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Jean Genet’s “The Maids” at Lincoln Center Festival

Posted on: August 16th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

I attended the next-to-last showing of Jean Genet’s play “The Maids” at Lincoln Center Festival last night.  This production was brought to New York by the Sydney Theater Company.  To me, the big discovery was the least well-known of the three actresses – Elizabeth Debicki, who played the Mistress.  Cate Blanchett and Isabelle Huppert, both major international film stars, played the two sisters who are the Mistress’s maids.

Of course Genet wrote this in French, but it was presented in an English translation by Benedict Andrews and Andrew Upton.  Andrews is the director, and the production’s extraordinary set was designed by Alice Babidge.  Lighting designer is Nick Schlieper.  Nobody was specifically credited in the program as costume designer, but perhaps Ms. Babidge had a hand in that as well.  Bits of incidental music came from Oren Ambarchi, with a big hat tip to Brahms, as some segments from his symphonies were obtrusively played at a few spots.  Large projections on stage from a live camera feed were designed and operated by Sean Bacon.  Unusually, there was an explicit credit for a “dramaturg” in the program: Matthew Whittet.  And evidently the “new translation” was based on a prior translation by Julie Rose.  The listings in the program book thus raised some interesting questions.  Most prominently, how close was this presentation to something Genet would have recognized as his play?  The booklet notes mention that Genet intended this work to be performed in drag by three male actors, but that notion, quite obviously, was tossed aside early on.

In any event, I thought this was one of the weirdest shows I’ve seen in a long time.  The premise is that sisters, working as maids to a wealthy woman, have decided to finish her off and run away, or something to that effect.  The first hour they spend plotting how they will do this, with many shenanigans as they disport themselves about her fabulous apartment.  When she finally arrives, the atmosphere changes starkly, and I found that after the somewhat talky first hour, which occasionally lost my attention and concentration, the entrance of the Mistress was like a fresh breeze, riveting me to the proceedings as long as she was on-stage.  Whether that is an artifact of how the plot develops or of how Ms. Debicki animated this character, I couldn’t tell, but she certain injected an incredible quantum of energy into what had until then struck me as a less than energetic presentation.

Since the run is over after tonight, I don’t think I am giving away too much to mention that the maids’ plot is not successful.  But the working out of their confrontations after the Mistress shows up is quite entertaining and occasionally quite hilarious.

Somebody at Lincoln Center Festival did make one significant miscalculation.  They had decided to run it as one long act, presumably because Genet conceived it that way?  (Although I can imagine this being done as a two-act show, as there is a natural breaking point either just before or just after the Mistress arrives.)  But the program said it would run 1 hour and 30 minutes without an intermission.  In the event, it ran about two hours without an intermission, and that is long time to sit with no relief.  Since the second half was so lively, it wasn’t oppressively so, but I found myself glancing at the my cellphone from time to time, wondering how long this would be going on….

The 2014 Glimmerglass Opera Festival in Cooperstown, New York

Posted on: August 11th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

I’ve just returned from a weekend in the Cooperstown, New York, area, where I attended three of the four main stage presentations of this year’s edition of the Glimmerglass Opera Festival.  Glimmerglass takes it name from Lake Glimmerglass in the Leatherstocking Tales of James Fennimore Cooper.  Cooper, whose family gave its name to Cooperstown, was thinking of Otsego Lake when he created the fictional Lake Glimmerglass for his tales of Indians and settlers in colonial America.  So the Festival, now situated on a large lakeside plot just north of town, is appropriately named.  The operas are presented in a beautiful, intimate theater, large enough to support a decent-sized orchestra pit, with excellent acoustics and sightlines everywhere in the house and comfortable seating.  It is a prime place to hear opera, and the standard of performance and production values is usually very high.

And so it was this year for the operas I attended: An American Tragedy, Ariadne in Naxos, and Madame Butterfly.  The usual formula at Glimmerglass in recent years has been to present at least one very mainstream standard repertory opera,  one classic American musical, and two works outside of the standard repertory, either due to their modernity, antiquity, or obscurity.  Butterfly was our standard work, An American Tragedy our modern work, Ariadne the novelty of a not-so-frequently performed work by a major operatic composer, and the classic American musical this year was Carousel.  Having seen the recent NY Philharmonic presentation of Carousel, I wasn’t interested enough to cram a fourth program into my weekend.  One a night from Thursday through Saturday was enough for me.  Glimmerglass helpfully schedules the operas in such a way that one can see the entire run of four operas in a weekend, if one desires.  (That could be done this past weekend by attending Ariadne on Friday night, Tragedy on Saturday afternoon, Butterfly on Saturday night, and Carousel on Sunday afternoon.  I did my trifecta by seeing Tragedy on Thursday night.  The only night the theater is usually silent is Wednesday night.)

Glimmerglass brings together an ensemble of talented central New York professional musicians who constitute a high quality orchestra, they bring in experienced conductors of the repertory in question, import a combination of established professional opera singers and talented folks at earlier points in their careers, the youngest of whom are apprentices in the Young Artist Program who get to perform together with the pros, and attract top people in the various production crafts.  Usually there are a few reasonably “big names” from the opera world on hand.  The most prominent this year was Christine Goerke, who has made her mark at the Met and several other major companies, appearing as the Diva/Ariadne in the Strauss work.  Ryan McKinny, who made a big splash last season in the title role of Wagner’s Flying Dutchman, sang Billy Bigelow in Carousel.  Beyond that the singers were less well known, but were all well up to their parts with only minor exceptions.  One could be well-satisfied with the performances.

The actual facility, while handsome, is not really capable of the kind of spectacular sets that one sees in the world’s major houses, but Glimmerglass makes up for that with imagination, relying heavily on flies, projections, props, and lighting to create the settings for their productions, some of which are minimalist by modern standards but always adequate to the task of invoking the proper surroundings to communicate the stories of these operas.  I never felt that any of the settings were inadequate to the musical productions.

First up for me this year was An American Tragedy, music by Tobias Picker, libretto by Gene Scheer, inspired by Theodore Dreiser’s novel of the same name, which was itself inspired by a real incident that occurred in central New York early in the 20th century.  An ambitious striving young man from a poor background is given a job in a factory by a wealth uncle, conceives a romance with another factory worker, but then meets a society girl who sweeps him off his feet, unfortunately after he’s gotten the co-worker pregnant.  The result is ultimately a tragedy, the death of the pregnant girlfriend under somewhat unclear circumstances, the prosecution of the young man who maintained his innocence but was convicted and executed.  It’s a very suitable story for operatic setting.  I saw the premiere production of this at the Metropolitan Opera, and was interested to see how it would play out in the more intimate setting of Glimmerglass.  Composer and librettist took the opportunity to revise the score, tightening and cutting by about 20 minutes.  This production was largely turned over to the Young Artists Program for casting, with Christian Bowers portraying the central character of Clyde Griffiths, Vanessa Isiguen the first girlfriend, Roberta Alden, and Cynthia Cook the second girlfriend, Sondra Finchley.  All three were superb, although Bowers lacked the special star power that Nathan Gunn brought to the Met premiere.  (Almost a decade later, I would consider Gunn probably too old for the role today, as Clyde has to be a young, callow fellow.)  George Manahan led a ship-shape performance, and the sets by Alexander Dodge and costumes by Anya Klepikov created the appropriate atmosphere for this intensely dramatic work.  Robert Wierzel handled the crucially lighting, which is such an important component at Glimmerglass. Peter Kazaras, whose singing I remember well from his NYC Opera Days, directed.  Even with the cutting, I found the first act a bit too extended — there is so much exposition to get through, and it is not all engrossing — but the second act struck me as perfect.  Certainly, the piece packs a big punch and the music communicates the dramatic intensity of the characters and their interactions.

