Showing posts with label Kravis Center. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Kravis Center. Show all posts

Saturday, August 5, 2017

Life is COMPANY, Sondheim’s Classic

Bobby.../ Bobby.../ Bobby baby.../ Bobby bubi.../ Robby.../ Robert darling.../ Bobby, we've been trying to call you…

This is my favorite Sondheim musical.  Yes, it’s dated, but it’s been updated.  Yes, it doesn’t measure up in some ways to some of his later works, but it stands on its own. 

So, why do I feel this way?  I think it is THE breakout musical for Sondheim, for which he wrote both the lyrics and music (not his first time, but his most successful first time).  It set the stage for everything that followed in American musical theatre.  His intricate scoring, the deep emotional, dramatic and comic connections, his ability to merge words and music, anoint him as our very own Shakespeare of the American musical stage. 

So we set off to see the MNM Production at the Rinker Playhouse which is part of the Kravis Center for the Performing Arts, albeit late in the production run.   Therefore I was able to see what some of my “fellow” critics had to say about the show, which I would characterize as being lukewarm, one even unfairly comparing it to the Dramaworks’ Sweeney Todd production which is concurrently playing nearby.  Such a comparison is apples to oranges (although Dramaworks’ production is the best Sweeney Todd that we’ve ever seen).  One is more like opera and the other is like a cabaret revue.  

This is a high, high energy production and MNM Production’s mission is to bring Florida’s own reservoir of considerable talent to the stage.  These are all local professionals and we who live in South Florida have to applaud and support such an effort.  Many of the cast we’ve seen before, predominately at Dramaworks.  They are highly experienced and most of the cast have great voices and terrific comic timing.

Company is also squarely set in New York City in 1970, the year Ann and I married and we were still living there.  So it speaks very directly to me.  It is not his very first NYC focused work.  His musical, Saturday night about City life (which is rarely performed) was written by him in the mid 1950s when he was just developing his craft.  It never opened at the time as the producer died.  It finally was performed in the late 1990s after Sondheim was THE name on Broadway.

Company rose out of a number of one act plays written by George Firth and was brought together by Sondheim, morphing the main character – outsiders in each -- into one person, “Bobby.”  It utilizes a series of connected songs that underscore the main theme: the foibles of marriage.  For its time it was revolutionary as so many of Sondheim musicals have continued to be.

It's the story of Bobby the bachelor who is conflicted about being married versus the stories of his friends who have problematic marriages as well as his girlfriends who have issues of their own.  Bobby is plainly confused.  It hangs out there like unresolved anxiety, right to the end.

As it was based on a series of plays that spoke for themselves, the music Sondheim wrote is not in the classic move-the-plot-along variety.  As he himself said "the only effective approach I could come up with was quasi-Brechtian songs which either commented on the action, like "Barcelona" – but never be PART of the action. They had to be the opposite of what Oscar [Hammerstein] had trained me to write, even though he himself had experimented with songs of that kind in Allegro.  I decided to hold the score together through subject matter: all the songs deal either with marriage or in one sense or another, New York City."

In reflecting on the musical in his book Finishing the Hat, he said "Chekhov wrote ‘if you are afraid of loneliness don't marry.’ Luckily I didn't come across that till long after 'Company' had been produced.  Chekhov said in seven words what it took George and me two years and two and a half hours to say less profoundly.  If I’d read that sentence, I am not sure we would have dared to write the show, and we might have been denied the exhilarating experience of exploring what he said for ourselves."

That’s the back-story to this groundbreaking musical, one that explores the loneliness of love relationships, and the importance of friends, in the most vibrant metropolis of its time.  We move through the “approach-avoidance” complex of marriage through a series of songs, so many of them now classics, and several incorporated in the widely performed Sondheim revue, Side by Side by Sondheim.

