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:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Bk3l05_XveA

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 his 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 cariacature. 

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.   





Monday, October 11, 2021

"Making sense" of real-life theater with David Byrne

My return to live theater after the wrenching pandemic hiatus took place in two very different locations: the St. James Theatre on Broadway and the Seagle Festival (formerly the Seagle Music Colony) in the peaceful confines of New York State's Adirondack Mountains.

My return to Broadway was the re-opening night of David Byrne's "American Utopia," which had been scheduled for a second Broadway run in the fall of 2020, but Broadway theaters were still closed then. 

As I walked from the Times Square subway station down 44th Street to Eighth Avenue, I saw half the shows still had not opened and, most distressingly, there was a sign on Sardi's front door that it was "under renovation" and would open in the fall. 

Who wants "renovation" at Sardi's? Nothing should change! OK, maybe new carpet and fresh tablecloths. Don't touch those caricatures on the wall. Even the "Ladies" and "Gents" restroom
A peek through the blinds at Sardi's.
signs have been there for 40 years.

At Eighth Avenue, I bought a hot dog from a street vendor for a quick supper and asked how business was going. "Kind of slow," he said. The tourists are only slowly coming back.

I took in the blue-black sky, the busy lights and all us characters on the street. I remembered drinking with friends in Eighth Avenue bars in the 1970s, when the street was rough, and thought, with an inner smile of deep affection, "my city."

I made this little video of typical hustle on just one street corner in the theater district, a scene of sweet clamorous joy compared to the recently-dead streets:

   
At the St. James, vaccination cards and ID were checked. Everyone was in masks and I lingered in the lobby near the bar, enjoying once again the yakky noise surf of an audience finding its way into a theater, but this is now how it looks:


If there was any doubt that theater was missed, from the moment the house lights dimmed, the mood was electric! After the first song, "Here," the audience jumped to its feet, cheering, clapping, as if for a show-ending standing ovation, causing Byrne, smiling and a little nonplussed, to say, "There's more."

David Byrne, right, in "American Utopia"
"American Utopia" is a concert with choreographed movement by Annie-B Parson of songs by David Byrne and his former group, Talking Heads, whom I remember well from late nights in the 1970s at the Bowery rock club CBGB, and other downtown locations. 


Talking Heads, 1970s, from left, David Byrne,
 Chris Frantz, Tina Weymouth, Jerry Harrison
Talking Heads wasn't so much punk as artsy/avant garde music that commented obliquely on the zeitgeist, but with a solid rock beat, often driven by bassist Tina Weymouth, a standout for rock groups, which were often all-male.   

Their first hit was "Psycho Killer," one of my favorites, but not included in "American Utopia," a show whose title, Byrne says, is not ironic. 

Dressed in the gray suit that is the cast's costume, Byrne begins seated at a desk with a model of the human brain. He talks about the brain's neurological connections, communicating the message that we are all -- including him, in his long career mastering various artforms -- just trying to make sense of our world. 

The show's arc reflects a man's long look at the landscape of existence, and songs that were arch 40 years ago now resonate with the perspective of age. Take "Once in a Lifetime." The link to the YouTube video shows a young David Byrne asking the song's questions, accompanied by stylized, herky-jerky movements.

But now, with both the singer and the listener in their 60s, these lyrics are not just questions: "You may ask yourself, well how did I get here?" "Am I right?" "Am I wrong?" and "My God, what have I done?" 

Mind and memory cast back to the exploratory energy of youth, but when there is less of life ahead of you than behind you, these lyrics land with new meaning: "Time isn't holding us/Time isn't after us/Time doesn't hold you back." And the refrain: "Same as it ever was."

When the years pass, and you lose people you love, when the oldest and then the older generations pass and you are now the elder, you inhabit the song "Every Day is a Miracle":

Every day is a miracle
Every day is an unpaid bill
You've got to sing for your supper
Love one another

The raucous, pent-up enthusiasm from the opening number did not wane! Throughout the show, the audience leapt to its feet at least half a dozen times, cheering, clapping, dancing to "Burning Down the House." I've never experienced anything like it in the theater.  

