Saturday, December 27, 2014

Street theater

When I led drama workshops for a couple of years at a recurring “Children’s Day of Art” in Morristown, N.J., I would ask the kids, “what’s the difference between theater and drama?”

The simple answer is that theater usually takes place on a stage while drama is all around us. Today, however, I saw the drama of the streets create a unique form of theater, improvised, spontaneous, rapidly shifting and gone in an instant.

I walked down Lexington Ave. in Manhattan from 61st St. to 43rd St. at about 3:30 pm, when the late December sun was already beginning to head for its rest and twilight – the “blue hour” – began to shade the sky.

I walked with purpose toward the trains at Grand Central Terminal but at a medium pace, a little slower than usual. I gazed at the urban landscape with wondering eyes, open to whatever scenes might occur.

The "set" whispered its own stories - a banner from Cantor Fitzgerald, the financial firm that suffered terrible losses on 9/11, proclaiming New York "financial capital of the world;" Torino Jewelers' glistening show and a colorful truck proclaiming its allegiance to Turkey and the U.S., but overlaid with a graffiti artist's work.

Outside a hair/cosmetics salon, a tall, dark engaging young man was handing out samples of a face cream. 

His patter was so expert that I entered the store with him and found myself seated on a stool while he applied a little of the cream to the, um, laugh lines around my eyes. 

"My name is Leo," he said, asking for mine. He said that the first part of my name, "sol," is a musical note and that he was part Israeli. 

I glanced at the jar of cream he was using. It had a price tag of $450. 

"Leo," I said, smiling, "you are very charming and I'm sure the cream is wonderful. But I am putting my daughter though college and I will say good night." He smiled. I got up and left.

I passed Bloomingdale's and entered, not having been there for many years. Now, the department store's main floor is a series of brand boutiques - Coach, Gucci, Vuitton - each in an enclosed space, like a mall or a stage.

I found it odd and wandered, as did most of the other shoppers, in post-holiday stupor. I thought I might find a sweater on sale and traveled on the escalator up one floor, but only found $80 shirts. 

Back on the street, I gazed at stores whose purpose and merchandise I could not fathom - Superdry?

Twice on my walk, giant limousines - one black, one white - cruised down Lexington, headed for Saturday night revelry. In one, a passenger hung out an open window, videotaping the ride. 

As I approached Grand Central, I passed a middle-aged man holding out a paper cup, shaking the coins in it. I took out my wallet, circled back and put money in the cup. "What is your name?" "Mike."

I wanted to wish Mike well but my inner playwright failed me and came up with possibly the most inane line ever, under the circumstances: "Happy holidays, Mike."

I arrived at Grand Central, where the glittering railway house was inhaling travelers to the suburbs and exhaling the night's city explorers. 

As I headed home, where a vivid sunset greeted me, I realized that another difference between theater and drama is that a performance has an ending but the stories of the streets flow like an endless river.    

Thursday, December 4, 2014

Steinway magic

Of late, it seems, this theater blog has been covering music. Well, what of it? The two are intertwined; every presentation of music has an element of theater and every piece of music tells a story.

Another element of music theater -- an awesome stage setting -- exists on West 57th Street in New York, the location of Steinway Hall, the 89-year-old flagship store, showroom, offices of Steinway & Sons, the legendary piano maker.

The rotunda, Steinway Hall
They almost made it to 90 at that site, but the building and the company have been sold. The good news is that Steinway continues under new ownership and is moving to new (though less ornate) quarters in Manhattan. The gorgeous rotunda, reminiscent of a Vienna salon, will be preserved in the new building that will arise around it.

Showroom and wood floor
I recently received a tour, courtesy of my friend Michael Cabe, institutional sales representative at Steinway. As he recited the building's history -- designed by Warren & Wetmore of Grand Central Terminal fame -- we walked through room after room of pianos.

Steinway Hall also has quite the art collection, with paintings of great pianists and composers, and such artists as N.C. Wyeth and Rockwell Kent represented. Note the wood floor in the photograph above. All the showrooms have that parquet floor, made from wood that came from the Steinway factories.

The company's 161-year history is well represented, also, with artifacts, small models of historic pianos and dioramas lining the halls. There are also custom pianos, such as the John Lennon model, which has his artwork on the music stand, his signature and song quotes.
The John Lennon piano

But what I was really excited about was seeing the storied basement, where concert artists from Horowitz to Gould to the greats of today came to try out pianos for their performances.

I had brought my Chopin book, thinking I could perhaps get to play one a little. I especially wanted to play the Prelude in C minor, No. 20, Op. 28, hoping to get every nuance of Chopin's profound chords, particularly in the bass clef, where the Steinway growls like a lion.

Before the basement, Michael showed me the room with the famous Model D nine-foot concert grands and graciously left me alone for a few minutes. I sat down at one of the instruments, was a little nervous at first, then started to relax into the experience and greatly enjoyed it.

On his return, Michael, who is a jazz pianist himself (here is his website) suggested I try another piano in the room, his favorite, and the minute I started playing it, I was in love. I went back to the other piano and played a chord, then dashed over to the new one and played the same chord.

It was astonishing -- this piano had a complex voice and a soul. Each note was so rich and deep; it seemed to contain shades of notes. The tone was bright, yet warm and intelligent. It was so responsive I felt I could play a range of dynamics between piano and pianissimo, or forte and fortissimo. When I finished, I put my head down on the piano and embraced the music stand. "I want this one," I said.
The Model D concert grand - incomparable.
The price tag was equally stupendous - $132,000, and that was on sale. Original price? $150,000.

I looked at the monthly payments, after a 10% down payment, and began to dream. But even if $1377 a month for ten years was doable, there was the little matter of fitting this aircraft carrier of an instrument inside an apartment's 20-foot living/dining space.
Worth every penny.

This is the Steinway magic. I can't forget that piano; it's living in my head now. Maybe I can convince Michael to let me play it one more time at Steinway Hall, or maybe it's already on its way to the new digs.

I would love to know where #596708 ends up; maybe in a music school where it could be accessed, who knows.

We did make our way down to the basement after that, where the ghosts live comfortably with their modern counterparts and men with large muscles move an average of one instrument a day in and out of the building.

But I left my heart up on the first floor, where #596708 awaits a caress from the next set of piano-loving hands.

Monday, November 24, 2014

Flowing melodies

Saturday nights may buzz with social energy, but Friday night should be a time when the cares and stress of the workweek are set aside at least for a few hours. The triumphs of the days just past can be savored and good work relished; conflicts and unfinished business perhaps will look better on Monday morning.

Last Friday, I ended the week by stepping into a musical world of peace and beauty - a performance by the Riverwinds Woodwind Quintet at New York University's Maison Francaise in Greenwich Village. (The group's name refers to the fact that several players are based in Westchester County towns on the Hudson River.)
La Maison Francaise, NYU, New York

Occupying a 19th-century carriage house on cobblestoned Washington Mews, the Maison hosted the performance in its elegant cream-colored ground-floor salon.

