London, Part 3 (Theater scene)

Our motivation for going to London was a theater tour arranged by a local theater company. They did all the leg work including selecting shows, buying show tickets, airline tickets, finding a convenient hotel, arranging charter buses to and from the airports and London Underground passes good for the duration of our stay. And it all worked quite well leaving us days to see the city and nights in the theater. The exception was our hotel, the Millennium Gloucester Hotel in South Kensington. The hotel itself is quite upscale, but we were given a small room at the very end of a long hallway where the air conditioning and refrigerator didn’t work. With considerable work we were able to open our window to cool off the room, but when we requested a fix they couldn’t deliver. Thanks to our tour guide we were finally upgraded to a good room on Thursday night and we at least got some chocolates to assuage our discomfort. The free breakfasts though were great!

London has a huge theater scene with more shows than we could possibly take in during one week. What I found curious was the American stamp on London’s theater scene. Most of the stuff we ended up at were American shows or featured American actors. The venues were interesting too, from the massive Olivier Theatre inside the multi-stage National Theatre, to the appropriately named Old Vic to the newish Lyric Theatre hosting more experimental shows. No show was like the one that followed it. It was quite a potpourri of an experience. Brief reviews follow.

Rosencrantz & Guildenstern are Dead (The Old Vic Theatre)

It should be pretty exciting to come to London and see Daniel Radcliffe (a.k.a. Harry Potter) on stage, but in this play Radcliffe neither gets naked (like in Equus) nor really has the leading part. Instead, Radcliffe as Rosencrantz plays a supporting role, in this case supporting Joshua McGuire playing Guildenstern. The play by Tom Stoppard will feel familiar if you have ever seen Waiting for Godot. R&G have bit parts in Shakespeare’s Hamlet, which is the whole point of this play. We know from Hamlet that they are sent to England and are eventually reported dead. Both R&G are quite confused about who they are, what their mission is and why they are alive. In short it’s part comedy and part an existentialist romp. It doesn’t make much sense, which is the point. It’s about as real as touching cotton candy. It takes a certain type of person to appreciate its “plot” and humor, and that wasn’t me. In 2008, I saw Waiting for Godot and had the same sort of experience. Seeing Radcliffe perform on stage is really nothing special, unless you are devoted fan and there were many in the audience. But it’s really McGuire’s show.

The Kid Stays in the Picture (The Royal Court Theatre)

Who is Robert Evans? He was something of a puppet master who worked for Paramount Studios and helped bring to the screen some of the biggest hits of the last fifty years, most notably The Godfather and Love Story. The play briskly tracks his volatile career including his hits, his marriage to Allie McGraw and Evan’s tenacious ability to stay “in the picture” business despite many missteps including getting involved in a cocaine deal. The show is at once mesmerizing and uninteresting. A handful of actors play a variety of parts with a younger Evans in front of a screen and an older Evans narrating bits in silhouette behind a screen. As an integration of technology with acting it gets top marks and all the actors do a great job in their brisk-paced roles. In that sense it is a tour de force. It’s not until afterward that you will probably realize that Evans is not that interesting as a person and thus a play about his life really doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. But director Simon McBurney certainly puts the show in this show so you are more likely to feel dazzled by how well he choreographs the whole thing than to notice how emotionally empty Evans and most of the characters in the play are. It’s worth seeing in spite of this major issue for those who love wizardry in their stagecraft.

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (The Harold Pinter Theatre)

This play by Edward Albee is now more than fifty years old but it still feels uncomfortably mature. The story about the daughter of a college president and her disappointing “associate professor” of a husband is hard to endure, particularly when a much younger couple they meet at a party come over for late night drinks. Everyone has issues, that’s for sure, and the late hour, the booze and longstanding personality conflicts all emerge in the wee hours of the morning leading toward epic dysfunction. There are so many top tier productions in London but this one is perhaps at the top of the heap at the moment, with stellar acting in all the parts (there are only four of them). The production boasts three Olivier award winners, including Imelda Staunton as Martha and Conleth Hill as George.

Amadeus (National Theatre)

If you’ve seen the 1984 movie that won Best Picture starring F. Murray Abraham and Tom Hulce, this production won’t be much of a surprise. Even so it’s great entertainment and even in the huge Olivier Theater it still comes across as pretty intimate. This musical gets redone regularly so it’s not surprising that directors keep looking for new ways to stage it. In a way this production tries a little too hard to keep it fresh and interesting. The orchestra is on stage for the performance and is really a character in itself, integrating itself seamlessly into the show. You get court composer Saliari as a black Italian (played by Lucian Msamati), which seems weird at first. Adam Gillen portrays Amadeus Mozart and he’s not quite Tom Hulce but he does a fine eccentric job of portraying the gifted composer. It’s a classy, expensive, top tier production.

Seventeen (Lyric Theatre) 

This last show was the oddest one we saw. It’s the story of five teenagers on the cusp of adulthood after their final exams, but all the actors are age sixty plus portraying teenagers. They do a good job of it on a minimalist playground set but it’s quite weird. I’m not sure what the point of this was other than to show it could be done and maybe give some equity to older actors in the theatre guild. It wasn’t especially memorable or even very good, but it was different.

The real value of streaming music

I’ve been watching my mad money grow to four figures. My mad money comes from a small online consulting business. The business is sporadic, which is fine because I don’t have much time for it anyhow. I use the money to buy stuff I would normally be too cheap to buy. At least that’s the theory. In practice I don’t buy much with it except the occasional meal or some show tickets. Most of it eventually goes into a bank account. I am paid via PayPal so for a while it stays in a PayPal account. If I want I can buy stuff on impulse with my PayPal debit card.

The truth is I don’t want much that I don’t already have. So I’ve been searching hard for stuff I might want. What I am wanting is not so much physical stuff but virtual stuff. That explains my propensity to buy theater tickets with this money. Most recently, I used the money to buy a streaming music service, mostly to see what that’s all about.