As some of the critical reviews pointed out, the actor who plays Bobby does not have an exceptional singing voice, and he has to sing some of the more moving songs, “Someone Is Waiting," “Marry Me a Little,” and "Being Alive," but he carries these on the shoulders of his acting abilities and we enjoyed his performance.  He is also supported by some of the finest singers in South Florida and so much of the show is ensemble singing and then solos or duets by Bobby’s friends and girlfriends.

The four couples in the play (Joanne and Larry. Peter and Susan, Jenny and David, and Harry and Sarah) knock it out of the park with "The Little Things You Do Together," an acerbic rebuke about marital relationships.  The husbands meanwhile leeringly hover over Bobby, singling "Have I Got A Girl for You" in the first and second acts.

There are several real show-stopping moments in this production:  Amy’s riotous, “Getting Married Today," Marta’s “Another Hundred People," capturing the city’s sense of alienation with gusto, and Joanne’s stinging, cynical piece about the empty lives of affluent women in the city, "The Ladies Who Lunch."  His girlfriends, Marta, April, and Kathy, critique his non-committal ways in a hilarious pastiche of a sister act song in “You Could Drive a Person Crazy.”

One of my favorite songs from the show is “Sorry – Grateful,” expressing the ambivalence of marriage, sung by Bobby’s friends, Harry,  David, and Larry when Bobby asks Harry whether he was ever sorry he got married.  It’s a perfectly measured argument, lyrically, and expressed in a waltz like rhythm.  I’m not going to include all the lyrics, but here is an excerpt, classic Sondheim: You're sorry-grateful / Regretful-happy / Why look for answers / Where none occur?  My own piano interpretation, in the less than ideal recording environment of my living room, can be seen / heard here.

Every song in the show is timeless and every performer brings his / her best to the stage in their delivery. Here is the extraordinary cast:

Robert        Robert William Johnston*
Sarah          Laura Hodos*
Harry         Wayne LeGette*
Susan         Amy Miller Brennan*
Peter          Clay Cartland
Jenny         Lindsey Corey*
David        Joshua McKinney
Amy          Leah Sessa
Paul           Josh Kolb
Joanne       Erika Scotti*
Larry         Larry Alexander*
Marta        Mallory Newbrough
Kathy        Jinon Deeb
April.        Nicole Kinzel 

*Denotes a member of Actors' Equity Association, the union of professional actors and stage managers in the United States.

Bruce Linser demonstrates his considerable directing skills in this production, accentuating the comedic elements (e.g Sarah’s karate exhibition and her secret food addiction) and, with Kimberly Dawn Smith’s choreography, brings out the best of the energetic, ensemble pieces such as “Side By Side By Side” in the second act.  

Set design by Tim Bennett gives the director and cast a main stage to work on and five different platforms, sometimes all of them being utilized at the same time.  The set suggests the isolated nature of city life and the 70’s, although it is creatively brought into the present by Linser having his cast use the ubiquitous cell phone, replacing the answering machine.

The musical accompaniment is first rate, Paul Reekie directing four other musicians while playing the piano.  This is the kind of theatre that merits our appreciation and support in the future.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013


On several disparate topics, sort of a "catch up" posting.

First and foremost, the Boston bombings, deplorable, despicable, cowardly. The stark, almost naked vulnerability of the runners, makes it especially gruesome to me, and on Patriot's Day in Massachusetts, the symbolism of the act is unambiguous.  If it was carried out with assault weapons rather than the anonymity of trash can bombs, would it speed  national gun control legislation as Connecticut commendably passed?  I wonder, but violence in our great land is intolerable and must be dealt with through education and legislation and improved economic opportunity for all. 

Then, on a less important subject, but a continuing frustration, is the foolishness of the Florida Legislature which is actually considering massive increases for windstorm insurance coverage through its state supported "Citizens Insurance."  The unintended consequences of such an increase will destroy the nascent housing and construction recovery and, long term, turn coastline communities into ghost towns, the very communities that draw tourism, Florida's most important revenue source.  The "need" for such an increase is to buy even more reinsurance for a once in a hundred year storm but one has to wonder how much the insurance industry has cozied up to Florida legislators. 

