Showing posts with label Rodgers and Hammerstein. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Rodgers and Hammerstein. Show all posts

Thursday, August 2, 2018

A Whirlwind Theatre Week

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.

Saturday, March 10, 2018

There Is Nothin’ Like South Pacific at the Maltz

Nothin' in the world.

To paraphrase Samuel Johnson, when a person is tired of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s South Pacific, one is tired of life.  How many times have we seen this glorious musical, from Broadway to regional productions?  Many.  And how many times have I played its captivating music on the piano?  Thousands.

So what does the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s production have to offer?  Plenty.

First and foremost is a full professional cast of 28 that would rival any Broadway assemblage.  Then, the show plays to the Maltz’s strength: classic musicals that are not road shows, but original from the bottom up, casting, scenic design, costumes, musical arrangements, and expert directing.  Finally, the secret ingredient: an intimacy which is unusual for a big production.  We saw South Pacific at the Kravis years ago.  Although excellent, we’re talking about a theatre which seats more than 2,000 and seeing a full-size Broadway-designed musical is not the same as enjoying the intimacy of a 600 seat Maltz.  The music, the performances, the sheer energy simply reaches out and envelops the audience.  In fact, the performers are up and down the aisles, often interacting with the audience. 

Then of course it is the greatness of Rodgers and Hammerstein, and their place in transforming the musical genre from merely a series of songs loosely tied together.  Their groundbreaking Oklahoma! solidified the importance of “the book” in the Broadway musical, with music, songs, dance all integral to the plot.  Plots became more complex such as in South Pacific, two main story lines interwoven, each tackling a subject which was taboo before, interracial relations, all of this against the backdrop of WW II in the South Pacific. 

It was based on a series of interrelated short stories, the Tales of the South Pacific by James Michener, with the book for the musical by Oscar Hammerstein II and Joshua Logan.  The importance of the themes was underscored by its winning The Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1950, a rare distinction for a musical.  Its relevancy today is undiminished.  Its place as a classic among American musicals has been assured by the glorious melodies of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein’s lyrics, irrefutably one of the best musicals of the twentieth century.

When Erin Davie as Nellie belts out "A Cockeyed Optimist" at the beginning of the show you might as well be sitting in the front row of a Broadway production.  Hammerstein’s lyrics and Rodgers bouncy melody announces her typically apple pie American attitude towards life, in spite of the war surrounding her, Davie giving her introductory song a special cheery oomph.  Davie’s voice is a sweet soprano, but what she might lack in vocal power is more than compensated for by how spellbindingly she sells a song with her irresistible stage presence.

Segue to the other co-star, Nicholas Rodriguez as Emile, whose duet with Nellie in "Twin Soliloquies" establishes his character and showcases Rodriquez’s rich baritone while alternating with Nellie’s dreamy lyrics.  This is an ardent falling-in-love duet.  Then Rodriquez tenderly delivers what is perhaps Rodgers and Hammerstein’s most famous love song, "Some Enchanted Evening" recalling how he and Nellie met.

The stage is set for a more upbeat number sung by the talented Sailors, Seabees and Marines, "Bloody Mary" followed by the rousingly iconic "There Is Nothing Like a Dame."  We’re talking pure testosterone-high- energy in these production numbers with impressive choreography by Connor Gallagher.

Bloody Mary, played by Jodi Kimura sings the ballad "Bali Ha'i" with an exotic dreamy quality.  Kimura knows how to play to the audience and she’s the center of attention when on stage.  The moment she sees the other major character Lieutenant Cable played by Stephen Mark Lukas, Kimura articulates what the audience sees, telling a Seabee that “you not sexy like Lieutenant.”  Lukas’ rendition of the beautiful ballad, “Younger than Springtime” sung to Liat, Bloody Mary’s daughter, is especially memorable.

 His other major song "You've Got to Be Carefully Taught" is the one which cuts to the core of South Pacific, a world torn apart by war and more thematically in this show, racism.  It was like no other song before in a Broadway musical.  Lukas performs the song with anger and self loathing, not being able to shake his inbred prejudices. 

Christian Marriner who plays seaman Luther Billis, “a sailor who bullies, bribes, and charms his way”, offers a show stopping performance in “Honey Bun.”  He performed this role in the national touring company of South Pacific which explains his owning this part with such assurance and bravado, bringing forth rousing applause from the audience.