Byrne's larger message is not one of nostalgia, but of hope. He talks about the urgency of voter registration, with representatives from the organization HeadCount in the lobby with sign-up cards. 

He comments forcefully on the recent protests for racial equity and against racist police violence, performing Janelle Monae and Jidenna Mobisson's song "Hell You Talmabout."

While identifying these ills, he reflects on the real physical illness abroad in the land, welcoming the audience at the beginning with "thank you for leaving your house," noting wryly that the phrase used to be a joke for the show's opening. 

At the end, he returns to the great mystery of the human brain: "Our brains can change. We are not fixed. We can imagine a different future."

He notes that what people most like to view is not a lovely landscape or something as mundane as a bag of potato chips: "It's us - you and me, and that what the show is. It's the connections among all of us." 

The show ended with the jaunty "Road to Nowhere," with a nihilistic title contradicted by lyrics such as "feeling that time is on our side/take you there" and "it's very far away/but it's growing day by day and it's all right."

In an unusual move, Byrne brought stage crew members out to join the cast for bows and the audience clapped and cheered on and on, reluctant to let anyone leave the stage. That can't be replicated on Zoom. 

                                                 *                 *             *

The next post: Utopia in the Adirondacks. 

Saturday, August 14, 2021

Why live theater really lives

I went to the theater during the pandemic, or rather, the theater came to me. Every performing arts venue in New York closed in March 2020 and once the shock sank in, performances went online. I saw Metropolitan Opera performances, play readings, musical salons – all through streaming services, Facebook live or via Zoom.

Concerning theater, actors and companies made a valiant effort, reading their parts, sometimes in costume, in the little video Zoom boxes. I bought the tickets, made the donations to keep the producers going, applauded in my home office.  

Now, an unfathomable year and a-half later, live performances are set to return, though still under the shadow of the COVID-19 virus delta variant. I’ll be at a Seagle Festival performance tonight, in Schroon Lake, N.Y., among the Adirondack Mountains, and I am recalling what live theater has meant to me.

Since attending, as a child, my first performance, I love the gathering anticipation of live theater – the hubbub in the lobby as people reach for tickets, greet each other, critique the restaurant where they just had dinner, read the cast list on the wall, then the voices in the theater as people take their seats, the sound dying as the house lights fade to black.

I don’t know why, but the echo-y sound of theater actors’ voices on stage enthralled me. This was LIFE, bigger and grander and more thrilling than the existence I’d just left on the sidewalk. There they were, right in front of me, in one more dimension than a movie screen, speaking and singing, the shape of their voices molded by the theater’s acoustics and the sound-absorbing weight of our bodies.

To this day, I can recall vividly live moments in the theater.

Olivier as Shylock
How about the great actor category? At the end of “The Merchant of Venice,” Shylock the moneylender is forced to convert from Judaism to Christianity. In London, in the 1970s, no one who was in the theater could forget Laurence Olivier’s terrifying, anguished, howling cry of despair. I can hear it yet.

Or Christopher Plummer, in his 80s, reciting from memory the great speeches from “Henry V,” in concert with the New York Philharmonic, commanding the stage as his voice rang in the St. Crispin’s Day oration, inspiring his troops to battle.

How about audience reaction? I saw “Les Miserables” in London with my then-partner, Hank, a big, strong guy with a sensitive side, but a fairly macho guy nonetheless. As Jean Valjean was dying, you could hear sniffles all over the theater – including in the seat next to me.

One summer on Prince Edward Island, Canada, I attended a show by the storyteller David Weale, who specialized in collecting and dramatizing islander reminiscences of the place’s unique way of life. As

David Weale
you might expect, most of the audience members sported quite a few gray hairs. As he began a story about the island’s old one-room schoolhouses, he described a certain wooden pencil case that kids carried then. At that moment, there was an audible intake of breath from what must have been more than half the audience. They hadn’t thought about that pencil case in years, but the mere mention of it was like Proust’s madeleines – a touchstone for a flood of memories about childhood and school.

