Tuesday, August 22, 2023

Ohio Light Opera Still Going Strong

By Harry Forbes

For the first time in four years, Ohio Light Opera has returned for a full indoor season of shows (though one shy of the usual seven), and with a full-sized company of players. After skipping 2020 because of COVID, there were abbreviated outdoor or partially outdoor presentations during 2021 and 2022 with reduced forces.

During this time, the talent base of the repertory company has perforce largely changed, with exceptions such as mainstay performers Spencer Reese and Jacob Allen, but I'm happy to report that with the influx of newcomers, the overall quality -- due, no doubt in large part to the leadership of Artistic Director Steven Daigle -- remains undiminished. So, too, the discreet addition of body mikes has made a welcome difference in audibility for the audience, adding just that extra bit of oomph in the expansive Freedlander auditorium.

In addition to their accomplished onstage performances, Reese continues to come up with terrific choreography for all the productions (as well as directing one this season), and Allen, the company’s assistant artistic director, directed two.

The 2023 rarities included Hungarian composer Emmerich Kálmán’s atypical final work, “Arizona Lady,” and the original 1925 version of Vincent Youmans and Irving Caesar and Otto Harbach’s “No, No, Nanette” which today is better remembered for its long-running 1971 Broadway revival.

Also on the roster was “H.M.S. Pinafore,” the obligatory Gilbert and Sullivan production (reminding us that OLO was, in fact, founded 44 years ago as a company dedicated to the British duo), Jacques Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld,” and Broadway classics “Camelot” and “How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying.”

 There was particular interest among some in seeing the unadulterated, original “Camelot” to compare with director Bartlett Sher’s recently shuttered New York revival with its radically revised book by Aaron Sorkin. To cut to the chase, OLO’s production, faithful to the original text, proved infinitely superior, demonstrating that Sorkin’s wholesale revisions were in no way an improvement. Alan Jay Lerner's original script holds up just fine, and under Daigle's sensitive direction, the show was infinitely more moving than its big budget New York counterpart. And rather surprisingly, even the orchestra, under OLO Music Director Michael Borowitz, sounded lusher than the not inconsiderable 35-piece Lincoln Center orchestra. (OLO’s has about 21.)

James Mitchell, who also impressed with his well drawn tipsy boatman John Styx in “Orpheus,” offered a beautifully acted and sung King Arthur. Though he and the rest of the cast admirably played with English accents (unlike the recent New York crew), Mitchell chose to eschew broad a’s. Still, this was a fine, moving performance.

So too, Sadie Spivey’s Guenevere was sensitively acted and her singing generated comparisons with originator Julie Andrews, while Nathan Seldin’s Lancelot delivered “C’est Moi '' and “If Ever I Would Leave You” with appropriate virile panache and Vincent Gover excelled as both Merlyn and Pellinore. Matthew Reynolds made an appropriately rascally Mordred, and all the other roles were well handled.

“Then You May Take Me to the Fair,” cut from the original production after the cast album was recorded but thereafter not included in the official vocal score, was not included, nor was the randy knights’ choral “Fie on Goodness,” both of which were, in fact, reinstated at Lincoln Center. On the other hand, Nimue’s haunting “Follow Me,” sweetly sung by Sophia Masterson, and “The Jousts” sequence -- excluded in New York and replaced by a non-musical sword fight -- were back in their rightful places here, and Guenevere got back her lovely “I Loved You Once in Silence,” appropriated by Lancelot in New York.

The “Orpheus” staging utilized the late Richard Traubner’s clever 2001 translation, newly adapted by Daigle, who also directed. This was the original 1858 version, with none of the added music from Offenbach's 1874 greatly expanded version, not even the overture.

Tenor Jack Murphy's Orpheus was a well-sung comic delight. Bespectacled, lanky and limber, he drove Eurydice (superbly sung by Christine Price) to the edge of madness with his incessant fiddle playing (incidentally, quite accurately mimed, while Reese’s choreography kept him in ceaseless motion), driving her into the hands of a handsome cowboy who turns out to be Pluto, king of the Underworld, played with devilish charm by Nicholas Orth who sang his opening number from the auditorium making his way through one of the long rows before finishing onstage with an impressive falsetto flourish.

Eventually Jupiter -- played by Vincent Gover who should get a versatility award for all of his brilliantly enacted character roles this season -- and the other gods from Mount Olympus visit Hades, and Jupiter attempts to seduce Eurydice by metamorphosing into a fly. The ensuing duet between Gover, sporting witty gold hot pants along with other wacky fly accouterments, and Price, was a laugh riot, the best I’ve ever seen, as the pair worked themselves into an orgasmic lather.

Bergen Price was outstanding in the sometimes tiresome role of Public Opinion, and handled Daigle’s newly added prologue with aplomb. The Gods were all well played and sung by, among others, Lily Graham (Diana), Michelle Pedersen (Juno), Nathan Seldin (Mars), Tzytle Steinman (Venus), Sara Lucille Law (Cupid), and Margaret Langhorne (Mercury).The whole was stylishly conducted by Borowitz.

“H.M.S. Pinafore” -- performed at OLO more than any other work (135 times) -- was, by comparison with the season’s other offerings, fairly standard stuff but nonetheless a crowd pleaser.

