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.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Who is a musician?

The question posed in this headline has tortured me for a long time and I was given cause to ponder it again after last Saturday, when I performed at the adult students’ recital at the Music School of Westchester in Larchmont, N.Y.

We were nine adults performing individually -- voice, violin, piano -- and an amplified pop trio. I had prepared "The Simple Joys of Maidenhood" from Camelot for my solo singing debut and a Clementi sonatina and Chopin prelude for the piano performance.

Several of the adults -- like myself -- had played when young, been away from music for a long time, and returned in middle age. Several were just starting out, chasing a long-held dream.

The setting -- the music school's reception area, equipped with two Steinway grand pianos -- could not have been friendlier, yet the day before, when I had climbed the stairs and saw the chairs set up in audience configuration, my stomach had lurched.  

At the piano
As usual, the performance terror descended – pounding heart, shaking hands even at the visualization of sitting there, waiting to be introduced, then playing in front of everyone.

I decided to try visualization, seeing a successful performance, but that had limited effect. I just practiced some more and decided to use deep breathing, under the principle that flooding the brain with oxygen would help me remember lyrics and settle the hands. 

The next night, as our group gathered, it was apparent that nerves were affecting a fair number. I could hear one participant obsessively practicing in a rehearsal room.

A couple of us were performing for the first time and had skills that were still developing. I sat next to a nice Frenchwoman who was compulsively rolling and unrolling her music to the extent that I wondered how she was going to set it on the piano.

My song was early on -- deep breaths -- and I had decided to introduce it briefly, since I have no fear whatsoever of public speaking. It's a wonderfully amusing song and it went well, although about ten percent of my best sound got left in the rehearsal room through nerves. But I was very happy and grateful for teacher Mazzelle Sykes and accompanist Vladimir Babadzhan, the school's music director.

The piano -- always the source of greatest joy and greatest fear -- loomed. More deep breaths. A glance at the music since I seem not to have seen it before. Overall, also good, although the Clementi was too fast out of the gate due to the heart racing and there were a couple of glitches. The Chopin was 100%. (Thank you, teacher Nataliya Blidy.)

So why do we do this? How do cope with the fact that there are worlds of players and singers more expert than we are, starting with our teachers? Can we call ourselves musicians?

Well, I never thought I could sing a solo in public when I started voice lessons last fall, and sing it well and creditably. When I returned to the piano, I was convinced my history of musical stage fright would continue and my living room would be my only venue. 

However, I discovered that performing garners respect and several of my musician friends (people I would consider "real" musicians) chipped in with tips and a bit of coaching on technique. "We are now in the same nerves boat," one e-mailed. 

For me, one of the more affecting parts of the recital is in hearing which pieces of music are inspiring my fellow students and hear how they interpret them, how it becomes Joe's Schumann, Seth's Rachmaninoff, Marie Jeanne's Bach -- and sharing my music with them. Solange's Clementi. Solange's Chopin.

I loved both pieces I played. The Clementi (Op. 36, No. 3) revels in buoyant speed and melodies within scale runs. It's just purely happy. The Chopin (Op. 28, No. 20) carries a world of sadness in its dark chords. and yet, with a simple E natural at the top of one chord, literally sounds a note of hope. I find it profoundly moving. I chose the pieces for their contrasts.
Finally, the essence of the evening for me came when Sophie, of the rolled music, came back to sit down next to me. She'd performed a Thelonious Monk piece called "Ruby My Dear," swingy, with pretty chords, but had bobbled a couple at the end.

"That was really nice," I commented to her. She unrolled her music and pointed toward the last few measures: "But I made a mistake here." 

I replied, "Don't worry. Don't obsess over it. You introduced a wonderful piece of music to me and played it really well with your unique feeling. That's what's important." 

I realized that's why we were there - to share, to support, to realize that music holds us, saves us, feeds us and even though we may feel inadequate, progressing slowly due to work and family and adult life, even vowing to quit -- we don't. I realized that the hardest work I do at the piano, even when frustrating and daunting, still nurtures my soul.