I'm no stranger to chamber music, but it's been mostly string quartets and chamber orchestras. However, the woodwind quintet - flute, oboe, bassoon, horn and clarinet - isolates those breath-supported voices that transform the very air.

What colors result! In the hands of these Riverwinds players, Sally Frank's sparkling flute, Troy Messenger's piercing oboe, Nicholas Evans' soulful bassoon, Leslie Mantrone's clarion horn and Gary Mayer's singing clarinet wove a tapestry of sweet, delicate music far removed from aggressive strings or percussive orchestral bombast.
Riverwinds Woodwind Quintet
From left, Troy Messenger, oboe; Nicholas Evans, bassoon;
 Leslie Mantrone, horn; Sally Frank, flute; Gary Mayer, clarinet

The all-French program contained wondrous discoveries around every corner. These were a few favorites:

Ravel's four-part Le Tombeau de Couperin was written as a memorial to friends killed in World War I.

The sprightly first movement (Prélude) seems at odds with such a somber subject, but, as Ms. Frank noted, Ravel said, "the dead are sad enough, in their eternal silence."

The first movement of Gounod's Petite Symphonie (there is a sound file on this web page, if you want to listen to it), arranged by Mayer for Riverwinds, begins with a majestic adagio, then swings into an irresistibly bouncy allegretto.

I was not familiar with the work of Jacques Ibert, but who could resist the sunny first movement (Allegro) of three short pieces (Trois Pièces Brèves).

However, the piece that really transported me out of jangly urban Manhattan was Milhaud's Le Cheminée du Roi René, a work with a medieval flavor that references the 15th-century king, René of Anjou. The seventh and final movement is the poignantly serene Madrigal-Nocturne.

Clearly one of New York's more-accomplished wind quintets, Riverwinds created a sublime program that brought the week to a close with harmony and grace.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Back to Saigon

Heading for a production of Miss Saigon at the Irvington Clocktower Players in Irvington, N.Y., I wondered whether the musical would seem like a period piece, in the general sense and for me personally.

Next April will be the 40th anniversary of the fall of Saigon, a phrase that conjures up a host of sensations for anyone who remembers the Vietnam War. I first saw Miss Saigon in 1993 in its landmark Toronto production. (The producers built a whole theater for it.) So both these dates are fairly far in the past.

The other question in my mind was theatrical. When the show opened in London in 1989, it was well known for a particular special effect - a helicopter descending to the stage to pluck away American and Vietnamese evacuees as Saigon succumbed to Communist forces. So how could a community theater measure up?    

Pretty impressively, even with minimal set design.

It's possible that David Lovett's set of movable frames covered in translucent fabric and black boxes that become a bed, a bar, etc. actually put more focus on the human characters slammed by the viciousness of war.

Although my flip response in 1993 to Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil's updating of Madame Butterfly was "Puccini did it better," this time the story and music affected me more deeply.

"Butterfly" is Kim (Mika Nishida), a girl from the countryside caught up in the Saigon bar scene, catering to American soldiers. 
Brent McGee as Chris and Mika Nishida as Kim
One of them, Chris (Brent McGee), falls in love with her and she with him, but they are separated in the chaos of the war's end.

Pushing the action forward is a Eurasian nightclub hustler/pimp/con man called The Engineer (Paul Aguirre), who washes up in Bangkok after the war where Kim has given birth to Chris' son.

Several years later, Chris arrives in Bangkok, having learned that Kim and his son are there -- but he is also accompanied by his American wife. Tragedy ensues.
Paul Aguirre as The Engineer

The singing, acting and dancing are uniformly very strong - Nishida and Aguirre are Equity actors and McGee lists opera as well as musical credits.

Nishida is an experienced Kim, as her bio notes she first played the role in 1999 in the second national Broadway tour and that this will probably be the last time.

Although she is clearly not 17, Nishida beautifully communicates Kim's innocence, core of steel and overriding love for her child. McGee's Chris is a man who is basically decent but trapped in the ultimate no-win situation.

Aguirre's Engineer will survive wherever he finds himself, on a combination of smarts, cunning, deviousness and wicked humor. He is, of course, the most interesting character in the show.  

Mention also must go to Michael Terry as Chris' friend John, Miguel Angel Acevedo as Kim's cousin Thuy, Laura Donaldson as Chris' wife Ellen and the statuesque Janina Gonzalez as the poignant bar girl Gigi, who actually wins the "Miss Saigon" contest.

Director David Robertson keeps an intense focus on the songs, supported by a topnotch 13-piece band, conducted by George H. Croom. Larry Alexander's sound design was crystal-clear although for me the volume could have been dialed down just a notch.

Lovett also did the lighting design and the effects are achieved through lighting and sound. I did think the set was a bit too sparse throughout the first act and wondered why the designer didn't make more use of projections, especially since Terry's song, "Bui-Doi," is accompanied by projections of Amerasian children left behind by U.S. servicemen.

One adjective you can't apply to Miss Saigon is "subtle," and I think Robertson could have brought the emotions down just a little - actually, "Bui-Doi" is an example. When the actors are using up all the air in the room, it's hard for the audience to feel.

So did it feel like belonged in the past? Yes and no. I think anyone who was not alive at the time can't appreciate the show from the same viewpoint - and that's probably my prejudice. However, anyone can realize that universal themes of love and, sadly, of conflict exist now and have through the ages.

As for Clocktower Players, now that I know the high level of their productions, this won't be the last time I'll be seeing one of their shows.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

The voice of one

Actor Tom Bair’s recitation of the entire Gospel According to St. Mark is not just an astonishing tour de force of memorization, but a riveting journey through a text that seems familiar but sometimes raises more questions than it answers.

Premiering on Oct. 15 at New York’s United Solo TheatreFestival, a ten-week series of solo performances, “St. Mark’s Gospel” runs about two hours and contains all 15,992 words of the King James version. Sold out on Oct. 15, another show was added on Nov. 15.

This initial performance took place in a small, off-Broadway black-box theater. With no scenery except gray walls, the set consisted of a red patio table and two chairs. Bair was seated onstage, occasionally consulting a cell phone.

As the house lights dimmed, Japanese composer Shigemasa Nakano’s ethereal music filled the room; sounds of traffic were also heard and Bair’s cell phone rang. He answered it, then put it away and strode forward to stand at center stage.

Tom Bair in St. Mark's Gospel
Looking directly at the audience, with an open stance, he began with a sense of earnest energy: “The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ, the son of God.” This Gospel gets right into the action, with none of the introductory words of the other three. By the third line, John the Baptist is introduced: “the voice of one crying in the wilderness.”