OLO Associate Music Director Wilson Southerland conducted with customary spirit. And here was Gover again, this time as Sir Joseph Porter, KCB (which, incidentally, we learned from OLO Board Chairman Michael Miller’s pre-show talk, stands for Knight Commander of the Order of the Bath!)

I’m not sure I cared for the comic miming that director Reese devised for Corcoran and Buttercup’s “Things Are Seldom What They Seem.” which, arguably, spoiled the twist at the end more than it should, not that diehard G&S fans, who know the show by heart, would care.

Gover’s Porter, Allen’s Captain Corcoran, and Sophia Masterson’s Josephine were all capably performed. Tzytle Steinman’s Little Buttercup hardly fit her character’s “plump” descriptor, but her rich mezzo was a plus. Tenor Owen Malone stepped into the role of Ralph Rackstraw for the first time at my performance and sang with distinction.

OLO has already mounted an impressive 14 Emmerich Kálmán’s works (more than any other company in the world). His operettas are, you might be surprised to learn, the most performed of any operetta composer globally thanks to frequent productions in Eastern Europe and Russia. OLO has a few more titles to go, but they’ve finally gotten around to his last work.

 “Arizona Lady '' received its premiere in early 1954 on Bavarian radio just weeks after Kálmán’s death but was not performed on stage till six weeks later in Bern, Switzerland. It’s a fascinating piece. In many respects, it’s a European’s naive view of America but, in truth, Kálmán was an enthusiastic fan of western novels and films, and the original German libretto fashioned by his longtime collaborator Alfred Grünwald and Gustav Beer is not dissimilar from any number of B-level western movies of the time.

As such, the general narrative is fairly absorbing, but it’s a bit disconcerting when characters react to catastrophic events with remarkable equanimity, and then moments later, break into cheerful song.

Kálmán endeavored to write in a fresh Broadway style, and hearing the work in Daigle’s English translation shows the composer not far off the mark. (Jacob Allen directed.) Kálmán couldn't resist some of his trademark Hungarian strains, and heroine Lona’s entrance number is a close cousin of the numbers in “Die Csárdásfürstin'' and “Gräfin Mariza.” This is explained in the libretto by ascribing her character a partial Hungarian heritage. Thereafter, the score sounds reasonably American, far more so than, say, Puccini’s Western-themed “Fanciulla del West.” The “Yip-i-ay-o’s” don’t sound too forced. There are musically thematic similarities to “Oklahoma!” particularly in the first act “Arizona! Land Where the Cactus Bloom” number. But curiously, Kálmán’s most immediate inspiration was apparently the less-renowned 1949 “Texas, L’il Darlin’.”

Audience members of my performance had the added pleasure of watching the show along with Kálmán’s daughter Yvonne Kálmán, the lady positioned in her customary front row seat, as with past revivals there of her father’s work.

As hero Roy Dexter, Jack Murphy, the aforementioned comic Orpheus, was here transformed into a picture-perfect singing cowboy. He’s hired as foreman of “no-time-for-love” ranch owner Lona Farrell (Louisa Waycott) after she fires the last one. Ideally, I think there should have been more sense of repressed passion between the couple, something more akin to the Mariza-Tassilo dynamic of “Mariza” but, truthfully, the libretto doesn’t afford as much opportunity.

Elsewhere Tzytle Steinman as Nelly and Reese as Chester handled the lively second couple numbers amusingly. Matthew Reynolds was another bright spot as carnival fortune teller Cavarelli (alternating between his bogus Italian and authentic Irish accents), and Lily Graham had a lively bit as a shady nightclub singer who attempts to frame the hero.

The orchestra under Southerland’s baton sounded full-bodied and sumptuous, though sometimes overpowered the singers despite the aforementioned miking.

 “No, No, Nanette” was a real charmer, and for those who remembered the 70s Broadway revival, made a fascinating comparison. Some may recall theater historian John McGlinn’s memorable New York concert version of the 1925 original score in 1986, but OLO’s had the advantage of being fully staged. The Broadway revival with Ruby Keeler, Helen Gallagher, Bobby Van, Susan Watson and Patsy Kelly had spiffy new orchestrations by Ralph Burns, but the authentic original makes for a refreshingly different experience.

OLO’s reconstruction was based on materials at the University of Texas in Austin, and the production was a sensible amalgam of the Broadway and London versions, dropping the inconsequential “My Doctor” and “Payday Pauline” from the former, and using “I’ve Confessed to the Breeze” and “Take a Little One-Step” from the latter, as did the 1971 revival.

Daigle directed with requisite charm, Michael Borowitz at the baton likewise had the right period flavor, while wunderkind Spencer Reese provided miles of choreography besides playing the major role of Billy. (Borowitz also deserves credit for creating an orchestra-readable performance edition.)

The cast was up to the challenge of OLO’s dancingist show since the company’s 2017 “Anything Goes.” When virtually the full cast was onstage tapping away, it made a most impressive sight. My only quibble was that most of the dances commenced with scarcely a moment of dramatic setup. But it was all so enjoyable, that seems a churlish complaint. The show’s evergreen hits, “Tea for Two” and “I Want to Be Happy” were exceedingly well served.