Streaming content is hardly new. The main purpose of the Internet these days apparently is to watch Netflix online. This kind of ticks off the ISPs, who would much rather we use their online movie services. This is causing a few ISPs to give preference to their traffic as opposed to Netflix, Amazon or the other services out there. Apparently they aren’t brave enough to compete on price. Movies of course are gigabytes of content, all streaming over high-speed networks. Music, on the other hand, is relatively small in size. It’s small enough that so far at least my employer hasn’t noticed that I’m listening to online music much of the day. This is a technical violation of the rules but, hey, I’m only sipping content because it’s music. I doubt the network police even notice.

It’s not that I listen to music at work to avoid work. Music actually makes me more productive. My office tends to be quiet, but when it is not it also helps tune out the noise in my vicinity. I avoid listening to music with words in it, as that can be distracting. Instead, I concentrate on classical music. Without voices to distract me, listening to music becomes a mostly subliminal experience. It helps me focus, so I actually get a lot more work done.

I also listen to streaming music at home when I expect to be in front of my computer for a while. At home of course I feel freer to experiment in non-classical genres. Any type of music at home helps me be more productive. That’s because I am usually not alone. Both my wife and my daughter tend to broadcast their lives somewhat. While I love them, I don’t need a constant stream of what’s on their minds. So streaming the music lets me tune them out.

So this is a service that is actually useful to me. Google charges $10 a month for its Google Music service. (There is a free service that is more limited.) I haven’t actually paid my first bill yet, as the first thirty days are free. This is good because even though it reputedly has ten million titles to listen to, I’m new to this streaming thing, and there are a few things I don’t like about Google Play Music. On my desktop it plays inside a browser, which is not the ideal way to play music. At least on my iMac, when I ask the computer to do something else the music will often stop for a few seconds because the CPU is busy doing something else. It’s like coming across a scratch in a record, for those old enough to remember playing vinyl records. That’s distracting. So far I haven’t found a separate media-streaming player, although there are apps for mobile devices that I haven’t tested. These should provide a more seamless experience. So I might well migrate to one of the dozens of other services out there. Google at least is unlikely to go belly up, which is why I started with it.

So I am finding real value to paying for a music streaming service. It makes me more productive and it allows me to multitask. My consciousness is focused on my task at hand in front of the computer. Subliminally though I am also appreciating the music. I add both joy and productivity simultaneously. Classical music is also great when I need to write creatively. It certainly helps when I blog, but when I write fiction it is especially useful. It unleashes parts of my mind that would probably not unlock, resulting I believe in better writing.

The real value of this service though is the virtually infinite variety of music that I now have access to. Like most people, I’ve tended to listen to a lot of music that I’ve heard before. Increasingly though I am just going with random music in a genre, particularly classical music, and let it subliminally affect my brain. This is revolutionary. It used to be that we tended to buy whatever the DJ decided to put on the air. Often if we had access to a good record store we could listen to CDs using headphones the store provided. Neither are good ways to expose yourself to divergent music. We can of course go on the recommendations of friends, attend concerts and listen to performers in jazz clubs.

We know that music affects the brain, usually in a good way. It seems to make new neural connections inside our brain. Listening to new music may help us live longer. It stimulates creativity and can certainly affect how you feel. And of course a lot of music is really interesting to listen to. Some of it is brilliant. Sampling a lot of diverse music allows me to decide for myself what new music is of interest to me. It allows me to appreciate artists I would have never heard before. In short, at $10 a month, it’s quite a bargain. Add in the power of Google’s music search engine, and its recommendation engine, and I am likelier to find music that I will really like. The more I play, the more I rate content, the better the experience should become.

I’m into musicals, so it is especially valuable here. I can hear virtually every version of Les Miserables ever produced, including the original French version. I can hear obscure musicals that are rarely staged. I can compare the 1939 version of Oklahoma with the most recently staged Broadway cast recording. What’s not to like?

Even with ten million recordings, Google Music is missing some content. There are a handful of Beatles songs, but that’s it. I understand I can get the Beatles through iTunes. It’s not a deal breaker for me. I am more interested in variety right now. I want to be taken places that I have never been to before. Google Music is essentially a vast record store with aisles extending so far away they fade into the distance. Moreover, I don’t have to go anywhere; I just have to plug in.

It looks like I found a good use for my mad money after all.

Review: Porgy and Bess at the National Theatre

Seeing a performance of the Gershwin brothers Porgy and Bess has always been on my bucket list. Most people who think they know nothing about the opera probably know a few songs from it anyhow. It’s hard not to know its opening song “Summertime”. Porgy and Bess traditionally has been staged as an opera, and a somewhat bloated one at that. That doesn’t work so well by 21st century standards, which was why it was condensed to a musical of approximately two and a half hours (with intermission) instead. Since I may never get around to seeing the full opera, this Broadway cast version was breezing through Washington D.C., and tickets were surprisingly easy to get, last night we took the Broadway musical (Diane Paulus) version in instead at the National Theatre.

I obviously can’t compare it to the opera. If you haven’t seen either the opera or the musical, you likely won’t be disappointed by this touring musical version. What it lacks in length, it makes up for in rich acting and wonderful singing. I found the first thirty minutes or so magical, the sort of experience you hope to have seeing a musical but which most musicals don’t deliver. Perhaps this is because some eighty years later, Porgy and Bess, whether performed as an opera or a musical, is really different.

So many operas are about rich or famous people, lives that are hard for us to relate to. Porgy and Bess is a workingman’s opera. In its time it was genuinely revolutionary, both in its mature themes and its Afro-American centrism. It is curious but perhaps not surprising that it took white guys (George and Ira Gershwin) to make it okay for us whites to explore the African American experience in the deep south. In the 1930s, Jim Crow laws still tightly segregated blacks and whites, and that is the world of Catfish Row near Charleston, South Carolina that Porgy, Bess, Clara, Jake, Serena and others live their lives.