It’s easy to listen to Bair’s "voice of one," with its medium weight and legato dynamics. This master actor skillfully maintains the tension of the narrative. One joy of this production is that when the inevitable mind-wandering occurs over the two hours, it doesn’t last long because Bair’s varied line readings, vocal projection and crystal-clear articulation bring the attention back.

Director Kathleen Conry’s blocking also captures our interest, as Bair leans against a wall as a bystander in the temple, or uses the table and chairs – most effectively when he sets a chair at center stage and circles it, mocking the unseen man wearing purple and a crown of thorns.

Bair’s physical grace is most effective -- when the man with the withered hand is healed, Bair’s outstretched hand straightens in a subtle gesture. When he’s speaking as a character, he delicately varies his vocal pitch, so the focus remains on the words. 
People usually encounter the Gospel in bits – the Sunday readings or the Bible study passages – and hearing the text in one sitting identifies recurring themes. This listener wondered why Mark’s Gospel is obsessed with Jesus’ healing miracles and the fact that he often says “tell no man” they occurred, but people spread the news anyway.

Mark is the shortest Gospel of the four and as Bair unfolds the narrative, we realize there’s no Nativity in this Gospel and no Pentecost. No "good Samaritan," no wedding at Cana, no Sermon on the Mount.

We wonder why the writer is so careful with very precise identifications of place – “They came into the land of Gennasaret” … “He arose and went into the borders of Tyre and Sidon”? These details and several phrases quoting Jesus in his language, Aramaic, lead some to believe that this was an eyewitness account and the source was St. Peter.

How exciting it is, therefore, to hear this Gospel verbally as if that eyewitness had just touched us on the arm, eager to share his story. In “St. Mark’s Gospel,” Bair uses all of his considerable gifts to create a brilliant theatrical and inspirational experience.

Note: in an interview after the performance, Bair said he used the ancient “loci” (locations) memorization technique, where the speaker imagines walking through a place he knows well and uses its rooms or features as prompts. In Bair’s case, it was the Church of the Transfiguration in New York, also known as the “Little Church Around the Corner” and associated with the theatrical community. 

If a church or organization wants to host a performance of “St. Mark’s Gospel,” Bair may be reached at Click here for his website.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Stratford at its peak

When a play production fires on all cylinders, it can be likened to any kind of moving masterpiece that inspires wonder - say, a finely-tuned Porsche racing car going 175 mph.

The Stratford Festival's current offering of The Beaux' Stratagem is just such a complete piece of theatrical joy that you want to savor the experience even as you're enjoying it. In fact, the gentleman from Connecticut sitting next to me was back for a second time.

George Farquhar's 1707 script is the first Restoration comedy produced at Stratford since 1995 and the description refers to the return of Charles II to the British throne in 1660 and the re-opening of the theaters after the Puritan reign.

The story begins with the classic device - a stranger rides into town. Only this time, they're two strangers - London gentlemen named Archer (Colm Feore) and Aimwell (Mike Shara) (nearly all the names are puns) who've blown through their fortunes down to the last £200 and desperately need to find rich wives. "There is no scandal like rags, nor any crime so shameful as poverty," says Archer. The two have hit the road alternating the roles of master and servant. The alternative? Go sign up with the Duke of Marlborough's men and fight the French.

Colm Feore as Archer
Photos/Michael Cooper
More suited to the boudoir than the battlefield, they find a pair of lovely ladies, sweet Dorinda (Bethany Jillard) and her sister-in-law Mrs. Sullen (Lucy Peacock), unhappily married to the drunken Squire Sullen (Scott Wentworth). The household also includes the dotty Lady Bountiful (Martha Henry), someone we'd describe as a naturopath today, obsessed with healing herbs.

The gents take up residence at an inn run by the scheming Boniface (Robert King), with his whip-smart daughter Cherry (Sara Farb). An actual gang of highwaymen in league with Boniface arrives to rob Lady Bountiful's household and comic chaos ensues.

One of the many triumphs of this production is director Antoni Cimolino's sure hand with both the rapid wit of the script, the genuine sweet heart at its core and the physical comedy of the situations.

Lady Bountiful attempts to heal Aimwell.
The performances, scene changes and music (by Stratford Director of Music Emeritus Berthold Carriere) crackle with speed and energy.

Patrick Clark's clever set design, with elements carried on and off by the cast, beautifully alternates between inn and estate.

Among the standout scenes: Feore smoothly wooing an amused Peacock as they regard the mansion's gallery of paintings.

As both play director and the festival's artistic director, Cimolino has attracted a cast of all-stars. Feore and Shara are coolly charming rogues, until their hearts are really touched by love. Jillard gives Dorinda some real spine and Peacock radiantly communicates Mrs. Sullen's desires and regrets.

For the great Martha Henry, there are no small parts. Whether she is brandishing a large cucumber or entering prepared to fight the housebreakers clad in half a suit of armor and waving a giant sword, the entire audience is helpless with laughter.

In the wonderful scene in the photo above, Aimwell (on chaise) has faked a fit in order to get access to Dorinda (at right) as Mrs. Sullen (left) and Archer (center) look on, and Lady Bountiful practically pumps his arm off as part of her healing arts.
Scott Wentworth as Squire Sullen

Giving credit to the depth of this cast, Scott Wentworth makes Squire Sullen both repellent and subtly sympathetic since he, too, is trapped in a marriage he hates. Evan Buliung as Count Bellair (there's a company of French officers under house arrest at the inn - of course) creates a ridiculously funny comic accent without offensiveness.

Gordon S. Miller's Scrub, servant to the Bountiful household, is a genuine riot of obsequiousness and anxiety. Actors who have had lead roles in other Stratford productions - Chick Reid and Tara Rosling - here make their marks in the minor roles of a countrywoman and a gipsy. Michael Spencer-Davis' fraud of a clergyman, Foigard, makes the most of a variety of accents as the character unconvincingly takes on several nationalities.

At this Sunday matinee, my friend from Connecticut, his wife and I remarked on the number of empty seats - perhaps one-fourth of the auditorium - that were evident on what one would think would be a popular day and time.

The festival has twice extended King Lear, also starring Feore, but there should be an equal rush for tickets to The Beaux' Stratagem, which, let's face it, has a lot more laughs. Go see it now.

Thursday, August 21, 2014

The delights of summer theater

A leisurely trip along country roads ... Shakespeare amid rustling leaves ... sundresses and sandals ... a pre-show picnic -- these are just a few of the special qualities of summer theater, where atmosphere and environment are as much part of the experience as what's onstage.

So far this summer, theater appointments have included John Lithgow in King Lear at the Public Theatre's Shakespeare in the Park (Central Park, Manhattan). As one who has experienced Christopher Plummer's and William Hutt's towering interpretations of the role at Canada's Stratford Festival, I felt that, for me, it was a tall order from the beginning for Lithgow to compete.
John Lithgow as King Lear

He's a terrific actor, no question, with classical training. I've seen him achieve greatness in modern roles, most recently in The Columnist on Broadway, and in person, he comes across as an essentially nice, decent man. This Lear began in a relaxed mood as Dad decides to give each of his three daughters a third of his kingdom and retire to a life of hunting and fun with his knights.