The concluding scene, Emile returning from a dangerous mission and discovers Nellie singing "Dites-Moi" with his children, Ngana and Jerome (played by Hana Roberts and Ray Zurawin), is a guaranteed tearjerker as Emile completes the song.  He and Nellie rush into each other’s arms.  She has made the transition from being “as corny as Kansas in August” to knowing “I have found me a wonderful guy” (in spite of his being previously married to a Polynesian).  Love conquers all, even ingrained prejudice. 

The show is performed under the award-winning director Gordon Greenberg’s extraordinary expertise, whose credits include Broadway and PBS Great Performances' show, Irving Berlin's Holiday Inn and London's acclaimed West End revival of Guys and Dolls.  He directed the Maltz Theatre's critically-acclaimed hit production of Barnum in 2009.  With so many performers on stage it is a feat to direct South Pacific, with the production moving flawlessly, the invisible director’s hand at work.

The Maltz South Pacific production especially succeeds in stunning scenic designs by Paul Tate dePoo III, with scene changes on the fly and little interruption.  Costume designer Tristan Raines reveals a creative and colorful imagination, yet period perfect.  Lighting designer Rob Denton bathes the stage in exotic Island colors.  And the 13 piece LIVE orchestra under the musical direction of Eric Alsford delivers the exceptional accompaniment that a musical of this caliber deserves.

And so once again a great musical from the mid twentieth century has been brightly polished and finds relevancy today.  The Maltz Jupiter Theatre production of South Pacific is not to be missed.

Photos in order of appearance:Erin Davie and Nicholas Rodriguez, Photo by Alicia Donelan;  Surrounded by Seabees, Jodie Kimura portrays Bloody Mary, Photo by Charlotte Donelan;  Shea Renne and Stephen Mark Lukas, Photo by Alicia Donelan;  Stephen Mark Lukas and Shea Renne, Photo by Zak Bennett;  Erin Davie and Nicholas Rodriguez (center) with Hana Roberts and Ray Zurawin, Photo by Charlotte Donelan;  Erin Davie portrays Nellie Forbush, Photo by Alicia Donelan


Saturday, May 10, 2014


I was going to call this entry “Finale” -- not to describe my last blog entry, but the title of the last CD piano album I will record, my fourth one over the years.  However, on the good advice of an old friend who warned me never to say “never” (as I had said when I wrote about my penultimate CD, Music Makes Us) I’ve changed the title to Masters.  Also, “Finale” sounds maudlin – and I don’t intend it as such whereas “Masters” is a better description of the composers I showcase in this latest CD. 

Nonetheless, I am fairly certain that this is my last recording as I've now covered most of my favorites as well as the different kinds of music I enjoy playing (although all fall under the “Great American Songbook” rubric). Masters is intended to "fill in" some of the blanks in my Broadway repertoire, having already included thirty four songs that were performed on Broadway in my previous CDs.

The "missing" songs are by the composers I feel dwarf all, George Gershwin (with his lyricist, his brother Ira) Richard Rodgers (with Oscar Hammerstein) and Stephen Sondheim.  Masters addresses that lacuna by including twenty-three other songs by these celebrated Broadway innovators.

In an interview by PBS' Great Performances the daughter of Richard Rodgers, Mary Rodgers, related that "Noël Coward once said that Daddy just 'pissed melody.'” She also revealed that "Gershwin was a close friend. If he was ever jealous of anyone — and I don’t mean 'jealous' in any nasty or competitive way — it was Gershwin."  No wonder, Gershwin wrote in all musical genres, Broadway being just one. (And some of the Gershwin songs in this CD were actually written for Hollywood, but written in the Broadway vein.) Who knows where he might have moved music if he hadn't suddenly died so young.   So there is continuity here -- Gershwin knew Rodgers & Hammerstein, and Hammerstein, the lyricist, was a mentor to Sondheim – who naturally began as one as well, but would go on to become a composer of intricate, urbane songs, as well as writing the lyrics.  George Gershwin and Richard Rodgers always had a lyricist to rely on (although after Hammerstein died, Rodgers wrote his own lyrics for the show No Strings).

I should footnote that the music for the last song in the program, Maria, was written by Leonard Bernstein, although I include it here as Sondheim wrote the lyrics and I think his collaboration with Bernstein helped launch his long-time career. Sondheim is now the senior statesman of Broadway and I can't imagine anyone touching his legacy.

