Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Has the parade passed the musical by?

Brendan McNab and ensemble in Parade.

One of the happiest surprises of Boston's burgeoning theatre scene has been its newfound expertise in musicals. A decade ago, musicals were rare on the small theatre circuit; today, they're the highlights of many theatres' seasons - Company at SpeakEasy, Into the Woods at the New Rep, and Urinetown at the Lyric all immediately come to mind.

Lately, however, this triumphal march has suddenly stumbled - over the musicals themselves. This spring, the Lyric produced Michael LaChiusa's See What I Wanna See (which I tore into here), the New Rep mounted Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party, and now SpeakEasy has staged Jason Robert Brown and Albert Uhry's Parade - all local premieres, all recent New York "hits" (that is, they played on or near Broadway) and all produced at the same high level we've become accustomed to. But in all three cases, the performances easily eclipsed the quality of the material (see my earlier post, "Please, more masterpieces" for similar complaints about productions of new plays).

What gives? Is the musical in crisis? Well - yes, obviously; whatever people may say about LaChiusa or Brown, Sondheim has no heir - or rather he's got heirs but no rivals. Strange as it may sound, if and when a major new musical talent emerges, his voice will probably not be in the Sondheim tradition - indeed, he will probably challenge, if not repudiate, that tradition.

Because it's obvious that Sondheim sans Sondheim himself is pretty thin stuff; with lesser hands at the helm, his through-sung pop operas easily drift onto the bland shoals of arty pastiche. In fact, even with an extant model for the lyrics (as Lippa had for The Wild Party, Joseph Moncure March's original, book-length poem), his younger followers often fall short.

Take, for instance, just a few lines of March's classic ode to Jazz Age excess (below, an image from Art Spiegelman's illustrated edition):

Her body was marvellous:
A miracle had fused it.
The world had seen it -
And a good part had used it.

Imagine what Kurt Weill could have done with that. Or how about:

Black took a drink as they passed the table.
A long one;
A strong one;
Then suddenly felt unstable.
The room blurred.
The room receded.
Another drink was what he needed!

The tone is immediately apparent: casual, callous and drolly misanthropic - the exact opposite of today's earnest, self-aware-yet-blinking-back-tears default mode. And as long as Lippa can toe this line, The Wild Party is at least somewhat bracing. But as if pulled by the gravitational force of new-age schmaltz, the composer soon slips from period jazz into all kinds of light latin and pop-rock styles, and his lyrics likewise slide from stringent to sappy, as in:

Out of the blue
Out of the blue
Your choices now are growing few
Today is what you make and how you make it
The step is yours to take
But can you take it out of the blue?

You see the problem. Or how about this:

Poor child,
Poor child,
Beautiful and bruised.
Poor child,
Pure child,
Virginal and used.

Yikes! Some party. It's hard to imagine William S. Burroughs being inspired by that (he once said March's poem made him want to be a writer). And with such lame lyrics, it's no wonder that Lippa, LaChiusa and Brown are also melodically challenged; they're pretty good at snappy hooks (such as Brown's "Big News!" or Lippa's "Raise the Roof"), but their ballads tend to "soar" the same way 747s do.

Marla Mindelle and Ensemble in The Wild Party.

Sigh. Still, I suppose we can't expect theatres to stop doing new musicals just because they're bad. Of the local directors, Rick Lombardo has the biggest jones for this kind of thing, and his flamboyant, relentless production of The Wild Party probably came closest to putting over its script and score through sheer energy. Lombardo's leads, Marla Mindelle as bad-girl Queenie and Todd Alan Johnson as sad (as in sad-istic) clown Burrs, threw themselves into their roles with abandon, but their gonzo performances almost got lost in the chaos of the eponymous party, which erupted into a dancing show like Boston has never seen; the chorus literally did backflips, and if choreographer Kelli Edwards gave her tireless hoofers no respite, at least they got to shed their clothes as they overheated. This wasn't the only attempt to shock us that was touching in its naivete: folks often squatted over a toilet when they weren't miming spread-eagled coitus. (You haven't lived till you've watched simulated sex next to a little old lady with a walker.)

Alas, despite all this strenuous decadence, the production only fitfully connected with us, or its material. Leigh Barrett stopped the show with the evening's one truly witty number, "An Old-Fashioned (Lesbian) Love Story," but as Noel Coward might have quipped, at the time the show was basically running in place. Still, there was a nicely brassy turn from Sarah Corey as a belting flapper, and Maurice E. Parent brought real sizzle to his moves as Mr. Black. Over the long haul, however, the show's very energy tended to work against it; it's hard to look cool when you're constantly breaking a sweat.

Brendan McNab (Leo Frank) with Bridget Beirne (Lucille Frank) in Parade.

Parade, by contrast (at SpeakEasy Stage through June 16), was beset not only by undistinguished lyrics but by book problems as well. Some local critics felt the piece, which deals with the famous railroading, and eventual lynching, of Leo Frank for a murder in 1913 Atlanta, was painted with too broad a brush, but its real problems were subtler - Alfred Uhry, of Driving Miss Daisy fame, simply failed to dramatize the fascinating crux of this case: why did Atlanta turn against the Jewish Frank and instead trust the testimony of African-American Jim Conley, who most likely committed the crime? Both were members of minority groups, after all, and if anything, one would imagine - to put it in the horrid calculus of bigotry - that Frank's religion would trump Conley's race (especially given the assimilation of Jews into Atlanta society at the time). Yet the opposite occurred - the mob sided with Conley; but why?