Yes, this is a racy, race-tinged, sexy and quite controversial musical. Aside from two murders, white officers roughing up blacks, and drug abuse there is also poking fun at established religion (“Ain’t necessarily so”), rape and shacking up outside of marriage. Four years before Rhett Butler shocked America by uttering the word “damn” on screen in Gone with the Wind, all these elements were playing on Broadway in this opera. It thus should have been an opera it was okay to hate, but you can’t hate it as it is so true to life and has so many infectious tunes that keep your attention.

So little of Broadway allows African Americans, or really any ethnicity outside of European Americans, to shine. That’s not the case here with this near all African American cast. There is so much African American talent on stage at one time that it is delightfully overwhelming. It makes you want to see more shows like this. The cast is excellent and feels wholly authentic. Catfish Row is a long way from Park Place, but it is at least populated by real instead of surreal people.

There is new mother Clara and her husband Jake. There is Serena, who quickly loses her husband to Crown, who kills her husband with a cotton hook after a dispute at a craps table. There is poor Bess, pulled between three men: the rich dope pusher Sporting Life, the dominant murderer Crown and the crippled Porgy. And of course there is Porgy, a fundamentally decent man who has never known a woman but in a moment of vulnerability manages to woo and seemingly win Bess. It’s a delight to have a musical/opera full of real people, wending their way through a lot of chaos, hurt feelings and bad experiences.

This staging feels just right. You won’t be itching to leave because it is too long and you won’t feel cheated either. In fact, you will find it hard not to feel you are on stage yourself, with such a terrific and animated cast. All this plus Gershwin tunes and amazing voices. It makes for a compelling show, and received a standing ovation. The only mystery was why there were unsold seats in the back wings of the orchestra section on a Friday night. This was a show that deserved to be sold out. Those who gave other holiday activities preference should rue their decision.

Sadly its last performance here in Washington is Sunday. Given that Friday night was not sold out there may be unsold tickets for tonight and Sunday’s performances, so snag them if you can. You won’t be disappointed, but do expect to be thrilled and have one of the better nights of theater you are likely to enjoy.

Review: Miss Saigon at Signature Theatre

Time flies. When the musical Miss Saigon first appeared in London and New York City in 1989, the Vietnam War was still a painful wound on our national psyche. We dealt with it mostly by not thinking about it. Miss Saigon made us look back at the war, specifically the end of that war, and relive a lot of that hurt. It was done in the context of yet another retelling of Puccini’s opera Madama Butterfly. Now, here it is nearly a quarter of a century later. More than one generation has been born with no memory of that war. Today, Miss Saigon, when it is performed, serves many purposes but one of them is simply to present that raw time in our national life to new generations in an engaging and realistic way. America as the country that always won and always did right died as those helicopters pulled away from our embassy in Saigon in 1975.

As staged in the tight quarters of Arlington’s Signature Theater, this musical from the team that brought us the more successful Les Miserables is not quite what I recall seeing on stage in the Kennedy Center sometime in the 1990s. For one thing, there is no helicopter dropped from the rafters, although there is what looks like the underbelly of a helicopter. There is also a new song, “Maybe”, that bridges the introductions of the two women who love Chris and a confrontation scene.

Popular musicals fortunate enough to get restaged in Signature Theater’s intimate setting are always worth seeing. This was our fourth show at Signature, and all of them have been impressive. Happily, their staging of Miss Saigon was no exception. Theater buffs will be impressed not just by the quality of the show, but if you have not been there before also by the intimacy of the theater. There is not a bad seat in the house. Signature spent a bundle on this show. This production cost over a million dollars, which made me feel better about the ticket price I paid, which was over a hundred dollars a seat when you include taxes and surcharges.

There is one surprise in this musical: the understudy plays the pivotal role of Chris. A Washington Post article has the details if you are interested. If there is a defect in this performance, it is that the understudy Gannon O’Brien’s performance while competent is not on quite the same level as other pivotal players. In particular, Thom Sesma as The Engineer and Diana Huey as Kim get to suck out most of the energy on the stage instead. Of the two, Huey is the more impressive, but she is also blessed with a role that calls for manifesting extreme emotions, so it is hard not to focus on her. Arguably, Sesma’s role as the creepy and slimy host of the Saigon strip bar Dreamland, which thinly masquerades for a house of prostitution, is the more challenging. It is actually the better role, as evil characters are generally more fun to play, and The Engineer is certainly as slimy as they come. Dreamland depends on U.S. Marines for its income, and there are few of them around in Saigon in 1975 except at the American embassy as the Vietcong encroach on Saigon and the Americans plan a hasty retreat.

Our seats were on the wings of the Dress Circle (upper level), which were both good and bad. The good were that we were close to the actors but the bad were that our view of actors and the set was obscured from time to time. This is the price you pay when you wait too long to get tickets. The extra intimacy though was quite nice at times. We could watch Kim’s face drain when she learns that Ellen is Chris’s wife, for example. Huey as Kim is an inspired choice because she brings intensity and complexity to the role that traps her like a vice between impossible forces.

The music tends to be quite dramatic with little in the way of comic relief, except the Engineer’s soliloquy song “American Dream” toward the end of the show. It is also quite engaging and impressive music. Its only failure is that it isn’t Les Miserables. This is not so much a failure as it is an impossibility. Les Miserables hit an impossible to dislike story with impossibly great music. Miss Saigon is a tragedy. Les Miserables is a story of both tragedy and redemption.

Still, there are similarities between these brother musicals, products of the same creative team. They were not obvious to me until last night, mainly because I had not concentrated on the contrasts and similarities before. Thenardier and The Engineer are definitely two peas from the same pod, both disgusting and fascinating at the same time. They both provide comic relief and sustain interest over the two plus hours in the theater. Both shows have tragic dying scenes that are eerily similar: Kim’s at the conclusion of the show and Eponine’s in the arms of the man who does not love her, Marius.

