Monday, January 1, 2018

The Magic of Music at the Belasco

Music is mysterious.  It pulls emotions out of us, it urges us to remember for good or ill, pleasure or pain.  It riles us up, it calms us down.  Among other neurologists, Oliver Sachs particularly has written about music’s healing capacity.  Music therapy for people with dementia has been shown to awaken lost energies and memories.

The odd story of Farinelli and the King is an example of music’s magical power.  King Philippe V of Spain, while some days brilliant, was just as often deeply disturbed, hiding in his room, fearful of other people, holding conversation with his goldfish Alfonso.  When his wife Queen Isabella heard castrato Farinelli sing she believed he could help her husband, so the two made the arduous journey (this was early in the 18th century) from England to Spain for this great experiment.  Surely hearing Farinelli’s glorious voice could awaken the king from his coma-like state.

This play is based on the real relationship and real story that Farinelli, a great castrato of the 18th century, gave up his opera career to live with the king and queen of Spain for nine years, singing to keep the king’s humors level.  In addition to my interest in the subject matter, the play itself more than held my attention and I cared very much for the characters as written by Claire Van Kampen.  It is most beautifully produced with fine musicians and actors gracing the stage.  Ms. Van Kampen is also the musical arranger, so clearly knows her subject.  Jonathan Fensom’s designs immediately draw us into the London theatre, the Madrid palace as well as the house in the forest we experience later.  

John Dove’s direction pulls all these marvelous elements together for a musical and engaging evening.

Mark Rylance plays King Philippe V.  Mark Rylance is a genius. Funny, endearing, sometimes frightening and heartbreaking. Philippe is at his best away from the responsibilities and clutter of court and city life, out in the forest where he wants to hear the stars singing. Don’t we all. When Jonathan Fensom’s scenic design transports us to the forest, we too wish to stay.
Mark Rylance as King Philippe V
Queen Isabella as played by the engaging Melody Grove is practical, powerful and passionate.  She is the one who brings the audience along on this journey, making us root for her goals to save her husband.

Dan Crane acts Farinelli with sensitivity and grace, while Iestyn Davies, a countertenor, sings Farinelli. 

It’s an interesting conceit:  When the scene calls for Farinelli to sing, Mr. Davies enters the stage dressed exactly like Crane’s Farinelli, and begins to sing and act his aria, prowling the stage.  Crane’s Farinelli remains, silent, not too close to his alter ego, not too far, communing with the inner spirit of the singer Farinelli.  At least that’s what it looked like to me, and I was riveted.  Crane seems to be subtly reflecting what’s going on inside the singer Davies.

This was oddly fascinating to watch and oddly not disruptive to the action.

Conflict external to the king’s distress is largely supplied by the King’s wily and seemingly advanced Doctor Cervi, deftly played by Huss Garbiya.  The doctor (and Isabella and the King) are in constant conflict with the king’s minister De La Cuadra, coldly and beautifully played by Edward Peel. 

Queen Isabella originally found Farinelli performing for London theatrical manager John Rich, who is wittily and convincingly played by Colin Hurley

Like the Globe’s last production here at the Belasco Theatre, the set design is in two levels, the gallery wrapped around and above the playing area on three sides so that audience members may sit on the stage surrounding the players, while the upper back gallery is occupied by the excellent musicians.  We can see all, yet they don’t draw attention from the players.  It is imaginative and impressive and very well used.  In the second half, Mr. Rylance adds a third level as the King chats with the audience as if they were denizens of the forest. 

If you’ve read what I’ve written in past months about the musical passions of Indecent and The Band’s Visit, you may wonder about the music in Farinelli and the King.  A harpsichord plays the audience in, and is joined in the half hour before the play starts by a violinist, a cellist, and a lute player.  These and more musicians accompany much of the action for the evening and afford great pleasure. 

This play was not as effective for me as it will be for opera lovers.  The formal style of operatic singing awakens no passion in me.  Although I intellectually know how powerful the music is (and I know we cannot know what a castrato really sounded like), I was not brought to any emotion by the singing.  Mr. Rylance’s performance as the troubled king showed me, however, all I needed to know about that music’s effect.