To tease apart this conundrum, of course, would lead to fascinating, but ticklish, questions of assimilation, resentment, and religion, with, perhaps, black as well as white villains - always a problem in our politically-correct culture. Parade wants to think of itself as daring, but no Broadway show would venture into the moral territory that a truly probing examination of the Frank case would require. Thus there's a void at the heart of the musical, which Uhry and composer/lyricist Jason Robert Brown try to plug with such standard tropes as the growth of Frank's wife into a crusader for his liberty. Uhry and Brown also obliquely stress Atlanta's nostalgia for Confederate culture (the tree at Tara from Gone with the Wind looms over the set) but never allow this idea to crystallize into a statement - are they implying that Frank's Northern pedigree sealed his doom, rather than his Jewishness? If so, it would be better if they actually said so.

Edward M. Barker, Kenneth Harmon, Shavanna Calder, and Nicholas Ryan Rowe in Parade.

Given the awkwardness of this material, the SpeakEasy cast navigated the show skillfully, and director Paul Daigneault orchestrated a smooth parade (sorry) of stage pictures. The capable Brendan McNab made a strong, but almost too sympathetic Leo Frank (the genuine article was an odder customer), and Bridget Beirne stood by her man admirably as wife Lucille. Meanwhile Timothy John Smith put over the first act's best number, "Big News," with energy to spare, and Edward M. Barker, Kenneth Harmon, Shavanna Calder, and Nicholas Ryan Rowe brought even more power to "A Rumblin' and a Rollin'" (Barker, who played Jim Conley, was equally impressive on the chain gang in "Blues: Feel the Rain Fall.") But elsewhere Brown's music and lyrics failed to catch fire; like Lippa, he tends to write direct, almost banal recitative, and then tries to goose these flat statements into song with rippling arpeggios and sudden flights up the scale. Often, however, Brown's lyrics resist his ministrations, as in this memorial to the murder victim:

Did you ever hear her laugh?
When she laughed, you swore you’d never cry again.
Did you ever see her smile?
Her smile was like a glass of lemonade.
And she said funny things,
And she wore pretty dresses,
And she liked to see the pictures at the VFW Hall,
And she loved ridin’ swings,
And she liked cotton candy,
But I think she liked the pictures best of all.

Or how about this bald statement of identity politics from Leo:

I'm trapped inside this life
And trapped beside a wife
Who would prefer that I'd say "Howdy!", not "Shalom!"
Well, I'm sorry, Lucille,
But I feel what I feel
And this place is surreal,
So how can I call this home?

Is this sort of thing Sondheim's fault? I suppose not - but it may be the fault of those who too-easily buy into the idea that the musical should "progress" into opera. There's no reason at all why the lines above shouldn't be lines in the book (except, of course, that they're not very good!). Indeed, it's hard to think of a topic less amenable to "pop opera" treatment than a complex, political story about the entanglements of racism and anti-Semitism. Yet good liberal sentiments tend to walk hand-in-hand with post-Sondheim attitudes. Perhaps someday this partnership will bear artistic fruit. In the meantime, I guess we'll have to settle for Parade, and hope that somewhere, someday, somehow, the anti-Sondheim will arrive.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Nowhere man

Max Wright and Paul Benedict in Harold Pinter's No Man's Land.

Harold Pinter's No Man's Land opens with the promise of a night cap, but soon devolves into something like a recap - of the playwright's career. The play, which drifts through a kind of personal witching hour and beyond, is notorious for morphing before its audience's eyes. Hirst, a respected author (rather like Pinter) has lured Spooner, a rather sketchy one (again, like Pinter?), into his elegant tomb of a living room - but what their relationship is, and what Hirst's (and Spooner's) intentions toward each other are, remain in constant flux. Are they, indeed, old college friends? Or perfect strangers? Possible lovers - or mutual cuckolds? The introduction of two more ciphers - one a thug and one a poof - adds little clarity to the proceedings, although hints of a standard Pinter power game begin to be gamely floated. Are these interlopers servants of Hirst? Or his abductors? Or his killers? Or are the two doppelgangers intended as mirrors of the first? And is this all happening within one of the protagonists's minds? Or in both? Or, for that matter, have the participants passed on (has Hirst been literally hearsed?) and are we now at some late-night happy hour in Hell?

The problem with No Man's Land, alas, is that not only does its ultimate "meaning" remain tantalizingly submerged, but its uninterpretibility often feels like a gambit to disguise its incoherence. The play is "meta-Pinter" I suppose, in that the audience is corralled into the same position as the characters in so much of this writer's work - the shifts in context seem aimed at us rather than them (the folks on stage take everything in their stride). This may be a defensible extremity of Pinter's style, but I'm not convinced of the work's greatness - and find it telling that it's the next-to-last of his major plays (only one full-length drama, Betrayal, would follow). Is No Man's Land a kind of Tempest for Pinter, the way that, say, Ohio Impromptu was for Beckett? Or is it more a thing of patches, if not shreds, stitched together from abandoned scenes and sketches?

I lean toward the latter interpretation (after all, even Spooner notes the familiarity of certain tropes), with the proviso that as Pinter's techniques and concerns were deep but limited, the resulting crazy quilt does occasionally hang together. Clearly, star power could put the play over, as in its debut, which featured Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud as Hirst and Spooner - only said wattage is precisely what is lacking at the ART, where we have to make do with Paul Benedict and Max Wright in the same roles. It would of course be wrong to write off these actors due to their sitcom work (in such hits as The Jeffersons and ALF); still, it's almost impossible to overlook the fact that both are miscast. Benedict in particular lacks the necessary touch of madness that Richardson could insinuate beneath his magisterial manner, while Wright is simply too lovable to suggest the conniving underside of Spooner. Under David Wheeler's thoughtful direction, they both contribute carefully worked-out performances - but nevertheless skate right over the depths they think they're limning.

