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

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Moulin Rouge! and Oklahoma! Seismically Shake Broadway

Our summertime boat is frequently home base for some NYC theatre, this time only two shows but what a change of pace from many of those we’ve seen in summers past.  One would think Moulin Rouge! and Oklahoma! would be “traditional” musicals but they felt as “revolutionary” as Hamilton was when we saw that when it originally opened.  Hearing so much about these two shows, some negativity from a critic we highly respect, we were determined to experience these with a tabula rasa mentality. 

We’re glad we did.  Had we approached these with our built in biases, ones that are due to our age and previous theatre experiences, there would be a lot that we could seize upon for criticism.  First and foremost as traditionalists, if we had to see Oklahoma! over and over again, we would choose the movie version with Gordon MacRae and Shirley Jones which comes much closer to the previous stage versions we’ve seen.  And as far as Moulin Rouge! is concerned, the pastiche of seventy or so songs is not of our generation for the most part, except for “Diamonds are Girl’s Best Friend” and “Nature Boy.”  The songs of younger generations predominate, but the swatches of them are seamlessly woven into the production, picking out the right lyrics and musical riff for the moment, so that they move the production right along. 

We found ourselves enjoying them in spite of our ingrained aversion to ultra contemporary music.  Our son and daughter-in-law sat in the row in front of us, their heads bobbing along to the music with which they’re totally familiar, which enhanced our enjoyment as well.

Moulin Rouge! is intended as an over the top extravaganza, another criticism which could be leveled at it from the vantage of the highbrow.  It is that, especially sitting in the third row as we were fortunate enough to be.  It is a love story as anyone familiar with the movie or La Boheme knows, but the dazzling staging and sensuality trump the love story.  Or, one could consider it the strength of this production, one that shares some aspects of Cirque du Soleil, replete with the female lead, Satine, gloriously played by Karen Olivo, descending from the ceiling of the Al Hirschfield Theatre.  It is the type of gimmickry we would normally decry but in the context of this musical, it works, as do the songs and the erotic nature of the presentation, the costumes and the movement on the stage.  Only a great Broadway company could pull this off.

Satine’s love interest, Christian, played by Aaron Tveit, is yet another star in the diamond of a cast as is Tam Mutu playing Christian’s adversary, The Duke of Monroth.  Danny Burstein plays the MC Harold Zidler, reminiscent of the demonic MC of Cabaret.  The ensemble is sexy and vibrant.  The chorography of moving all these players around ramps, and platforms stage left and right is breathtaking.  When we saw Hamilton, now years ago, we knew we were seeing something for the ages.  In its own way Moulin Rouge! will be that memorable.  

This brings me to the show we saw the following day, Oklahoma!  Last April we saw Ted Chapin, chief creative officer of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, interviewed at Dramaworks’ “Dramalogue – Talking Theatre!”  Much of the discussion was about the decision making process that went into his giving the green light to this ‘dark-side-of-the-moon’ version of this fabled musical.  Clearly, had there been no Hamilton, perhaps this adaptation would never have been approved.  It is indeed reimagined, taking such an innocent story ( albeit with a sinister side) and turns it topsy-turvey; utterly stripped down to its essentials.

You know the second you enter the Circle in the Square Theatre, Winchester Rifles decorating the walls, a brightly lit stage made up of picnic benches and plywood floors, a small area for an equally small on stage orchestra, multicolored metallic fringe hanging from the ceiling, crock pots lining bench tables on stage left and right at which some audience members are sitting that the goal is to involve the audience members in a very contemporary rendering.  This isn’t why the farmer and the cowmen can’t be friends.  The essence of this production is Laurey having to choose between Curley and Jud Fry.  Yes, having to choose!  In all versions we have ever seen, this choice was made for us right at the burst of “Oh, What a Beautiful Morning.”  It’s Curley, hands down.

While Jud is clearly a loner in those early days when Oklahoma was emerging from a small territory to statehood, today our Jud would be one of the 21st century misfits who ‘merely’ needs understanding to bring him into “society.”  So, in this adaptation Laurey, heavenly played by Rebecca Naomi Jones, is attracted to the brooding quiet Jud.  She actually waivers in her choice!

When we sat down and opened our Playbill, we were disappointed to learn that Curley, the male lead, usually played by Damon Daunno, was to be played by his understudy Denver Milord.  He more than rose to the occasion as not only did he exude that sexy American as apple pie good looks but he could belt out his songs with his guitar, finally winning over Laurey.  But Laurey’s infatuation with Jud is a hurdle for him, constantly perplexing and the end of the play is something unexpected.  It is a road we have seen walked so many times in contemporary society, quick to judgment to exonerate the “good guy,” which, as the last moving refrains of “O-K-L-A-H-O-M-A” ring out, leaves one bewildered.

Everything in the production is atypical, including the audience being served some delicious chili and cornbread during the intermission.  The cast is small but the essential story lines are there, Will Parker played with wide-eyed innocence and gullibility by James Davis, declaring his love for Ado Annie, played by the exceptionally talented Ali Stroker with such hilarity and an ethereal voice that one hardly notices she is wheel chair bound, another hat tip to contemporary society.  ‘Ole Aunt Eller played by Mary Testa is the peacekeeper and Will Brill plays the flirtatious Ali Hakim, the peddler who will take what he can from Ado Annie as long as it doesn’t involve marriage.  Jud Fry is quietly, but achingly played by Patrick Vail.  He originated the role of Jud while a student at Bard College.

Most emblematic of the departure of this Oklahoma! from the original is the dream ballet.  The original, choreographed by Agnes DeMille is ethereal.  Now it is one of boldness, parts of it performed in darkness, music dissonant and other parts filmed in real time as cinema verite and projected on the rear wall.  Its vivid content was brilliantly translated by anther understudy in this particular production, Coral Dolphin, whose physicality, including cartwheels, took precedence over ballet.  It is a modern dance of the 21st century.

In fact, that is what we came away with after these two groundbreaking musicals.  These are our times, brutish and violent, frequently unfair, sometimes steeped in narcissism and eroticism, a kind of dystopian landscape captured by the remake of one of our most innocent musicals, and a movie brought to stage.  But bravo to both as art marks the way and records our moment in time.

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 fiancĂ©e, 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