Otto Harbach and Frank Mandel’s original book was a bit naughtier than the cozy nostalgic slant of Burt Shevelove’s 1971 revision, and the Vincent Youmans music (lyrics by Irving Caesar and Otto Harbach) sparkled as ever.

Jacob Allen played Jimmy, the bible publisher with three ladies on the (platonic) side. Bergen Price was his frugal wife Sue who, much to Jimmy’s chagrin, resolutely refuses to spend his money. Sadie Spivey traded Guenevere’s queenly attire for 20s flapper garb, and was equally delightful. Julia Fedor was sharp and savvy as Billy’s wife Lucille, delivering fine versions of “Too Many Rings Around Rosie” and “Where Has My Hubby Gone Blues.” Alexander Spence was Nanette’s straight-laced suitor.


Frank Loesser’s 1961 Pulitzer Prize-winning “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying” proved once more how well the OLO forces can handle Golden Age Broadway material. Reese played J. Pierrepont Finch, the ambitious window washer who schemes himself to promotion after promotion at the World Wide Wicket Company, and the part especially showcased his excellent vocal delivery, so often overlooked given his dancing talents. Gover made an ideal company president, J.B. Biggley.

Louisa Waycott topped her “Arizona Lady” role with an outstandingly sung and played Rosemary. Matthew Reynolds excelled as the conniving Bud Frump, and Bergen Price demonstrated her versatility as the va-va-voom secretary Hedy LaRue.

Jacob Allen directed with requisite Broadway know-how, and Southerland was the knowing conductor.

There were a couple of special events during the week I attended: a 1985 Hungarian biopic of Kálmán (fortunately subtitled) -- “Az életmuzsikájat - Kálmán Imre” -- which featured generous excerpts from many of his major works. The film was based, in part, on “The Unadulterated Truth,” Kálmán’s 1932 memoir about the early part of his life. (The book has, in fact, just been translated by Alexander Butziger, and will soon be available for order from the Operetta Foundation.)

And Michael Miller gave his annual Operetta Mania potpourri of eclectic operetta videoclips from the world’s stages. On this occasion, the items ranged from a Dutch production of Offenbach’s “Bluebeard” and the all-female Takarazuka Kagekidan Japanese troupe in Cole Porter’s “Can-Can” to a Morbisch “Giuditta” and Maurice Yvain’s “Là-Haut” from a 1984 Paris production. The last named prompted the observation that OLO has actually yet to mount a 20th Century French operetta. We also got to see young Jacob Allen cavorting through “It” from a 2008 OLO production of “The Desert Song.” All the clips were well chosen and placed in interesting context by Miller.

There were, as well, several informative pre-performance talks. Miller handled “Arizona Lady” and “H.M.S. Pinafore,” Reese “Camelot,” and Allen “Orpheus in the Underworld.”

Under Daigle’s and Executive Director Laura Neill’s leadership, Ohio Light Opera has clearly lost not a whit of its mojo, and remains a unique bastion of musical theater and operetta.

(The Ohio Light Opera, The College of Wooster, 1189 Beall Avenue, Wooster, OH; 330-263-2345 or ohiolightopera.org; through July 30)

Photos: Matt Dilyard

(Top) Tzytle Steinman & company, “Arizona Lady”


“Camelot” company

(l.-r.) Gover, Christine Price, “Orpheus in the Underworld”

“H.M.S. Pinafore” company

(l.-r.) Murphy, Waycott, “Arizona Lady”

(l.r.) Spivey, Reese, “No, No, Nanette”

(l.-r.) Bergen Price, Colin Ring, Madison Barrett, “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying”

Friday, June 30, 2023

Days of Wine and Roses (Atlantic Theater Company)

By Harry Forbes

I recently watched the 1958 “Playhouse 90” television version of JP Miller's “Days of Wine and Roses” to have a frame of reference for this new musical version, especially as I hadn’t seen the 1962 Blake Edwards film with Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick in many years.

The narrative of those and the Atlantic’s current production -- developed, in part, at the 2015 Sundance Institute Theatre Lab at MASS MoCA -- traces the rocky booze-soaked codependency of Joe, a 1950s PR man and Kirsten, a teetotaling secretary: “two people stranded at sea,” as they are described.  Early in their relationship, Joe persuades Kirsten to join him in his hard-drinking ways. They marry, and thereafter, they experience a pathetic downward spiral. He’ll soon lose his job, and even when after his first failed attempts, manages to straighten himself out, Kirsten will prove more gripped by her addiction than he.

Craig Lucas's book for what might be more accurately defined as a chamber opera adheres to the original teleplay with remarkable fidelity only dropping the rather obvious Alcoholics Anonymous flashback framing device.

In leads Kelli O'Hara and Brian d'Arcy James, the production is blessed with performers who capture remarkably well the intensity, if not perhaps all the raw ugliness, of the roles’ originators, Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie. But of course, Robertson and Laurie didn't have to sing Adam Guettel’s complex and demanding score, which they do most beautifully. With director Michael Greif at the helm, the dramatic elements are as strong as the musical ones.