As the play progresses and this act proves to be a tragic mistake, Lithgow ably mines the pathos and pitiable nature of Lear's fall into madness and then his comprehension of the true nature of love.

However, the fall becomes most breathtaking from an authoritative, kingly height. Both Hutt and Plummer's monarchs began the play firmly in control, with a very sharp edge. I can still hear Plummer's voice chiding Cordelia, who refuses to suck up to Dad like her two sisters - "Nothing will come from 'nothing.'" In that one sentence, he was saying, "Watch it, kid, you sure you want to say that?" Dangerous - and thrilling.
In this Lear, amidst the pleasures of green Central Park ... less danger, less thrill.

*   *   *

Green pleasures abound in the lake district of Ontario north of Toronto called (for obvious reasons) "cottage country." Theater was slow to grow in Canada as the country built up a decent population base, really only coming to maturity with Stratford's founding in 1953, but before that there was (and still is) a lively tradition of local summer theater.

I travelled to Bala, Ontario, a small town on Lake Muskoka about 120 miles north of Toronto, to narrate two staged play readings as part of the Actors Colony Theatre festival, recently revived under Artistic Producer Eva Moore and continuing a tradition that began in Bala with the first straw hat theater season in Canada in 1934.

The two plays, Skin Deep by Trish West and Swing Dance by Lynda Martens, were winners in the Writers' Springboard playwriting competition, where I've been one of the judges for several years.
Skin Deep

Swing Dance

They're both fine plays, deserving of full productions, and my job as narrator was simply to read appropriate stage directions, filling in the spaces that would be obvious in a fully-staged version.

The casts were uniformly excellent, under the direction of Rand Houghton for Skin Deep and Annette Procunier for Swing Dance. The photos above are from different productions, but cast members for Skin Deep were Peter Shipston, Andrea Vander Kooij, Isabelle Ellis and Robyn MacDonald. Swing Dance featured Frank Johnston, Kay Valentine, Rand Houghton and Dalene Flannigan.  

I was struck, again, by the power of theater, since each director and cast had taken such care with their readings, scheduling rehearsals, bringing props and costume accessories, creating sound effects, even in Rand's case, bringing two lights and stands. 

Why? The audiences were appreciative, but small - about 20 people each time. We were all drawn there by the power of a compelling story, well told. In Skin Deep, a mother copes with cancer, its physical changes and its effect on her family. In the heartfelt comedy Swing Dance, a long-married couple reassess their relationship after the husband retires.

Those 20 people were riveted and some eyes were moist as Rachel faced her fears. The next night, they laughed as Walter tried to revive his spirit through the unaccustomed activities of yoga and drumming and Vicky seeks a new career. 

The weather may be warm and it may be "straw hat," but it's real theater.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Songs for the ages

The stage of the Jacob Burns Film Center in Pleasantville, N.Y. is usually dominated by a large white screen. On July 10, it shared space with four guitars, three banjos and a violin propped up on stands – signals of an evening devoted to folk music icon and activist Pete Seeger.

With clips from the film Pete Seeger: The Power of Song and live performances by folk singers Tom Chapin, Mike Merenda and Ruth Ungar, the evening kicked off “Sounds of Summer,” a festival of documentaries about music, running until Aug. 31.

“We certainly believe in the power of song to make the world a better place,” said John Platt, the evening’s host and director of communications & special projects at WFUV, the Fordham University-based radio station that is the series’ media partner.

The festival includes films on Woody Guthrie, Amy Winehouse, David Bromberg, Sgt. Pepper, Balkan brass music, gospel music, retired opera singers, indie pop and a restored 50th anniversary release of A Hard Day’s Night, the ultimate “music video.”

Folk singer Tom Chapin, with images of Pete and Toshi Seeger on screen.
Photo/Lynda Shenkman Curtis
Several of the screenings also will be accompanied by Q&As and performances, such as Ndiphilela Ukucula: I Live to Sing, which is about black opera singers from South Africa’s townships  studying at the once all-white University of Cape Town Opera School. One of the singers, baritone Thesele Kemane, who starts at Juilliard in the fall, will perform at the film’s screening on Aug. 25.

Seeger’s magnetism as a performer and his conviction that music holds us together and calls to our higher natures was apparent from the first few frames of The Power of Song. In black and white concert footage, Seeger, chin typically tilted upward, is playing guitar and singing Jacob’s Ladder.

“We are climbing Jacob’s Ladder,” he sings, as a few audience members join in. Breaking off, he says in his distinctively clear, trumpet-like voice, “I don’t hear you!” and the singing in the auditorium swells on the next few lines until he is accompanied by a chorus of hundreds.

Seeger, who died last January at age 94, lived in Beacon and had an intimate connection with Westchester through his music and the Clearwater initiative to clean up the Hudson River. The film traces his eventful life, from his early years researching American folk music with historian Alan Lomax, through World War II military service to commercial success with The Weavers quartet.

In the 1950s, Seeger, a former Communist Party member, was blacklisted and refused to answer questions about his loyalties from the House Un-American Activities Committee. He said that as an American, his political and social beliefs were a private matter and their questioning was “immoral.” In the film, he is asked if he was frightened by that time. No, he said, because “I really believed in the long run that this country doesn’t go in for things like that.”

The film was paused several times to allow Chapin, Merena and Ungar to perform some of Seeger’s most beloved songs, with the audience enthusiastically joining in. Seeger composed or popularized such standards as Where Have All the Flowers Gone?, Turn, Turn, Turn and If I Had a Hammer. The film also describes Seeger’s part in making We Shall Overcome the anthem of the African-American civil rights movement and Waist Deep in the Big Muddy a searing indictment of the Vietnam War.

Platt interviewed on stage Seeger’s grandson, filmmaker Kitama Cahill-Jackson, and Guthrie’s granddaughter, Anna Canoni. Cahill-Jackson particularly noted Seeger’s late wife Toshi’s essential management of family and career. “If you see a homeless person playing on the street, that would have been Pete without my grandmother,” he said.

The Guthrie and Seeger families are still very close, said Canoni, adding that Seeger edited some of Guthrie’s early song versions, making lyrics simpler so they were easier for everyone to sing. “Pete found a way to make [a song] bigger,” said Canoni.

Cahill-Jackson noted that SeegerFest, a festival of free music and events, will take place July 17-21 in various New York City and Hudson Valley locations. Sing-alongs, of course, are part of it.

This story first appeared HERE

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

The whole world is listening

One of the most unsung (pun intended) aspects of theater is sound. It was the technical job I enjoyed most, choosing a musical and sound landscape for several community-theater plays in Ontario (winning awards along the way) and doing sound design for several school musicals in New York.