Friday night it was Ariadne in Naxos, music by Richard Strauss and libretto by Hugo von Hofmannsthal, present in an English adaptation (in part) by Kelley Rourke.  This is a two part opera.  In the first part, we are “backstage” for the goings-on at a wealthy man’s estate where preparations are taking place for an evening spectacular.  The host is having a big dinner party to be followed by live entertainment, a specially-commissioned opera featuring a leading diva.  But as the performers are assembling, the major-domo informs them that a decision was made to bring a troupe of popular artists to perform as well, and that due to the timing of the dinner and the evening fireworks, the two performing groups would have to combine and merge their presentations.  Consternation breaks out, as one can imagine.  Glimmerglass presented this first act in English, and transferred the setting from the Vienna hills to the hills of Central New York, the musical production being presented in a barnlike structure which provided the unit set for both acts.  In the second act, we see the merged presentations.  In this performance, highlighting the differences, the opera is performed in German while the more popular ensemble sings in English — except for a few lines when they don’t!  Francesca Zambello, the artistic director of Glimmerglass, directed, with sets by Troy Hourie, costumes by Erik Teague, and lighting by Mark McCullough.  Christine Goerke was splendid as the Diva/Ariadne, but the real scene-stealer was Rachele Gilmore as Zerbinetta, the leader and soprano of the popular troupe.  Catherine Martin was excellent in the “trousers” role of the Composer.  Corey Bix, who sang the part of the operatic tenor and Bacchus, seemed to have too small a voice to be paired with Ms. Goerke, however.  A liberal sprinkling of Young Artisst Program members were sprinkled through the cast, prime among them Carlton Ford, the Harlequin, and Adam Cioffari, the Composer’s harried Agent.  This was the most “fun” production of the three operas.  I’d seen Ariadne at the Met, long ago, but it did not then make much of an impression on me.  This performance, skillfully conducted by Kathleen Kelly, really caught and held my attention, aided undoubtedly by the excellent pre-performance talk that she gave an hour before the curtain.

Finally, on Saturday night, Madame Butterfly, music by Giacomo Puccini and libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa, based on a play by David Belasco and a short story by John Luther Long.  This is the familiar tale of the American naval officer who upon arrival with his ship in Nagasaki contracts with a marriage broker to marry a young Japanese woman, whom he then abandons with promises to return when his ship leaves.  Unbeknownst to him, his wife is pregnant.  Although the marriage broker tries to persuade her that the marriage is done after the officer, Pinkerton, is gone, Butterfly refuses to believe this, instead clinging to her love for Pinkerton and his promise to return, through three long years and the birth of their son, fending off suitors, etc.  Finally, Pinkerton’s ship does return, but he has married an American woman (who accompanies him), oblivious to the fact that he is a father.  Butterfly patiently awaits for him to come and rejoin her, and is desolated  to learn that he has married.  He is desolated as well when he comes to understand the situation.  Upon learning about his son, he persuades his wife to take the boy back to America.  Once she has confronted the truth, Butterfly kills herself.  Quite the tragedy!  And if well done, leaving the audience aghast at the end. . .  The opera was a failure at its first performance, but as subsequently revised by the composer has become part of the core repertory of major opera houses and an audience favorite.  Puccini’s music has become so familiar that audiences could probably sing along with some of the most famous arias (but one hopes they don’t)!  Yunah Lee was spectacularly good in the title role, and Dinyar Vania was an effective Pinkerton, although I don’t think quite in her class.  The Young Artists Program yielded excellent supporting players as Goro, the marriage broker — Ian McEuen — and Suzuki, Butterfly’s maid — Kristen Choi.  Perhaps the most sympathetic character in the opera is the American counsel, Sharpless, who was ably sung by another Young Artists Program member, Aleksey Bogdanov (who also contributed an excellent performance as the rich uncle in An American Tragedy).  Unlike most standard productions of this opera, the first act was first set in the American consulate, although ending in Butterfly’s mountain house; the second also divided between the consulate and the house.  Minimalist sets, with the settings being created largely from props, flies, and lighting design, but most effectively so. . .  Ms. Zambello directed, with sets by Michael Yeargan, costumes by Anita Yavich, and lighting by Robert Wierzel.  Glimmerglass musical director Joseph Colaneri led the splendid performance.

Each of these operas was so very different that it is difficult to single out a favorite, but I think at the end of the weekend that Ariadne had made the biggest impression on me — probably because it was an opera I hadn’t really appreciated in the past but that now looms much larger in my estimation because of this excellent production.  But all three were terrific.  It is such a big loss for NYC that the old Glimmerglass-NYC Opera connection was broken as NYC Opera reduced its scale of operation and then went out of business entirely, since transfers of productions from Glimmerglass back during the years when Paul Kellogg directed both companies were frequently highlights of the City Opera season.  It would be great if somebody in NYC could re-establish the connection so these excellently conceived productions would have a wider audience.

In the meantime, however, if you haven’t given it a try in the past, think about Glimmerglass for next summer.  The festival runs from July 10 through August 21, and the schedule includes four great works: Mozart’s Magic Flute (for which this opera house is the perfect size), Verdi’s MacBeth, Vivaldi’s Cato in Utica (a real novelty!), and Bernstein’s Candide – presumably the opera house version.  I’ve already booked!


Atlantic Theater Company’s Production of “Between Riverside and Crazy”

Posted on: July 19th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

I attended a performance this afternoon of Atlantic Theater Company’s production of Stephen Adly Guirgis’s new play, “Between Riverside and Crazy.”  It was not clear to me whether this was a preview or whether the production has actually opened, but everything went very smoothly and the cast and technical crew certainly have everything under control.

I was very entertained and impressed by this story of an elderly African-American former NYC police officer, retired on a disability pension and struggling along in his rent controlled Riverside Drive apartment.  Other characters are the officer’s son, his son’s girlfriend, another friend of the son who is living in the apartment as a guest, a “church lady” who pays a visit, and a police lieutenant and his police detective fiancé who come to dinner.  This seven-member cast provides lively entertainment in a drama that has moments of comedy and is fast-paced and engaging under the direction of Austin Pendleton.  The set by Walt Spangler provides an excellent representation of one of those big old Upper West Side Manhattan rent controlled apartments.

Stephen McKinley Henderson creates an unforgettable character as “Pops” Washington, the retired cop.  He has been given witty dialogue and he makes the most of it.  Victor Almanzar is amusing and horrifying as an ex-con junkie friend of Pops’ son, and Ray Anthony Thomas is solid as the son, Junior.  Rosal Colon as Junior’s girlfriend, Lulu, provides much of the comic relief as well as some of the pathos.  Michael Rispoli and Elizabeth Canavan play the police officers who are charming at first.  Finally, Liza Colon-Zayas is a “church lady” with an agenda.

I wouldn’t call this a “deep” show, but I think there are many interesting messages buried in it as it explores the perspective of somebody in the position of Pops who is determined not to become a victim of the system that he has come to detest.  This was very much worth seeing, and I hope it draws full houses for the rest of its run.

Recent Broadway Expeditions: Bullets Over Broadway & A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder

Posted on: July 13th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

I recently had the opportunity to attend performances of two new musicals playing in Broadway houses: Woody Allen’s “Bullets Over Broadway” and Robert L. Freedman and Steven Lutvak’s “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder.”  And a fine time was had by all.

I don’t think one would necessarily imagine that “Bullets Over Broadway,” a Woody Allen film of long ago, would readily translate to musical comedy, especially without the active participation of a composer to create original music.  What Allen has done in collaboration with Douglas McGrath and director/choreographer Susan Stroman is to reimagine the piece with period music, so the entire thing has the appropriate flavor and many of the songs are already certified successes of an earlier time with music by a wide range of composers, culminating in a finale based on “Yes! We Have No Bananas” by Irving Cohn and Frank Silver.  The tale is simply told: a struggling young playwright is able to get his script produced by agreeing to cast a mobster’s girlfriend in a leading role so that the mobster will come up with the money.  Complications ensue when the mobster assigns a bodyguard to hover over the production to protect his girl and his investment, and the bodyguard, a creative sort, starts making suggestions of script-changes, eventually bullying the author into totally recasting his show along the lines dictated by the bodyguard.  Zach Braff is the young play-writer, and he does a fine job, but Nick Cordero, who plays the bodyguard, definitely walks off with the show.  Great sets and costumes, lively direction, and certified-success music, although the lack of a single composing team means a certain lack of musical unity to the whole, only somewhat overcome by the common vintage of most of the music.  As with much of Woody Allen’s comedy, the humor is situational and amusing but only rarely laugh-out-loud funny.  I had a good time.