As latecomers Foster and Briggs, Henry David Clarke and Lewis D. Wheeler (at left) bring more of the right kind of energy to the party - although Clarke's swish didn't have quite the malevolent snap required. Lewis D. Wheeler, however, the son of director Wheeler, more than justified his father's decision to cast him. Nastily natty, with shaved head and a shiny suit that exactly matched the set (costumer David Reynoso was perhaps more on top of the play than the cast), Wheeler brought a precise accent and attitude to bear on the role, with satisfyingly malicious results. For threat is essential to Pinter - his signature twist on the Theater of the Absurd was to perceive that a godless universe might as well be hostile. With this handsomely appointed but empty production, Wheeler and the ART seem to have forgotten that Hirst and Spooner may be in their cups, but Pinter is always out for blood.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Present perfect

Sometimes it's very nice to get exactly what you want - a sentiment with which I'm sure the posh crowd at the opening of the Huntington's Present Laughter would agree. Everyone knew the Noël Coward piece was perfect for Artistic Director Nicholas Martin, and Victor Garber (at left) was perfectly cast as its Coward-like star, Garry Essendine; what's more, the show was packed with Huntington favorites (Broadway star Brooks Ashmanskas, along with local heroes Nancy E. Carroll and Richard Snee), and celebrated designer Alexander Dodge was on hand to supply a suitably luxe suite of Art Deco digs. After the misfires of Well and Persephone, the hunger for a hit from the Huntington was palpable - but would the show match its expectations?

Well, yes, and then some. Present Laughter isn't just a swank, sophisticated hit but a home run, a gleaming theatrical Rolls that rolls right over the competition and all but revels in its old-fashioned appointments. This isn't a show for the avant-garde, nor one for the politically correct - unlike the out-and-proud New York version a few years ago, the Huntington pushes Coward back into the closet (even the program refers to his sexuality only obliquely). But somehow I didn't care - the Huntington is certainly gay-friendly, and I understand the longing straight people have to hang onto the culture they thought was theirs but really wasn't - they don't want to give up Cary Grant or Noël Coward; they want to believe heterosexuals can be suavely glamorous and carefree, too. Fat chance, of course; still, ignoring the show's gay "subtext" makes it more "universal," I suppose (even the bigots can feel included!), and perhaps Coward had the last word on this score when he refused to out himself by saying, "You see there are still two little old ladies in Tunbridge Wells who don't know."

Lisa Banes and Victor Garber relax on Alexander Dodge's set.

Certainly the virtues celebrated by Laughter - loyalty, self-possession, and sexual maturity - are (or should be) universal, at least among adults; this is what makes Coward still valuable, and what (along with his wit) will ensure his work endures. These themes are also honored at the Huntington, even if the "girls" are bona-fide girls this time around (the play deals with Garry Essendine's problem with what the Clintons might have called "bimbo eruptions"). Occasionally director Martin gooses things along a bit broadly (a perilously low-cut gown all-but-cheekily defies its period, for instance) but generally he crafts nearly voluptuous stretches of knowing banter that go down with the sweet sting of vintage champagne - and Dodge's smashing set, all 30s-era murals and curving banisters, conjures almost more atmosphere than required. But it's Broadway vet Victor Garber who must shine in this glittering setting, and he more than sparkles as the vain, vulnerable, impossible Essendine, who's still robustly seductive (even in a zebra-print dressing gown), but whose "age" varies from 42 to over a decade higher, and who's constantly catching his own eye in the mirror to count his gray hairs and wrinkles.

Much of the depth of Present Laughter, indeed, comes from the startling frankness of this self-portrait (which is rather less flattering than the one on Garry's wall). Essendine may be a talented monster (who's occasionally nasty toward women - Louise Kennedy, that's your cue!), but he has a sharp sense of his own absurdity, so we understand why those around him love him - and also why, and how, he loves them back. The mutual admiration society probably extends to this cast of actors, too, many of whom, like the characters they play, have worked together before, and here perform as a seamless unit. Indeed, the cast is so strong that this star vehicle often feels like an ensemble piece. Brooks Ashmanskas, for instance (above left), as a blithering playwright harassing Gary, suffuses his performance with a memorable infantility, and is so impeccable in his physical comedy that he steals the show almost every time he crosses the stage. Meanwhile Lisa Banes, as not-quite-ex-wife Liz, and Sarah Hudnut, as Gary's bright-eyed-but-seen-it-all secretary, are both superbly long-suffering in complementary keys. And don't get me started on local star Nancy Carroll, whose washed-out maidservant earned a roar of laughter on her very first entrance. My only quibble was with Pamela J. Gray as the predatory Joanna (who seeks with her feminine wiles to up-end Garry's comfortable existence); Gray's presence seemed to me at first not nearly ferocious enough (despite that plunging gown), but I have to admit she eventually won me over as she slowly stirred her well-chilled calculations.