This has been quite the month for Guettel whose 2005 adaptation of “The Light in the Piazza” just received an outstanding revival at City Center’s Encores series, though it must be said straight away that the storyline of “Piazza” is considerably more audience satisfying than the relentlessly downbeat dramatics of the new work.

Guettel’s score is as technically accomplished if not (at least on first hearing) as melodic that of “Piazza,” and both stars have multiple opportunities to demonstrate their musical and dramatic chops. Guettel varies the musical palette with aching ballads, reflective monologues, and some jazzy riffs to lighten the mood every now and then. But, as noted, the numbers are far from a traditional Broadway musical vein. This is the kind of modern opera Beverly Sills might have championed when she was running New York City Opera back in the day.

Besides the lustrous work of O’Hara and James, the supporting cast is excellent, particularly Byron Jennings, outstanding as Kirsten's taciturn Norwegian father, the part memorably played by Charles Bickford in both the TV version and the film. And there’s good work from Ella Dane Morgan as the couple’s young daughter.

Lizzie Clachan’s  versatile lighted panel set in the first few scenes gives way to a beautifully detailed rendering of Arneson’s greenhouse and a sad and dingy motel room as the story progresses. Dede Ayite’s costumes capture the mid-20th century fashions accurately. 

Props also to Kai Harada’s crystal clear sound design, and Ben Stanton’s astute lighting.

Musical director Kimberly Grigsby leads the intricate score, orchestrated by Guettel himself along with Jamie Lawrence, with deft sensitivity.

And I can't resist adding that it was a special pleasure to watch the performance with an intelligent audience that responded appropriately to the drama and the music, without all the showy screaming and yelling heard at the Encores’ “Light in the Piazza” where the rabid show fans greeted each character entrance and musical number, no matter how delicate the mood, as if they were watching “MJ” or “Six.”

(Linda Gross Theater, Atlantic Theater Company, 336 West 20th Street; atlantictheater.org; through July 16)

Photo by Ahron R. Foster: (l-r) Brian d’Arcy James (Joe) and Kelli O’Hara (Kirsten)

Tuesday, May 9, 2023

Sugar (J2 Spotlight)

By Harry Forbes

It was a brilliant programming decision, to be sure: reviving “Sugar,” the 1972 adaptation of Billy Wilder’s 1959 “Some Like It Hot” film, at the same time as the new musical version is currently packing them in on Broadway. 

The plot line of each follows the narrative of the movie, though “Sugar” adheres much more closely to the original concept and dialogue. You have sax player Joe (Chris Cherin) and bass player Jerry (Andrew Leggieri) taking on drag disguise with an all-girl band run by Sweet Sue (Lexi Rhoades). It’s 1929 Chicago, and gangsters, who know Joe and Jerry witnessed the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, are hot on their heels. Once in the band, Joe (now Josephine) falls hard for ukulele player/vocalist Sugar Kane (Alexandra Amadao Frost), and Jerry (now Daphne) is pursued by the wealthy and randy Osgood Fielding III (Richard Rowan).

The show fits thematically into J2 Spotlight’s season of musicals derived from movies, including “The Goodbye Girl,” coming up next. The season opened with a very impressive production of Kander & Ebb’s “Woman of the Year,” directed, like all the J2 shows, by the very talented Robert M. Schneider.

What’s clear from the start here is that the score by Jule Styne (music) and Bob Merrill (lyrics) is a good one. Not on the level of their prior collaboration (“Funny Girl”), but quite enjoyable on its own terms.

Production-wise, comparisons are a case of apples and oranges, as this small-scale mounting can’t compare with Broadway. Generally, these J2 productions are beautifully designed, but on this occasion, the scope of the show -- which encompasses a train, hotel rooms, nightclubs, and a yacht -- could only be barely realized. So, too, the action didn’t have much breathing space on the compact Theatre Row stage. As it was, everything felt rather scrunched even with Schneider’s always resourceful choices. 

Apart from a restored ballad for Sugar Kane -- “The People in My Life” -- cut from the original production, J2 performs the score as it was heard on Broadway, and eschews the radical changes made for the 1992 London premiere which starred Tommy Steele. (That revival closed early when Steele was injured on stage.)

As Joe and Jerry, Chris Cherin and Andrew Leggieri were solid, amusing in their female getups, though less flashily attired by costume director Gabe Bagdazian than were originators Tony Roberts and Robert Morse. They handle their opening duets --- “Penniless Bums” and “The Beauty That Drives Men Mad” -- with aplomb and shine in their climatic solos: Jerry’s “Magic Nights” and Joe’s “It’s Always Love.”

Joe actually takes on a second disguise -- a Shell Oil millionaire -- for which Cherin affects a posh upper crust accent rather than Tony Curtis’ Cary Grant voice in the movie. Curtis, by the way, starred as Osgood in a touring production years after the original.

Like role creator Elaine Joyce, Alexandra Amadao Frost has the thankless task of creating an original persona to match Marilyn Monroe’s iconic performance. And she does indeed telegraph her own brand of innocence, and renders Sugar’s yearning for a better life touchingly.

Oren Korenbum, tap-dancing mobster Spats, flanked by henchmen Dude (Caleb James Grochalski) and Lucky (Bobby MacDonnell) are all good but they really needed a more expansive playing area. And there was good character work too from Jordan Ari Gross as band manager Bienstock.

