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Art Leonard Observations

Theater/Concert Overload

Posted on: April 14th, 2012 by Art Leonard No Comments

I've just come through such a busy time of theater and concerts over the past two weeks that I've fallen far behind in writing about things, so herewith just a few capsule comments on each:

Leap of Faith.  I saw a preview of this new musical by Alan Menken (music), Janus Cercone and Warren Leight (book) and Glenn Slater (lyrics), which was conceived as a vehicle for Raul Esparza.  My theater-going companion and I are big Esparza fans so we had to see this. In the event, I thought the female lead, Jessica Phillips, was more impressive than Esparza, but we were seeing a preview performance so I probably should refrain from specifics.  The show focuses on a fake minister who takes his "revival" show on the road, intent on bilking the inhabitants of small midwestern towns, but runs into a female sheriff who is tougher than he anticipated.  It seems like a genre show of the kind that's been done many times over, with an overamplified orchestra and chorus.  The best thing, I thought, was the dancing – congratulations to choreographer Sergio Trujillo.  According to the program, this was based on a movie of the same name with which I'm unfamiliar.

Nice Work If You Can Get It.  Music and lyrics by the Gershwins, book by Joe DiPietro inspired by several Gershwin shows.  So, put together a "make your own" Gershwin musical, raiding the existing works for their best songs and dance music, mixing in bits and pieces from the orchestral music (Second Rhapsody was used quite a bit).  Kelli O'Hara is a real musical theater star, and worth seeing, based on my reactions to this preview performance.  Matthew Broderick is not really a musical theater star, and he seemed quite cautious in both the singing and the dancing at the performance I attended.  The supporting cast is stellar, the production colorful and imaginative, the orchestrations not idiomatic for the 1920s-1930s but serviceable.  Fluffy.

The Best Man.  Gore Vidal's play seems quite creaky after about fifty years, more of a nostalgic look back at old time political conventions, although it was well-staged here.  I wasn't overwhelmed by the performances in the leading parts of the contending candidates, but thought James Earl Jones as the crusty old ex-President (loosely based on Truman?) was superb, and it was wonderful to see Angela Lansbury again in anything.  I would say that this is mostly interesting for political junkies.  The audience seemed to like it last Saturday night.

Alexandre Tharaud at Le Poisson Rouge.  Le Poisson Rouge is an odd sort of place for a classical piano recital.  Between the ventilation system and the scurrying about of the waitpersons, it is difficult to give undivided attention to the music.  On the other hand, the night-club space creates an intimacy that can work wonders when all the elements come together correctly, as they did for much of Alexandre Tharaud's recital on Monday.  I thought his Debussy Preludes were the highlight.  The Scarlatti Sonatas were a bit plain-sounding to me (I miss the harpsichord in this music).  More popular fare by Jean Wiener, Maurice Ravel (Five O'clock Foxtrot from L'enfant et les sortileges), Gershwin (The Man I Love, taken from the George Gershwin Songbook arrangements), and Clement Doucet's marvelous Chopinata whetted the appetite for Tharaud's forthcoming Virgin Records release, "Le Boeuf sur le Toit."  He is making his Carnegie Hall debut next season – I believe in Zankel.

In Masks Outrageous and Austere, by Tennessee Williams.  At his death Williams left behind this unfinished project in a series of drafts.  It is realized in a very interesting production at Culture Project (45 Bleecker Street).  It strikes me as very unlike the Williams plays I've seen.  For one thing, late in life he seems to have been willing to surface the homoerotic elements of his stories and make them explicit, a welcome exit from the closet.  On the other hand, since this production is based on drafts, not a finished and polished script, who knows how much to impute to Williams and how much to those who conceived this production.  Shirley Knight, a veteran performer of Williams' work, was excellent at the performance I saw, but the real stars of the show are the three "Gideons" – Ward Horton, Scot Charles Anderson, Kaolin Bass – in their dark shades, dark suits, and sultry manners….

The Orchestra of St. Luke's performed Thursday night at Carnegie Hall, led by guest conductor Ivan Fischer in an all-Mozart program – Symphony 34 in C, K. 338, and the Requiem (Sussmayer completion).  I thought the symphony a bit on the pokey side, especially the first movement, which seemed a bit too slow and grand for a tempo marking of "Allegro vivace."  But things improved.  The finale really ripped along nicely.  The Requiem was performed in an odd staging, with female members of the Musica Sacra chorus dispersed among the string sections, while the tenors and basses were placed on platforms rear left and right.  The soloists were also seated among the string players.  This blending worked well, however, and Fischer led a vigorous performance, more dramatic than spiritual.

The following night, I attended a performance of Giuseppe Verdi's Requiem Mass at St. Thomas Church on Fifth Avenue, performed by The Choral Society and Orchestra of Grace Church, led by their musical director, John Maclay.  A friend had invited me to join with him and a few others. This was not a concert I would have sought out on my own, although I dearly love the Verdi Requiem.  We arrived too late to claim seats in the central section of the church, and were thus relegated to the sidelines behind pillars from which none of the performers could be seen.  The effect, sonically, was akin to overhearing a performance of a work in a very resonant space from an adjoining room.  Everything distanced, distorted…  Seeing nothing, I focused on the text and had a reasonably gratifying experience, but I couldn't say how good the performance was, and the sound from where I sat was too distorted for me to have any idea whether the soloists were actually so far off pitch as they frequently seemed.  But Verdi's work is undefeatable….

Clybourne Park.  I attended the matinee today of Bruce Norris's Clybourne Park, now in previews and set to open later this week.  This is a marvelous play about race…. Or is it about race?  It is certainly about, among other things, the social awkwardness around race and housing, reflected in two episodes in the same house, 1959 and 2009, as a "white neighborhood" may be in revolt against the first sale on the block to an African-American family, and then fifty years later, after the neighborhood had become largely African-American, the alarm at the purchase and planned rebuilding on the lot by a young Caucasian couple. The same actors play both acts, but in different personae.  At times droll, at times outrageous, at times out-loud funny, at times gasp-inducing….  This is definitely one to see.

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