Indeed, as the curtain fell (after a lovely song from the cast), I was reminded that Present Laughter has always seemed to me rather underrated in the Coward canon. Although it relies on this playwright's standard tropes (the dressing gowns, the dressings-down), it hints at an autumnal depth that the standard Coward hits lack - loss, loneliness, and the relentless passage of time register more poignantly here than elsewhere in his ouevre, and at the finale he (via Garry) even seems to grow up a little. And while Coward does closet his sexuality, Present Laughter still registers as far less guarded than, say, the more sexually-open Design for Living. Would an aggressively gay interpretation overshadow these virtues? Perhaps; and so I'm grateful to the Huntington for hewing to its author's intentions and persona - and of course more than happy with a production that could hold its own on Broadway.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Love and war at the Lyric

Ellen Adair and Barlow Adamson in Arms and the Man.

George Bernard Shaw thought of himself as a kind of disillusionist - an intellectual Penn & Teller, if you will, who dismantled harmful cultural delusions before his audience's eyes. The resulting demonstrations Shaw famously divided into "Plays Pleasant" (which amused as much as they provoked) and "Unpleasant" (in which sex and commerce were treated more baldly) - with Arms and the Man, currently in a smart, if not entirely satisfying, production at the Lyric Stage, widely considered among the playwright's most pleasant.

Indeed, Arms and the Man has certainly had legs (if you'll pardon the pun), not only inspiring a hit operetta (The Chocolate Soldier) but also being revived more than most of the rest of the Shaw canon combined. This is not only due to the eternal relevance of its central theme - the folly of romantic and military ideals - but also to said theme's encapsulation in a short, genuinely funny farce of unforced charm.

So a production of Arms and the Man is always good news - and so is most of the new staging by Spiro Veloudos at the Lyric. It gets at least half the show right - the war part, that is; as for the love part, that, alas, seems to have gone AWOL. There's little chemistry between its two capable stars, Barlow Adamson and Ellen Adair, and so the fact that it's a romantic comedy is something we often have to take on faith (not, I'm afraid, a very Shavian thing to do).

Which is too bad, because Shaw was far from a cynic about the tender passion; indeed, he may have been one of the most romantic men who ever lived. Shaw's brief in Arms and elsewhere was not to disparage love but to divorce it from its illusions, and ground it in practicality - which is little in evidence in his opening scene, which finds the sweet, smart, but dangerously naive Raina Petkoff (Adair) thrilling in her cossetted boudoir to the military exploits of her beloved, the pompously dashing Sergius Saranoff (yes, I know the characters sound like extras from Rocky and Bullwinkle). Said hero has just led a daring charge through a pass outside of town (Shaw set his comic bagatelle in an all-too-brutal Balkan conflict of 1885), but in the ensuing mêlée, the combatants have begun streaming into the city, and soon Raina is confronted on her own balcony with the Enemy - in the person of a pragmatic Swiss mercenary named Bluntschli (Adamson), who rather bluntly begins to shake her from her assumptions - and even her engagement.

Said shaking is made infinitely easier by the fact that Raina's betrothed (James Ryen) is better suited to a match with her sexy, insolent maid (Sarah Abrams) - both idealists, it turns out, have a secret jones for the worldly, and thus Shaw can neatly tie up his comedy without any particularly wrenching dislocations or losses, goosing the proceedings along with funny bumbling from Raina's parents, the Major and Mrs. Petkoff (reliable farceurs Ken Baltin and Bobbie Steinbach, above). The production is actually at its best when these actors square off with Shaw's opposing arguments, which Veloudos is sharp enough to have finely honed. The Shavian shots over the bow of militarism all land just where they should (Veloudos opens with an amusing pastiche of patriotic anthems, just so we get the joke), and the director draws some particularly funny internal dialectic out of newcomer James Ryen. But elsewhere Ryen feels merely blank - he seems to always be waiting for his next cue - and as his love interest, Sarah Abrams acts as if she's auditioning for some Bulgarian sitcom. Meanwhile Barlow Adamson brings about the right mix of practical acumen and subdued dash to Bluntschli, but perhaps not quite enough hidden, childlike sensitivity (mothering is always a component of Shaw's romantic mix), and Adair, while nailing all her laugh lines, comes off as increasingly self-aware but still a bit glassily unfeeling; we really don't understand where her sudden, truly romantic impulses come from (tough mama Bobbie Steinbach actually exudes more amorous allure).

There are other, slight, problems in the staging. For reasons unknown, Molly Trainer has turned to the Vienna Secession and Gustav Klimt to clothe her heartily bourgeois Bulgarians (this is a bit like dressing Archie Bunker in Prada) and Christina Todesco has styled their rustic crib as a pretty, pseudo-Art-Nouveau gazebo. I suppose to most Lyric subscribers, these artists and movements have all blurred together into "turn-of-the-century," but to more discerning observers, the choices look odd - just enough so, when added to other missteps, to keep this production of Arms from achieving its full reach.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The Ballet bounces back

Larissa Ponomarenko and Roman Rykine take flight in Giselle. (Photo by Evan Richman, Boston Globe staff.)

Only days after my complaints about the Boston Ballet's Balanchine program, they came tearing back with an elegant rendering of Giselle - with one of its strongest points being precisely what I criticized in the earlier evening, the corps de ballet. This time out, however, the corps (at least the feminine half) was in startlingly sharp shape as the "Wilis" (yes, you read that right), the ghosts of girls who have died before their wedding days. Of course, Giselle isn't quite as demanding as The Four Temperaments - but still, the line of the corps was consistently poised and clean, their patterned movement (particularly in their marching arabesques) gracefully synchronized, and the tone of Maina Gielgud's choreography was just right: spooky, at first a bit silly (to get that "the Wilis give you the willies" thang out of the way), but with a developing undertone of incipient vengeance.