“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder” is an Edwardian farce loosely based on an old English film, “Kind Hearts and Coronets.”  A young man mourning his recently deceased mother is startled to learn from a strange old lady that his mother was the disinherited daughter of a distinguished royal family, and he is 8th in line to a title and castle.  The young man sets out to reduce the barriers through a combination of knocking off people ahead of him in line, endearing himself to strategically placed members of the family, and even marrying one of the women (despite his prior emotional attachment) to another.  The music is more functional than memorable, although I found that a second go with the recently released cast-recording, which gave me a better shot at hearing and appreciating the witty lyrics by Freedman, left me with a higher opinion of the score than I had at the end of the performance.  The show features a large, enthusiastic and talented cast, with the main focus on Bryce Pinkham as the young social climber and Jefferson Mays playing a dizzying variety of roles, all member of the royal family (male and one female).  Mays is spectacular, as always, channeling at times “I Am My Own Wife,” the farce in which his spot as one of the modern’s theater’s leading drag performers was established.  Lisa O’Hare and Lauren Worsham are excellent as the women vying for the young man’s affections, and Jane Carr is memorable as the strange old lady who sets the man on his course and later steps in to complete the task.  I had an even better time at this show than at the other, not least because the plot is just so much more inventive and entertaining — and fast-moving — that it kept me more closely engaged.  The first act of “Bullets” sagged at times, but there was no let-up at “Gentleman’s Guide.”

9th Circuit Panels Rule on Idaho Stay & California Campaign Disclosure Rules

Posted on: May 21st, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

Three-judge panels of the San Francisco-based U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit issued two rulings of some consequence from the perspective of LGBT rights on May 20. In one, the court delayed implementation of U.S. Magistrate Candy Dale’s ruling striking Idaho’s ban on same-sex marriages while expediting the court’s consideration of the merit’s of Idaho’s appeal of that ruling. In the other, the court rejected a challenge by Prop 8 Committees (organizations formed to support the enactment of California Proposition 8 in the 2008 elections) to California’s law requiring such committees to disclose the identity of their donors.

In Latta v. Otter, Magistrate Dale ruled on May 13 that Idaho’s refusal to allow same-sex couples to marry, or to recognize the out-of-state marriages of same-sex couples, violates the 14th Amendment. Magistrate Dale ordered that the state cease enforcing the same-sex marriage ban as of 9 a.m. on May 16, and she subsequently denied a petition by Governor Butch Otter to stay her ruling while the state appealed to the 9th Circuit. Governor Otter then applied directly to the 9th Circuit, which issued a temporary stay while it considered whether to stay the order until a merits panel could hear and decide the state’s appeal of Dale’s Order. On May 20, the 9th Circuit granted Otter’s petition, citing the Supreme Court’s action of January 6, 2014, when it granted Utah Governor Gary Herbert’s petition to stay a marriage equality ruling by U.S. District Judge Robert Shelby, which the state was appealing to the 10th Circuit.

However, implicitly acknowledging the urgency of plaintiffs’ quest for the right to marry or have their marriages recognized, the court scuttled its original usual briefing schedule for the appeal, and set tight deadlines, specifying that neither party could ask for time extensions on the deadlines. The court set a schedule under which briefing will be completed by the end of July, and specified that the case should be argued during the week of September 8. Although that sounds rather far off, it is actually a relatively speedy schedule for a federal appeals court.

Although the panel did not offer an explanation for its actions, one of its members, Judge Andrew D. Hurwitz, an Obama appointee and the junior member of the three-judge panel, issued a concurring opinion explaining why he agreed with the panel’s action. Referring to the Utah stay, he said that the Supreme Court “has virtually instructed courts of appeals to grant stays in the circumstances before us today,” but said that “if we were writing on a cleaner slate,” he would conclude that the usual factors applied by courts to deciding applications to stay trial court decisions “counsels against the stay requested by the Idaho appellants.” (The appellants in this case are Governor Otter and other state officials sued in the trial court.)

Hurwitz explained further, “It is almost certain that the Supreme Court will eventually resolve the merits of this appeal, and I do not venture to predict the Court’s ultimate conclusion. But, in light of this court’s recent decision in SmithKline Beecham v. Abbott Laboratories, 740 F.3d 471 (9th Cir. 2014), I find it difficult to conclude that the Idaho ban on same-sex marriage would survive interim Ninth Circuit review.” Since the first factor courts consider in deciding whether to grant a petition for a stay is whether the party requesting the stay has made a “strong showing” that it will prevail on appeal, and the SmithKline court ruled that “heightened scrutiny” applies in judicial review of laws that discriminate based on sexual orientation, “it is difficult to see how the Idaho appellants can make a ‘strong showing’ that they will prevail in their defense of a measure that denies the individual appellees the right to marry because of their sexual orientation.”

Hurwitz also noted that the balance of harms as between appellant and appellees definitely favors the appellees, who oppose the stay, and that he would not find that the public interest supported issuing a stay. “I cannot identify any relevant differences between the situation before us today” and the Utah case, he wrote. Even though the Supreme Court’s stay in the Utah case is not “precedential” in “the strictest sense,” he concluded, “it provides a clear message — the Court (without noted dissent) decided that district court injunctions against the application of laws forbidding same-sex unions should be stayed at the request of state authorities pending court of appeals review.”

Hurwitz’s explanation suggests that if Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett were to seek a stay of U.S. District Judge John E. Jones III’s order ending the ban on same-sex marriages in Pennsylvania, he would undoubtedly get a stay from the 3rd Circuit.

But it suggests something else as to which observers are eager for some sort of intelligence: whether the 9th Circuit is going to hold an en banc reconsideration of the SmithKline decision. Anybody inclined to try to read tea leaves might note that Hurwitz refers to SmithKline as if it is settled law in the 9th Circuit, unlike Oregon U.S. District Judge Michael McShane, who decided not to rely upon it in his ruling on May 19 in Geiger v. Kitzhaber, because the SmithKline panel had not issued its mandate to the parties and the 9th Circuit had not yet announced the result of its internal poll of judges to determine whether to hold an en banc reconsideration. An announcement of en banc review would effectively cancel the panel decision as a precedent; if such review were likely to be granted, Judge Hurwitz surely would not rely on the panel decision in his prognostication about how Idaho’s appeal is likely to fare in the 9th Circuit.

The 9th Circuit’s ruling in on 8 v. Bowen, also announced May 20, was not unexpected. The court affirmed a ruling by Chief Judge Morrison C. England, Jr., of the Eastern District of California, which had rejected a 1st Amendment challenge to the state’s disclosure statute as it applied to a controversial ballot initiative. ProtectMarriage’s challenge specifically focused on the post-election reporting of donors during the short period immediately before the vote, arguing that post-election reports are unnecessary to serve the purpose of letting voters know who is behind a ballot question before they vote. The court pointed out that this is not the only purpose of the reporting requirements. They are also intended to “preserve the integrity of the electoral process by deterring corruption and the appearance of corruption,” and to “permit accurate record-keeping” in order to “enhance the public’s future associational rights by offering voters information about which policies those seeking their vote have previously endorsed.” The court pointed out that the Supreme Court has rejected facial challenges to contribution disclosure requirements in several cases, “holding that these substantial interests outweigh the modest burdens that the challenged disclosures impose on First Amendment rights.”