Finally, I must mention the fabulous hair and wigs by Campbell Young that helped set us in Madrid or the forest and truly complemented the character development.

Farinelli and the King plays at the Belasco only until March 25, 2018.  Performances are marvelous in a brilliant design, and the play stands on its own without plays of a similar “type” to compare it to — in any case, nothing and no one compares with Mark Rylance.  If tickets are still available, get to the Belasco and hear the singing of the stars.
Mark Rylance as audience at the Delacorte in 2015.  Photo:  Matt Hennessy

~ Molly Matera, signing off to contemplate a new year.  Be happy and healthy.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

A Seasonal Treat Until Epiphany

Fiasco Theater is playing Shakespeare’s great comedy Twelfth Night at Classic Stage Company (136 East 13th Street) until Saturday January 6, 2018.  Run don’t walk to catch this exciting, funny, musical, lyrical, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, pastoral-romantic comedy best suited to this season. 

Twelfth Night is often described as a perfect comedy and it may well be so.  But for that twin thing.  The romance is restrained (what with people in disguise), the comedy is not.  And in this production, the cast is superlative.  May I present:

Andy Grotelueschen as Sir Toby Belch
Jessie Austrian as Olivia
Emily Young as Viola/Cesario
Noah Brody as Orsino (also co-directed)
Ben Steinfeld as Feste (also co-directed)
Tina Chilip as Maria
Paul L. Coffey as Malvolio
Paco Tolson as Sir Andrew Aguecheek (among others)
Javier Ignacio as Sebastian (among others)
David Samuel as Antonio (among others)
Fiasco Theater at CSC (Photo by Joan Marcus)
John Doyle’s scenic design is flexible and creative, as is costume design by Emily Rebholz

Andy Grotelueschen’s Sir Toby may well be the best funniest and most consistently alive I’ve seen, with a real relationship between him and Tina Chilip’s happily hilarious Maria.

Ben Steinfeld as Feste shows himself as a fine comedic actor and musician and singer, quite romantic, and apparently a good director, since he and Noah Brody directed this production.

Noah Brody is a well-developed and believable Orsino (although I will always remember the delicious Orsino of Paul Rudd at Lincoln Center).

Jessie Austrian’s Olivia is a sex-starved delight.

Emily Young’s Cesario/Viola is witty, strong and quite marvelous.

As is their custom, when not actively onstage, the members of the Fiasco Theater sit or stand on the sidelines watching their colleagues and laughing along.  And accompanying one another on musical instruments and vocals, which makes for a funny, musical, delightful evening.

As always, the twins bit in the last scene goes on too long — how dense are these people — but that’s just a momentary annoyance that may only happen to people (like me) who’ve seen the play many times.

So go to 13th Street, go online, get a ticket, celebrate a well-over-200-year-old play.  Just because it’s done all the time doesn’t mean it’s always done as well as this.  Trust Fiasco Theater.  Go!

~ Molly Matera, signing off to go bake Christmas Cookies....

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

An Enchanting Evening of Song and Dance at City Center

Last Spring I bought tickets to a "City Center Encore” of Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner’s Brigadoon. City Center typically does “concert” stagings — that is minimal staging, some costuming, broad stroke choreography.  After all, these shows run less than a week and don’t have much time for rehearsal. Stage actor union rules for staged readings were stated in the program — performers might have “scripts in hand.”  

Not this time. This production was put together for a Gala on the Wednesday, so what I saw that Thursday night was highly polished.

A wonderful scrim separated the onstage orchestra from the action (sometimes down, sometimes not) on which projections showed NYC, Scotland, heather on the hills, a forest, all in watercolor softness, with soft or bold colors depending on the scene.  Each scene was gorgeous, naturalistic without being in the slightest bit photographic.  A steep rounded staircase representing any number of hills separated the onstage orchestra from the action (except when the conductor handed a branch of heather to Fiona).

Kelli O’Hara as Fiona has the voice of an angel but doesn’t leave it at that. She breathes life into her character — her Fiona is real and warm and alive.