The rest of Gielgud's production was just about right, too - not, perhaps, innovative, but confident, insightful, and mature (and boasting rich, exquisitely coordinated set and costume designs by Peter Farmer). Gielgud clearly understands that Giselle is as much acted as it is danced, and she drew deeply felt performances from her principals (but then anyone who saw The Taming of the Shrew a season or two ago knows the Ballet is stacked with good actors). As Giselle, Larissa Ponomarenko was all breathless fragility while being seduced by the besotted Prince Albrecht (Roman Rykine), and once betrayed by the faithless royal (who, it turns out, is already betrothed) came undone with alarming commitment - literally unable to keep either her physical or mental balance. Rykine, for his part, held onto our sympathy for Albrecht by making him an intriguing mix of sensitivity and privilege; his betrayal here played as an unhappy return to duty by someone who hadn't quite realized the depth of the emotions he was toying with. And technically, Rykine has rarely been better; he held himself in close, synchronized sympathy to Ponomarenko during their dances, and his leaps shot skyward with a clean, aquiline grace.

But the evening, frankly, probably belonged to Kathleen Breen Combes (below), who stalked the stage with memorable hauteur as Myrtha, the Queen of the Wilis, who forces her spectral sorority to dance till dawn - and boogie to the death any man foolish enough to intrude on their moonlit grove. Needless to say, the heartbroken Albrecht falls into their clutches, but is saved by the forgiving Giselle, who dances protectively with him until sunrise (another of Giselle's suitors, here essayed with contained fire by Reyneris Reyes, doesn't get off so easily). Ponomarenko and Rykine were once again peerless together, but somehow Combes stole the show with every imperious entrance, brandishing some decidedly phallic garlands and heartlessly whipping her hapless pledges into shape. It was a starmaking turn for current second-soloist Combes, but only one of many glittering moments in this memorable Giselle.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Please, more masterpieces

The cast of Valhalla.

At one point during tech week of Zeitgeist Stage's Valhalla (which I served in the role of dramaturge), cast members wanted to know what I thought of the show. I was in an interesting position; I had feared that my reputation as a critic would make relations with the cast frosty, but luckily, it turned out I'd never really savaged any of these folks in print - and instead of hostility, I was aware of a certain distance, but also a genuine curiosity and something like respect (quite a few of them read me regularly). David Miller, Zeitgeist's multi-talented director, was actually the one with a bone to pick (as I'd sniffed at his Norton-award-winning Blue/Orange, and only really given him one rave in my life, for Say You Love Satan); but we were getting along, and David seemed more and more intrigued by my offline input (I've directed upwards of a dozen shows myself). So I risked a little critical honesty - at least about the play itself. "The show has reached the point - and I mean this as a compliment," I ventured, "where what problems it has are clearly issues in the script, and not in the production itself."

They understood what I meant; it's a problem all actors bump into with new work, which, while immediately accessible to audiences, often has clear limits. Valhalla had its strengths - it's certainly a play worth doing - but our goal was also to mitigate, or even disguise its flaws: to make it the best it could be, or maybe even a little better than it actually is (sorry, Mr. Rudnick). And were we going to be able to do that?

Brian Quint and Elisa MacDonald in Valhalla.

I know I promised I wouldn't promote Valhalla, but now that it has closed, I think I'll just cheat a bit, and say that yes, I think we did make it seem a little better than it actually is. Rudnick's structure isn't the soundest, and the script sometimes slips into sketch, but the cast found the emotional truths that made it worthwhile. At any rate, they must have done something right - of the print critics, only the Phoenix's Carolyn Clay savaged the play - she felt it was a "galumphing odd duck," which in its harshness (and in its klutzy play on the script's swan imagery in Clay's patented, pun-ishing manner) was a rather galumphing misjudgment in its own right.

Clay's broadside was all the stranger given her negative, but still more forgiving, take on "Persephone," a far more flawed offering from the up-and-coming Noah Haidle which Nicholas Martin for some reason decided to showcase at the Huntington. Needless to say, the clever and talented Mr. Martin is a greater master of disguise than David Miller: Persephone played well from start to finish, and managed to consistently distract its audience from the fact that, as Gertrude Stein might have quipped, there wasn't any 'there' there. This was all the more striking given that the production had been troubled: Jeremiah Kissel stepped into a major role after rehearsals began, and then Melinda Lopez took over the lead just before tech week. But the local boy and girl made good: as a five-hundred-year-old statue of Demeter in Central Park, Lopez was radiantly, delicately pursed in her judgments, and she was ably, even slickly, abetted by Kissel, who skillfully morphed from art patron to pusher, and from louse to mouse (literally). There was also solid work on hand from New Yorkers Seth Fisher and Mimi Lieber, honeyed lighting from Ben Stanton, and two glorious, fully-realized sets from David Korins.

Melinda Lopez, Seth Fisher and Mimi Lieber in Act I of Persephone.