ProtectMarriage also sought to have the court order California officials to end continuing public access to this information. The trial court had rejected that demand, citing the same considerations that support the disclosure requirement in the first place, but the 9th Circuit panel decided that the trial judge should not have ruled on this question because the passage of time had rendered it “moot.” That is, the information has been publicly available both on-line and in hard copy for more than five years, so the court could not see how it could now be treated other than as publicly-known information. The court directed the trial court to vacate the part of its opinion dealing with this issue, with one judge dissenting on the point.

“The Realistic Joneses” and “The City of Conversation” – New Plays on Broadway

Posted on: May 20th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

I saw two new plays over the past week: “The Realistic Joneses” by Will Eno at the Lyceum Theatre, and “The City of Conversation” by Anthony Giardina at the Mitzi E. Newhouse Theater at Lincoln Center. I was drawn to the first by the cast — I was eager to see Michael C. Hall and Marisa Tomei — and to the second by the subject matter — the famed female political hostesses of Washington D.C. in the “old days”. While I thought Hall and Tomei were terrific, I didn’t care much for the play they were in. I did care, very much, for The City of Conversations, which I found both entertaining and emotionally strong.

“The Realistic Joneses” has a cast of four. The other two are Toni Collette and Tracy Letts. The plot involves two married couples, portrayed by Collette and Letts (couple No. 1) and Tomei and Hall (couple No. 2). Couple No. 2 has just moved into the neighborhood, “a smallish town not far from some mountains,” and have wandered over to get acquainted with their neighbors. Letts is hostile and taciturn, Collette more welcoming. Over the course of the 100 minute intermission-less play, it develops that both Letts and Hall are suffering from some kind of terminal illness and freaking out about it, each in their different way. The wives are more sane, but wrapped up in coping with their husbands’ psychological problems. I found it intermittently interesting, but at the end I thought “so what was that all about?” and “why should we be interested.” Definitely not high on my list of shows I’ve seen this year.

On the other hand, The City of Conservation seemed very consequential, perhaps because I’ve always been a political junky and the script is strewn with political references. The excellent Jan Maxwell plays Hester Ferris, a notable widowed Washington hostess whose dinner parties play a role in the country’s government, as she brings together people that need to achieve particular results in the private setting of her dining room. She is a firm liberal, as is her widowed sister, Jean Swift (played by Beth Dixon), who she orders around and who seems to gladly take up the burden of doing Hester’s bidding. Their son, Colin (played by Michael Simpson), shows up “a day early” having returned from college overseas at the London School of Economics, with his girlfriend, Anna Fitzgerald (played by Kristen Bush) in tow. It develops over the course of the first scene, set in Hester’s Georgetown living room in September 1979, that Colin and Anna are ardent conservative supports of Gov. Ronald Reagan, soon to contest the presidency with Jimmy Carter. Fireworks develop, and Hester and Anna really don’t get along. They showed up a day early because Colin knew his mother was having a dinner party for a southern senator (a Democrat but no liberal, played by John Aylward) whose vote is needed for some purpose. Hester’s boyfriend is another Senator (played by Kevin O’Rourke) who has enlisted her in his scheme to provide a setting for them to work out some kind of deal, and the arrival of Colin and Anna complicates matters — and things develop from there. The second scene, after a brief intermission, is set in October 1987, during the Reagan presidency, and the final scene in January 2009, as Barack Obama is about to be inaugurated. Actor Michael Simpson shows up again, now playing the son of Colin and Anna, with his — wait for this — African-American boyfriend (played by Phillip James Brannon) in tow…. Anyway, I thought it was terrific. The only remaining cast members to mention — and this gives something away — are Barbara Garrick, who plays the southern senator’s wife, and Luke Niehaus, who plays Colin and Anna’s 6-year-old son for whom Hester is baby-sitting in the second scene. Everybody in the cast is superb, the entire thing is directed with sparkle by Doug Huges, and the set by John Lee Beatty creates a 1970s Georgetown living room to what appears to be perfection. This one is a must-see.

City Center Encores! – Irma La Douce

Posted on: May 11th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

I attended the matinee performance of City Center Encores!’ performance of Irma La Douce on May 10. I’ve been a fan of this series for many years, and I find that most of the productions are a pleasure to attend, but I was not particularly impressed by Imra La Douce. I don’t put this down to the production itself. They constructed a terrific set — more elaborate than usual for this series — and all the technical things were in order. The cast was good, although I thought the leads — Rob McClure and Jennifer Bowles — lacked the pure star power to put over this rather flimsy show. And there I think the direction could have helped them some more, because I thought this attempt at farce fell a bit flat.

Irma La Douce was originally a French musical by Alexander Breffort and Marguerite Monnot. It was appropriated first for the English stage and then brought over to Broadway, where it had the misfortune to open at a time when the Great White Way was presenting an overwhelming number of great musicals, so it got a bit lost in the shuffle. But I think the major problem with this show is that the French sensibility just does not translate well into an American Broadway musical. The translation falls flat, the music is a bit laid-back for Broadway, and the idea of a virtually all-male cast revolving around just one woman results in vocal monotony as well.

This production was directed by John Doyle, music led by Rob Berman (with a small ensemble rather than the usual full orchestra, true to the original production however, with no violins, violas or cellos, relying heavily on an accordian and percussion with double bass and piano and a handful of winds).

The real bright spot in the production, for me, was the ensemble! Four young men of extraordinary dancing talent – Joseph Medeiros, Joseph Simeone, Manuel Stark, and Caleb Teicher. Manuel Stark has become a particular favorite. I’d enjoyed him as a member of the ensemble in the late lamented TV series “Smash,” and now have enjoyed his work at Encores! in The Most Happy Fella, Lille Me, It’s a Bird…It’s a Plane…It’s Superman, and Applause. I hope to see him in something else again soon…. but meanwhile will pull out my DVDs of Smash to get another glimpse.

This was the last Encores! production of the season. Overall it was a good run this year, with The Most Happy Fella the definite highlight. I’m eagerly anticipating the announcement of next year’s shows!

“All the Way” by Robert Schenkkan with Bryan Cranston at the Neil Simon Theatre

Posted on: April 20th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

One expects light comedy at the Neil Simon Theatre, but sometimes one gets heavy drama. At least that is the case with “All the Way,” Robert Schenkkan’s dramatization of the first year of Lyndon Johnson’s presidency, November 1963 through November 1964. Johnson was propelled into the presidency unprepared with the sudden assassination of John F. Kennedy. Bringing his masterful legislative talents to bear, he pushed through several key pieces of the Kennedy legislative agenda that had been languishing in congressional committees, and achieved a landslide election in his own right against Barry Goldwater, less than 12 months after taking office.

Bryan Cranston did an exceptional job of channeling LBJ at the matinee performance I attended on April 19. Although he doesn’t really resemble the late president, he managed to scrunch up his facial features in a way that did evoke Johnson. Similarly, his voice fell short of an outright impression of LBJ, but he managed to inject just enough of the Texas drawl to make it convincing. Leaving that aside, however, this is a fully integrated performance that is consistent throughout and certainly seems to capture the character so vividly described in Robert Caro’s exceptional series of biographical tomes, the most recent of which actually covered the first half of this period.

Robert Schenkkan has provided a sympathetic protrait of a complicated man, an intensely political man who was obsessed with achievement and, haunted by the abbreviated lifespan of his father, eager to accomplish as much as possible from the fear that his time in office would be short. As it was, his time in office was cut short by his miscalculation of the public’s willingness to support his military commitment in South Vietnam rather than his health, as events caused him to remove his name from consideration for the 1968 nomination.