The sound designer affects, even manipulates, the audience's emotions and quite often, they don't even realize it.

I recently covered for the website allaboutbedford the opening of a mind-expanding sound art exhibit:

The Caramoor Center in Katonah, which usually presents a wide range of summer music, expanded its sound palette with the June 7 opening of “In the Garden of Sonic Delights,” a fascinating collection of installations throughout the 90-acre grounds.

Six years in the making, “Sonic Delights” also involves works at five other locations in Westchester, including the Jacob Burns Film Center and the Lyndhurst historic mansion, and runs through Nov. 2. Full details are available here.

At Caramoor, opening day patrons enjoyed a sunny afternoon as they encountered 15 sound experiences in open grass fields or tucked into the Italianate buildings and gardens of the estate.

"The Pianohouse" sound art by Trimpin.
German artist Trimpin contributed “The Pianohouse,” a structure built from discarded Steinway piano soundboards and featuring various items such as hammers that strike or pluck the strings. A visitor can push an attached doorbell, setting off a random array of Rube Goldberg-like actions and creating a strange and wondrous song.

At an afternoon panel discussion, Trimpin noted that even a disability is no bar to having “a great experience” at “The Pianohouse,” as a blind person can touch the exhibit and a deaf person can feel the vibrations.

“Over time, ‘The Pianohouse’ will musically ‘deconstruct’ itself, as a result of weather and other environmental conditions. The instruments will collectively experience these effects, slowly changing the pitch and other parameters,” Trimpin wrote in the exhibit program.

All of the installations were newly commissioned and interact with their environment. “Wild Energy,” by Annea Lockwood and Bob Bielecki, buried 18 speakers in a leafy grove. A sign identifies the earth sounds that were recorded and are broadcast through the speakers. They include whale song, very low frequency radio waves, gas vents and the crack of an earthquake. Two hammocks induce visitors to lie down and listen deeply.

“We were tantalized by the vibrational data central to the running of the planet. These vibrations are passing through our bodies. I started getting fixated on (the PBS science show) Nova and we accumulated sound files from many scientists,” Lockwood said at the panel discussion.

“Sonic Delights” Curator and Artistic Director Stephan Moore noted that the exhibits run through the fall and that the natural environment will change the experience. He urged participants to “come back when the cicadas are out and the leaves are falling.”

The opening day program also presented a sound art concert. Under the white Reception Tent, the audience was seated in concentric circles, facing outward.

Moore and Scott Smallwood (whose installation, “Coronium 3500 (Lucie’s Halo),” consisted of tiny solar panels on stilts making delicate noises) were seated at the center of the tent.

As a duo called Evidence, they played software instruments to create a variety of sounds that played off and interacted with each other – crickets, thumps, taps, chimes, surf, rain, murmured voices.

The work also created emotion, often depending upon tempo. For this listener, the deep chug-chug of what sounded like the heartbeat of the world resulted in a surprising sense of need and longing. Ears that are usually attuned to music at first heard the soundscape as an annoying cacophony, but relaxing into the aural landscape eventually resulted in a state of wondering meditation.

In the second half of the evening, audience members were able to concentrate fully on artist Francisco López’ soundscape, since he distributed blindfolds, explaining to the audience that “without seeing, you hear better.”

“In the Garden of Sonic Delights” is appropriate for all ages. It is open Thursday-Sunday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Admission is $10.00. Children under 12 are free. Admission includes all-day access to the Caramoor grounds for the exhibition, picnics and walks.

On Sunday, July 20, there will be a daylong celebration with two additional sound art works (“Rainforest IV” by David Tudor and “Sisyphus 2.0” by the Nerve Tank), lectures, demonstrations, a panel discussion and concert.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Only one face in the mirror

Thank goodness for the non-profit Broadway theater, specifically the Roundabout Theatre, currently producing the musical Violet, which has had an off-Broadway history, but might be a tough sell to a commercial Broadway producer.

"See, it's about a girl with a terrible facial scar caused by an accident with an axe when she was a kid. So she journeys by bus from South Carolina to Oklahoma to see a faith healer and along the way, she hooks up with two soldiers, one black and one white. Oh, and it's set in 1964." Not exactly Aladdin.

However, it's one of the most compelling shows running today near the lights of Times Square and cast an emotional spell over this theatergoer, not least because it personally hit home.

As Violet, Sutton Foster plays the role without special makeup, her hair long and lanky. Dressed in a shapeless long dress and baggy sweater, Foster suggests the damage the scar has done by her body's attitude, which sometimes slumps with the hopelessness of a woman who never feels attractive, and her manner - wary, straightforward and never flirtatious.

Based on the story "The Ugliest Pilgrim" by Doris Betts, Jeanine Tesori's music and Brian Crawley's book and lyrics premiered in 1997 at Playwrights Horizons. I'd be willing to bet that its final arrival on Broadway is in no small measure due to the presence of Foster, who is usually seen tapping and singing up a storm in such musical comedies as The Drowsy Chaperone and Anything Goes.

Here, Foster inhabits a woman as real and full as any character by O'Neill or Williams -- and her bright mezzo soprano easily navigates Tesori's wide range of American musical styles, from blues to country, gospel to bluegrass.

Sutton Foster as Violet
I've seldom seen a cast where the principal players are so strong, they could each be the stars of the show.The story alternates between the present and Violet's backwoods upbringing with her dad, a man faced with a parent’s terrible realization that he tried strenuously hard to protect his daughter but grievously injured her. The role is intensely played by Alexander Gemignani. Joshua Henry brings his incandescent presence to Flick, one of the soldiers, although his belting power on his big number, "Let It Sing," momentarily overwhelms the show.

Colin Donnell as the other solider, Monty, nails his slick, cheerful nature and develops it into authentic feeling for Violet. The show never plays the Southern environment for cheap laughs and as the faith healer, Ben Davis never slides into caricature. What a delightful surprise to find Annie Golden (whom I interviewed in the 1970s when she led a rock band named the Shirts) creating gem-like moments as an Old Lady (hey, she's only 63) and Hotel Hooker. As Young Violet, Emerson Steele reminded me of another sensitive, wide-eyed child, Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird.

Right, Sutton Foster and Annie Golden
Director Leigh Silverman gracefully moves the characters through the chapters of their lives, often placing Violet center stage. Living with a face that causes such reactions as “maybe you’d like to have a booth” from a diner manager and stares from a bus driver, Violet comes to realize that the miracle she seeks will have to come from within her.

She is also made aware that she's not the only person who is being judged on appearance, as Flick navigates life as a black man in the South.    

We all have to decide how we will face the world but some have less choice than others. As a quick glance to the right of this blog post will show, the blogger maintains an interesting hair-free style, in this case due to the autoimmune condition (a word preferred to "disease") alopecia areata.