But all was for naught: when it came to being a coherent dramatic statement, Persephone did indeed seem to be the play from Hell. There are a few stretches of superb writing in the second act (from which we can tell that Haidle has a genuine voice) in which the statue of Demeter converses wittily and poignantly with an art-loving rat, and attempts without success to console a grieving mother (whose daughter was raped and killed at the statue's feet). These clearly form the solid core from which Haidle hoped to extrapolate a full play. But this is one case of "development" that should have been arrested - Haidle wandered off in conflicting directions, perhaps imagining his usual mix of sweet and sour could be centrifuged into separate dramatic dishes. Thus he drafts a syrupy, utterly synthetic Act I, then drops more shit on Demeter's head than the pigeons do in Act II, before making a sharp u-turn into meaningless affirmation and a head-scratcher of a happy ending. Although we can feel Haidle checking off little thematic boxes throughout (hmmm, I'll have the first-act mouse hate art, then the second-act mouse love it . . .) nothing in the show hangs together (even the set changes in tone, from warm, PBS-romantic to cooler theatre-of-the-absurd). The Globe's Louise Kennedy suggested the script needed "more refining and shaping"; I thought it needed a sledgehammer, if only to pound it back to its solid core, which might form most of an arresting one-act.

The colder clime of Persephone, Act II.

Not that the Huntington was alone with its Persephone problem - indeed, many local houses struggled this season with small, solid ideas stretched beyond their limits. Perhaps most successful in the struggle was Scott Edmiston, who's something of an expert in dramatic camouflage. In "Five by Tenn," he found a clever "story arc" to link together five minor Tennessee Williams one-acts that would have wobbled on their own, and in The Women he deployed a solid cast (and dazzling set and costumes) to successfully sell a dated script as a campy exercise in high style. Edmiston performed another hat trick with Miss Witherspoon, (by Christopher Durang, perhaps not coincidentally Noah Haidle's teacher at Juilliard), a dark farce that opens with a clever idea - a suicide finds herself stuck in a cycle of reincarnation from which she can only extricate herself via, yes, more suicides. The premise had potential, but Durang slowly abandoned it for an increasingly bizarre pop culture pastiche. Edmiston and his top-notch cast (among them Marianna Bassham, Paula Plum, and Larry Coen, below left) and brilliant design team kept everything singing along merrily, however, even as Durang piled on more and more non sequiturs and the script, perforce, settled thematically for less and less. It was hard to fight the feeling that while Miss Witherspoon as a play was a bit better than Persephone, and perhaps not quite as good as Valhalla, Edmiston took the honors in best dramatic disguise.

Which leads us to deeper questions about the direction of Boston theatre. Not so long ago, classics formed the core of the stagnant Boston scene, and folks everywhere called out for more new work. But you should always be careful what you wish for. New works are now the norm - but few have proved of much lasting interest, despite productions that have been, by and large, scintillating. In fact, I have a gnawing feeling that Boston - like Scott Edmiston - is beginning to specialize in the art of disguise, and that's not a good thing. I'm getting rather tired of a certain knee-jerk attitude that I summarized on another blog as "Why do a great old play when we can do a mediocre new one?" The answer is that we need the great old plays as the benchmark for our current endeavors. Without them we might find ourselves truly satisfied with the likes of Miss Witherspoon.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Balanchine in the balance

Rie Ichikawa, Melanie Atkins, Heather Myers, and Lia Cirio in Ballo Della Regina.

After a superb program of new works earlier this spring, Boston Ballet unexpectedly foundered (slightly) with last week's Classic Balanchine, and I've been pondering for some time exactly why this was so. Part of the problem was that the program didn't quite hang together: the three Balanchine works selected (Ballo della Regina, La Valse and The Four Temperaments) were presented in reverse chronological order (although the dates of the accompanying music moved in the opposite direction), but this arrangement revealed little, if any, sense of Balanchine's development. Instead the idea simply seemed to be to convey the breadth of the master's aesthetic; a worthy goal, perhaps, but in practice, the results were slightly diffuse. This impression was reinforced, I'm afraid, by the performances (at least on opening night). The corps, as usual, wasn't quite up to the cut-glass precision of Mr. B's grouped synchronicities. And Lorna Feijóo, the expected centerpiece of Ballo, was sidelined by illness, and the company's other stars - Larissa Ponomarenko and Yury Yanowsky - were either in bit parts or absent altogether. The dancers on the rise who filled their toe shoes were, I'm happy to report, fully up to the technical challenge of this demanding choreographer; but their ability to project their personalities through dance is not yet on the same level as the company's customary headliners.

Balanchine himself famously groused that all the "acting" a dancer needed to perform his choreography was to be found in the steps; but of course he was wrong about that - indeed, he often designed works with individual dancers and their personal charisma in mind, and so should have known better than to disparage what he was in fact exploiting (Ballo, for instance, was designed specifically for Merrill Ashley). In the lead role of the dance (which is an abstracted version of a Verdi ballet about a fisher and a pearl) Erica Cornejo, Feijóo's last-minute replacement, caught fire in her later variations after a rather blurry start (she may have been inspired by glittering turns from Lia Cirio and Melanie Atkins), but still her brilliance felt slightly blank, as if she were simply thrilled to be successfully leaping through a series of ever-higher hoops. There was also little connection between her and her gleaming consort, the technically dazzling James Whiteside, who has the looks (and legs) of Apollo but not yet quite his presence. And alas, the corps of sea nymphs around the central cavorting couple did indeed seem occasionally at sea.