Cranston is surrounded by an excellent supporting case, from among whom I would particularly note Brandon J. Dirden as Martin Luther King and Robert Petkoff as Hubert Humphrey. Betty Aidem was also superb in an unduly short role as Lady Bird Johnson – I could have stood for a lot more from her – and the production itself was economically but effectively staged with a unit set that could be quickly converted through lighting, props and projections to provide numerous different appropriate settings from the Oval Office to the halls of Congress to hotel rooms and political convention podiums. Director Bill Rauch had the cast moving through a complex choreography of entrances, exists, and dramatic interactions. The entire thing is so brilliantly enacted and staged that it seems a lot shorter than it actually was. What could have been a dry history lesson emerges as a vivid portrait of a passionately engaged man who stumbled at times — sometimes with tragic consequences for himself and the nation — but who also left a rich domestic policy legacy that continues to provide the framework for some of our most important laws, especially the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which was his first great legislative achievement as president.

Art Leonard’s Cultural Diary – March 22 through April 16, 2014

Posted on: April 17th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

I’ve had a busy few weeks, both in terms of attending things and in terms of work having to get done, as a result of which there is a big pile-up of programs for me to write about, so herewith a diary of brief comments about the events I’ve attended from March 22 through April 16. I have omitted comment about the Jeremy Denk piano recital at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts, which I wrote about separately right after the event.

On March 22, I attended a concert by Jeffrey Kahane (pianist and conductor) and the New York Philharmonic at Avery Fisher Hall. Mr. Kahane, music director of the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, has been a frequent guest at the Philharmonic in recent years, and I have always enjoyed his concerts. For this program, he selected George Gershwin’s Concerto in F, Maurice Ravels Concerto in G, and Kurt Weill’s Symphony No. 2. Both concerti had been recently performed by the Philharmonic with other pianists and conductors, but Kahane brought the distinction of conducting from the keyboard. Leonard Bernstein used to do this with the Ravel concerto (I have a DVD of his performance with a French orchestra that is fascinating to watch), to great effect, and Kahane was right up there with him. This is an orchestra that can pretty well conduct itself in familiar repertory, but the musicians seemed very sensitive to Kahane’s direction. His technical proficiency was more than adequate to the occasion, and his sheer enthusiasm for the music was well communicated to the NYP members, who seemed very involved and excited. The Weill symphony was a novelty, as it had not been played by the NYP since its local premiere under Bruno Walter’s direction in 1934. Was the exhumation worthwhile? I thought so. It’s not a perfect piece, but it is interesting to hear the seeds of Weill’s later development as a successful composer of Broadway musicals. Certainly, the piece is worth hearing more than once every 80 years! It’s neglect may be due to symphonic snobbery more than to its actual merits. The orchestra played beautifully, certainly outclassing the recordings I’ve heard.

The next day, I attended a matinee performance of Kurt Weill’s Threepenny Opera, in the English-language adaptation by Marc Blitzstein, presented by Atlantic Theater Company. Pure coincidence that I would hear Kurt Weill’s music twice in a weekend! This production was directed and choreographed by Martha Clarke. F. Murray Abraham led the cast as Mr. Peachum, Michael Park sparkled as MacHeath (Mack the Knife), Laura Osnes was Polly and Mary Beth Peil (a favorite from the TV series “The Good Wife” – Peter’s mother!) played Mrs. Peachum. I can’t say it was the most invigorating production I’ve seen of this — the Broadway revival with Sting stands out in my memory, and as a child I was brought to see the original production at the then-Theatre-de-Lys on Christopher Street of which I remember no details, only a general sense of fierce brilliance). The performance I saw was a preview. It has since opened to less than rapturous reviews. I still think it is worth seeing any revival of this work by a professional company, because the piece has so much wonderful music.

On March 27, I attended the American Symphony Orchestra’s revival of Max Bruch’s oratorio, Moses, at Carnegie Hall. Sidney Outlaw sang the role of Moses, with Kirk Dougherty as his brother Aaron, Tamara Wilson as the “Angel of the Lord,” with Leon Botstein conducting the orchestra and the Collegiate Chorale (prepared by James Bagwell). This piece was premiered in Germany in 1895 and in the U.S. in 1896 (Baltimore), but after a brief vogue disappeared from view until some recent revivals. It is very long and not particularly memorable, but as usual Botstein and his performing forces provided something worth hearing. Bruch’s music is richly romantic in harmony and orchestration, but his melodic gift is not particularly distinguished. The tunes don’t stay in your head — unlike the Violin Concerto No. 1, which is his main contribution to the standard orchestral repertory and which I think gets more play than it deserves in light of the many other violin concertos that are, in the end, more interesting. It would be interesting to hear what the richer string section of the NY Philharmonic could do with this piece, as the ASO strings tend to sound a bit undernourished in the big moments. I also thought the choir was actually larger than it needed to be for an orchestra of this size. (The ASO is a bit larger than a chamber orchestra in terms of its string body, but substantially smaller than a major symphony orchestra.) They did well with what they had. I’m glad I heard it. I won’t be going out of my way to hear it again.

It was back to the NY Philharmonic for me on Friday, March 28. I had purchased a single ticket for this concert, eagerly anticipating hearing Gustavo Dudamel conducting Bruckner’s 9th. Unfortunately, Mr. Dudamel took ill with flu and cancelled his NYP engagement, but they were lucky enough to land Manfred Honeck, musical director of the Pittsburgh Symphony, as a replacement for the weekend. Honeck had appeared as a guest with the Philharmonic at least once before (his appearance was not billed as a debut) but I couldn’t recall having seen him conduct before. I was very impressed. The Bruckner was superbly done, the orchestra at the peak of its virtuosity, and the third movement Adagio, which concludes this unfinished symphony, was actually devastating in its impact. The program began with Claude Vivier’s Orion, a 1979 symphonic poem that reportedly did much to put its composer on the map when it was first performed by Charles Dutoit and the Montreal Symphony in 1980. Unfortunately, Vivier, a gay man, was murdered by a “trick” in Paris in 1983, so his composing career did not get much beyond this piece. The piece itself defies description in words – a mélange of orchestral effects that is intense and colorful but that does not yield up much understanding on a first hearing.

The next evening, March 29, I was back at Carnegie Hall for the last concert of this season’s series by Orpheus Chamber Orchestra. The orchestra put together a “theme” concert of music inspired by Hungary – most particularly, the Hungarian folk music exponents in the first half — Kodaly and Bartok — and a 19th century Jewish violinist-composer writing in what purported to be the Hungarian style – Joseph Joachim. The Kodaly Hungarian Rondo is a charming trifle, the Bartok Divertimento and substantial dramatic statement that belies its name, and Orpheus rendered them well, although I really missed the effect of massed strings in the Bartok that I recall from a thrilling reading years ago by Kurt Masur with the NY Philharmonic. The Joachim Concerto is a bloated, romantic piece with lots of striking moments but not enough originality to make one regret its failure to become a standard repertory piece. Christian Tetzlaff labored hard to bring it off, and it was certainly an honorable effort. I’m glad they thought to revive it, since it is all too easy to offer up yet another run through the Brahms concerto, which is a great work that is perhaps played too frequently for its own good these days. Vive Joachim! Now let’s honorably retire the piece for a while.

On April 5 I attended City Center Encores! performance of Frank Loesser’s musical, “The Most Happy Fella.” I have a great sentimental affection for this piece, as it was the first musical for which I was hired to perform in a full pit orchestra when I was a high school student in Oneonta, New York, in the late 1960s. And that was quite an initiation into playing in a pit, considering that this piece has more music — at times is almost through-composed — than the typical musical show. The Encores! production was predictably brilliant, with Shuler Hensley shining as Tony, Laura Benanti eager and brilliant as “Rosabella,” and Cheyene Jackson studly (but at times seeming a bit unengaged) as Joe. I did have my occasional complaint with this series about the over-amplification of the orchestra. While it is true that placing the orchestra backstage behind the action would justify some amplification, I think they really overdo it, especially for the brass and percussion, to the point of verging on painfulness during the overture. That aside, the musical performance led by Rob Berman was excellently done, and the cast and crew did a great job on the choreography (by director Casey Nicholaw). In the early days of Encores!, one was accustomed to seeing semi-staged readings with performers carrying black loose-leaf books with the music and lyrics. They have now gotten to the point where cast-members seem to feel it a point-of-honor to have their parts memorized and jettison the books. (During the talk-back after the show, it was revealed that there was a difficult period when they had to carry the books due to Equity rules for this kind of production, but that a renegotiation with Equity made the books optional with the performers.) These now verge on fully-staged productions, and the results – in light of the short rehearsal periods – are extraordinary! Can’t recommend Encores! highly enough to those with nostalgia for the great days of Broadway. Last up for this season will be Irma La Douce before and during the second weekend in May. Be there or be square!