Accompaniment was under the confident leadership of Lindsay Noel-Miller (also piano), and three of the six musicians -- Jessica Stanley (trombone), Kate Amrine (trumpet), and Katy Faracy (alto saxophone) -- doubled as musicians in Sweet Sue’s onstage band, a clever (and pragmatic) touch.

(Theater Row, 410 West 42nd Street; www.j2spotlightnyc.com; April 27 - May 7)

Photos: (above) Alexandra Amadeo Frost

(below) Andrew Leggieri, Chris Cherin, & Jordan Ari Gross

Friday, May 5, 2023

Iolanthe (or The Peer and the Peri) (MasterVoices)

By Harry Forbes

It’s only May, but I’m betting dollars to donuts that this starry production of Gilbert and Sullivan’s seventh comic opera will be reckoned New York’s G&S event of the year. 

Director/conductor Ted Sperling continued his winning streak of superlative musicals and operettas for this latest annual MasterVoices spring event. He had previously mounted “The Mikado” and “The Pirates of Penzance” with felicitous results, but this was arguably the best of all. 

What a pleasure to hear Arthur Sullivan’s overture, melancholy and sprightly by turns, played so superbly and with such seriousness of purpose. And the action that followed was not in any way camped up. 

For non-Savoyard readers,  W.S. Gilbert’s plot concerns Strephon (Schyler Vargas), an Arcadian shepherd, who loves shepherdess Phyllis (Ashley Fabian), ward of The Lord Chancellor (David Garrison). She, in turn, is being wooed by the upper crust twits, Earls Mountararat (Santino Fontana) and Tolloller (Jason Danieley). What Phyllis doesn’t know is that her betrothed is the son of the fairy Iolanthe (Shereen Ahmed), sent into exile years before (under fairy law) for marrying a mortal. (Spoiler: her husband was the Lord Chancellor, who believes Iolanthe died years earlier). Strephon is thus a fairy (but only down to the waist).

The Queen of the Fairies (Christine Ebersole) is stern but softhearted and allows Iolanthe to come back from her banishment. This causes all sorts of complications with Phyllis when Strephon is spied speaking to his mother who, as fairies are immortal, appears to be a woman younger than he. All this was played absolutely straight, with no cheap gags, or audience snickering, about being “half a fairy.”

The large MasterVoices chorus was positioned upstage behind the MasterVoices Orchestra, except for the March of the Peers, that number spine-tinglingly positioned in the score after the quiet and bucolic tunes which precede it. With a burst of brass, Sperling had the huge tenor/bass contingent enter dramatically from the wings and parade around the stage. 

The sopranos and altos (as fairies) were upstage all evening, except for the principals including Nicole Eve Goldstein (Celia), Kaitlin LeBaron (Leila), and Emy Zener (Fleta), all excellent. And there was the delightful addition of Tiler Peck from the New York City Ballet as a Dancing Fairy who flitted in and out most attractively, and contributed to the magical atmosphere. And it was such a relief Sperling eschewed the frequent vulgarization of having the fairies stomp about to the beat of the music. 

The cast was a deft mixture of Broadway and opera performers and, as with past MasterVoices productions, the blend worked seamlessly. From the former, Ebersole wasn’t a traditional Fairy Queen, normally cast with a deep contralto, but she made her well trained, light soprano work beautifully for the part and she didn’t miss a comic beat. Her second act ballad “Oh, foolish fay” was her vocal highlight.

Garrison, on book mostly but ironically not the tongue-twisting bravura “Nightmare Song,” adapted his persona well to the crusty Lord Chancellor, though his English accent was a bit hit or miss, also true of some of the others.  

Danieley and Fontana made a highly amusing pair of stuck-up peers, and their dialogue about which of them should make the sacrifice not to marry Phyllis, a comic highlight. They sang beautifully: Danieley’s big moment was “Spurn Not the Nobly Born” in the first act; Fontana’s “When Britain Really Ruled the Waves” in the second. 

The young lovers were vocally and dramatically strong. As Strephon is only a fairy down to the waist, Vargas was outfitted (by costume designer Tracy Christensen) in shorts, which visualized this dichotomy and made a droll picture. His comic timing and delivery were as impressive as his strong baritone. Fabian also sang strongly and conveyed Phyllis’ cool ambition and self-awareness. 

Ahmed, like Ebersole, was cast counter to the traditional voice type. Iolanthe is usually a mezzo but the part suited Ahmed’s sweet soprano, and her poignant plea for Strephon near the end was as moving as I’ve ever heard it.

And I mustn’t forget Phillip Boykin’s Private Willis which was really outstanding and his second act opener, “When all night long a chap remains,” got one of the biggest ovations of the evening, along with Garrison's "Nightmare Song." 

Christensen’s designs for the fairies and peers was just right for this semi-staged concert. And there were clear white supertitles for the lyrics, and even green footnotes for some of the arcane references.

Sperling’s directorial decisions every step of the way seemed absolutely apt, and his musical leadership impeccable. I look forward to his next foray into G&S whenever that may be. 