The corps did better in La Valse, Balanchine's elegant rumination on Ravel's Valses nobles et sentimentales of 1911 and La valse of 1920, which straddle the cataclysm of World War I in their doomy, sinister romance. Here Mr. B seems to have set his sights on evoking a cotillion at the Gates of Hell, a kind of deadpan "Come Dressed as the Sick Soul of Europe" party - or at least that's how the Boston version played. Refugees from Last Year at Marienbad - including a trio of gowned witches (or Fates?) - disported themselves in a high-society danse macabre before "The Girl in White" (Karine Seneca) - the virgin/debutante at the ball - was drawn from her partner to the arms of Death himself (Carlos Molina). Somehow, however, there was little suspense to this particular decline and fall; as with Cornejo's brilliance, Seneca's porcelain beauty was slightly unmoving, although once she comprehended her own impending end (in a mirror Mr. D thoughtfully provided, along with diamonds and dead flowers), she threw herself into her death throes with frightening conviction, and so almost brought off her final apotheosis.

After these two oddly opposed suites - one of which adores the ballerina, while the other destroys her - the Ballet essayed The Four Temperaments (1946), and yet another Balanchinean mode, that of stripped-down modernism. Here, against a repurposed score by Paul Hindemith, Balanchine worked through - and beyond - the break between modern dance and ballet (in the dance's opening moments, the performers stretch their feet gracefully into classic ballet position, then flex them into odd, blocked, awkward shapes). The look is spare (tights and rehearsal clothes), and the feeling is protean, even if the "book" of the ballet (which does present the four temperaments of yore - Melancholic, Sanguinic, Phlegmatic, and Choleric) is a bit hokey in its nod to classicism. On opening night, John Lam was a strikingly passionate Melancholic, and Larissa Ponomarenko and Nelson Madrigal performed the subtlest, most attentive dancing of the evening as the "Sanguinic" couple. Carlos Molina, as "Phlegmatic," and Kathleen Breen Combes, in the brief flare that was "Choleric," both had their moments, but once again their best efforts were undermined by an indistinct corps - and precision is everything in the harsh landscape of Balanchine and Hindemith. Indeed, The Four Temperaments is probably most memorable in its delineation of a choreographic language appropriate to this composer - the score is strong enough to stand on its own, and Jonathan McPhee and the Ballet Orchestra, despite a slightly lagging string section, gave a good account of it in the pit (they were at their lustrous best, btw, in the Ravel).

Still, as the curtain fell, a certain sense of missed opportunity haunted the theatre. What's missing first from the Ballet's attack was a clear commitment to its corps - Balanchine isn't star driven, and many of his structures depend on an almost ingrained precision, which to date in the company's Balanchine evenings has been missing. Then there's the subtler problem of personality, and the way it always informs even the coldest, clearest stretches of this romantic modernist. The Ballet's younger stars have the legs for classic Balanchine; but do they have the hearts?

Friday, May 4, 2007

Bill Marx's prayers are answered

Somebody call Bill Marx (wherever he is)! From New York Magazine's website:

London's The Stage reports that starting in 2008, advertisements that misleadingly quote critical reviews could subject producers to criminal penalties. The European Union's new Unfair Commercial Practices Directive goes into effect in England, and it could apply to theater advertisements, according to one local solicitor.

But will this law result in any prosecutions? Or is this much ado about nothing? ("We are … amused," raves Queen Elizabeth I!) Reportedly, the relevant British government office will be looking for a test case come the end of the year; in order to be punishable, manipulated quotes would be violations if they influence consumer behavior and if they do not meet the "standard of care reasonably expected of a producer."

What can you reasonably expect of a producer? There is, of course, a long and proud theatrical tradition of producers tweaking the city's newspapers by using misleading quotes in their advertisements, as Charles Isherwood complained in the Times last June.

The most infamous example is David Merrick finding seven random New Yorkers with the same names as the city's theater critics to rave about his 1961 show Subways Are Sleeping (poster at left; photo: New York Herald Tribune). Just last week, Michael Riedel at the Post reported that Scott Rudin, angry at the Times' practice of letting readers post "reviews" of shows before they open, has been pulling quotes from those reviews, using them in ads for The Year of Magical Thinking, and attributing them to "The New York Times Online."

The practice isn't limited to Broadway, of course; in 2001 Sony invented a critic named David Manning to blurb their films in newspaper ads. Our personal favorite example of outright blurb fraud, though, comes from the book world. We distinctly recall publicity material for Benjamin Kunkel's novel, Indecision, including a glowing line from Gilbert Cruz's review in Entertainment Weekly: "Benjamin Kunkel has succeeded in crafting a voice of singular originality." The publicist left out, though, the way Cruz ended that sentence: "— one that you want to punch in the mouth."

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Stars are born

A few more musical notes from my long blogging hiatus (don't worry, the catch-up comments on theater are coming soon!) . . .

Handel and Haydn's reading of The Seasons was generally as deeply satisfying as expected - even if at one point Roger Norrington, who works sans score or even podium, suddenly had to call a halt to the proceedings and get soloist and orchestra back in synch. Despite this gaffe, Norrington pretty much cemented the impression he gave at his earlier H&H concert this year - that his command of Haydn's idiom is nearly definitive. Alas, the playing this time out was perhaps not quite as spirited as at Norrington's first appearance, but the conductor drew a greater sense of depth and maturity from the orchestra, particularly in the closing, soul-searching scenes of winter. The other big news was the performance of Austrian baritone Günther Groissböck (in his American debut). Mr. Groissböck (at left) boasts a voice with the kind of size and burnished, resonant color on which major careers are made, and his phrasing proved sensitive and intellectually penetrating. It doesn't hurt that he has blonde matinee-idol looks, either. We'll be hearing more from Mr. Groissböck (at least I hope so).