Signature delivers high impact emotional scenes, which are many. The emotional highlight should be the ending scene, but that’s only if you don’t know the plot. If you do know the plot, you wait for the helicopter-less scene. It may be sans helicopter, but it is not sans excitement as Vietnamese with close American ties try to board the last helicopters out of Vietnam. Kim is one of them pressing against the embassy gate that separates her from her lover Chris. It was smart to put this scene as a flashback toward the end of Act Two. It would have lost much of its emotional impact if it had been put in Act One.

Signature Theater may have gone a bit overboard with the dry ice. The idea is to recreate the mist and humidity of Vietnam but of course the theater is cool instead of tropical. It makes the set a bit hard to view the set and actors at times. And as with Chess that we saw there, there is some smoking on stage, but only in the first scene, which will be painful to chronic nonsmokers like us.

The show has been extended through October 6. If you like the musical and can afford the three-digit ticket price, you’ll find it money well spent providing that you can snag a remaining ticket. It’s worth the effort to find out.

Review: Les Misérables

It’s hard to understand why it took more than twenty-five years for the musical Les Misérables to make it to the screen. Perhaps Cameron Macintosh (producer of the theatrical musical) thought it was more profitable simply to keep the musical continuously on tour, and it almost always is on tour, including most recently here in Washington, D.C. for its umpteenth appearance. (In fact it debuted in America at the Kennedy Center before moving to Broadway.) I remember first seeing the musical in the early 1990s. The stage bill announced it would be coming to movie theaters soon. Clearly that deal fell apart. Perhaps Macintosh finally realized he could have it both ways. This movie, Les Misérables, will simply stoke interest in seeing the musical on stage, and visa versa.

If you haven’t seen the musical on the stage, you can at least now see it on the screen. If you have seen it on the stage, prepare yourself for the considerable shock of seeing it on digital film. The transition can be a bit rough at times, particularly if you are used to powerful operatic voices. You won’t find much of that in the movie, and you may find yourself cringing at times by just how badly some of the singing comes across. In particular, you may find yourself wishing that Russell Crowe had the male equivalent of Marnie Nixon, the woman who actually sang the part of Eliza Doolittle for Audrey Hepburn in the movie musical My Fair Lady. Russell Crowe’s singing should have been dubbed.

In fact, one of the few things to dislike about this movie is Russell Crowe’s portrayal of the obsessive Inspector Javert. Javert is definitely a stiff upper lip type, and Crowe at least has that aspect down correctly. But his performance is too flat and unemotional. Fans of the musical will cry, from anguish and not from joy, when Crowe tries to sing songs like “Stars” and it just falls flat.

Director Tom Hooper, who gave us the academy award winner King’s Speech, gets to flex his directorial mojo tackling this challenging musical. One of his key decisions was to record the singing live and then go back and add the orchestration. The benefit is that this allows the performers to act without worrying about matching a prerecorded score. The downside is that this sort of singing is less operatic and more breathy. When an otherwise fine actor like Russell Crowe simply cannot sing, the result is like an over-modulated sound; it is just grating. The same is also true with Isabelle Allen, who plays the young Cosette. It’s forgivable in the case of a child. In the case of a lead actor like Russell Crowe, it is not.

Is this a reason to give the movie a pass? Not really. Aside from these minor imperfections, Hooper does a great job of transitioning the musical to the screen. The acting in some parts is so overwhelmingly good that you can overlook the Russell Crowe miscasting. Hugh Jackman is terrific as Jean Valjean, but the real scene-stealer is Anne Hathaway as Fantine, Cosette’s mother. Here Hooper validates his approach of recording the singing live, because through the intimacy of a close up you can get a much richer acting than you would otherwise.

Paris in the 19th century is realized quite well, although it was actually shot in an English studio. The poverty and filth of the time is also captured with uncomfortable authenticity. You can almost smell the shit as Valjean carries the wounded Marius through a Paris sewer. Hooper provides an amazingly intimate look into the life of the poor people of France, with the necessary comic relief provided by the Thenardiers, played by Sacha Baron Cohen and Helena Bonham Carter. Baron Cohen and Bonham Carter are perhaps logical choices for these parts, as they can easily ooze the sliminess these roles require, but perhaps they were too easy a choice. There have been so many fine Thenardiers’ on stage that certainly one of these actors could have done an even better job.

The ancillary parts are stocked with terrific character actors, most of whom I have no quibbles with their performance. My only concern was one I see frequently in Eponine: she is played by too pretty an actress, in this case Samantha Barks. Gavroche, the spunky street urchin, is a hard role to get right. Fortunately, Hooper made a terrific choice casting Daniel Huttlestone. Overall, Hooper does a great job with directing this tricky work, supplementing songs somewhat, providing a gritty and authentic feel to the movie, and casting hosts of ancillary characters that fluidly and realistically move through their numbers, such as the women in Valjean’s factory. The intensity of the students in their doomed parts as revolutionaries is also appreciated. We get energetic and deeply humane portraits of pivotal characters like Marius (Eddie Redmayne) and the leader Enjolras (Aaron Tveit). We also get plenty of chemistry when Marius meets the adult Cosette (Amanda Seyfried).

Whether seen in the theater or on the screen, this is a tearjerker. It left me crying at the end, even though I certainly knew all of the plot and the songs. To those few who are not familiar with either the story or the musical, it should come as a great treat. You would be wise to pack an extra handkerchief. It seemed to wow our audience, who applauded at the end of it.

Still, Russell Crowe does grate and is simply miscast in this movie, so impartiality requires me to dock it a couple tenths of a point. 3.2 stars on my four-point scale.

[xrr rating=3.2/4]

Review: Jekyll & Hyde at the Kennedy Center

Musical composer Frank Wildhorn is one of the few composers to have had two shows running on Broadway at the same time, specifically Jekyll & Hyde and The Scarlet Pimpernel. Of the two, the older is Jekyll & Hyde, first produced on Broadway in 1997. This predictably dark musical has had a number of revisions over the years. The one that appeared Thanksgiving evening at the Opera House at the Kennedy Center feels very much like the latest, and not necessarily best revision.