After attending Encores! I had a quick turnaround for a snack and then off to the Church of St. Mary the Virgin in Times Square for the last Early Music concert in Miller Theatre’s 25th Anniversary Season. Fittingly, the performers were The Tallis Scholars, the English group that has regularly figured on this series since its beginning. The group is celebrating its 40th anniversary this year, and put together a program surveying the realm of Renaissance Polyphony in which it specializes, as well as its more recent practice of commissioning living composers to write new polyphonic works for chamber choir. On this occasion, we had a world premiere, with commission by Miller Theatre, of Two Sonnets for Sor Juana Ines de la Cruz by Michael Nyman. I would like to hear these again! The first half of the program was devoted to continental polyphony (Desprez and de Rore), the second half to English polyphony (Sheppard and Tallis), and as usual, Peter Phillips and his singers were beyond reproach. Some have occasionally criticized Phillips and The Tallis Scholars for a sort of chilly precision to their work, but I don’t hear that, finding a warmth and spontaneity that makes their work very involving emotionally for the listener. This was an excellent performance of an excellent program.

The next day I heard a concert by the Los Angeles Guitar Quartet at Town Hall, courtesy of Peoples’ Symphony Concerts. This was in two parts. The first half was devoted to transcriptions of classical music for guitar quartet. We had a suite of dances from Michael Praetorius’s Terpsichore, the grant compendium of royal court dance music of the late Renaissance and early Baroque, a suite from Stravinsky’s ballet Pulcinella, which drew its thematic material from Baroque sources, and finally Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2. None of this music was imagined by its composers as a vehicle for a quartet for modern guitar virtuosi, and I found the sound becoming a bit tiresome. Early music groups usually put together colorful instrumentations for Praetorius, Stravinsky’s orchestration of his ballet makes full use of the coloristic resources of an early 20th century orchestra, and Liszt’s rhapsody exists in numerous colorful orchestral arrangements of the piano original. While the LAGQ is of course virtuosic in its approach to these pieces, I would have preferred the originals. The second half, by contrast, struck me as ideal in every way – a series of shorter works all conceived with the guitar in mind, some actually written for this ensemble, and presenting all the variety of sound that seemed lacking in the first half. I’m happy to have heard the group. I recommend that they focus on modern works written or arranged for them, and forget the Baroque arrangements.

“If/Then” is a new Broadway musical by Tom Kitt (music) and Brian Yorkey (book & lyrics) that I visited on April 9. I had heard complaints that the plot was confusing. Yes, it was. The idea is to depict the alternative realities that could stem from an inflection point in the life of a person, when a seemingly trivial decision to do one thing rather than another is, in retrospect, momentous. The piece seems to have been conceived as a vehicle for Idina Menzel (and the main reason we were there was that my theater-going companion was eager to take in her performance), and I thought she was fine in a very challenging role, although I thought she was painfully over-amplified at times, resulting in a rather shrill sound on her high notes. I did find the plotting confusing and difficult to follow at times. I understand that en route to Broadway a decision was made to have Menzel’s character called Liz in one reality and Beth in the other, to wear glasses in one and not the other, but I failed to pick up on this and was continually confused as the switch between realities took place without transitions, leaving me to think “huh?” all too often during the first act. Things became a bit more understandable in the second act, although again there were moments when things just seemed out of joint. But perhaps that’s the point of the show — how far apart our alternative futures might be, all stemming from a trivial decision early on to do one thing and not another.

On April 13 I attended the American Symphony Orchestra’s final Classics Declassified program for the season, at Symphony Space. The subject was Johannes Brahms’ Symphony No. 2, an early favorite of mine. I played double-bass in performances of this symphony by the Oneonta Symphony Orchestra when I was in high school and the Cornell University Orchestra when I was in college, so I know the piece from the inside out through extended rehearsals. That said, I found Leon Bostein’s lecture to be disorganized, boring, and seemingly pointless at times. Sometimes he comes up with brilliant insights, but sometimes the lecture is just a dud, and this seemed to be such an occasion. Surprisingly, the performance of the symphony was anything but — it was warmly done by an orchestra that seemed fully engaged. The rather smaller string section than one would get from a major orchestra was only occasionally a deficiency, as much of this symphony has a pastoral character that can work with a compact string body. The woodwind soloists, who get a real workout in this piece, were stellar, and the trombones, whose special tonal qualities in playing choral-like passages are an important feature of the piece, were also superb. I think Botstein needs an editor to work with him on the lectures. . .

Finally, last night, April 16, I saw a performance of Terrence McNally’s new play, “Mothers and Sons,” at the Golden Theatre. This is an ensemble piece for four actors. Tyne Daly plays Katharine Gerard, an upstate NY native who married a Texas businessman, lived in Dallas, raised a son who grew up to be gay and ran off to New York City for a career in the theater and died from AIDS in the early 1990s. In an earlier play, “Andre’s Mother,” dating from decades ago, McNally created this character and showed her alienation from the world of her son and her inability to be emotionally present for his memorial service. Frederick Weller plays Cal Porter, Andre’s surviving partner. This play takes place twenty years later, and Cal is now happily married to Will Ogden, an aspiring novelist, played by Bobby Steggert. They have a son, six-year-old Bud, played by Grayson Taylor, conceived through donor insemination and gestational surrogacy. In other words, a very “modern” NYC gay family, and perhaps the first time such a family has been portrayed on Broadway. For some reason, not really explained, Katharine “drops in” on the Porter-Ogden household on Central Park West. There doesn’t seem to be much of a plot, really, just a picture of colliding worlds as the still disapproving and disgruntled mother interacts with her late son’s lover and his “new” family. There are many affecting moments. Anyone who lived through the early years of AIDS in New York will have memories recalled, aided by a pre- or post-show visit to the lower lobby where panels from the AIDS Quilt are mounted. Presenting this history is important, but I found the show itself, while frequently absorbing, to be rather uneven, and I’m wondering whether McNally might treat this production as a first take on a work in progress and figure out revisions before it gets mounted again. The material is definitely worth exploring, and perhaps the experience of seeing it play out will inspire him to make changes that will strengthen it dramatically. Certainly this cast does a great job with it, although I found Weller’s performance a bit odd — what kind of accent was he trying to present? — and the role of the child is rather challenging for a young actor to present naturalistically, although Master Taylor acquitted himself honorably. I’m a Steggert fan and was happy to get a slice of his work here — I wished the part were a bit longer. And Tyne Daly, who was McNally’s “muse” for this piece, was perfectly cast, effectively projecting the brittle quality of a woman who is totally a fish out of water in this environment, unsure why she is there and how to act and react to what she is experiencing. Certainly this is a show that the LGBT community should be supporting. The audience was rather small, even for what is a relatively small Broadway “straight-theater” house, and I hope word of mouth may pick it up a bit. A play doesn’t have to be perfect to be worth seeing, and I find that anything Terrence McNally does is worth seeing, so I hope people will go.

My cultural calendar coming up: tomorrow night a premiere of new songs by Glen Roven at Spectrum, “All the Way” on Broadway, Music from Marlboro and Alarm Will Sound during the last weekend in April, Irma La Douce with Encores’ in May. . .