(Carnegie Hall, Stern Auditorium / Perelman Stage, 881 Seventh Avenue; carnegiehall.org;  May 3 only)

Photos by Toby Tenenbaum: Top: Cast

Below: (l.-r.) Ebersole, Ahmed

(l.-r.) Fabian, Vargas, Ahmed

(l.-r.) Garrison, Fabian, Danieley, Fontana

Tuesday, May 2, 2023

Cyrano de Bergerac (Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!)

By Harry Forbes

“You’re about to see a flop,” VHRP Artistic Director Alyce Mott impishly teased the packed house a few moments before the curtain parted for Victor Herbert’s 1899 adaptation of Rostand’s great play. Rostand’s original had been written a mere two years earlier, and was well known to American audiences from both Richard Mansfield’s authorized production, and various burlesque adaptations.

Adapting the play on this occasion was the brainchild of noted comic opera star Francis Wilson, who was also producing. He apparently hoped to combine his much praised buffoonery with something classier. But book writer Stuart Reed, by all accounts, failed to find a balance between the serious and the lowdown comic elements. Herbert, for his part, wrote a score in keeping of Rostand. The result was an uneasy mix, and the piece did indeed shutter after a mere 28 performances. (A subsequent tour was no more successful.) Mixed reviews acknowledged the quality of the music, but felt Wilson’s comic antics were discordantly out of place.

As the original book is now lost (or at least unavailable), Mott had no choice but to write her own libretto based on Rostand, restoring a tragic ending (unlike Reed’s version) and shoehorning Herbert’s tunes to fit. 

Mott’s version was first heard in a 1999 concert with the Little Orchestra Society at Lincoln Center. The late Dino Anagnost conducted his large orchestra and New Yorkers experienced the score for the first time in a century. A piano-only version production with a cast of five with her brand new VHRP group followed in 2013. The current performance expands those editions to something approaching full-length, though three acts have been condensed to two, there’s been some shuffling of song order to accommodate the new book, and some verses of individual songs have been cut. (Some of those were so tuneful, I regretted not hearing the second verse.) As far as I can judge, only two songs have been cut completely: the Chorus of Poets, and Cyrano’s “Diplomacy” number. 

The well-known plot follows its usual course: poet/soldier Cyrano (Matthew Wages) loves Roxane (Hannah Holmes), his distant cousin, but presumes she couldn’t love him because of his large nose. (We have to take that on faith, as there are no prosthetics used here). She, in turn, falls for the handsome but inarticulate cadet Christian (Ai Ra). Out of love for Roxane, Cyrano agrees to equip Christian with the eloquent words he needs for wooing.

What is evident -- as was the case with Mott’s prior productions -- is that the work is a piece of quality, and one can empathize with the reaction of those 19th century critics who recognized it as such, but bemoaned the lack of voices to do the score justice. Though praising the chorus and orchestra, the Times wrote, “So far as the solo numbers went, one had to guess what most of them would sound like if they were well sung.”

Such was decidedly not the case with VHRP’s current cast. Wages’ Cyrano was strongly sung and authoritatively acted with no silly clowning. He nailed his numbers like “Song of the Nose” and his duets with Roxane with rich tone and sincere feeling.  

And Holmes’ Roxane sang with firm voice and, like Wages, exemplary diction, no doubt trumping the role’s originator, one Lulu Glaser. “I Am a Court Coquette,” the waltz “I Wonder,” and “Over the Mountains” were beautifully vocalized. 

Jonathan Hare was outstanding as Le Bret leading a rousing “Cadets of Gascony” and, later, as the Minstrel, excelled in “‘Neath Thy Window.”

Wages, Holmes, and Ra had two exceptionally lovely trios: “Let the Sun of Thine Eyes” and “Since I Am Not For Thee.” (Ra led the men in “The King’s Musketeers” song but had no other solo moments.) And mention must be made of a truly luscious a cappella male chorus, “In Bivouac Reposing.” Jesse Pimpinella, who doubled as Montfluery, the actor whom Cyrano runs off the stage in the opening scene, had a lovely solo part in this. Jack Cotterell played Cyrano’s nemesis, Comte de Guiche, and capably served as the evening’s narrator. looking back on the play’s events of 1640. 

Company veteran David Seatter -- 2013’s narrator -- brought his seasoned expertise to poetry-loving cook Ragueneau, and the befuddled Capuchin monk who is tricked into performing the marriage ceremony for Roxane and Christian. The strong voiced ensemble -- including Sarah Beasdale, Alexa Rosenberg, Joanie Brittingham, Justin Daley, Andrew Buck, Karen Mason, Josaphat Contreras, and Keith Broughton -- impressed from the show’s first moments, and made all the choral numbers count. 

Michael Thomas led a superlative performance in the pit from the catchy overture onwards, with William Hicks at piano and the New Victor Herbert Orchestra, a very welcome expansion from the piano only version in 2013. Viva la Difference!

Mott’s stage direction, abetted by choreographer Christine Hall, visualized the story clearly and filled the fairly wide St. Jean’s stage most effectively.

One might say that Rostand’s play, so perfect in itself, needs no music, but that hasn’t stopped composers from trying including operatic versions by Walter Damrosch and Franco Alfano, and several successful musical theater adaptations. But in Mott’s edition, Herbert’s largely forgotten work emerges as a strong contender.