Choreographer and director Christopher Wheeldon was respectful of the original Agnes DeMille choreography, which even I could recognize (women’s hands), but enhanced, streamlined, and strengthened it.  The women dancers were delightful, and the men … Oh my....

Men in kilts. Dancing. Leaping. Twirling. Gasp.

Robert Fairchild (formerly of the NYC Ballet, who danced American in Paris, which I now regret not seeing just to have watched his performance) played the sad and angry “villain” of the piece, Harry Beaton, who is a much more interesting character than the Americans from the 20th century. Ballet dancers have played Harry in the past on stage, as well as in the film. Fairchild was magnificent, every movement sublime.  He has not yet developed much vocal guts as an actor, but his body does it all.

As the second romantic lead, Charlie Dalrymple, Ross Lekites sings smoothly and sweetly.  He sang two of my favorite songs, “Go Home With Bonnie Jean” and “Come to me, bend to me,” breaking my heart in the process and moving his fiancée Jean (Sara Esty) and her friends into their lyrical dance.  Ms. Esty is not much a vocal presence, but that hardly matters. She was totally present and graceful, telling her love story with the lines of her body, giving Charlie and us her heart.

Stephanie J. Block was a big vocal presence as Meg Brockie, singing the hilariously tongue-twisting “Me Mother’s Wedding Day.”  Once the Americans came to Brigadoon, Meg pined after Jeff, the sad-sack drunken friend of the leading man, Tommy.  Aasif Mandvi played Jeff with wit and warm sarcasm. As the object of Meg’s affection/lust, Mandvi totally embodied this potentially depressing character all the way to his last moments onstage.

Patrick Wilson was Tommy, the romantic lead opposite Kelli O’Hara. I’m not a Wilson fan, I’m afraid. Whenever I’ve seen him he’s perfectly competent, he just doesn’t interest me.  He did his job well here; a strong singer, performing fine duets with Fiona, and he actually did more than justice to the overly expository songs of the second act.  I always enjoyed Gene Kelly’s depiction of Tommy in the movie, but then I always enjoy Gene Kelly.  Perhaps the role is just poorly written.

Dakin Matthews was excellent as Mr. Lundie, who explains the (utterly absurd but who cares) premise of the play.  Patricia Delgado was expressive as the woman who clearly wanted Harry Beaton and danced the thrilling funeral dance.  This was far from morose, rather full of passion and very beautiful.

It was a truly joyous evening at the beautiful City Center.

~ Molly Matera, signing off still hearing the lovely music and thrilling to Robert Fairchild dancing in my dreams.

Saturday, December 2, 2017

Midnight at the Oasis, or Bewitching Omar Sharif

The Band’s Visit, lovingly directed by the wonderful David Cromer, is a beautiful piece of theatre with delicious music and characters in a handsomely constructed evening.

Based on the Israeli film of the same name, the play’s book is by Itamar Moses with music and lyrics by David Yazbek, music that soared and made us dance in our seats and our souls. Music and love, that’s what The Band’s Visit is about. It is seductive and charming, sweet but not treacly.

Patrick McCollum’s delightful and elegant choreography grows from the characters’ movements and feelings, easily making its way around Scott Pask’s imaginative scenic design.

While its music put me in mind of the brilliant Indecent earlier this year [], The Band’s Visit is much simpler, a snippet — more of a short story than the full novel Indecent resembled. Nonetheless, The Band’s Visit gives deep satisfaction with interesting characters we can identify with in ordinary and extraordinary social situations. A small town visited by unexpected strangers, foreigners. In a small American town, would these foreigners have been taken in and enjoyed? I may be grumpy and downright depressed about the state of our nation, but I’m very much afraid not.

The basic story is simple. An Egyptian band is invited to visit an Arab Cultural Center in an Israeli city to play a concert of traditional music. There are two towns in Israel with names that sound, to non-Israelis, extremely similar. The city expecting the band is Petah Tikva. The aforementioned Egyptian band gets on the wrong bus to the wrong town — Bet Hatikva. According to its residents, said wrong town not only has no Cultural Center but no culture at all, although it does have a roller skating rink. It’s a dusty desert town with people who are terribly bored and hopeless, yet somehow the best humans you could hope for. The greeting the lost band received was musical and hilarious led by the thrilling Katrina Lenk, as a local café owner named Dina. A taste:   Dina and the Egyptian bandleader, Tewfiq, charmingly played by Tony Shalhoub, explore one another as they while away the evening, gently discovering each other’s past and present.

