From classic farce, to Shakespearean comedy, to a tragic love story, from the Westport Country Playhouse, to the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival on the grounds of Boscobel, to the Imperial Theatre in NYC, it has been a whirlwind week of theatre, the commonality being relationships of men and women and some of the most glorious acting and staging we’ve ever seen in such a concentrated time period.
Last week we saw A Flea in Her Ear, a new version of Georges Feydeau’s classic early 20th century farce at the Westport Country Playhouse where we’ve been going for some 40 years now. Although the old playhouse has been renovated, it still retains its old time charm as their collection of playbills of yesteryear attest, such as this one which featured Tyrone Power.
And, under the artistic direction of Mark Lamos who also directed this particular production, the old WCP is in good hands. Its new doorways beckon its patrons.
A Flea in Her Ear is such an ambitious, interesting selection, made possible by a co-production with the Resident Ensemble Players from the University of Delaware, 14 actors in perfect harmony, choreographed with such precision, that the laughter was non-stop. It’s been a long time since I laughed so hard at a show which, at its heart, is nothing more than intended to do just that.
The acting made it something special. How often have you been at a three act play with two intermissions, which seemed to pass in a flash? Michael Gotch played an unforgettable Don Carlos de Histangua and whenever he was on stage, laughter was uncontrollable. That does not mean to distract from any of the other players, all pros at the top of their game, as was the technical staff of the Westport Country Playhouse. We’re so grateful for our summer visits to Connecticut, and to our old home town of Westport which continues to keep this jewel of a theatre in mint condition.
Three days later we went up to the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival at Boscobel in Garrison, NY. This is outdoor theatre is in a large, well appointed tent, a sand floor for a stage and some of the most breathtaking views. Before the show begins, the grounds make an ideal setting for a picnic. As the production begins, the sun fades to twilight setting just to the right of West Point on the other side of the Hudson in the distance. In fact the players emerge over the lawn and some of the action takes place there, although the play proceeds in the tent.
From farce to comedy. The Taming of the Shrew must be close to the way the bard intended except for all the modern references, including even some music of the Village People. Once again theatre magic emerges from some clever choreography and a group of ensemble players who are deeply immersed in Shakespeare’s intent.
These are not easy tickets to get. Plan in advance. In fact, Ann and I could not get good seats together but fortunately the people sitting in back of me saw us chatting and as Ann went to her seat, they offered us the two front row seats as their friends had booked them and last minute had to cancel out. But as the show began we learned why they preferred the second row, as the actors frequently interact with those in the front row, so it was not unusual for one to sit next to Ann, take her bottle of water, look through her program, even commenting on it, all in fun of course and it just added to the immeasurable pleasure of seeing Shakespeare performed in this setting.
Liz Wisan played Kate with a fiery demeanor, but Biko Eisen-Martin who played Petruchio, usually in torn jeans and an undershirt, had the cunning and patience to wear her down. Comedy is different from farce, the latter designed for belly laughs while Taming’s comedic elements brought out some of Shakespeare ‘s more serious observations regarding male - female relations of his times (the “Me Too” movement might not wholeheartedly approve of Kate’s final relenting to her taskmaster’s Pavlovian training, but all is in fun).
Like the Westport Country Playhouse’s presentation, this show is performed by a talented ensemble that performs four other plays in rotating repertory. Everyone in the cast is perfectly fitted into the director’s take on the show. It was more than theatre; it is an experience when performed in the open air, in a tent, after an early evening picnic.
Last year we were part of the picnic festivities, but we’re getting a little too old to spread out a blanket or to cart chairs so we had an early evening dinner at the nearby the Bird and Bottle, an inn which has operated since 1751 and used to be a stage coach stop between New York and Albany. The food and ambiance were special.
But the highlight of “our theatre week” was going into New York City yesterday to the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. As soon as we heard of the serendipity that it was going to be performed while we would be in the area we booked tickets, front row, as we did not want to miss a word or even a mannerism of the performers. It is the kind of show that one only wants to see on a Broadway stage, although there have been good scaled down or concert versions.
It’s hard to say that one has a “favorite” R&H show, sort of like saying of your children, one is the favorite. But when I play their music on the piano, I seem to gravitate to Carousel or The King and I, although South Pacific and Oklahoma are in the mix too. Maybe my preference for Carousel is partially because it takes place in New England, or the “Carousel Waltz”, a rousing piece of musical composition, or the incredible comic/moving piece, “Mr. Snow.” All the songs fit perfectly in the book but the one weak song, and I think it is simply our times, verses when the musical was written, is the (now) somewhat schmaltzy “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” which unfortunately, is the emotional finale. Still, it works.
“Soliloquy” which concludes the first act is perhaps the longest solo in all Broadway repertoires, one I’m constantly seeking out for piano time. Joshua Henry, who plays the wayward Billy Bigelow in this production and sings his parts with powerful gusto, performs this song a little too quickly. I simply feel it needs to be finessed in all its normally allocated time. Perhaps this is his take or Jack O’Brien’s direction, I don’t know, but I missed the pauses, or even the phrasing which some have brought to the song, including Frank Sinatra, who’s voice cannot hold a candle to Henry’s, but he knew how to sell the emotional content.
There. The end of picky criticism as one has to judge a performance of Carousel by its gestalt. The orchestration is per Richard Rogers’ intent by Jonathan Tunick and a 30 piece orchestra under the solid Musical Supervision of David Chase brings out the highs and the lows. The singing is splendid, the voices soaring, and how could they not with Renee Fleming among the leads?
I’ve heard some criticism that the dance portions of the play were not the Agnes de Mille’s original. Given what Justin Peck accomplished with his award-winning choreography, transparent and perfect, it is hard to accept that criticism. After all, every artist has his/her take. Look at the liberties the Hudson Valley players took with Shakespeare, only to arrive at the same destination. Maybe I’m not being impartial as Peck once worked with the Miami City Ballet and one of the performers in the Carousel ensemble is Leigh-Ann Esty who Ann actually watched “grow up” in the Miami City Ballet over the last decade. Ann adored watching her every move and avidly enjoyed her perform in one of the greatest musicals of all time on the Broadway stage.
An outstanding cast, a classic musical, a full orchestra, and many of the best technical people in the business, make this production so memorable, even if I have to leave the theatre humming “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” after wiping away the requisite tears.
So after meeting our son, Jonathan, and his fiancée, Tracie (the BIG event in only two plus weeks), for a dinner adjacent to Bryant Park, we scurried back to Grand Central and from there to our boat, our home away from home. This morning my daily walk took me to Shorefront Park and the placid water of the Norwalk Harbor to reflect on the wonderful theatre of the past week and to think of writing this entry.