Recent theatrical and concert doings – “Little Miss Sunshine”, Orchestra of St. Luke’s & Ivan Fischer, “And Away We Go”

Last Wednesday I attended a perform of William Finn and James Lapine’s new musical show, “Little Miss Sunshine,” at the Second Stage Theatre off-Broadway.  This show as inspired by the movie of the same name from several years back.  Mr. Lapine directed.   I thought the production was well-designed, given the limitations of the small stage, but I did not think this story was crying out for musical treatment.  It seemed more like a play with songs than a musical, and the music was not up to the high standard Mr. Finn has set in some of his earlier shows.  The cast seemed to be working very hard, but without much real effect.  I was delighted, however, to see in the supporting case Wesley Tailor, one of my favorites from the TV series “Smash.”  (He played “Bobby,” a member of the musical ensemble.)  One of my sadnesses at learning that “Smash” was not renewed for a third season was not getting to see more of the entertaining supporting characters such as Mr. Tailor, so I was happy to see him in this show, although I think his talents could be better used in a more substantial role.

On Thursday evening I was at Carnegie Hall for a subscription concert by the Orchestra of St. Luke’s with guest conductor Ivan Fischer and piano soloist Jonathan Biss in the Schumann Piano Concerto.  St. Luke’s was playing up to their high standard.  The program opened with Leo Weiner’s Serenade for Small Orchestra, Op. 3, composed during his first year of study at the Budapest Conservatory.  It is a reasonably well-made student piece, but not distinctive enough to hold my attention through-out its four brief movements, and despite my general interest in exploring new repertory, I’m not sure this is a piece that deserved exposure at Carnegie Hall.  The Schumann Concerto came next.  I’ve found that this piece, rather low-key for a romantic period piano concerto, works best when the pianist and conductor adopt an interventionist approach, putting some flair and punch into the music.  But that’s not really Biss’s style (although it is clearly Fischer’s style).  I found a mismatch here.  Biss’s playing was very smooth, flowing, technically immaculate, but not particularly dramatic in terms of accents, phrasing and dynamics.  Fischer, on the other hand, was wont to pump things up again, so the tuttis and the solo passages seemed to be coming from different universes, or so it struck me that way.  After intermission, Fischer led an absolutely delightful rendition of Bartok’s Hungarian Sketches, a collection of five short pieces channeling the spirit of Hungarian folk music without actually quoting folk tunes.  I thought this performance was really inspired, especially Fischer’s rendition of the fourth, usually translated as “Slightly Tipsy” but called “A Bit Tipsy” in the printed program.  Most of the recordings I’ve heard of this music have been rather straight-forward, the conductor evidently believing that just playing what was written was sufficient to convey the intended mood, but Fischer exaggerated the lurching tempos, which was great fun.  Bartok intended this movement to be funny, and Fischer clearly shares that sense of humor.  Finally, a performance of Mozart’s Symphony in C, No. 40, K. 551 (“The Jupiter”), which really knocked my socks off.  I am used to hearing this as a very majestic essay in classical form, but Fischer hears it as a very dramatic, romantic piece, and got the orchestra to play it that way.  From the first sharp chords at the opening, I knew I was in for something different, and I came away convinced that this symphony is much better than I had previously thought.  My own rankings of the final three Mozart symphonies composed in 1788 has been to put the G Minor [#40] in first place, followed by the Eb (No. 39) with the old Jupiter bringing up the rear.  Now I’m rethinking that order.

Finally, on Saturday I caught a matinee preview performance of Terrence McNally’s latest, “And Away We Go,” at the Pearl Theatre Company, again off-Broadway.  Since this is a preview, I won’t say very much because a review would be inappropriate while the author and director are still making adjustments.  But I can say that I didn’t find the overall concept very convincing, although I was intermittently amused and even moved.  The rapid changes of time and place (all on the same unit-set with the performers in the same modern street clothes) did not work for me.  But it may work for others.  And perhaps by the time it opens it will be tightened up some.  This performance ran rather longer than advertised, without an intermission, which became a bit wearying.

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