The cast is sublime, featuring actors who are musicians, actors who dance or skate, music everywhere. There’s John Cariani as a young father learning to be a husband and Etai Benson as a lonely young man who befriends a sax player with a passion for Chet Baker. Unlikely friendships form, and music arises from them all. A running theme of what appears to be a hopeless long-distance romance gives us Adam Kantor staring at a pay phone for hours, awaiting a call from his girlfriend. When that young man sings, he breaks hearts.

Tony Shalhoub, Ari’el Stachel and Katrina Lenk (Photo Sara Krulwich)
The Band’s Visit is a seductive musical evening, an exquisite short story with far-reaching themes to which we’d be wise to pay attention.

~ Molly Matera, signing off and offering this:  If you have lost faith or hope, go to The Band’s Visit, then share the joy.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

The Woods for the Trees....

The other night I saw a children’s show at Classic Stage Company called The Stowaway, a clever compilation of Shakespeare’s words and phrases in a storyline pulling a little from here, a little from there, with pirates and shipwrecks, usurping dukes, a little magic, and a talking ship’s figurehead.  It was a lot of fun, and I was only sorry to see too small an audience.  This Trusty Sidekick Theater Company production deserved more.  The play is technically for kids 5-12, but they let me in without one!  Alas, its last performance was November 19th, so I’m afraid you missed it.  Keep an eye out for this fun company of players presenting original theatre for kids.

Also starting out from East 13th Street…

Compare and Contrast:  Double Vision of the Forest of Arden

Two productions of William Shakespeare's As You Like It reveal missing pieces in each.  For Classic Stage Company (CSC), the usurping Duke Fredrick merely serves to throw people together to fall in love in the Forest of Arden.  On the other hand, in Arden Everywherethe other As You Like It at Baruch’s Performing Arts Center, or BPAC — the new inhabitants of the Forest of Arden are refugees waiting to see what may happen next in their lives as determined by unknown others.  Banishment leads to refugees — we just didn’t call them that until Arden Everywhere’s director Jessica Bauman did.  Shakespeare’s Jaques is melancholy in this beautiful — albeit cold — place, but perhaps we should have been listening to him more closely.

CSC’s John Doyle shows us only a simplistic if charming love story — well, several love stories, which lead to marriages that silence the women who have contributed so strongly to survival in exile.

Doyle’s As You Like It, running under two hours, leaves out most of the story and conflict so that, no matter how pretty the ditties composed by Stephen Schwartz, the evening is almost pointless.  Except, of course, that it was such a pleasure to watch Ellen Burstyn’s stillness onstage and hear the simplicity of the Seven Ages of Man at her hands in her abbreviated performance of Jaques.  Abbreviated it was, as was the whole play. 

While I enjoyed the Arden Everywhere’s Jaques as played by Tommy Schrider, perhaps the actor is too young to deliver the Seven Ages of Man as well as Ms. Burstyn did.  Hers was on the spot, extempore, as it were.  His was recited.

John Doyle may think he’s stripped the play down to its elements at CSC, but in fact he stripped it to ten actors in search of a play.  The cast sang Stephen Schwartz’s ditties very well, particularly Bob Stillman as Duke Senior.  Unfortunately, the addition of jazzy music did not make up for the lack of a play. Favorite performances in this production were Rosalind (Hannah Cabell), Celia (Quincy Tyler Bernstine), and Phebe (a multi-level Leenya Rideout) and the inestimable Ms. Burstyn. 

In Arden Everywhere, the Phebe over-acted terribly, as if she were in a thousand-seat house (she wasn’t) but Helen Cespedes’ Rosalind and Liba Vaynberg’s Celia were fabulous. 

Since Jessica Bauman did not cut away the entire play, Dikran Tulaine as the Dukes Senior and Frederick got to remove a coat and become either the nice or the nasty duke before our eyes.  This was much more interesting for the audience.  Not to mention true to the play even though it didn’t use the play’s name, while CSC used the name but did something else, the way films do. 