Cultural Diary – January 27 2014 through February 9 2014: From Marc Andre Hamelin to Bill Finn

Posted on: February 13th, 2014 by Art Leonard No Comments

Didn’t expect to see those two names in the same headline? Well, I’m multicultural…. I’ve been so consumed with writing about legal developments that I now have a backlog of cultural events upon which to comment, so here goes:

On January 27, I attended a recital by the Canadian-American pianist Marc-Andre Hamelin at Carnegie Hall’s Zankel Hall, the recital auditorium under the main stage. Hamelin likes to play unusual repertory, so the biggest single piece on the program was Nicolas Medtner’s Piano Sonata in E Minor, Op. 25, No. 2 “Night Wind”. He is also a composer, so we got to hear the New York premiere of his “Barcarolle.” Finally, for the second half, reverting to the core repertory of every serious pianist, he played Franz Schubert’s Impromptus, D. 935. On the one hand, this was an exceptionally fine recital in that the pianist brought his usual magical technique to the diverse array of works, playing with intense concentration mixed with the requisite humor and wistfulness when called for. On the other hand, the Medtner was a bit of a “black hole” in the middle of the recital. There is a reason almost nobody plays Medtner in public. Despite the high regard in which he was held by such as Rachmaninoff, it is difficult to give sustained attention to his music. The themes are not memorable enough to sustain such attention through a long and convoluted development. Perhaps the first movement of his sonata is in sonata form (I don’t know) but it is difficult to follow this as a listener without a score in my lap, because it all seems so diffuse and wandering. There were many distinctive parts to arouse interest, but the whole just seems to sprawl. I don’t think one could blame Hamelin for this — he always provides about the most persuasive case one could imagine for anything he plays — and he has recorded all of Medtner’s sonatas and much of his other music, so I would treat him as authoritative in this repertory. It’s just repertory that I find less absorbing. Hamelin’s own piece, the Barcarolle, seemed to owe heavy debts to Debussy, and I thought it slow going at times. I would certainly want to get better acquainted with it. The Schubert was absolutely magnificent. Robert Schumann had observed that these four impromptus could together make up a monumental piano sonata, and Hamelin treated them that way. Each is a masterpiece, and each received the treatment it required. This was totally effective playing, sensitive to nuance and variety of sonic color. I can’t imagine these pieces being better played. The audience’s ovation earned three encores: a Debussy piece, a weirdly fantastic take on Chopin’s Minute Waltz, and a virtuosic etude by de Schloser that is a genuine rarity — probably because few pianists can manage to play it. But Hamelin can play just about anything. (Proof of this statement: Try his complete recording of Godowsky’s take-offs on the Chopin etudes – a total wow and you won’t believe that one pianist is responsible for what you are hearing.)

January 29, I attended Atlantic Theater Company’s production of “The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,” a play based on a short story by Alan Sillitoe adapted for the stage by Roy Williams and directed by Leah C. Gardiner. This story achieved a fair amount of fame as a result of a movie based on the story that made a splash decades ago. This production puts a different slant on the story by having an extraordinary young black actor, Sheldon Best, played the lead role which Tom Courtenay, a white actor, played in the film. The essence of the story is that a young, somewhat aimless tough guy gets caught in a robbery and sent to a reformatory, where his talent for running is discovered and leads to his extended training for a long-distance race against students from a private school. He is encouraged in this by the authorities of the reformatory, including one particular counselor, but conflict emerges from his fear that he is being “used” and, ultimately, this leads him to make a difficult and controversial decisions as the end of the race draws near. I thought this staging was superb, and the performance by Sheldon Best was pure magic. According to the bio in the program Best is a graduate of Brandeis University and has already performed in a wide variety of stage productions both in New York and elsewhere in the U.S., ranging from classical theater (Romeo & Juliet, playing Romeo, at the North Carolina Shakespeare Festival) to the most contemporary stuff, like a production of The History Boys. He’s also been on CBS TV’s “Person of Interest.” Be on the lookout for him. Very impressive! The rest of the cast was fine, too, but Best really stood out.

The American Symphony Orchestra presented “This England” at Carnegie Hall on January 31. The program was intended to show a range of British music from mid-20th century by composers whose music is infrequently encountered on American concert programs. None of the music could be deemed totally neglected — I have recordings of everything on the program — but I had never heard any of it performed live prior to this concert directed by Leon Botstein. They began with a suite from Sir Arthur Bliss’s music for the British film “Things to Come”, which was based on work of George Orwell. This was the most “listener-friendly” piece on the program, as one would expect from a 1934-35 film score, falling close to the category of “easy listening” and being at times so simple-minded that I found my own attention wandering. Frank Bridge’s Phantasm (Rhapsody for piano and orchestra, 1932) followed, with the excellent Piers Lane as soloist. Lane has been a mainstay of Hyperion Records’ Romantic Piano Concerto series, and has a serious interest in unusual repertory for his instrument. The Bridge piece has moments of interest, but using the word “rhapsody” to describe a piece can frequently be a sign of formlessness and sprawl, and such was the case here. Lots of interesting moments, but they didn’t add up to a really coherent musical statement. After intermission, we heard Robert Simpson’s “Volcano,” a brief tone poem for brass and percussion which is avowedly pictorial and which did not hold much interest for me. I first became aware of Simpson as a leading biographer of the Danish composer Carl Nielsen as well as being an important Bruckner scholar, and over the years I’ve acquired recordings of most of him symphonies and other major pieces. I wish the ASO had played a symphony instead, because I found those to be works of great substance, but the length of this program limited them to a shorter piece. Finally, the one real masterpiece on the program, William Walton’s Symphony No. 2, which I have long enjoyed on records and despaired of ever hearing in live performance (unless I happen to travel to England and really luck out with the concert schedule). I love this piece, but I was really let down by the ASO performance, which I found underpowered and lacking the requisite virtuosity from the orchestra. Whether this is a function of limited rehearsal time, the leadership from the podium, or the limitations of the players (who don’t have the kind of full-time working relationship of an orchestra that plays together week in and week out) is hard to say, but, especially compared to my favorite recording by George Szell and the Cleveland Orchestra, this one seemed to lack impact. Szell takes everything faster, which keeps the occasionally loose structure from falling apart and gives sharper point to the complex rhythms. There is a big fugal passage in the last movement that is a highpoint of the piece, but the ASO strings seemed to be struggling to stay together during that episode, which the Cleveland strings take in their stride in the recording. I would urge anybody who was at the concert and hearing the Walton symphony for the first time to withhold judgment until you’ve heard a recording by a major orchestra. I don’t know if the Szell is still in print – it was a 1960s Columbia stereo that achieved brief CD reissue, coupled with the composer’s Hindemith Variations (another fine work almost never played) and the Partita for Orchestra. We really should hear more Walton in U.S. concert halls. I would love to hear what Alan Gilbert and the NYP would do with this piece. I would also highly recommend Walton’s Symphony No. 1, especially in the old RCA recording by Andre Previn and the London Symphony, which has been intermittently available on CD.

On February 2, I was back at Carnegie Hall for a performance of George Frideric Handel’s oratorio “Theodora” by conductor Harry Bicket, the Choir of Trinity Church, and The English Concert, an early music ensemble, with soloists Dorothea Roschmann as Theodora, Sarah Connolly as Irene, David Daniels as Didymus, Kurt Streit as Septimius, and Neal Davies as Valens. This is a tale of Roman times, when the governor of Antioch is trying to stamp out the heresy of Christianity. Theodora is a proud Christian who will not be swayed to honor the gods of Rome, and Didymus is a Roman soldier secretly in love with Theodora (and secretly a Christian). Tragedy ensues, at great length. (This three-act oratorio, when performed uncut, is as long as a Wagner opera, and some impatience in the audience express itself in early departures, especially during the second intermission.) Theodora was not a success at its first performance. The program note by Janet Bedell suggest that the subject matter had something to do with this, mid-18th century Brits having little interest in works celebrating early Catholic martyrs, but I suspect it is also the heaviness of the last act and the absence of the more rousing elements – especially choral – that made such works as Judas Maccabeus and Messiah such monster hits in the composer’s lifetime. In any event, this was all-star casting with expert direction from the podium, spot-on choral singing, and an instrumental group that provided a rich, colorful framework for the vocal acrobatics. I found it totally absorbing through the entire, lengthy proceeding. But I rather suspect this is a piece that would work best on recordings, where one could take it one act at a sitting and not be overwhelmed by its length.