It is hard for me to say for sure, of course, since this is the first time I have seen it staged live. I did watch a pay per view performance with David Hasselhoff playing, of course, both the humanist Dr. Henry Jekyll and his alter ego, the murderous Edward Hyde. I was disappointed both because I find Hasselhoff very annoying and because the musical had been toned down from the much darker version first tried out in Houston, Texas that I have on CD. This version is gratefully darker and brings back numbers that did not warrant disappearance, and maybe made it off limits for children like the bawdy “Bring on the Men”. But it also feels more jangled and rock-like. While not a rock musical, it feels like it is experimenting with it a bit on the edges. Moreover, some of the notes have been changed making the songs less fluid and a bit off key. It didn’t help that the acoustics in the Opera House were less than ideal, with the sound dramatically over-modulated and frequently excessively loud.

The result was an uneven performance that had some merits but many detractions. Constantine Maroulis, a fine actor, does not have the best voice, at least for the songs he has to sing here. He sounds breathy when he sings. It turns out that the musical’s true flaws lie elsewhere: with its script. It must have been good enough to survive four years on Broadway, but at least with this version produced by Nederlander Presentations it simply lacks plausibility and heart. And that’s a shame because all the murders that Edward Hyde wreaks don’t mean much if the characters he kills are all cardboard, which is largely the case here. One thing is for sure: you won’t be living long if you are a member of the St. Jude’s Hospital Board of Governors, and if you are a member then you are a flaming hypocrite that maybe deserves to be slashed and/or strangled to death.

Granted, it’s hard for a musical that is mostly about killing other people to have heart, but in this case you have to believe that Henry Jekyll is the passionate humanist he claims to be. I didn’t feel it in Maroulis’s performance. John (played by Laird Mackintosh) is supposed to be Henry’s best friend and his lawyer, but there simply isn’t enough dialog and interaction for us to feel that any friendship exists. “Look behind the façade,” the actors sing in one of the opening numbers. The audience though is left with the feeling that the musical is a façade, flashy but not terribly engaging and ultimately not terribly compelling.

Not that there aren’t some good performances. Deborah Cox landed the role of Lucy, the harlot with a heart who is drawn to Jekyll because he is the only good man she has ever met. Cox is a great actress and has a voice to match. To the extent that this version is worth seeing, it is probably for Cox’s portrayal of Lucy. There is also the music, which when it is good is quite memorable. Wildhorn and lyricist Leslie Bricusse can put together some memorable show tunes that rival some of Andrew Lloyd’s Webber’s best. In Jekyll & Hyde we get “Take me as I am”, “Bring on the Men”, “This is the Moment”, “Alive”, “Dangerous Game” and “Confrontation” that are all compelling.

The direction and staging are competent but not particularly compelling. Jekyll’s laboratory has been redesigned so we get fluorescent flasks of bubbling chemical concoctions delivered into Jekyll’s veins via tubes instead of flasks. Special effects, such as they are, are saved for the song “Confrontation”, which are well done but do not really redeem the musical’s many faults.

I don’t feel that ripped off, however. Tickets were only $49, a good deal for the Kennedy Center, but were perhaps priced so low because word had gotten around that this production was less than stellar. If you have a hankering to see the musical and can snatch any of these tickets, it is probably worth seeing, but you had best hurry, since it’s last performance at the Kennedy Center is on Sunday. If you paid full price, well, I’m sorry. You are likely to feel disappointed.

While this production does have some merits and I have seen much worse at the Kennedy Center, it is probably not Jekyll & Hyde at its best. You might want to wait for a better and more compelling production.

Review: The Music Man at Arena Stage

If one had to decide on a best American musical, The Music Man would surely rank in the top half dozen. It feels quintessentially American, with equal parts of turn of the (20th) century small town America and shysterism.

I have a special connection to the musical. It was first released in 1957, the year I was born. Second, I grew up listening to its music. Sunday mornings were music day in our house, and the 33 1/3 RPM vinyl record from the movie starring Shirley Jones and Robert Preston was often playing before or after breakfast. Its story and lyrics are stored in my permanent long-term memory. It was also something of a naughty musical for its time and our conservative Catholic household. My parents often had us skip “Shipoopi” because it elicited so many giggles from us kids. It wasn’t until I had read Nathaniel Hawthorne that I understood what Harold Hill meant by the lyrics that he wanted “for Hester to win just one more A.” My Dad found the music irresistible. In 2009, I took him to The Kennedy Center to see a highly abridged staging, but mainly for him to see Shirley Jones. So this is really the second review of The Music Man to grace this blog.

This staging is being done locally at Arena Stage in southwest D.C. in its theater in the round (well, more accurately theater in the square), the Fichlander. We haven’t been to Arena stage since 2004 where we saw a spectacular production of M Butterfly. Since then the theater has been remodeled, although the stage itself appears unaltered. Before the show we were remarking that we had never seen a bad production at Arena Stage. I am happy to report that Artistic Director Molly Smith did not disappoint with this current staging of The Music Man either.

If The Music Man has a problem, it is that it is done too often and thus is too familiar. I have seen it performed at least three times before last night. The movie is committed to my brain as well. It’s become almost like holy writ: there should be no messing with the musical. Putting it on a theater in the round though did introduce some complications. At least at Arena Stage, the musical doesn’t transition too well to a theater in the round. The stage is not that big and the audience across from you is impossible to tune out. River City is supposed to be as white as a loaf of Wonder Bread, but this is the 21st century, so Molly Smith added a couple of African Americans and an Asian. Yeah, it’s just theater and shouldn’t matter but is still a bit jarring.

This staging has some great plusses to it. You don’t particularly think of dancing when you think of The Music Man, but Molly Smith makes it a feature and there is not a clubfoot among the cast. In fact, they are all little Fred Astaires and Ginger Rogers, which makes the otherwise unmemorable “Shipoopi” memorable indeed. Also terrific are the two prominent child parts: Ian Berlin as the stutterer Winthrop and Heidi Kaplan as Amaryllis. It is truly surprising to see such talent from children so young.