There are stares, thoughtless remarks ("Do you own a wig?"), unsolicited offers of prayer, inquiries about how the chemotherapy is going (it's not cancer), occasional creepy approaches ("I want to touch your head") and never a day when one is unaware of it.

Because the cause is yet unknown and there is no cure or viable treatment, people with alopecia try faith healing, aromatherapy, "stress reduction" -- all the things that rush in where science does not tread.

In the end, there's only one face in the mirror (one song is called "Look at Me") and you just have to go to the well (another - "Water in the Well") time and again, seeking the balance between looking out and looking in, judging how much of your authentic self lies on the outside.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

A "gentleman's" musical to die for

Take a cup of Gilbert & Sullivan, sprinkle with a generous helping of Sweeney Todd, stir in a pound of Edwardian music hall and decorate with the words "farce" and "melodrama" -- and you'll have the ingenious musical A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder. Our trip to the Walter Kerr Theater on Broadway was prompted a couple of nights ago by a special 60th birthday celebration.

The show is something of a sleeper hit this season. Bumping along since its November opening with fine reviews and medium box office, it was overshadowed by flashier shows with big stars (Denzel Washington in A Raisin in the Sun, for instance). Then Gentleman's Guide grabbed 10 Tony nominations including best musical, edging out such contenders as Woody Allen's Bullets Over Broadway, If/Then and The Bridges of Madison County

Composer Steven Lutvak and book writer Robert L. Freedman (they're also both credited with lyrics) have taken the obscure 1907 novel Israel Rank: the Autobiography of a Criminal, by Roy Horniman (also the basis for the Alec Guinness movie Kind Hearts and Coronets), and created a gleeful caper through the mind of a serial killer.

Unlike Sweeney Todd, the victims are dispatched with such comic dispatch that laughter replaces squeamishness.

The killer in question is an attractive young man named Monty Navarro (Bryce Pinkham) who discovers that he is a member of the aristocratic D'Ysquith (pronounced die'-squith) family and stands to inherit a title and castle, if only eight relatives pop off first.

Monty observes an early victim, the Rev. Lord Ezekial D'Ysquith.
Eager to secure the love of his social-climbing lady, Sibella (Lisa O'Hare), and outraged by the injustice done his late mother, a D'Ysquith disinherited for marrying "a Castilian," Monty begins hunting heirs.

He discovers they all represent varying examples of the fatuous, idiotic and possibly inbred British aristocracy -- and they are all played by a walking actor's textbook named Jefferson Mays, who won a Tony award in 2004 for playing 30+ characters in the play I Am My Own Wife.

Further complications include a sweet distant relative, Phoebe D'Ysquith (Lauren Worsham) who is not in the line of succession, thank goodness, and becomes Monty's fiancée. Special mention also has to go to Jane Carr, who plays Miss Shingle, one of those middle-aged busybodies who kicks off the action by revealing the family secret to the hero and ends it when it becomes apparent she has a secret, too.

The framing device has Monty sitting in jail writing his memoirs, having been accused of one of the murders. Cleverly, the action takes place on a red-curtained music-hall stage within the stage. Director Darko Tresnjak (making his Broadway debut) and choreographer Peggy Hickey maintain an arch style, a rapid tempo perfect for the material, stylized movement and physical comedy.

Among the family members played by Mays are the bucktoothed Rev. Lord Ezekial D'Ysquith (and those of us of an Episcopal/Anglican bent will recognize with slight chagrin the tedious clergyman pointing out the historical characteristics of the steeple), the kindly top-hatted Lord Asquith D'Ysquith, Sr., the hearty world do-gooder Lady Hyacinth D'Ysquith ("We'll find ourselves some lepers in the Punjab") and obtuse Lord Adalbert D'Ysquith, forever riding to hounds.

Jefferson Mays as Lord Adalbert D'Ysquith.
The latter, sporting red hunting jacket, riding crop and fox pelt, delivers one of the songs that could be pure Gilbert & Sullivan: "I Don't Understand the Poor."

"I don't understand the poor.
And they're constantly turning out more.
Every festering slum in Christendom
Is disgorging its young by the score."

One of the joys of Gentleman's Guide is hearing possibly the wittiest lyrics on Broadway set to sprightly melodies (I've still got "I've Decided to Marry You" in my head, as sung by Phoebe, Sibella and Monty).

O'Hare and Worsham's rivalry is worthy of Cecily and Gwendolyn in The Importance of Being Earnest, and their lovely soprano voices deliver the songs in pure brittle Victorian style.

In this gloriously giddy show, murder most foul has never been more fun.

*    *    *     *
Now consider the bassoon ...

A lovely measure of the evening's joy was provided by our friend Tom Sefcovic, who plays bassoon in the show's pit orchestra and who kindly gave us a backstage tour after the show.

"I've never actually seen the show," Tom said as we peered into his subterranean domain between the first row of seats and the stage. Here, the musicians are nearly hidden by a passerelle, a stage extension that covers the pit but has a couple of large openings that allow the music to be heard.

Cozying up to a large prop
 with Tom Sefcovic, who plays
 bassoon in the show
A large portion of my 60 years had passed before I was even aware of the bassoon in any significant way apart from being an audience member at a symphony concert. As a player, piano's my voice. But in the last couple of years, some wrinkle occurred in the universe and I've made the acquaintance of at least three bassoonists and begun to appreciate this shy member of the orchestra.

At first, I really had to listen to distinguish its sweet, low tones, so often bullied by the brass, other woodwinds and the always-assertive string sections. Then, of course, I recognized it as "that sound" I'd heard in solos from Scheherazade to Bolero to Peter and the Wolf.  

However, at Gentleman's Guide, with a 13-piece orchestra, I picked out Tom's playing more clearly. The instrument's four-octave range allowed it to punctuate comic moments with deep belchy outbursts. Higher notes often delightfully accented the comedic action and created such effects as the exotic sounds associated with scenes in Egypt or India.

And a little Web support to ... Tom also plays in the Orchestra of St. Luke's and the Mostly Mozart Festival Orchestra. Another bassoonist friend, Mary Olsson, plays in St. Thomas Orchestra. And another website, possibly containing more than you'd ever want to know about the bassoon, but written by someone with an infectious passion for the instrument, is this one by bassoonist, repair mechanic and master craftsman Nicholas Evans:

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Drunk with theater

A quick stay in London and a stop with the 16-year-old (Flo) and her 18-year-old best guy friend (Max) to see another production by the Punchdrunk Theatre Company -- The Drowned Man:A Hollywood Fable.

Last December, we'd seen Punchdrunk's Sleep No More in New York and were wildly enthusiastic (as you can read here) about it. This time, Max and I had a more tepid reaction, while Flo had a better experience, which is a kind of validation of Punchdrunk's approach.

Like last time, we audience members were masked and followed various story lines throughout a large building (an unused mail sorting facility) decorated according to the story setting. This one was the fictional Temple Studios, a film facility that mysteriously closed in the early 1960s.