Yes, every person in that room is a musician.

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Better than the Super Bowl

Last weekend, I was in a New Jersey at an intense competition featuring dynamic, highly-trained participants focused on a goal line.

No, it was not the Super Bowl. It was better (and since this is being written just after the game, that statement is certain).

I was a judge at the Speech and Theatre Association of New Jersey's high school theater acting competition and awards, held at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.

Logo of the Speech and Theatre Association of New Jersey
As it turned out, I experienced high school theater and college theater in one day, but more on that in a bit.

It was my second experience with STANJ, the first being the subject of this blog post last year. This year, in the preliminary round, I judged "scenes," play excerpts of no more than 15 minutes that required at least three actors.

My top two were a trio who performed a scene from Playwriting 101:The Rooftop Lesson by Rich Orloff and a group who did a scene from Picasso at the Lapin Agile, Steve Martin's delightful musing on the development of the 20th century through imagined conversations between Picasso and Einstein at the Parisian bistro Lapin Agile.

In Playwriting, a controlling instructor lectures on the craft of playwriting, using two live examples: a would-be jumper on a ledge and a would-be Good Samaritan trying to save him. The teacher (a woman, in this cast) uses a clicker to freeze the action and the two guys must obey - until they don't. 

I was impressed by the trio's good, fast comic timing, excellent vocal delivery and sharp differentiation of character. 

The competition was an acting competition (we were not to judge other elements) and the Playwriting group certainly did very well with just a box to represent the ledge. The Picasso group, on the other hand, decided to create theatre, bringing several boxes to put together for a bar, chairs, bar glasses, costumes and sound effects on a laptop.

Their intensity -- particularly the main characters -- and obvious research into the text really shone through, along with their creation of the world of Paris in 1904.

In the final round, I was one of the judges with the improvisational pairs, where two actors picked a situation from an envelope we judges had, then had five minutes to set up and perform an improvised scene. 

My top picks were two boy-girl couples, one of whom created a post-coitus scene so smooth it seemed like a written play and another who invested a scene between a parachute jumping instructor and a student with great comic tension.

Excited participants watching the awards ceremony, with the golden hardware at center right.
The awards ceremony at the end of the day had enough energy to lift the roof as the teenagers cheered, whistled and hollered as their schoolmates were called. My Playwriting duo won the top prize in their section and the Picasso group placed sixth! As I was chatting with a teacher, I learned that the Picasso group were inner-city kids who had as much in common with a Parisian bistro as I have with a police station. The transformative power of theater had gotten hold of them and worked its magic.

The college performance later that night took place at Marymount Manhattan College in New York City. Vow, subtitled An Evening of New Musical "Shorts," was an intriguing project that brought together the college's musical theatre students with composers and lyricists in an evening of stories taken from the weddings/announcements section of the New York Times.

The program also noted that the students had had a hand in developing the characters and several of the students received additional solo songs from the Directory of Contemporary Musical Theatre Writers, a two-year-old project that connects writers (there are 160 in the directory now)  with teachers and students interested in new work.

At the opening of Vow, this journalist particularly loved the opening song about the New York Times, feeling it caught the intrepid spirit of newspaper reporting, and the rich comic story of a hard-news reporter assigned to the "Vows" section that prints anecdotes about how couples met and fell in love.

The cast of Vow - some looking for love at the protest.
Throughout the 90-minute show, opposite-sex and same-sex couples meet, fall in love or like, even on the front lines of the "Occupy" movement, even when tragedy strikes.

At the piano, musical director David Sisco provided expert accompaniment for the ensemble songs of Russell Kaplan and Sara Wordsworth, Will Reynolds, and Clay Zambo.

Solo songs from the "directory" were written by Michael Kooman and Christopher Dimond, Kenneth Kacmar and Joe Miloscia, James D. Sasser, Katya Stanislavskaya, and John Bucchino.

It might have been a little hard to follow the "vows" theme through the mix of solos and ensemble numbers, but the very fine cast and the show as a whole was beautifully directed with a strong and confident hand by Laura Josepher