Touchstones were played by Dennis Rozee in Arden Everywhere and Andre de Shields in the CSC production.  Both performances were expert and funny while totally different from one another, which is one of most entertaining aspects of seeing two productions of the same play in close proximity.

The Oliver/Silvius in Arden Everywhere were well differentiated as played by Kambi Gathesha.  Some of the cast at BPAC were not professionals and their inexperience showed, so the play as a whole had some issues.  But at least Arden Everywhere did the whole play, not just the romantic comedy that CSC’s AYLI presented.  Both evenings were enjoyable, but Arden Everywhere was far more satisfying.

Molly Matera, signing off to think about men in kilts.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Time Dragging at the Roundabout

J.B. Priestly’s An Inspector Calls has tension and mystery, causing anxiety.

J.B. Priestly’s Time and the Conways has not.

The Roundabout’s production of Time and the Conways at the American Airlines Theatre on 42nd Street is beautifully produced and cleverly staged.  Costuming, furnishing, sound, lights, it has all that.  And perfectly competent, often more than competent, performances by the actors.

What it doesn’t have are interesting characters.  Or, barring interesting, at least likeable characters.  All these people worry about is money they do not earn.  They’re boring.  They’re unpleasant.  Some are downright nasty.  By the end of the play, we wonder if Mrs. Conway’s late husband, who died some time before the play began, deliberately drowned himself to get away from her bad mothering.

Downton Abbey (constantly brought to mind in the production’s advertising because of Elizabeth McGovern’s presence as the matriarch and the television series’ vastly superior depiction of a family with a certain stature in the beginning of the 20th century undergoing a massive change in society in the decades that follow the first world war) worked because we had time to give a damn, to know even the villains, to watch the girls grow up.  In the three scenes of this play, the fine acting shows us a good deal but not enough to make us care. 

At least not me.

What’s most surprising here is that this production is smoothly directed by the splendid Rebecca Taichmann yet it has no life.  It is a set piece of another time, instead of being about time as Priestly apparently intended.  To read about a play and be told the author’s intent is not the same thing as getting it by watching and listening. 

The players and designers of this production gave it their all, so the problem was not with them: 
Elizabeth McGovern, Anna Camp, and Charlotte Parry.  Photo by Jeremy Daniel.
·         Anna Camp is bubbly as Hazel, the pretty one, at least to people like herself.  She is mean to her working class suitor, and predictably marries him so that she fades into a wan imitation of herself19 years later.
·         Anna Baryshnikov is excellent as the sweet Carol, the favorite who died young
·         Gabriel Ebert does fine work as Alan, the eldest son, who appears an unambitious doofus but is surprisingly wise
·         Brooke Bloom is strident and then heartbreaking as Madge the socialist daughter in a sad depiction from youthful hope to the bitter submission of age.
·         Charlotte Parry gracefully plays Kay the young writer who broke free of the family, and, despite her disappointed sadness, at least has dignity
·         Cara Ricketts as family friend Joan, obviously enamored of young Robin.  Like Hazel’s romance, this doesn’t work out too well.  Perhaps Priestley was really writing about sad upper class marriages.
·         Matthew James Thomas smartly played Robin, the pretty son who will quite obviously be a useless bounder.  Perhaps I’ve read/seen too many stories of English society between the wars, but that too was terribly predictable. 
·         Alfredo Narciso did excellent work as Gerald Thornton — the nice young man who’s not family but grows up to be the family solicitor.  He had nice moments of clear silent emotion and repression.
·         Steven Boyer was excellently unpleasant as Ernest Beevers, who creeps into a family gathering in the first scene practically stalking Hazel, returning as her husband in the later time period.  A dislikeable character, Boyer is of the working class, and while we empathize with his position, we wish he could rise above the nasty upper class family he married into.

The production has fine design work, clever and marvelous set design by Neil Patel, and his usual excellent lighting by Christopher Akerlind, and fine costumes by Paloma Young (with hair and wig design by Leah J. Loukas), respectively.