As it is, there is a "cauldron of misconduct alleged at Citizens Property Insurance" but as a state designed and operated institution, it seems to be immune to corporate codes of ethics. The bottom line is the entire state is vulnerable to destructive weather, be it hurricanes, or tornadoes, and the state needs a plan other than a usurious tax on coastal citizens.  It could create its own reinsurance pool with a quarter of a percent sales tax increase (some of which would be paid by tourism), with, of course, still higher insurance rates for coastal homes, but not at levels that would destroy those communities.
Our friends Ray and Sue were briefly here, making a detour on their way back to Connecticut from the Abacos on their boat 'Last Dance.'  Always wonderful to see them and to learn more about their living full time on their boat as well as being part of a boating community in the Bahamas, the Royal Marsh Harbour Yacht Club -- scores of boaters doing the same thing during the winter (although most have homes to go back to in the summer). 

So Ray and Sue arrived here on Sunday and I followed them on "Spot Me" which broadcasts their position every twenty minutes or so superimposed on Google Maps.  A remarkable technology.  Here's their last leg of the trip from the Bahamas to here. 

I helped them untie their lines on our dock early this morning and they've begun their 1,200 mile trek "home" to Connecticut where we will join them on our boat later this summer.

Earlier this month, Ann took me to see my first opera since my college days, Richard Strauss' gruesome Salome, at the Kravis Theatre in West Palm Beach.  I went as much for the spectacle as I did to understand how Ann has "spent all that time" for the last decade with season's tickets.  She usually goes with her friend, Lois, and there they meet our friend Roy, who we also see at the Dramaworks functions, for a bite of lunch beforehand,.  Ann and I were photographed with characters from next year's program of operas.

I used to apologize for not liking Opera (Stephen Sondheim, however, gave me permission).  It was a epic spectacle to see Salome, the main part being sung superbly by Erika SunnegĂ„rdh and it was helpful to have the English translation in the subtitles overhead.  The music is almost oppressively beautiful, but, to me, the staging seems so wooden compared to, say, a Sondheim musical.  Perhaps it measures up to Sweeny Todd for the bloodiest musical stage production.

A notable article appeared in the April 7 New York Times by AndrĂ© Aciman, How Memoirists Mold the Truth.  It certainly hit home with me as most of what I write is indeed memoir and I know exactly what he means by the following:

Writing the past is never a neutral act.  Writing always asks the past to justify itself, to give its reasons...provided we can live with the reasons.  What we want is a narrative, not a log: a tale, not a trial. This is why most people write memoirs using the conventions not of history, but of fiction.  It's their revenge against facts that won't go away ...And maybe this is why we write.  We want a second chance, we want the other version of our life, the one that thrills us, the one that happened to the people we really are, not to those we just happened to be once.  There is a lot more to take away from this profound article, but it reminds me of the fine line I sometimes walk between fact and fiction trying on the one hand to be truthful, but sometimes circumventing facts, frequently to keep certain people anonymous, and perhaps to remember the past as I would have liked it to be (frequently being unable to distinguish it from the real past which, ironically, it really may be!). I must confess it's also a delicate balance between honesty and privacy.

But my writing has led me to places and people (although I do not have a comment section, an email address appears in my profile) and most recently I was contacted by someone I hired 44 years ago.  She had found me through my blog and wanted me to know that I served as an important mentor (unknowingly to me) to her early in her career.  Since then she has gone on to very significant accomplishments, in business, and, more importantly, in her empathic quest to make a difference in one of the great tragedies of the past decade in our economy: the high unemployment rate and its impact on individuals (statistics aside).  I might say more regarding our distant relationship over the a narrow alleyway of time, but that will have to wait. 