Another time, the absence of sound created an indelible theater memory at a theater performance for deaf people. I learned that deaf audiences applaud by waving their hands. I saw a dance of sign language, spoken narration, video and actors’ movement for the hearing and non-hearing audience members. You could do it in two dimensions, but the impact was immeasurable in person.

Although I enjoyed – somewhat – the streamed performances, the play readings on Zoom had a distanced quality, with little emotional impact. A live evening at the theater follows an emotional arc – anticipation, engagement, release. I always feel a little cheated if I have to go straight home after a show and don’t have time to go out with my companion and discuss the production.

After “American Idiot,” I waited while my 14-year-old daughter, Flo, gathered with the crowd at the stage door for Billy Joe Armstrong’s autograph.

Anthony Newfield

After “1984,” Flo, her boyfriend Ryan and I joined my friend, cast member Anthony Newfield, and his friends for a meal and lively stories of acting in this play and other Broadway shows. This was Ryan’s first Broadway play – what an extra treat!

Perhaps the best of all – when I was quite young, Mom took me to Sardi’s (where she was a regular) for a post-theater bite. It was Welsh rarebit, I recall, and I was intrigued by this new food as Princess Grace, Prince Rainier and Jessie Royce Landis swept by, on the way to their post-theater repast.

I can’t wait to savor all of theater’s dimensions again.  

 

      

      

Tuesday, August 6, 2019

‘Manchurian’ intrigue at opera colony


The premise of The Manchurian Candidate, subject of a novel, two movies and now a terrific new opera seen this summer at upstate New York’s Seagle Music Colony, has always been shocking. However, in 2019, one could ask whether this tale is a relic of the Cold War or has some modern relevance.    

The cast in rehearsal for The Manchurian Candidate.
Photo: North Country Public Radio
In Richard Condon’s 1959 novel, five American soldiers are kidnapped by Russian and Chinese Communist agents and subjected to mind control experiments aimed at unleashing them as assassins within the United States. The story reflected the West’s anxiety about the various forms Communist aggression might take – including “brainwashing,” which according to one account could transform a man into “a living puppet – a human robot.”

The opera, with music by Pulitzer Prize-winner Kevin Puts and libretto by Mark Campbell, opens with a single note, repeated hypnotically, that will become the brainwashing theme. (The performance was accompanied by two excellent pianists, John Cockerill and Eric Frei, conducted by Jennifer McGuire)

Three U.S. Army officers and two privates are seated in an interrogation room. Incongruously, eight ladies in flowered dresses and hats are also in the room – the products of their hallucinating minds which, we are told, believe they are at a party given by “the Ladies Garden Club of Northern New Jersey.”

The chief interrogator shows off the prize – Sergeant Raymond Shaw (sung by the commanding Thomas Lynch), who is “triggered” by seeing the queen of diamonds playing card, and on command kills the two privates. “He can kill and kill again without memory of it. He has no guilt or fear,” sings the interrogator (Katherine Kincaid).

The 1962 movie. 
The music enters unsettling territory, with the “garden ladies” singing a pretty choral background as terrible acts unfold. “Americans are easy,” sings the interrogator, to musical snippets of “The Star Spangled Banner.” The other men, including Captain Ben Marco (the very affecting Andrew McGowan) do not react, being in trance states.

Subsequently, Shaw and Marco return to the U.S., greeted as “heroes” at the airport by Shaw’s relentlessly ambitious mother, Eleanor Iselin (Ashlee Lamar), and her husband, Senator Johnny Iselin (Reno Wilson, a handsome guy who manages to be appropriately oily in this character).

Iselin is aiming for a vice-presidential nomination at the upcoming Republican national convention, and is riding a campaign of McCarthy-like anti-Communist fervor. Meanwhile, Marco is disturbed by strange dreams, echoing his interrogation and brainwashing.

Baritone Lynch and tenor McGowan convincingly portray the anguish of men who are being torn apart psychologically by toxic political forces. Lynch will kill again, destroying his happiness with the woman he loves, Jocelyn Jordan (beautifully played and sung by soprano Melaina Mills), before he is stopped.  