(The Theater at St. Jeans, 170 E. 76th Street; www.vhrplive.org; April 25-27)

Production photos by Jill LeVine

Top to Bottom:  

“Cyrano de Bergerac” company

(L-R) Matthew Wages, Ai Ra, Hannah Holmes

(L-R) Matthew Wages, Hannah Holmes

(L-R)  Justin Daley, Josaphat Contreras, Hannah Holmes, Keith Broughton, Andrew Buck

(L.-R) Jack Cotterell, Matthew Wages

(L-R)  Josaphat Contreras, Alexa Rosenberg, Andrew Buck, Karen Mason, Justin Daley, Joanie Brittingham, Sarah Bleasdale, Keith Broughton, Jesse Pimpinella

The VHRP LIVE! Company of Cyrano de Bergerac

Wednesday, April 26, 2023

Camelot (Lincoln Center Theater)

By Harry Forbes

Director Bartlett Sher's winning streak of lavish musical revivals at the Vivian Beaumont has hit something of a bump with the current mounting of Alan J. Lerner and Frederick Loewe's classic 1960 musical derived from T.H. White's “The Once and Future King.”

With a new book by Sher's sometime collaborator Aaron Sorkin -- one which largely robs the narrative of love, romance, and passion -- and a striking but overly austere setting by Michael Yeargan, this revival isn’t exactly dull but, by the same token, not greatly satisfying.

Andrew Burnap, Tony winner for “The Inheritance,” is an intelligent actor, and he has some particularly strong moments in the second act, but especially as no one uses English accents here, registers as less "kingly than the great Arthurs of the past like Richard Burton, Richard Harris, and Laurence Harvey, (and more recently) Gabriel Byrne and Jeremy Irons. So, too, Arthur really should be older than Lancelot who, as we learn in the original Act One close, speaks of Lancelot as an ideal friend, brother, and son. (In “The Once and Future King,” Lancelot journeys from France to Camelot in the first place because he grew up hearing of Arthur’s roundtable.) 

Phillipa Soo is a lovely Guenevere with a proper regal bearing and enunciation, and sings impressively with a decent soprano top but, thanks to Sorkin’s book, comes across as rather chilly. Jordan Donica as Lancelot is an imposing presence with a powerful baritone. Donica’s entrance from the rear of the stage, as if coming over the horizon, is wonderfully effective, and his boastful entrance song, “C’est Moi,” strongly vocalized. By contrast, his once chart-topping second act ballad, “If Ever I Would Leave You,” seems consciously soft-pedaled to avoid being a “big” moment.

Sorkin has taken magic and miracles out of the story, which, given the source material, is akin to denuding “The Lord of the Rings” or “Harry Potter” of their magical elements. Merlyn is a wise man not a wizard; Morgan Le Fey (Marilee Talkington) a scientist, not a sorceress. And so on. The relatable humanity of Lerner’s original “Camelot” script was surely not in the least diminished by co-existing with the magical elements. 

Sorkin makes sure that Guenevere is here a decisive “modern” woman with agency. Her marriage to Arthur is one of political necessity (“business partners” as the script has it) to keep the peace between England and France, similar to Shakespeare’s Henry V wooing his Katherine. The title song, wherein Arthur charms Guenevere with his description of the perfect weather of Camelot, is here tiresomely stressed by Sorkin as being merely figurative. (Did audiences ever think otherwise?)

The script's overall lingo, expletives included, is very present day contemporary and politically correct at every turn. The sense of deep love and kinship the three principals should have for each other is missing.

Dakin Matthews is outstanding as Merlyn and then as Pellinore. Taylor Trensch is brattily menacing as Arthur's illegitimate son, and delivers “The Seven Deadly Virtues” well enough. The three principal knights -- Sir Sagramore (Fergie Philippe), Sir Lionel (Danny Wolohan), and Sir Dinadan (Anthony Michael Lopez) -- are played rather villainously. 

As with the prior Sher productions, LCT has not scrimped on the musical side of things.  And though Frederick Loewe's score doesn't afford nearly as many opportunities for orchestral splendor at “South Pacific,” “The King and I,” or “My Fair Lady,”  the sounds from the pit, heard in their original orchestrations by Robert Russell Bennett and Philip J. Lang (and Trude Rittmann’s dance and choral arrangements), under the baton of Kimberly Grigsby, rate as one of this production's strongest assets.

However, there are cuts. Apart from a little orchestral underscoring, “Follow Me,” originally sung by the cut character of Nimue, is excised. As is half of Arthur's “How To Handle A Woman” (nicely sung by Burnap). I can understand cutting the middle section - “Merlyn told me once: Never be too disturbed if you don’t understand what a woman is thinking. They don’t do it often” -- but this is one of the gems of the score and it's given surprisingly short shrift. By compensation, “Then You May Take Me to the Fair,” cut from the original production and subsequent ones, but known from the original cast album and the 1967 movie, is restored. Guenevere’s “The Lusty Month of May” number has some nice maypole choreography by Byron Easley, but the show affords little opportunity for dance otherwise.