My blog will probably go quiet for a while as I am preparing a piano program and will be recording it at a studio, so lots of practice in the days ahead.  I'm calling it "Music Makes Us" after a quote from David Byrne's recently published How Music Works: "We don't make music; it makes us." How true. And we are sort of defined by the music we listen to. For myself, it is the Great American Songbook, music we sometimes refer to as "The Standards."  I'll have more to say about this, and the specific pieces, after I've taken this on, difficult for me, a mere amateur, but isn't that what an engaged life is all about, setting demanding goals and doing one's best to attain them?  I've used those piano skills to bring some joy to people in retirement homes and will continue to do so.  It's makes all that time and commitment that much more meaningful.  

Meanwhile, I leave with a photograph of our seasonally flowering pink Bougainvillea tree, highlighted by my lovely wife, Ann.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Ghost-Writer Haunts

Florida Stage is the "other" serious theater in the West Palm Beach area and although I've written often in these "pages" about the consistently fine productions of Dramaworks, I've only occasionally touched upon those of Florida Stage. This season is a significant one as they have now moved to the Kravis Center's Rinker Playhouse. Unlike Dramaworks, Florida Stage is bravely dedicated to new or relatively new plays, so that is an added risk, as if presenting serious theatre is not enough.

They opened the season with Cane which was followed by Goldie, Max & Milk. But with Ghost-Writer by Michael Hollinger which opens today (we saw a preview), Florida Stage will have its first big hit of the season, drama at its best. Of course, it doesn't hurt that the play is by a well-established playwright, and even though this is the southeast premiere, it was vetted on the stage in Philadelphia at the end of last year.

Ghost-Writer apparently is not for everyone as a few people inexplicably left the performance right in the middle (there is no intermission). But if you cherish the nuances of language and how great staging and performing can turn little moments and glances into profound occurrences, Florida Stage has the play for you. As Louis Tyrrell, Florida Stage's innovative Producing Director said before the play, "it is an elegant play performed eloquently by the actors." Those words were not an exaggeration.

The play takes place in 1919, set in a studio apartment of a well-known writer, Mr. Woolsey, who hires an amanuensis, fresh out of typing school, Myra Babbage. She is obviously enamored of working for a renowned author. Their relationship gradually becomes more than just employer and employee, both developing affection for one another. It also progresses to the point where Myra can anticipate what Mr. Woolsey will dictate and will even interject her own opinion as to choice or word or punctuation. Stirring the dramatic pot is Mr. Woolsey's wife, Vivian, who is jealous of Myra, and displeased that her husband has set up this apartment (away from their home) for his work.

Every play needs a change catalyst, and in this one it is Mr. Woolsey's death before he has finished what might be his masterpiece. But after his death, Myra feels she can still channel his muse. Is it a ghost? Or is she simply looking to make a name for herself (as Vivian suspects)? Or did their relationship evolve to the point where the voice in the novel is really a collaborative one? Myra puts it to the audience to decide (or not to decide).

One thing that does not change is the role of the typewriter which, sphinx-like, sits in the middle of the stage, almost the fourth character in the play. At one point, when Mr. Woolsey is suffering from writer's block, he has Myra type "anything" just so he could hear the clatter of the Remington. Type it again he says as he stares out the window. And again. Finally, the words spring to him, just as the final words of the unfinished novel come to Myra after days of not feeling the muse (or hearing the ghost?), but not until she, too, has typed the "catch phrase" -- which Mr. Woolsey had entreated her not to reveal to him (and, therefore, not to us). What could it be?

The play slides back and forth from the present to the past, effortlessly, almost imperceptibly. The staging is like a delicate dance, the characters taking a position on stage (as Mr. Woolsey at the window) or gracefully gliding about each other to the point where Myra and her employer actually dance (ostensibly to familiarize Mr. Woolsey with a subject he needs to write about but clearly is unfamiliar with). The early 20th century set was developed with period piece precision and the three quarter round seating puts the audience in the action.

But to succeed with a play which is about language and understated emotions also requires fine acting. Considerable measures of the play are monologues given by Myra, played by New York City based regional actor, Kate Eastwood Norris, who deserves accolades for her carefully articulated and poignant performance. J. Fred Shiffman plays the restrained, somewhat bland but meticulous, Mr. Woolsey to a tee. Lourelene Snedeker does a fine job displaying Vivian's jealously and even conjures up our sympathy. Woolsey had once portrayed her as a vivacious, desirable woman in his first novel but he now shares his muse with another, younger, woman.