There is another reason I decided to work on this album.  This is the first year I've been without a regular “gig,” normally performing at retirement homes during the season.  My contacts at previous intuitions had changed and my season started with adverse health news. I had other things on my mind. So, instead, I turned more inward, playing these songs and others, writing some fiction.  .

It is restricting, just so much time to play the piano, and having a studio recording session one has a tendency to practice these songs more, to the detriment of other piano music.  I'm looking forward to no such responsibilities in the future (other than my “senior circuit” engagements) so I feel this will be my last such recording.


George and Ira Gershwin
Summertime / I'll Build a Stairway to Paradise / Somebody Loves Me / The Man I Love / Embraceable You / Who Cares? / Love Walked In
Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein
People Will Say We're in Love / The Carousel Waltz / What's the Use of Wond'Rin' / If I Loved You / You'll Never Walk Alone / Bali Ha'i / Some Enchanted Evening / Hello Young Lovers / We Kiss in a Shadow / The Sound of Music / It Might as Well Be Spring  

Stephen Sondheim
Send in the Clowns / Sorry – Grateful / Being Alive / I Remember / Maria (Music by Leonard Bernstein)

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Plaintive Melodies

As much as we enjoy returning to live on our boat in Connecticut, the worst thing about summer is leaving my piano behind.  If I was a professional, or played nearly at that level, it would be intolerable.  But I remember having once worked with the great harpsichordist, Ralph Kirkpatrick (in the capacity of publishing and cataloging the works of Scarlatti), visiting him at his home in Guilford CT which was populated by harpsichords and grand pianos.  He had made lunch for us, with some wine, and before we got back to work I timidly asked him whether he might like to play a piece.  He looked at me as if I had lost my mind, saying he never gives private audiences and especially not after a glass of wine.  I wondered, doesn't the love of music transcend everything else? 

Contrast that experience to the one I had with Henry Steele Commager, who was the dean of American intellectual historians.  I used to visit him in Amherst and we would work in his study on the second floor.  On the first floor he had a baby grand piano and one day, again after lunch, I asked him whether he played.  He raced to the piano and I quietly sat listening to him play a Beethoven sonata, and very competently. For Commager, playing the piano was his creative outlet and during that moment historian took second place.  I understand that.

My piano has been good to me this past year and in fact we've been partners, preparing programs that I performed at the Hanley Center in West Palm Beach, a rehab facility, and at The Waterford in Juno Beach, a retirement home.  Actually, most of the music I played at the Hanley Center was impromptu from fake books but at the Waterford I gave musical presentations with some commentary (Ann frequently helping me with the latter), something I really enjoyed doing, and now have programs for the music of Rodgers and Hammerstein, George Gershwin, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Claude-Michel Schönberg, and songs of the Great American Songbook as immortalized by Frank Sinatra.  

Next season, I'll do others and perhaps record another CD at a professional studio.

Of course I have no illusions about the enduring value of such recordings, other than having goals keeps one young, and it is a joy to be able to play.  Luckily for me, my kind of piano playing -- reading the melody line and improvising with chords -- is sort of like riding a bicycle; once you know how to ride, you can do it anytime without frequently practicing.  So, a summer away from my friend doesn't really set me back in terms of my ability to play. 

Nonetheless, as we prepare to leave, I look at my piano with a melancholy regret and I tend to play pieces that reflect that mood. Recently, I found myself playing some Bill Evans songs, constantly reverting to his "Time Remembered" -- a piece with abstract, floating harmonies, not exactly melodic.  It reminds me a little of Debussy, but in a more abstract form, so I found myself fiddling around with some classical music, not one of my musical strengths, but what better piece to play than Debussy's "Reveries" as a bookend for the Bill Evans piece.  From there I turned to one of Stephen Sondheim's most beautiful ballads, "Johanna" from Sweeny Todd,  much more structured than the Evans piece, but all three musical compositions share this sense of the plaintive. 

I set up my camera and recorded the Sondheim piece, a brief rendition (BlogSpot has restrictions on video size).  It is less than two minutes. and as I never play a piece the same way twice, improvising much of it, when recording (especially video with just a digital camera in our echoing living room), some self consciousness encroaches.  Nonetheless, I include this below as a musical statement of the moment and particularly because "Johanna" most accurately captures my mood.   Whoever said Sondheim can't write a beautiful melody is crazy as this is one of the most haunting songs I know.  It is also one of his few outright love songs.

We'll be on the road soon and the blog will go quiet for a while.