The heart of the musical of course is the relationship between Harold Hill and Marian Paroo. Hill (Burke Moses) is the traveling salesman masquerading as a music professor but just out to make some quick bucks selling boys bands to gullible townies. Marian Paroo (Kate Baldwin) is the town librarian and one of the few people in the town who knows how to think critically. She is immediately suspicious of this “common masher”, particularly when he is hardly off the train before he is wooing her. Marian, of course, is secretly worried about becoming an old maid at (gasp) age 26 and with no prospects. Marian apparently had a close relationship with the founder of the library before he died, and inherited all the books in the library as well as the position of librarian. Harold Hill assumes she is a fallen woman, and finds such women attractive.

Robert Preston originated the role of Harold Hill. In fact, Meredith Willson wrote his music specifically for him, since Preston did not have much of a singing voice. Mostly he speaks more than sings. Preston is long gone, but Moses does an impressive job of recreating Preston on stage. One minor problem for Moses is he is arguably too old for the part. He is 52. Kate Baldwin is not quite the 26-year-old Marian either (she is 37), but certainly looks like she could be. Aside from the age incongruity, both deliver exceptional performances. Baldwin makes a terrific Marian, which is good because arguably she has a hard part to get right. She must be at once critical, smart and perceptive, yet emotionally vulnerable and ultimately kind hearted. She also has to be an exceptional singer as well as dancer, and Baldwin delivers all the goods magnificently. Try not to cry when she hits those high notes at the end of “Will I Ever Tell You.”

Both are blessed with an able cast of supporting actors. It’s hard to pick favorites but I especially enjoyed John Lescault as Mayor Shinn and Will Burton as Tommy Djilas, the local “bad boy”, such as they have in bland River City. The orchestra sits under the stage, making the quality of the sound a tad less than ideal.

The Music Man may be over performed and feel mostly out of a Norman Rockwell painting, but it is undeniably musically infectious. Particularly if you have never seen it before, this staging should delight. You are almost guaranteed to be humming tunes from it for days afterward. While not the best showing I have seen at Arena Stage (so hard to decide between Animal Crackers and Guys and Dolls) it is A-grade stuff, guaranteed to please in all its surreal Republican wholesomeness.

Review: Next to Normal at the Kennedy Center

There were dueling musicals playing Saturday night at the Kennedy Center. We found ourselves in the Eisenhower Theater watching the rock musical Next to Normal, the story of a woman caught in bipolar disorder. Right next-door in the Opera House was the musical Wicked, which we had caught in Chicago way back in 2005, is still going strong and based on people hanging outside the theater, is still attracting its share of devoted groupies.

It would be hard to put two stranger musicals side by side. Wicked is a glitzy but largely empty-headed musical fantasy on the world of Oz with a mixture of pretty good to great music, a so-so story, lots of costumes and numerous scene changes. On the other hand, Next to Normal is a modest musical with just one set (on three levels), a small cast, zero special effects and is anchored in the present day. Wicked is a fun musical; Next to Normal is a downer of a musical and, if you have dealt with mental illness in your family, it will also feel uncomfortably familiar. Yet surprisingly, Next to Normal emerged from off Broadway, made a previous appearance here in Washington at Arena Stage, went on Broadway, won a number of Tony Awards and is now on tour. Its success may be due in part to the crushing number of people and families struggling with mental illness.

No question about it, Diana Goodman is a mess of a woman. Life for her is largely dysfunctional. Some part of her seems like a normal housewife until she does strange or harmful things like making sandwiches on the floor or deciding to slice her wrists. Such as it is, her life involves taking pills and talking to psychiatrists. “Success” is achieved when she is so medicated she feels almost nothing. Yet she realizes that her medicated world is a false world, and sings as much in one of the songs, I Miss the Mountains. Her mental illness is so consuming that it squeezes all other life out of her small family’s existence.

Her dutiful husband Dan (Asa Somers) spends his life closely monitoring his psychotic wife, and hopes for days or weeks of something resembling normal (It’s Gonna Be Good). Only there is no normal in this house. Diana is like a bull in a china shop, and has no idea of the emotional devastation she is inflicting on her husband or her estranged daughter Natalie (Emma Hunton). Natalie, an overachieving high school student, is devastated by her mother’s emotional absence from her life. Her father cannot do much to fill the gap. He is too busy playing the role of dutiful caregiver to Diana. It’s a role that leaves him emotionally devastated too, as well as exhausted and suffering from something akin to post traumatic stress disorder. He is always on edge, always trying to keep his family from imploding, and always wondering when his wife’s next crazy episode will arrive. It is hard not to sympathize with Dan, a truly nice guy who must live life keeping a stiff upper lip.

As the musical unfolds it is easy to see that Diana’s mental illness is catching. Natalie is pursued by Henry, who enjoys listening to her music and grows to love her, but not in a healthy way. Rather, Henry senses she is emotionally vulnerable, and like her father wants to play the role of catching her when she falls. Meanwhile, Natalie starts channeling her mother. An episode that puts her mother in the hospital pushes her over the edge, and she begins taking some of her mother’s medicines to try to escape her less than ideal reality. Overseeing everything is Gabe, the cause of Diana’s psychosis. Gabe was her son. The real Gabe died at eight months of an unseen intestinal blockage, but he lives on as a creature from the Id in Diana’s mind. It is the powerful image of Gabe, as a rebellious teenager (played by Curt Hansen), that symbolizes Diana’s desire to live life on her own terms. She wants to break free from the world of medications and psychiatrists, as long as she can feel again. Gabe is really something of the central character of the musical, usually onstage and providing commentary and temptation. The baby Gabe may have died long ago, but his projection lives on and pulls the whole family into his massive gravity well of pain and hurt.

Shrinks also play an important counterweight in the musical, as they fruitlessly try to move Diana into a place of healing. Even the best shrink in town, Dr. Madden (Jeremy Kushnier) finds he has his hands full with her, and eventually recommends electroconvulsive therapy, which has the effects of making her forget most of her past.