So was it a ghost? The beautiful language of the play itself provides a key, as spoken by Myra:
What is a ghost, in any case, but vivid memory, visiting when one least expects it? And aren't we all subject to haunting? The smell of liniment conjuring Mother at the bedside; the pair of shoes recalling a son or brother fallen in the fields of France? Surely memory is ghost enough...

Ghost-Writer runs at the Kravis Center's Rinker Playhouse until April 3.

Friday, January 7, 2011

Senseless to the Sublime

The last two nights make me think of Franz Kafka's The Hunger Artist, in which a famous fasting artist is on display in a circus menagerie, the crowds pushing past him to get to watch the lions stalk and feed. "He immediately got an earful from the shouting of the two steadily increasing groups, the ones who wanted to take their time looking at the hunger artist, not with any understanding but on a whim or from mere defiance—for him these ones were soon the more painful—and a second group of people whose only demand was to go straight to the animal stalls." It is a highly symbolic story of how artists sacrifice themselves for their art and the general public's ignorance of what great artistry demands and preference for sensational pursuits.

One of the reasons we live in this area of Florida is for the cultural diversity it has to offer. True, it does not have the advantages of a London or a New York in its breadth or consistently high quality, but knowing where to go can uncover some wonderful cultural events. Case in point, our favorite small theatre where we never miss a production, Palm Beach Dramaworks. But the largest theatre in the area is West Palm Beach's Kravis Center for the Performing Arts and we've seen some fine musical revivals there over the last several years, South Pacific standing out in my mind, and some special programs such as when Sondheim visited for an evening discussion of his works.
Admittedly, it was with some trepidation that we got tickets for the Kravis’ production of Beauty and the Beast but Ann had tried to see the Broadway version, liked some of the music, and never could get tickets so we were hoping that this touring production would at least be on par. Tuesday night we saw the opening and it was so dreadful that we left at intermission. This review gives some of the details although it is actually very restrained in its criticism.

It is a Disney dumb-down production presumably for the kiddies, with one dimensional slapstick characters, but, amazingly, most of the adult audience seemed to be laughing at the childish humor which at best rose to the level of a sitcom. The fact that a Beauty and the Beast could flourish for so long on the Great White Way says much about the public's taste in musicals. We should have known better!

The following evening we sought redemption, having long ago booked tickets for a series we have followed for years, Keyboard Conversations ® with Jeffrey Siegel at The Society of the Four Arts in Palm Beach. These are "unique concert-plus-commentary format in which he speaks to the audience about the music before performing each work" in their entirety. Wednesday night was one of the most demanding programs we've ever heard this highly-acclaimed American pianist perform, tackling three of the most difficult pieces written for the piano by Johann Sebastian Bach (Chromatic Fantasia and Fugue, BWV 903), Samuel Barber (Fugue from Piano Sonata, Op. 26), and Ludwig Van Beethoven (Sonata No. 23 in F minor, Op. 57 --- the "Appassionata). Mr. Siegel playfully calls the program "Three Great B's Bach, Beethoven and Barber" (the latter B normally reserved for Brahms, but this is the 100th birthday celebration of Barber, one of America's leading composers, a contemporary of Bernstein and Copeland). In addition he played two of Barber's "Excursions" which I had never heard and reminded me so much of some of Gershwin and Copeland.

The physicality of the performance was astounding. As I play the piano myself, I have a special appreciation for what Siegel accomplished last night, performing the entire program without sheet music, keeping up with the tremendous technical demands of these pieces. Indeed at the end of the night, when he conducted his traditional audience question and answer portion of the program, he seemed, justifiably, physically spent, perhaps like the artist in Kafka's story. But this audience was brought to a standing ovation in appreciation.

Antidote du jour.......