We were handed cards with storylines involving two couples plagued by infidelity - in one, the man kills the woman, in the other, it's the opposite. Our group of three split up and we each witnessed scenes that were generally wordless, using dance and atmospheric music to play out the deadly shadowbox of love, lust, jealousy and fame-chasing.

Living in a trailer on the outskirts of Hollywood.

On a California beach near the sign of an abandoned motel.
Later, at a pub, Max and I said we thought Sleep No More, based primarily on Macbeth, was more effective -- more variety in the scenes, a stronger sense of plot, better identification of the characters, less confusion for the audience.

But Flo, while agreeing that character identification could have been better, had seen some scenes we had missed and had a much more positive view of the production.

Five hundred audience members - 500 different plays. Still a brilliant concept.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

A universe of grace

It's spring dance recital time again. The following was originally published in the Toronto Globe and Mail newspaper:

At first, to my shame, I thought it was a joke.

I was sitting in a high school auditorium on a Saturday morning with a cup of takeout coffee and the newspaper, half-watching as one class after another of little girls pranced around on stage, rehearsing their ballet, tap or jazz routines for the yearend dance recital a week hence. Waiting for the caffeine to kick in, I glanced at my watch, waiting for my daughter's group to appear.

Then, amidst the swirl of sparkly white tutus and pink satin hair scrunchies, a class of about eight girls entered from stage left dressed as nuns. The costumes were quite clever – black tights, black habits ending at the knees, black wimples with white inserts on the foreheads – and one of them was pushing another in a wheelchair. “Oh, how amusing; she’s going to hop up and dance at some point,” I thought. A split second and I realized she really was a kid in a wheelchair.

The music started and, again, it was fun – the old Little Peggy March hit "I Will Follow Him," an ode to a boyfriend given a new twist by the good “sisters,” similar to the number in the film Sister Act. The choreography was a little bit ballet, a little bit Broadway, but not disrespectful of anything, sincerely performed with just a twinkle in the eye.

Of course, the kid I couldn’t take my eyes off was the one in the wheelchair. She seemed to have a normal-sized torso (the girls looked to be around 11 or 12) and clearly was of normal intelligence (you could see it in her face), but her legs had not grown and were tiny things in her chair.

How could this be, in a dance class? Even in an age of wheelchair basketball, Paralympics and access ramps, what I was seeing exploded any conventional idea of what a dance class is or should be. I couldn’t imagine such a kid participating when I took ballet lessons as a child in the early 1960s. I don’t think it would have occurred to anyone and if it did occur to the parents, they probably would have been discouraged, been told it just “wasn’t appropriate” or would “hold the other kids back” or, worse, “hold the poor child up to ridicule.”

The newspaper forgotten, I watched in wonder. When the girls did arm movements, she moved her arms with theirs. They delicately folded hands over hearts on the line “I will follow him;” she did the same. They did an arabesque, one arm reaching heavenward, the other back and down, on “wherever he may be;” she did also. When their line turned, she turned her chair.

They moved toward the center of the stage; she wheeled to be with them. They treated her no differently and gave no sign there was anything unusual about their group.

Since I’m a journalist, I thought about how I would report it as a newspaper story. I would have done the usual things. I would have talked to the kid in the wheelchair, made sure of the correct spelling of her name, the exact term for her disorder. I would have talked to her about what it felt like to be onstage, about whose idea it was for her to join a dance class, how the experience was going for her.

I would have talked to the class teacher, asking her how she choreographed for eight pairs of legs and two wheels. I would have interviewed the dance school director, asking whether this was the first time she’d had a disabled kid in a class and how she thought about it. I would have talked to the parents and a couple of other girls in the class.

But I didn’t. I was content to let it unfold, to experience the courage of the kid in the chair, the dignity of the entire group.

They ended downstage in typical Broadway pose, several down in front, the others ranged behind them, arms out. She wheeled her way into the finale, right on the beat, and it was over. Desultory applause from the parents scattered around the auditorium and off they went.

She wheeled herself offstage, leaving me to wonder how it is that we skim along in life unawares and suddenly in the midst of the most utterly ordinary event, there it is – a universe of love and mercy, a planet of grace and an expansion of all the possibilities of being human.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Riding a Broadway 'Bullet'

Armonk, N.Y.’s fledgling Broadway producers, Jed and Bronna Canaan, apparently still haven’t learned that if you’re going to invest in a show, you need to see the show first. For their second venture, Bullets Over Broadway, based on the Woody Allen movie, Jed saw a read-through of the musical, but only after parting with their funds.

However, this model seems to be working for them, as their first adventure in producing, Matilda, is a nightly sellout at the Shubert Theatre since opening last April. Bullets Over Broadway opens on April 10 and is currently in previews. While Matilda had already been playing in London before its Broadway opening, Bullets was developed in New York under the direction and choreography of five-time Tony-winner Susan Stroman.

It’s the story of young playwright David Shayne (played by Zach Braff) who hires a mobster’s actress girlfriend (Heléne York) in order to get financing for his play. He’s soon involved with alcoholic leading lady Helen Sinclair (Marin Mazzie, in the role for which Dianne Wiest won an Oscar) and finds Cheech the gangster (Nick Cordero) an unsung but talented writer.

Jed and Bronna Canaan at the Tony Awards
For the rest of this story, please click here: AllAboutArmonk.  

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Ragtime: Westchester's hometown musical

Ragtime, the musical picture of America at the dawn of the 20th century, is currently playing until May 4 at Westchester Broadway Theatre, close to what might be called the show's hometown.

Based on E.L. Doctorow's novel of the same title, Ragtime begins with the book's first sentence, anchoring the action in Westchester County, just north of New York City: "In 1902, Father built a house at the crest of the Broadview Avenue hill in New Rochelle."

Even more amusing for this reviewer, my current residence, Mamaroneck (just a few miles northeast of New Rochelle) gets a literal shout-out from a train conductor later on.

The cast of Ragtime
This production is directed by John Fanelli and produced by his Standing Ovation Studios performing arts facility in Westchester. Last year, Fanelli's production of In The Heights was a major hit at WBT and a stretch for a suburban dinner theater more accustomed to showcasing classic fare such as Guys and Dolls.

Ragtime is a big, sprawling show with three intertwined stories: a white, middle-class New Rochelle family (Father, Mother, Mother's Younger Brother, Grandfather) takes in a troubled young black woman and her baby; the baby's father (ragtime pianist Coalhouse Walker, Jr.) encounters vicious racism and reacts violently; a Jewish immigrant from Latvia (Tateh) struggles to make a better life for himself and his young daughter.

Also putting in an appearance are some of the giant personalities of the age: Henry Ford, leftist agitator Emma Goldman, Harry Houdini, Booker T. Washington and chorus girl Evelyn Nesbit, whose jealous millionaire husband, Harry K. Thaw, shot her lover, architect Stanford White, in a roof garden theater.