In our performance, Alice Ripley played Diana, who originated the part and won a Tony for her role. Presumably Ripley could sing better on stage than she does, because her raspy alto voice mirrors the pain within her character. Her voice was the only off note (but presumably a deliberate one) to a fast flowing, depressing yet riveting musical. While allegedly a rock musical, it doesn’t particularly sound like one. The music has songs that are definitely come out of rock, but others that sound more like pop or easy listening than rock. As with Rent (and this was directed by the same man who directed Rent, Michael Greif), the orchestra, such as it is can be found on the stage, almost characters themselves.

Looking around at the audience I got the sense that many were dealing with mental illness in their own lives. We know today that mental illness is a huge problem, so it would not surprise me if many of the mentally ill and/or their families found some identity and therapy in the musical.

It would be nice if the musical had a happy ending, and it does sort of resolve things, just not in a neat and tidy package. At least for a brief time the characters find a breathing space of sorts, and as the show’s title suggests, a place next to normal where something close to normality can be sampled.

This is obviously an adult themed show and not appropriate for small children. It is one of the few musicals to explore inner rather than outer worlds and in my mind a lot more meaningful than the fun but vapid production of Wicked next door.

(P.S. Also watch Garden State, a terrific movie, much more lighthearted but with a similar theme.)

Review: Candide at The Shakespeare Theatre

In 1766, a “German doctor named Ralph” published a satirical story that pummeled a popular meme of its time, voiced by luminaries like Alexander Pope that “whatever is, is right.” The German doctor’s book Candide sold thirty thousand copies of in the first year alone, despite being banned by the Catholic Church. No one was fooled who its author was, because Voltaire’s style was unmistakable. His slim story of the naive young man Candide and his adventures in the imperfect and usually hellish world of man he encountered outside of the kingdom of Westphalia became perhaps the world’s second best known satire, after Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels. Nearly two centuries later, the late composer and conductor Leonard Bernstein turned the work into an opera. Perhaps it was good that Bernstein was a Jew, because had it been written by a Catholic even all these years later the Vatican might have labeled him an apostate.

As a composer, Bernstein is best known for West Side Story. Candide was an opera that he kept perfecting until his death. “There is more of me in that piece than anything I have ever done,” he once told a friend. Bernstein recorded this final variation (which I own) in 1989, just a year before his death. Candide is probably his finest work in the musical/opera genre.

Unfortunately, as operas and musicals go, Candide is produced only infrequently, perhaps because its irreverent themes still offend some sensitive souls. Which means if you love the opera and it is staged, you have to see it. Saturday night my family and I ventured into Washington D.C. to see it performed at The Shakespeare Theatre’s new venue, The Sydney Harman Hall, just across the street from The Verizon Center.

Candide is something of a stretch for The Shakespeare Theatre, both because it is not a Shakespearean play and also because it is a musical. While Sydney Harman Hall is a larger and prettier venue than its old digs around the corner, it is still small enough so there is not much room for an orchestral pit. What you get with Candide is a mini-orchestra of twelve. Fewer instruments means each instrument must carry more weight. The result is that the orchestra was uneven at times, resulting in occasionally wobbly or slightly off-key notes. Once the overture was over and the performance started, it was easier to tune out orchestral imperfections because, as with almost everything The Shakespeare Theatre does, this production is first rate.

Granted that when staging a satire, the characters tend to be one dimensional. Candide of course is specifically named because he is so innocent and naive, but all the characters in the opera are stereotypes. However, most are very funny stereotypes. The hardest part in the show may be Candide’s (played by Geoff Packard) because he is about as interesting a character as off white is an interesting wall color.

In a show like this, there is no point fussing with elaborate or frequently changing scenery, so the director did not bother. Rather, a wood paneled stage is quickly revealed after the first scene. Filled with numerous side doors, windows and trap doors it allows a metaphorical play to briskly unfold. Most of the actors play many roles, so it can be hard to remember who is who.

If you are not familiar with the plot, then do not expect it to make any sense. Candide and his cohorts are unwilling ping pongs blown hither and tither by misfortune largely inflicted by their fellow men. Characters surely dead mysteriously come back to life. This results in some of the strangest lyrics to ever make it into an opera house, like these between Candide and his heartthrob, the beautiful but vacuous Cunegonde (Lauren Molina). Even with lyrics as weird as these, Bernstein manages to wrap them around beautiful, if not exquisite music:

Candide: Dearest how can this be so? You were dead, you know. You were shot and bayoneted, too.

Cunegonde: That is very true. Oh, but love will find a way.

Candide: Then, what did you do?

Cunegonde: We’ll go into that another day. Now let’s talk of you.

While Candide was written solely by Voltaire (whose tomb I had the privilege of visiting in 2006), in its musical incarnation it has had many authors. Dorothy Parker and Stephen Sondheim are among those who helped refine the lyrics. Like the musical Chess, directors apparently assume they have permission to tinker with the opera. For this production, director Mary Zimmerman contributed new dialogue and, I suspect, new plot elements. Maximilian (Erik Lochtefeld) was always something of a dandy, but now he is a pedophile as well. Erik is terrific as Maximilian; when he talks it is hard not to at least titter. Lauren Molina plays Cunegonde with tremendous energy and sprightliness. Professor Pangloss (Larry Yando) is as close as this opera comes to having a lead supporting actor, and is gloriously myopic with his assertion that we live in the best of all possible worlds, even absurdly right before he is about to hang. (I feel the same way about those who believe in American exceptionalism. I guess we live in the best of all possible countries.) Hollis Resnik is also memorable as the one-buttocked Old Lady.

Voltaire, the many lyricists, director Mary Zimmerman, choreographer Daniel Pelzig and many others will render these many naivities absurd through the backdrop of Bernstein’s glorious music. I believe that the only thing that has kept Candide from being one of our greatest musicals is it offends the feelings and dignity of many of the virtuous among us. Bernstein’s music is often lustrous and glorious, and the aria “Glitter and Be Gay” (9.8MB MP3) surely would compete well against some of Verdi or Mozart’s most memorable arias.

