Tuesday, September 21, 2021

Pass Over (August Wilson Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

Antoinette Chinonye Nwandu’s alternately poignant and mordantly funny take on systemic racism draws its unlikely inspiration from a sort of mashup of  “Waiting for Godot” and the Exodus story. The play illuminates the emotional angst fueling the Black Lives Matter movement as well as anything I’ve een. 

“Pass Over” had its premiere by Chicago’s Steppenwolf Theatre Company in 2017, and was filmed by Spike Lee. (It can currently be viewed on Amazon Prime Video). It was mounted with one of the original cast members at Lincoln Center Theater in 2018.  

I didn’t catch the Lincoln Center version but I can attest that the production as it currently stands inaugurates the reopening of Broadway in a classy and compelling fashion. 


Nwandu has provided a radically revised ending (which, based on comparison with the Spike Lee film, I’d say is far superior and satisfying). If there were any concerns about this three-hander filling a Broadway stage, they prove groundless as the piece works beautifully in the larger venue. The wonderfully creative Danya Taymor who’s been attached to the project from the start, directs the brilliant Lincoln Center cast through a virtuoso kaleidoscope of shifting moods and tone.

Moses (original Steppenwolf star Jon Michael Hill) and Kitsch (Namir Smallwood) are trapped by their own fears on a desolate street afraid to venture to the “promised land” and face myriad racist-fueled dangers. Even on in their present location, they live in perpetual fear of the police (the “po-pols”). The recent death of a friend of theirs at the hands of the law reinforces their justifiable inertia. So they are trapped in a kind of limbo longing for the world outside, scrounging for food, fantasizing about the top ten things they’d like to do when they get out, and role playing confrontations with the police.

Into this insular world suddenly comes a lost white man identified as Mister (Gabriel Ebert) carrying a food basket, rather like Little Red Riding Hood -- en route to his mother’s house. He offers to share his bounty with them. He’s full of “gosh, oh golly” disingenuousness, and thoughtlessly patronizing at every turn. The  lengthy and funny scene epitomizes the racial divide.

Ebert is a hoot in this role, though the versatile actor returns shortly thereafter in a far more sinister part.

The interplay between Hill and Smallwood throughout is extraordinary. Though Nwandu’s dialogue is a stream of street language -- with liberal use of the “n” word -- the men give each exchange infinite shadings. In fact, these are two of the most vocally and physically virtuosic performances you’re liking to see this season. 

The occasion marks the Broadway debuts of both Nwandu and Taymor whose razor sharp direction is enhanced by some wonderful choreographed movement (Bill Irwin was a consultant).

There’s real poetry in Nwandu’s smart and observant dialogue which, as per the play’s title, has its share of Biblical allusions. 

Wilson Chin’s simple but evocative set (a looming streetlamp and a large garbage can), atmospherically lighted by Marcus Doshi), captures the desolate mood, and stands in striking contrast to the more lush setting of the play’s final minutes. 

Far from the static mood you might expect from a play about characters paralyzed into inaction, the gripping “Pass Over” offers suspense, drama, comedy, an occasional song, and three not-to-be-missed performances. 

(August Wilson Theatre, 245 W. 52 Street.; passoverbroadway.com)

Photo: Joan Marcus

Tuesday, August 10, 2021

Ball at the Savoy (Naxos)

By Harry Forbes

Hungarian composer Paul Abrahám’s flavorsome jazz operetta, which premiered to acclaim in 1932 Berlin, only to have its run cut short by the Nazis, as a result of Abrahám's and several of the leads’ Jewish heritage, receives its first -- and very welcome -- complete recording courtesy of Naxos and the Chicago Folks Operetta. 

Librettists Fritz Löhner-Beda and Alfred Grünwald fashioned a story not unlike that of “Die Fledermaus” wherein a wife goes to the titular ball at the Savoy in Nice in disguise to spy on her philandering husband, though in this narrative, she endeavors not to flirt with her clueless husband, but rather enjoy a vengeful romance of her own. The central couple, Aristide, the Marquis de Faublas, and his wife Madeleine (originated by the great Gitta Alpár) are played here by real life couple Gerald Frantzen and Alison Kelly, respectively artistic director and executive director and co-founders of the Chicago Folks Operetta. (In 2013, Naxos issued a similarly complete recording of Leo Fall’s “The Rose of Stambul.”)

Chicago Folks Operetta’s 2014 production (briefly streamed last year at the start of the pandemic lockdown) followed on the heels of a 2010 WDR radio broadcast with the Cologne Philharmonic conducted by Eckehard Stier, arranged from the original manuscript by Henning Hagedorn and Matthias Grimminger. That, in turn, led to a memorable 2012 mounting by Berlin’s Komische Oper, led by Barrie Kosky, which was streamed internationally the following year. 

Recording wise, apart from the peerless original Berlin and London recordings, we’ve only had select highlight recordings, and far fewer of those for that matter than of Abrahám’s more enduring works, “Viktoria und ihr Husar” and “Die Blume von Hawaii.” So the present release is all the more welcome. 