Soprano Lamar unleashes a formidable stage presence and a tornado of emotion as Eleanor Iselin, especially in her soliloquy at the end of Act I. Believing her plans for her husband are being blocked, her rage and frustration comes across as a combination of Lady Macbeth and Mama Rose, overlaid with political rhetoric – “We are at war. Choose between right and freedom.”

However, things are not what they seem in this story – on many levels, including Eleanor’s – and there are no easy solutions. As the storylines wind to tragic conclusions, the opera’s final lines are, “I’m scared,” and “I am, too.”   

Director Richard Kagey’s pace never flags, propelled by music that uses compelling dissonance accented by moments of tonal beauty. Designer Jim Koehnle’s set – brown flats on a turntable that effectively changes scenes – also uses five 1950s-style television screens to broadcast several scenes as they are taking place. Costume designer Pat Seyller’s work particularly shines in the women’s beautifully-patterned 1950s dresses.

This work was presented at Seagle as a venture of its American Center for New Works Development, which has in the last few years supported such exciting new operas as Roscoe and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. The Seagle Colony itself, now in its second century in Schroon Lake, N.Y., is a summer training program for emerging opera singers. 

So is The Manchurian Candidate, reimaged as an opera, relevant to our times? We might think that the work was inspired by the controversies surrounding Russian influence on President Trump and whether he is in thrall to Vladimir Putin’s government for some yet-unknown reason. (“Americans are easy.”)

Perhaps Puts and Campbell were thinking of Trump’s rhetoric (“Make/Keep America Great”) and fervid rallies. (The political slogan in The Manchurian Candidate is “Our Time Has Come.”)

However, the 1959 novel was made into feature films in 1962 and 2004 – and this opera premiered at Minnesota Opera in 2015, well before Trump’s win in the 2016 election.

Throughout the opera, its relevance to today’s political scene is astonishing. Clearly demagoguery never disappears. It is part of the human condition and can only be fought to a standstill.

Friday, March 29, 2019

Silent cries

In my last post about attending My Fair Lady as a child, I said that part of the theatergoing magic was the "chatty hubbub" in the lobby before the show.

When I entered the auditorium recently at the Baruch College Performing Arts Center for a performance of Crying Hands by Norway's Teater Manu, I had the opposite experience.

Never have I entered a theater full of people (about 200, including the actress Marlee Matlin) where there was so little noise. Teater Manu is a sign language theater and about 90% of the audience were deaf people. Flo, Ryan and I dropped our voices to a whisper, instinctively reacting to the quiet environment, then realized that was ridiculous.
From left, Eitan Zuckerman, Ronny Patrick Jacobsen,
 Ipek D. Mehlum in Teater Manu's production of  Crying Hands.
Although I did not hear much talking, the air was alive with hands conversing in sign language and people making the sounds of words. People were seated, yet dancing through a language I didn't understand. I was definitely in the minority and it was not a comfortable feeling.

I knew that I was about to see a play presented in both sign language and oral narration, but now I vaguely wondered if there were different customs among the deaf in the theatergoing experience itself. Flo recommended the play since she is taking a course in "deaf culture." It was the first time I had heard that expression.

Artistic director Mira Zuckerman introduced Teater Manu and the production, explaining that there had been some problem with lights. After she finished, the audience raised their arms and wiggled their hands. It was the first time I had seen deaf people applaud. 

The set we were viewing was sparse - a gray rear wall and six chairs, two bearing Nazi uniforms, two with civilian clothing and two with prison clothing. The signing actors, Ronny Patrick Jacobsen and Ipek D. Mehlum, sat on two chairs. A third signing actor, Eitan Zuckerman, stood at stage left and narrated in sign language. "Voice actor" Kjersti Fjeldstad sat at stage right and narrated in spoken language.

Ronny Patrick Jacobsen and Ipek D. Mehlum
Crying Hands was created by playwright and director Bentein Baardson from interviews with 10 deaf survivors of the Holocaust. Their experiences were distilled into the two characters onstage - Hans (played by Ronny Patrick Jacobsen) and Gertrud (Ipek D. Mehlum) - but not fictionalized. "Everything we tell you has happened," Zuckerman said, telling us that the two characters "could have been anyone" and asking us to consider whether it could happen again.