I've always loved Stephen Flaherty's score and Lynn Ahrens' lyrics and Terrence McNally's Tony-winning book is worthy of a great playwright. However, Ragtime to me has generally felt like a history diorama with the real-life figures trotted out to make a point.

However, this cast makes the most of the show's intimate moments, underscored with such glorious melodies as "Ragtime," "Your Daddy's Son," "The Wheels of a Dream," and "Till We Reach That Day."

FaTye and Brittney Johnson as Coalhouse and Sarah.
Coalhouse is played by the Westchester-based actor FaTye, whose story is a journey as dramatic as this musical. Raised in foster homes and group residences around New York, FaTye was mentored by several Westchester educators and theater people, including Fanelli at Ovation. I saw him in a smaller part last year in In the Heights, however he has had lead roles, including Jim in Big River at WBT. 

On opening night, FaTye seemed a bit tentative, however, both he and Brittney Johnson (who played Sarah, the baby's mother and was miked too loudly) were contending with difficult sound problems that may well have thrown them off a little. I would love to see FaTye take the stage with power and verve, because he has acting and singing talent to burn and deserves to inhabit fully his gift.

Two other standouts for me were Victoria Lauzun and Joey Sanzaro. Lauzun plays Mother, the compassionate New Rochelle woman who takes in Sarah and her son, radiating grace and tenderness in songs such as "Goodbye, My Love" and "What Kind of Woman."

Mother (Victoria Lauzun) and Tateh (Joey Sanzaro)
Sanzaro as Tateh reminded me of a young Topol, his warm tenor blending beautifully with Lauzun's on "Our Children," as Mother and Tateh form a deep friendship. Earlier, in "A Shtetl Iz Amereke," Sanzaro ably communicates a father's rage at the brutality of a new land and his desperate quest to keep his child safe.

Although it received lukewarm reviews when it opened in 1996, Ragtime has become a very popular show, with another production in Westchester on the boards last fall. Two years ago, it was produced at the Shaw Festival in Ontario, Canada. Click here for that post.

WBT's production, at three hours, could be tightened up, however choreographer Greg Graham moves the 40-member cast smartly through ragtime dancing and illuminates in movement the wariness of three groups of Americans -- whites, blacks and immigrants. Steve Loftus' set echoes the 1909 Queensboro Bridge and Gail Baldoni's costumes cover shades of cream, burgundy and tan for the three groups.

Ragtime's theme is that America is a land of hope, despite the times that it fails to live up to its better nature, and this production shines with that ideal.

Thursday, February 20, 2014

A theatrical work of art

Musical theater lovers, mark the opening of The Bridges of Madison County with rejoicing! A gorgeous work of art has appeared at Broadway's Gerald Schoenfeld Theatre that will fill your head with melody and stretch your heart with emotion. All the elements of this show -- direction, performance, music, script, lighting, sound, set design -- gather to create a memorable whole that should take a significant place in the Broadway canon.

However, don't expect a stage version that exactly replicates the 1995 movie with Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood. Composer Jason Robert Brown, book writer Marsha Norman and director Bartlett Sher have re-imagined Robert James Waller's 1992 novel about an Iowa housewife's brief affair with an itinerant National Geographic photographer.

Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale
This Bridges uses the stage to create a fluid sense of time and space, deepening our view of the worlds of Francesca Johnson (Kelli O'Hara), and Robert Kincaid (Steven Pasquale).

Brown has written his greatest score, beginning the show with a simple, soulful cello line as Francesca recalls how she came from Italy to Iowa -- "To Build a Home." (I don't know if it was a sound problem or O'Hara is still settling into the Italian accent, but I and my companion had trouble understanding the lyrics in the first song.)

Michael Yeargan's set design and Donald Holder's lighting design (they both won Tonys for their work on Sher's South Pacific at Lincoln Center) mesh beautifully to create an Oklahoma!-like vision of Iowa's vast, lonely horizon. Holder's work with the subtleties of daylight and moonlight is particularly important in a story where one of the main characters -- the picture taker -- also paints with light.

The covered bridge that Robert arrives to photograph is a set of rectangular arches, lowered for the appropriate scenes, while other elements -- kitchen furniture, fences, trucks -- are moved in and out by cast members. Some of the actors remain, seated, at the edges of the stage, reminders of rural neighbors who may be as nosy as they are kind.

Francesca's husband Bud (a sturdy Hunter Foster), a very decent but emotionally limited man, is off with their son and daughter to the Indiana State Fair for three days and Francesca is looking forward to a bit of a rest.

Hunter Foster and Kelli O'Hara
Then Robert walks up her drive to ask directions to "the Rosamund Bridge." He is, as he sings, "Temporarily Lost" as he muses on a life of deliberately solitary wandering in the service of his art (and this country-tinged number could easily have been sung by Glen Campbell in his prime).

The first inkling that this is a different Bridges comes during Robert and Francesca's first dinner at the farmhouse, when Robert's ex-wife Marian (Whitney Bashor) -- his past, in other words -- walks through the kitchen and sings about their marriage in "Another Life." Bashor's poignant soprano gives this folkish song a special quality on such lyrics as "a woman wearing four years of confusion like a scarf."

(However, I don't know why Sher directed Robert and Francesca to watch and react to characters who are from the past or another place and clearly not in the same location. I found it slightly distracting.)

Carolyn (Caitlin Kinnunen) and Michael (Derek Klena), Bud and Francesca's children, are also fleshed out as we see them testing their adolescent limits at the fair ("State Road 21/The Real World").

Robert and Francesca’s gradual dance of attraction is beautifully directed by Sher, climaxing at the end of Act I with the duet “Falling Into You,” which sounded to me like it could be a lush, romantic ballad of the 1940s. One of the fine things about Brown's work in Bridges is how successfully he composes in different genres.

Act II becomes even more musically fulfilling, as a raucous country-western song at the fair (which maybe goes on just a tad too long) segues into the quiet bedroom where Robert and Francesca are holding each other. Again, we hear the cello's sweet melancholy and they sing about "Who We Are and Who We Want to Be" with a melody line that is just meltingly beautiful.      

Francesca recalls her youth in Italy, so different from plain Iowa, and in this astounding score, Brown has given her an echo of Puccini and opera in "Almost Real." As her family returns home, Francesca ponders a decision, a choice between passion or faithfulness.

No matter how much additional material is brought to this story, it lives and dies on the two characters at the center and O'Hara and Pasquale create a romantic couple for the ages.

Her sweet soaring soprano and his soulful tenor (how is it possible this is Pasquale's Broadway musical debut?) build upon each other and blend emotion so brilliantly that the listener gratefully gets lost in one song after another.  

In the end, Bridges is a masterpiece because it successfully, achingly explores the eternal desire for love, for connection at the deepest level, and for discovering in love your authentic self in the world. You owe it to yourself to experience this show.