Bernstein considered Candide an opera. I say it is more of a musical. It is surprisingly long (just over three hours with intermission), and it has many spoken areas to connect the many songs. Whether opera or musical, fans of either genre should hustle to The Shakespeare Theater to see this delightful rendition before it folds. It is full of laughter and glorious absurdity, leaving few unskewered, either metaphorically or on the stage. It is a musical about mankind’s not so glorious derriere, but so well done you will be moving in for a close proctological view.

See Candide while you can. Satire has rarely been done better.

Review: Chess at Signature Theater

It seems strange, but The Washington Post so far has not sent a critic out to review Signature Theater’s production of Chess. A casual Google search turned up no reviews at all, which leaves it to me, a humble blogger, to fill in the gap for theatergoers. My family and I had front row center seats at last night’s 8 PM performance.

Chess is the late 1980s musical created by two of the powerhouses behind ABBA (Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus) with lyrics provided by Tim Rice. It’s one of my favorite musicals. Some months back, I reviewed a concert version of Chess performed in London’s Royal Albert Hall. The concert version hewed fairly closely to the original version that ran on London’s West End for three years.

Chess is not like Oklahoma, where you know the words, songs and scenes will not vary in the slightest. Directors seem to feel free to reinvent Chess with each staging; the result is you are never quite sure what you will get. This is definitely true with Signature Theater’s version, which is quite a variant. Director Eric Schaeffer, Choreographer Karma Camp and Orchestrator David Holcenberg felt free to create their own variant of Chess. The result is a leaner version of Chess missing a few of the beloved songs. Those of you hoping for something resembling the London version with the glorious song “Merano” (or for that matter “The Story of Chess”) may be disappointed. The upside is that the creative forces behind this staging make a much more plausible and dramatic version of Chess.

For example, Florence was always a hard to understand character. She is supposed to be Freddie Trumper’s chess second, but in the real world, a top-notch female chess player is highly unusual. In this staging, Jill Paice establishes Florence very early on as an earnest chess player in her own right, capable of tripping up Freddie with her penetrating insight into the game. Florence is still caught up in a love triangle between Freddie and Anatoly but the tensions in their relationships are more plausibly established than they are in the concert version, or in the one other staging I saw some two decades ago at a local community theater. The plot, which seemed to have holes in the past, is now fully connected and plausible, with the level of drama consequently ratcheted up considerably.

Lyrics have also been rearranged, sometimes dramatically, sometimes surprisingly. For example, Florence sings “Someone Else’s Story” in this version near the end of the first act. Traditionally, Svetlana, Anatoly’s estranged wife sings it.

Florence has always been understood to be someone whose childhood was torn apart by the Cold War when the U.S.S.R. invaded Hungary in 1956. What is probably new in the Signature Theater version is a Prologue that graphically shows the separation with her father as a child and introduces what I believe is a new song “Lullaby (Apukad eros Kezen)”.

In the concert version, we have the first match occurring in Merano, Italy. Freddie loses the first tournament and Anatoly defects to the West with Florence immediately upon his win. The second act takes place in Bangkok, where Freddie reemerges as a color commentator for Anatoly’s match against a fellow Russian, while desperately trying to win back Florence. In Signature Theater’s version, we have Freddie and Anatoly first meeting to play in Bangkok, with Anatoly defecting with Florence before the tournament is even decided. The remaining games are played eight months later in Budapest, which of course heightens the dramatic tension given Florence’s wrenching experiences there as a child. In the original version, Freddie spends much of his time trying to woo back Florence in the second act. In this version, Freddie comes to believe Florence is just a “bitch” and he is better off without her. In short, Signature Theater’s version arguably works better as a drama.

Signature Theater has always been an intimate theater, so expect a couple hundred seats and a small stage where all the action happens. As I noticed when I saw Les Miserables there, the orchestra, oddly elevated to a spot above the stage, sounds somewhat muffled. Signature needs to find a way to make sure the orchestra can be heard more clearly. It could be something about being in the front row, but the mixture of hearing live singing with the electronic amplification coming through the speakers is sometimes a little off as well. The theater is small enough where I don’t think voice amplification is even needed.

The actors recruited to play the three principle characters Florence, Anatoly and Freddie are all terrific. Florence is really the central character and Jill Paice will not disappoint, neither as an actor nor as a terrific singer. Paice has a wider resume than most of the ensemble, having played many parts on Broadway and elsewhere. I personally thought Jeremy Kushnier as Freddie had the edge as the better actor vs. Euan Morton’s portrayal of Anatoly. Anatoly’s signature song is “Anthem”, which arguably could use a more powerful voice than Morton provides. The ancillary roles are all competently filled: Chris Sizemore as the Arbiter (he played Enjoras in Signature’s Les Miserables) and Christopher Block as Molokov (who played the less subtle character of Thenardier in Signature’s Les Miserables). This production introduces a new character to Chess, at least that I am aware of: Walter (Russell Sunday) as Freddie’s agent and apparently something of a State Department operative. Svetlana (Eleasha Gamble) has a smaller part in this staging and sings less but has a wonderful voice when she is finally allowed to sing. The ensemble is small like the theater, but arguably could have been used better. In one odd scene, they dance behind Plexiglas. It made no sense to me.

Should you see this version? The short answer is yes! Signature Theater seems incapable of putting out crap and is establishing a high bar in the Washington theater scene, which is already beginning to rival New York’s tonier scene. Signature’s version will be a bit jarring for Chess traditionalists, but Signature has arguably improved the product by making this musical far more plausible and coherent.

There are two scenes where the actors smoke, so if you are sensitive to tobacco get seats away from the front row. (I think the scenes could have been done without cigarettes altogether. I mean they are already wearing stage microphones which are visually intrusive; why use real cigarettes?) Also a personal note to Jill Paice: fabulous boots!