Hans is a deaf boy who tells us that as he grows up in Berlin, he is fascinated by motorcycles and becomes good at maintaining them. Attracted by Hitler's vision of a strong Germany, he joins the youth wing of the Nazi party. He enthusiastically goes on group rides with other boys in uniform and casually mentions that sometimes they would "have fun teasing and harassing Jews."

Gertrud, who can hear, grows up in a middle-class family and is interested in science from a young age. She becomes a doctor, interested in healing "society and people," and begins to explore theories of how to improve the human race. The Nazi party, she believes, is "the new doctor for the German people" and she becomes a proponent of eugenics to "improve the gene pool."

As they tell their stories, photos curated by video designer Simon Valentine are projected against the back wall, sometimes accompanied by sound effects. Clearly, Baardson wants to include the hearing audience. Sometimes the sound effects, such as the rumble of motorcycles, had a tactile component that could be felt by the deaf viewers.

As we hear of Hitler consolidating his power, both actors face the back wall, where a photograph of a giant Nazi rally is projected, and slowly, chillingly raise their arms in the "Sieg Heil" salute.

Then, things begin to turn.

Voice actor Kjersti Fjeldstad 
Hans is dismayed when his corp of deaf soldiers is disbanded because Hitler doesn't want disabled troops. "Eugenics" means that people deaf from birth must undergo forced sterilization since "anyone who carries a hereditary disability may not reproduce." Hans escapes that fate (members of his family are not so fortunate), but is sent to the Sachsenhausen concentration camp.

Gertrud, who says she "did not consider Jews a threat," finds her professional and social position upended when it is discovered she had a Jewish grandmother. Now she is part of the "final solution" and put on a train to Auschwitz.

Hans and Gertrud are forced into survival mode and witness scenes of horror and torture, some involving children. This section of the play is the most difficult to endure. It is here where we learn of the terrible reason for the play's title. For this hearing listener, the steady tone of  voice actor Fjeldstad made it almost bearable. 

One reason Crying Hands  is so powerful is that it is a tale of Nazi Germany where the protagonists started as the oppressors, then ended up in the opposite space.

Could it happen again? Of course. There have been genocides since World War II - Cambodia, Rwanda. Perhaps plays such as Crying Hands and groups such as Teater Manu appeal to the best in humanity sometimes by showing us the worst.

At the end of the play, the hearing members of the audience clapped, the deaf members raised their hands and waved their fingers -- and also stomped their feet. It was the first time I had experienced an audience for whom vibration was more important than sound. There's a lot to learn about deaf culture.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

A "Fair Lady" for all generations

We had cameras, of course, in 1961 but not cellphones so there is no selfie of a woman and a seven-year-old girl outside Broadway's Mark Hellinger Theater just before a matinee of My Fair Lady.


 

It was my first Broadway show. Fifty-eight years later, My Fair Lady was a young man's first Broadway musical - a time-spanning dose of historic theater magic that brought generations together.

Before My Fair Lady, Mom had taken me and my little brother to a couple of local shows in Queens, but Broadway involved dressing up and taking the subway into "New York" (Manhattan) - an intensely exciting process.

Theater-going (and theatrical personalities) run in my family. In the Depression, my mom (who would later become a fashion writer) and her sister would buy $1.00 balcony seats and have $1.00 spaghetti dinners at Sardi's. They saw such luminaries as Laurence Olivier and Katharine Cornell.

Last weekend, I filled in the young man (Ryan) on the plot of Pygmalion, the Shaw play on which My Fair Lady is based, (leaving room for suspense), and I'm pretty sure my mom (Florence) would have done the same, being a natural teacher. Florence's granddaughter (Flo), also in the selfie, has been to considerably more shows, beginning with The Lion King.

My Fair Lady opened in 1956 and was an instant, gigantic hit. The story of Eliza the Cockney flower girl transformed into "a lady" by phonetics professor Henry Higgins along with Frederick Loewe's music, Alan Jay Lerner's lyrics, Moss Hart's direction, Rex Harrison as Higgins, Julie Andrews as Eliza, made it the toughest ticket on Broadway for years.