Looking for an extremely unusual and effective theatrical experience? Imagine Tolstoy’s great novel “War and Peace,” stripped of the war scenes, leaving only the soap opera of the home front, transformed into a rock musical, played in large space decked out in the style of a Russian night club, with musicians and singers distributed throughout the space, the singers in constant motion, threading their way through the space and around platforms surrounding the audience. This is “Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812,” currently playing at Kazino, a large tent-like structure raised on a vacant lot on West 45th Street near 8th Avenue. The adaptation and music is by David Malloy, as directed by Rachel Chavkin and commissioned and developed by an outfit called Ars Nova. It is super-fine, and super-charged, and loads of fun. The program book and production are designed to help the audience quickly sort out the numerous characters and their relations to each other, and then the fun begins. Some of the members of the cast play musical instruments from time to time, and there is singing and much athletic running about. The title characters are played by David Abeles (Pierre) and Phillipa Soo (Natasha), but the character who emerges as the most memorable and central to the plot is Anatole, a Polish aristocrat played by Lucas Steele who is the brother-in-law of Pierre and who makes it his goal to seduce his friend Andrey Bolkonsky’s fiancé, Natasha, while Bolkonsky is off with the Russian army fighting the forces of Napoleon. Lucas Steele as Anatole is HOT, HOT, HOT. And I don’t mean just because he is handsome and talented; I mean because he radiates an intensity that is positively electrical. He’s helped in this by the plotting and dialogue, of course, but Mr. Steele is ideally cast in this part. Also quite effective: Blake Delong in the dual role of Andrey Bolkonsky and his father; Nick Choksi as the saturnine Dolokhov, Grace McLean as Natasha’s aunt Marya, Amber Gray is Helene, wife of Pierre and sister of Anatole, and Brittain Ashford as Sonya, Natasha’s cousin and confidant. But everybody is truly excellent in this, and conductor Or Matias keeps it all together and constantly driving forward. It’s a long show, even without the war scenes (yes, a War and Peace without General Kutuzov or Napoleon Bonaparte), but it never seems long because the staging is so lively and absorbing. A total hit that should run forever… I was there on February 5.

Interesting coincidence. Sid Caesar, the great TV comedian of the 1950s, passed away the other day, just as City Center Encores! was reviving a show that was written specifically for his talents, “Little Me” – book by Neil Simon (who wrote for Caesar’s TV shows), lyrics by Carolyn Leigh, and music by Cy Coleman. The show is based on a novel by Patrick Dennis (famous for “Mame”) which purports to be the autobiography of the great fictional entertainer Belle Poitrine, reminiscing about her life and loves (all seven of her loves, some of whom she even married). In the original production, Caesar portrayed all seven, requiring quick costume changes and changes or characterization (appearance, gestures, costumes), of which he was a master. Although the show was a success, it was not a big hit and faded from view after its initial run. This revival cast Christian Borle, star of the ill-fated “Smash” TV series and Tony winner for Peter and the Star-Catchers on Broadway, playing all the Sid Caesar roles with great success. Veteran Judy Kaye was superb as the elderly Belle, reflecting on her past, and Rachel York was stunning as the young Belle. The cast was packed with excellent people, as is the norm for Encores!, with the extraordinary dancers being a special highlight. Somehow, choreographer Joshua Bergasse managed to recruit an outstanding crew. (Bob Fosse was the original choreographer for the Broadway production.) Rob Berman led the excellent Encores! orchestra, and John Rando created a production that managed to feel complete even without any elaborate sets or many props. I’m glad to have had a chance to hear a live performance of this piece. It’s not a great work – Cy Coleman went on to do many extraordinary shows – but many of the songs are quite attractive, and I’m inspired to go back to the original cast album.

I attended the matinee performance of “Little Me” on February 8, and topped off the evening with an excellent program at Peoples’ Symphony Concerts, which presented the conductor-less East Coast Chamber Orchestra at Washington Irving High School. ECCO was started by a bunch of Curtis Institute students who enjoyed playing together and wanted to keep doing so after going their various professional ways. Now several years out of school, they are members of major symphony orchestras, established chamber ensembles, but make a commitment to come together a few times a year to rehearse a program and present it in various venues, including PSC now for several years. Their performances are always a highlight of the series. They are a true democracy, rotating seats so that everybody gets a change to play first-desk and to deal with solo passages at some point. They are also innovative in programming, mixing new music with established repertory. For this program, they gave a stylish rendition of Mozart’s Divertimento in B, K. 137, followed by the NYC premiere of David Ludwig’s “Virtuosity: Five Microconcertos for String Orchestra,” Erik Satie’s Gymnopedie No. 1, Judd Greenstein’s Four on the Floor, a string arrangement of a motet by Carlo Gesualdo da Venosa (an Italian Renaissance master), and concluding with a string orchestra rendition of Ravel’s String Quartet. The entire program was wonderful because of the total commitment and high technical skill of the players, as well as their collective interpretive insights. The Ludwig piece gave the first desk in each section a chance to shine in solo passages, and they truly shone. I found both Ludwig and Greenstein were worth hearing, challenging in some respects but not straying too far from the mainstream of tonal contemporary composition. The arrangement of the Satie, originally a piano piece, for string orchestra by a former member of ECCO, Michi Wiancko, superbly captured the piece’s mystery. I’ve heard Debussy’s orchestration of this piece, which also uses some wind instruments, but this all-string arrangement was fine, with the inspired idea of having the theme assigned to different sections rather than keeping it in the heights as the piano version might suggest. Hearing a rich string orchestra sound transformed the Ravel Quartet into a much “bigger” statement without losing any of the delicacy and gossamer of the quieter passages. I would account this concert a total success.

Finally, and a bit off the beaten path, on February 9, Congregation Beit Simchat Torah, NYC’s LGBT synagogue, presented its annual “Shabbat Shirah” concert at Merkin Hall. This year the program was a tribute to CBST member William Finn, a prominent member of the Broadway community whose musicals have brought LGBT issues into the mainstream, especially through his three early shows that were combined to make up Falsettos. For this occasion, Finn helped to assembly a group of performers who have taken part in various productions of his shows, with a fine young pianist, Joshua Zecher-Ross, as musical director, and Shakina Nayfack as overall director. The result was a marvelous program that ranged over Finn’s achievements, including selections from the Falsetto shows, Stars of David, Elegies, A New Brain, LIttle Miss Sunshine, Royal Family (a work in progress), and Songs of Innocence and Experience. This was a one-of-a-kind event that could not be topped, especially when one includes Mr. Finn’s performance of a song conceived for the occasion!

So, my past few weeks were packed with cultural events. This week has provide a bit of a break, but my cultural calendar resumes Saturday night at Lincoln Center’s American Songbook series with a concert by Jonathan Groff, whose work on “Spring Awakening” caught my attention and whose current venture – the HBO series “Looking” – is bringing him to an entirely new audience beyond his Broadway theater achievements. I look forward to this with much anticipation. Also on the schedule in weeks ahead: A Man’s a Man, Werther (Metropolitan Opera), Yo-Yo Ma at Carnegie Hall, Prince Igor (Met Opera), Alexandre Tharaud at Peoples’ Symphony (quick, get tickets, this is going to be so exciting on March 1), Goerne and Eschenbach performing Schubert’s Schoene Mullerin at Carnegie Hall, Enchanted Island (Met Opera), Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and that takes me up through Spring Break.