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.

Putting the Oh! in Opera – Don Giovanni at The Barnes at Wolf Trap

Many years back I ruminated on the differences between musicals and operas. I tend to see a lot more musicals than operas. Musicals tend to be easier to find and although pricey, less pricey than an opera. On rare occasion we will see an opera, but never before on so unique a stage as The Barns at Wolf Trap, in Vienna, Virginia. Wolf Trap is an oddity: a national park that is basically an arts venue. Most of the business goes on in the huge open-air Filene Center, but there is also a smaller and air conditioned venue called The Barns where we saw Mozart’s Don Giovanni last night. This was principally because my daughter had gotten into the opera and wanted to see it.

Choosing to The Barns instead of whatever was going on at the Filene Center was a smart choice. The heat wave across the nation is hardly news. It was 99 degrees when we arrived at The Barns, peculiarly situated in a hard to get to toney neighborhood in Vienna. The Barns is a barn, sort of. At least the interior was full of rough-cut timbers. I knew the stage was relatively small, but it was smaller than I expected. The stage is not inset so you can look down, which means arguably the best seating is on the balcony.

Don Giovanni was first performed in 1787 in Prague. The Wolf Trap Opera Company is a very small opera company that performs to small crowds. There could not have been more than three hundred of us attending this performance. Whereas in 1787 little was available in the way of special effects, the company chose to update the plot and place it to 2014. This made for an odd but still satisfying performance that was incongruous in the present. For example, there were lyrics from Zerlina (Andrea Carroll) that really don’t translate in 2014 very well. To assure her fiancé Masetto (Aaron Sorensen) that is sorry that Don Giovanni tried to seduce her, she says he should beat her and rip out her heart, and she would not object! Technology itself was a character in this staging. Specifically Leporello (Craig Irvin), Don Giovanni’s (Ryan Kuster) assistant charged with chronicling all his adventures seducing women, has a tablet computer that he uses to keep track of his two thousand plus conquests. There was other integration of technology, principally allowing for fun dynamic backgrounds, including a humorous graveyard scene at the climax when the statue on the grave of the Commendatore actually does wink and turn its head. The technology actually improved the opera, which, frankly, is not one of Mozart’s best works.

This opera company is hardly the Metropolitan Opera, but for a small company modestly funded and forced to perform on a small stage, they did a great job. I felt for the orchestra, jammed into a tiny pit in front of the stage. It must be a fire code or safety violation to cram them in like that. At least their union should complain. The performers were almost universally young, under thirty looking people, with great operatic voices that seemed too good for the rough-hewn walls of The Barns.

The story, in case you are not familiar with it, is that Don Giovanni, a Spanish nobleman who is channeling the Don Juan archetype, is enamored with seducing and bedding as many women as possible, then unceremoniously dumping them. For this endeavor he needs Leporello as a full time assistant to help with logistics and chronicle his adventures. Leporello is sick and tired of being his assistant, particularly when he never gets a chance to score himself. Don Giovanni is also something of a hot-tempered nobleman, and decides to murder The Commendatore after he angrily confronts him for bedding his daughter Donna Anna (Marcy Stonikas). Pretty much the rest of the opera chronicles Don Giovanni’s sad decline as his sins catch up with him. And yet this is not a tragedy. It is really a comedy, and the opera company went out of their way to make it funny, not to mention to take some liberal licenses with the material. Toward the end of the opera, Don Giovanni takes two whores to bed and we get a lesbian scene on stage while he performs an aria. Somehow I don’t think this was done when staged in 1787, but even so the lyrics are pretty racy, or at least suggestive at times. They weren’t entirely prudes in 1787.

Don Giovanni is one of Mozart’s better known operas, but having watched it in its entirety, I can say that although rife with great singing and lovely arias, the plot is a piffle, and it is full of the sorts of devices that make operas annoying for many ordinary folk. After all, it’s important to pad out the material to three hours so the audience knows it got its money’s worth. So you get the same lyrics stated and restated again and again. Thank goodness I did not have to know Italian and subtitles were provided. They did not have to change the subtitles very often. The result is an opera that is not terribly engaging, but made fun at times and more than endurable thanks to the cast and orchestra who were obviously having great fun with the material.

Sadly, we attended the last performance, and two performances were apparently canceled due to the power outages we experienced as a result of severe thunderstorms and our heat wave. I hope to enjoy both The Barns and this opera company again, as the ticket prices were reasonable ($60 each), we had a lot of fun, and did not have to drive very far. I’m hoping the next time we go we will see an opera with more meat on it than this one. Fortunately, the music and performance was so good this serious deficiency was easy to overlook.

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.