By 1961, the principals were played by suave British actor Michael Allinson and the first American to play Eliza, the charming Margot Moser, who is still alive. The show was at the magnificent Mark Hellinger Theater, with its soaring golden lobby and rococo interior. I absorbed the chatty hubbub in the lobby, the walk to our seats, the darkening auditorium and then - those slashing eight notes that start the overture.

I was thrilled and seduced by that masterpiece of a score, from "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" through to "The Rain in Spain" and "With a Little Bit of Luck." That afternoon began a lifelong love affair with the theater.

Today, Lincoln Center Theater uses a proper 30-piece orchestra, conducted by Ted Sperling, and Flo and Ryan felt the same excitement: "That's the overture, Ryan." As the violins swept into the melody from "I Could Have Danced All Night," I was overcome by memory and emotion.
From left, Harry Hadden-Paton as Henry Higgins, Laura Benanti as
 Eliza Doolittle and Allan Corduner as Colonel Pickering in "The Rain in Spain."
Harry Hadden-Paton and Laura Benanti were our Higgins and Eliza, and my appreciation of their performances changed throughout the show. They are closer in age (both in their late 30s) than the characters Shaw wrote (Higgins is in his 40s and Eliza is 20, as were Harrison and Andrews), which meant that the lovely Benanti and her glorious soprano came across as very much a woman, not a girl, as she is referred to in the script.

I missed the older/younger dynamic, but this Fair Lady focuses on Eliza's discovery of her own strength and self-reliance. I thought Hadden-Paton might be too handsome and "nice," but he found Higgins' edge and delivered an intense "I've Grown Accustomed to Her Face" at the end that showed a man falling apart as he realizes the depth of his feelings for a woman.

Both of the principals brought fire to Eliza's declaration of independence ("Without You,") and a scene of intellectual jousting over how they can possibly relate to each other now that they are on more-equal terms.

I particularly enjoyed Allan Corduner's warm, kind Colonel Pickering and Linda Mugleston's steel-spined Scottish Mrs. Pearce. The great Rosemary Harris, at 91, gave us a Mrs. Higgins (Henry's mother) of grace and wisdom. Danny Burstein was the force of life itself as Alfred P. Doolittle, Eliza's father -- a sly street philosopher who undergoes his own transformation when he gets an unexpected windfall.

Christopher Gatelli's choreography shone during Alfred's send-off into marriage. "Get Me to the Church on Time" was a rousing music-hall number and such a delightful riot that such odd directorial touches as can-can girls and a cross-dressing bride simply seemed part of the joyful ruckus. Ryan particularly liked this number.

Director Bartlett Sher's production was properly sumptuous. Catherine Zuber designed costumers in shades of grey, silver, lavender and pink. Michael Yeargan's sets most spectacularly featured a revolving, mobile set of Higgins' townhouse that allowed actors to travel through three interior and exterior areas while performing. Ryan noticed particularly Donald Holder's lighting which Holder said referenced "the color and quality of early electric light while also reveal[ing] the cool exteriors of central London."

Our post-show discussion focused on Sher's change in the the always-problematic ending and the question of whether Eliza comes back to Higgins. Flo wondered whether the final scene in Higgins' study actually took place in his imagination - an unusual, but valid, interpretation. I thought the ending was illogical, but perhaps symbolic. Ryan felt the show wanted to end on a message of Eliza's empowerment but still wanted to have a final send-off between the two characters. He also noticed how Sher's blocking (stage movement) had the two circling each other in their final scene.

We talked about Shaw's ideas about class and society, about how men and women get on with each other - and about how it was all set on a brilliant comedy-drama and glorious songs.

If you don't "get" theater, you don't understand how something called "a show" can actually be life-changing, but My Fair Lady is one of those shows. There are reminiscences all over the Internet about its effect.

It's the perfect "first time," with the potential to light up the mind and heart for a lifetime. The theater gods -- as they do -- arranged everything abso-bloomin'-lutely perfectly.