Finally, I must note the fascinating inclusion of “Hands On,” sign interpreters of the play who discreetly but clearly signed the entire performance house left.  

~ Molly Matera, looking for something more pleasing as the Roundabout season continues.

Thursday, October 26, 2017

The Two-Play Weekend

MEASURE FOR MEASURE is a problematical play. Modern audiences have difficulty comprehending Isabella’s choices, all of the characters are unlikable, and in the final moments, the Duke may be as low and vain as the fallen Angelo.

The primary problem with the Public Theater’s bizarre production is that the audience members who do not already know the play, the characters, the story, will not have a clue what’s happening in this production by the Elevator Repair Company.

Some of the acting is fine, but the direction by John Collins is not.  Too damn clever in a concept, and greatly lacking in storytelling.  The Public Theater calls it "an experimental production."  Apparently the experiment is how to not tell the tale.  

Happily, the excellent Scott Shepherd as The Duke was comprehensible and funny and took us all into his confidence. That helped. Rinne Groff was an excellent Isabella, attempting modernity for a difficult character. Pete Simpson as Angelo was just odd, Mike Iveson as Lucio alternated between hilarious and annoying, which sounds like a good impersonation of Lucio. Vin Knight as Escalus was serviceable. Most of the cast, however, was sub-par, for which I believe the director must be held to account.

What the Public calls “technological dramaturgy” is reliance on the projection of Shakespeare’s script on the walls of the stage, presumably hoping we’d read the words we could not hear. The beginning of the play was directed for everyone’s speech to be so fast the audience could not comprehend it. It was a relief when the speech slowed to molasses as Isabel met her brother, the lusty Claudio, in prison. This pivotal scene is a painful conversation, and while it may, in reality, feel excruciatingly slow, unfortunately that is not theatrical. The long pauses may have felt emotionally earned to the actors, but not to the audience. Then the play sped back up again, dolls were tossed about, and finally the play was over.

Measure for Measure is a challenge for any director, but there’s no need to toss the baby out with the bathwater.


THE TREASURER by Max Posner at Playwrights Horizons is beautifully played by a cast of four (two of them in multiple roles). Unfortunately, conceptually interesting as the play might have been, it has no beginning, a muddle of a middle, and no ending.

Even as directed by the brilliant David Cromer, this doesn’t feel like a play, but a pondering.

Laura Jellinek’s spare and practical scenic design served the space well, and costume design by David Hyman fit the characters. What fit the characters even better were the wonderful actors portraying them:
  • Peter Friedman in the title role — nameless, only “The Son” in the program, to whom no one refers by name. Straightforward, simple, real, and perhaps the play’s “Everyman.” 
  • Deanna Dunagan is heartbreaking as the mother, Ida Armstrong — she definitely has a name, and wants everyone to know it. Ms. Dunagan shrinks rather than grows in the role, her gradual physical decline is perfection. She forces us to enjoy Ida, no matter how self-centered she was.  After all, while most women grow up to fall into the role of mother, not all of them are suited to it, or want it. Ida insists she was a child when she married and when she had her children, but then she grew up and found true love. It seemed to me that she remained a child leaving everything to her more romantic second husband and then to her children when he died.
  • Marinda Anderson and Pun Bandhu play the remaining roles of The Son’s two brothers as well as a salesperson and other strangers. Each character is clearly delineated by these fine actors. It was, however, initially confusing to hear a woman playing one of the brothers.

The play, even more than the Son, asks what is really owed parents who desert their children? “The Son” clearly feels his mother demands too much and isn’t necessarily entitled to it, but also thinks he’s wrong to resent her. Ida had no guilt over her poor performance as a mother; why has The Son such guilt over what he perceives as his poor performance as a son? Dutiful as he is, because he cannot love his errant mother, he’s sure he’s going to hell.

The play is not dull because the characters — as written and as acted — are not dull. It just doesn’t go anywhere. Well, perhaps on an escalator to hell.

Note: The program, of course, includes too much opinion from the artistic director of Playwrights Horizons and the playwright, so the play cannot live up to their emotional connection with their journey with the play. Which is why such things should only be read, if at all, after the performance.