Another star-to-be flickered briefly in the local firmament at Longwood Symphony's April 14 concert to benefit the Shriners Burn Hospital (all of the programs of Longwood Symphony, which is composed of local medical professionals, are benefits for medically underserved populations). Said star was the young Augustin Hadelich (at left), who is himself the survivor of a terrible fire, which almost cost him his life. This brought an added level of poignance to the concert, but it's clear that Mr. Hadelich doesn't need his medical history (or his sweet stage presence) to ensure his celebrity. He is, in short, a talent perhaps on the order of Joshua Bell, with a light but daring touch that sometimes pushed thrillingly close to dissonance. Hadelich made a convincing case for Glazunov's rarely-heard Violin Concerto, but it was his encore, of a Bach sonata, that was most spellbinding. But you don't have to take my word for it; you can hear audio clips on Mr. Hadelich's website here; he also occasionally blogs.

The Longwood Symphony, under the baton of Jonathan McPhee (above,who always brings a propulsive intelligence to the playing at Boston Ballet), elsewhere proved itself a worthy competitor to Benjamin Zander's Boston Philharmonic. The horns were occasionally a little rough, but the strings and woodwinds were often bravura, particularly in McPhee's commanding account of Mozart's Haffner Symphony, which opened the concert. After the Glazunov, McPhee programmed another rarity - Norman Dello Joio's "Seraphic Dialogues," a suite drawn from the composer's opera "The Triumph of Saint Joan." Alas, neither the orchestra nor Mr. McPhee could quite do for Dello Joio what Hadelich did for Glazunov: "Seraphic Dialogues" was attractive, and sometimes intriguing, but also never quite gripping in its heroicism. Still, one hopes this doesn't dissuade Longwood and McPhee from continuing their adventurous programming.

Wednesday, May 2, 2007

Mother love

Jane Ring Frank and Boston Secession - Photo by Susan Wilson

It isn't often that a local musical group premieres a piece that one senses immediately will become part of the permanent repertory, but that's exactly what happened last Friday night at the final Boston Secession concert of the season. The concert itself, "Mother Tongue," was designed as a kind of guided tour through the pleasures and pitfalls of setting the English language to music, and the evening featured the group's familiar strengths - a commitment to serious musicianship leavened with a friendly sense of joie de vivre.

This time out, however, the balance was a little less harmonious than usual; artistic director Jane Ring Frank's comments were gathered into what almost amounted to a lecture, complete with detailed analyses of metrical feet (dactyls, trochees, etc.). Frank's general point was that after the untimely death of Purcell (and the later popularity of Handel), the English adopted French and Italian vocal forms which were ill-suited to the accented rhythms of their "mother tongue" (as in, a tongue that's a real mother!) - and Frank had some hilarious examples of nineteenth century pseudo-Franco-Italian writing (by the likes of Michael W. Balfe) to back up her thesis. It wasn't until Gilbert and Sullivan, she pointed out, that musical strategies began to catch up with the metrical problems of English - eventually leading to the musical flowering of the language in the twentieth century, under Britten and other composers.

This is certainly fine as far as it goes, and Frank's technical analysis was definitely sure-footed (in both senses of the term). But it seemed to this listener that she ignored a deeper cultural shift that brought English to the vocal fore in the twentieth century: the musical world as a whole was groping for an ironic, intellectualized style to grapple with the aesthetic problems of the modern era - and English is nothing if not appropriate to ironic modes. (It didn't hurt, either, that there was so much sympathy between the musical and literary styles of Benjamin Britten and W.H. Auden, one of the century's greatest composers and one of its greatest poets.)

But whatever the reason for the slow bloom of the English musical tradition, we were more than ready for it to flower after a little too much Victorian parody (and one amusingly prickly poem from Marianne Moore, set by Virgil Thomson). Luckily, Frank and the Boston Secession delivered: the concert reached a stunning high point with the Britten/Auden Hymn to St. Cecilia (the patron saint of music). Here, Britten was blessed with an Auden text that's almost the equal of such classics as "In Memory of W. B. Yeats," and his setting is justifiably famous for its lovely extension of traditional modes to a new, mournful self-awareness. Appropriately, the chorale's singing was at its most crystalline, and Frank's direction seemed to capture every facet of Auden's multivalent mood; at its conclusion, the crowd understandably went wild.

Daringly, however, Frank had then programmed three new commissions in a row, "Ashes of Soldiers," by Byron Adams to a text by Walt Whitman; "After the Storm," by the Secession's resident composer, Ruth Lomon, to a text by Joyce Carol Oates; and "Prospects," by Emerson's Scott Wheeler, to a text by Anthony Hecht. All of these proved worthy; Wheeler's, a wry take on the naivete of idealism, had a haunting sense of abstract space in its shifting vocal planes, while Lomon's, a quietly alienated evocation of a disastrous flood (cross-cut with banal line readings from local weathermen) intrigued but didn't quite seem to take its ideas the full musical distance.

"Ashes of Soldiers," however, like many a small masterpiece, seemed to cohere from its opening moments, and by its conclusion it was hard to fight the feeling that one had just heard an instant classic. Adams (like Britten) was blessed with a stunning text - Whitman at his most mournfully piercing - and while his musical voice may not be deeply original, here he's clearly operating at something like a personal best technically, and with impressive emotional sensitivity. Whitman's ode is a "chant in the name of all dead soldiers," for whom "all is over and long gone," but for whom Whitman's love, however, "is not over," and will never be over. The piece perfectly balances the deepest love of the soldier with the deepest disillusion with war - and so, perhaps, will serve as an appropriate threnody to our lost boys and girls in Iraq, and indeed on battlefields everywhere.