The sequence known as “The Jousts” wherein the chorus describes how Lancelot defeats the three knights against which he is competing, is gone altogether. That sequence is replaced by a sword fight (well staged by seasoned fight director B.H. Barry), wherein Arthur inexplicably takes the place of the third knight. Originally, Lancelot vanquishes Sir Lionel, running him through with his lance, but then brings him back to life, a miracle that is possible because of his genuine moral purity at that point. Here, Lancelot knocks Arthur unconscious and when it is proclaimed a miracle, Arthur sloughs all that off as superstition. No miracles allowed in Sorkin’s telling.

And I must also mention that Lancelot has here appropriated Guenevere's lovely "I Loved You Once in Silence." Well sung, but why?

The moving final scene of the show wherein Arthur exhorts young Tom of Warwick (actually future “Morte D’Arthur” author Thomas Mallory) to run to safety and tell the world the story of Camelot, is largely spoiled by the stiff performance of the young actor in that small but pivotal role. 

Michael Yeargan’s set, dominated by concentric arches, encompasses the entire width and depth of the  Beaumont stage and would be an ideal setting for, say, Shakespeare's War of the Roses plays. But staged on such a vast canvas, this Camelot seems strangely under populated. It’s a far cry from Oliver Smith’s colorful fairytale bright sets of the original production, and also art director John Truscott’s rich green and gold naturalistic hues of the film. Jennifer Moeller’s costumes are plush but dark like the set, apart from the “Lusty Month of May” sequence.

Still, for all its shortcomings, there's enough quality here to make the show worth your time though musical theater buffs will know they’re not getting the genuine article. The film, despite some excesses and star Richard Harris's sometimes mannered emoting, is there to remind us how the show should go, especially as Lerner’s own screenplay skillfully solved some of the problematic elements of his original stage script. 

(Vivian Beaumont, 150 West 65 Street; Telecharge.com or 212-239-6200)

Photos by Joan Marcus: (l.-r.) Phillipa Soo, Andrew Burnap, Dakin Matthews, Jordan Donica, and company

Wednesday, April 5, 2023

The Harder They Come (The Public Theater)

By Harry Forbes

The 1972 Perry Henzell Jamaican film starring Jimmy Cliff was an international hit and spawned an influential soundtrack album that put reggae on the map. But still, the story of singer Ivan, who comes to Kingston from the country with dreams of becoming a singer and, frustrated at every turn by the establishment, turns to crime, might seem an unlikely subject for a musical. 

The remarkable Suzan-Lori Parks has made it work, melding the Cliff songs with new ones of her own for a seamless whole. The plot and much of the dialogue mirrors the film but there are significant revisions. As a program note informs us, Parks “creates a new set of complex, vital relationships  between Ivan and everyone around him…What is the personal cost of fighting against systemic injustice? When is violence justified? And ultimately, how can we rediscover our collective sense of joy?”

That may sound a bit high-handed, but the revamp worked for me, and despite a tragic fate of its antihero, the overall tone is surprisingly joyous and upbeat. (Actually, in its juxtaposition of cheerful music and ultra-serious plot, I was reminded of Paul Simon’s short-lived “The Capeman.”)  Music supervisor Kenny Seymour’s orchestrations and arrangements beguile the ear throughout. The movie songs like “You Can Get It If You Really Want” and “Many Rivers to Cross,” which were used as underscoring in the film, become character songs for Ivan and the others.

The production is superbly cast, headed as it is by Natey Jones as anti-hero Ivan who gives an outstanding performance both dramatically and vocally. (Jones has an impressive resume of West End credits, as well as the National Theatre and RSC.) You get a real visceral sense of his character’s frustration and growing impatience with the continuing roadblocks in his way to getting his song played. Ivan becomes more of a hothead and increasingly difficult to love as the show goes on, but Jones offers a vivid warts and all portrayal.

Meecah is lovely as the sweet girl he meets and falls in love with when he at first seeks refuge with a church group run by Preacher, the girl’s questionable guardian, and there’s good work by Jeannette Bayardelle as Ivan’s mother. Also outstanding are versatile Jacob Ming-Trent as Pedro who befriends Ivan and, when the chips are down, convinces Ivan to be part of drug lord Jose’s (Dominique Johnson) gang, and Ken Robinson as Hilton, who rules the Kingston music scene with an iron hand, exploiting Ivan and presumably everyone else. 

Beautifully staged by Tony Taccone (with co-direction by Sergio Trujillo) with choreography by Edgar Godineaux, the show holds your interest from start to finish. Clint Ramos & Diggle’s scenic design, atmospherically lit by Japhy Weideman, and dressed by costume designer Emilio Sosa, conjure up the Kingston milieu skillfully. And Walter Trarbach’s sound design is nicely balanced, and not the assault on the senses of so many musicals these days.

Perhaps in 2023, the movie’s title doesn’t have the cachet it might have once had, limiting its commercial appeal. But in every other respect,  I’d say the show is Broadway worthy. 

As it is, the Public’s run ends this week, but if you can find time during these busy days of Passover and Easter, “The Harder They Come” is very much worth your time..

(The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street; publictheater.org ;through April 9)

Photo by Joan Marcus: Natey Jones (center) and the company