles' situation.

Banks' libretto sings with poetry and the cast did a beautiful job: Joel Clemens as Charles Ives, Victoria Erickson as Harmony Twichell (photo, left) and especially Timothy Lupia as Mark Twain, a character that could have devolved into caricature. 

Carl's music, however, was a harsh stumbling block for this listener. Perhaps the score's discordant sound was a tribute to or reflection of Ives; it just wasn't attractive to hear.    

At this performance, there was an incident that I could only have witnessed live. Seagle's audience is mostly north of age 60, and I wondered how this material would appeal to a younger audience. Then I spotted two young women seated in the row in front of me, students, perhaps. One of them was looking up Olivia Clemens on her iPad.

I was pleased to learn through later research that the discovery of insulin in 1921 by Banting, Best and MacLeod did not come too late for Ives. He lived 79 years, to 1954, and Harmony lived to age 90, dying in 1969. What a fitting coda for their life songs.