Folks Operetta’s Musical Director Anthony Barrese leads his forces in a spirited reduction of the aforementioned orchestrations. There are 18 players in the orchestra, but the sound is satisfyingly full-bodied, and they handle the romantic pieces, the dramatic finales, and the wonderfully infectious jazzy numbers (the unique feature of Abrahám’s works) very well indeed.

Though it can’t be said the cast captures the authentic European flavor of this most Continental of works, nor that the line readings are, on the whole, more than serviceable, the full dialogue on the recording does allow us to hear all the music in its appropriate context and was thus worth inclusion. Still, at times,  I couldn’t help thinking the mostly uninflected American accents heard here would be better suited to one of Jerome Kern’s Princess Theater shows than the exoticism of “Ball im Savoy.” 

Vocally, everyone is certainly adequate, sometimes more so. Cynthia Fortune Gruel as Madeleine’s American cousin Daisy, and Ryan Trent Oldham as the much-married Mustafa Bey have the liveliest, jazziest numbers (“Kangaroo,” “Mister Brown and Lady Claire,” “Out on the Town,”  “The Niagara Fox,” “At Home along the Bosporus,”and “Take a Trip to Alma-ata,” “Why Am I In Love With You?”) and threaten to steal the proceedings just as Rosy Barsony and Oskar Dénes did in 1932. And I’d venture to bet any of these numbers could bring down the house if done on Broadway today. Both Barsony and Dénes, incidentally, were able to reprise their roles in the 1933 London production at Drury Lane adapted by Oscar Hammerstein II, 10 years before he joined forces with Richard Rodgers for “Oklahoma!”  

Bridget Skaggs has some bright moments as Tangolito, the femme fatale who was Aristide’s former flame, and holds him to a long-ago IOU to have dinner with her whenever she asks for it, thereby setting the plot in motion. She gets to sing one of the show’s breakout hits, the catchy “Bella Tangolita.”

Kelly’s version of the show’s other big takeaway tune, “Toujours, L’amour” is nicely done, if not with Alpár’s intoxicating allure. And she does well with the opening paean to “Sevilla” (in tandem with Frantzen), her exuberant description of her “Wedding Night” (with Gruell), and a couple of other touching pieces. She has fun with an amusing Russian accent in her ball disguise. 

It would be fascinating to hear a reconstruction of that London version with Hammerstein’s lyrics, but Hersh Glagov and Frantzen’s translations are skillful, often clever, and perhaps adhere more closely to the original German text. 

Recording quality is fine. The music registers as satisfyingly full-bodied, and the dialogue is cleanly captured. There’s a detailed synopsis and informative essay by Glagov. A full libretto can be accessed on the Naxos website. 

The German language productions previously mentioned were, perforce, the more characterful but until one or both of them are issued commercially, Naxos is the only way to go to hear this wonderful score. But the present recording’s fresh and committed cast and accomplished musicianship makes it more than a stopgap. And, of course, the English language translation will be a boon to non-German speakers.

Friday, January 15, 2021

Myths and Hymns: Flight (MasterVoices)

By Harry Forbes

It’s been fascinating to observe how performing arts organizations have presented their works online during this protracted pandemic period. Apart from unearthing archival taped performances, some continue with the by-now rather prosaic Zoom approach; others, like the Irish Repertory Company, have shown great resourcefulness in expanding the boundaries of virtual performance. 

Now MasterVoices (the former Collegiate Chorale) has come up with something most decidedly in the latter category, scoring high marks on the creativity scale.

Under the overall supervision of Artistic Director Ted Sperling, they’ve come up with a compelling and artistically outstanding reimagining of Adam Guettel’s 1996 “Myths and Hymns” song cycle, which played the Public Theater in 1998 with the title “Saturn Returns,” and directed by Tina Landau. The piece was written between Guettel’s breakout hit, “Floyd Collins” and the acclaimed “The Light in the Piazza.”

“Myths and Hymns” -- its text largely derived from Greek mythology and a Presbyterian hymnal, -- explores, in Guettel’s words, “a desire to transcend earthly bounds, to bond with something or someone greater.”  MasterVoices will be presenting the works in four “chapters,” the first of which, with its theme of “Flight,” premiered on Wednesday. 

With a starry cast of MasterVoices regulars including Anderson & Roe, Take 6, Annie Golden, Julia Bullock, Renée Fleming, Joshua Henry, Capathia Jenkins, Mykal Kilgore, Norm Lewis, Jose Llana, Kelli O’Hara, and Elizabeth Stanley, the six videos of this first chapter were made under the respective direction of Greg Anderson, Sammi Cannold, Lear deBessonet, Khristian Dentley, and Sperling himself, along with assorted visual artists and arrangers. 

The singing is, I think, mostly live except for some outdoor sequences which necessitated lip-syncing. Guettel’s music is dizzyingly complex, but that’s no obstacle for the highly skilled singers assembled here. Don Sebeskky and Jamie Lawrence’s original orchestrations are used. 

The 28-minute presentation begins with a jovial welcome from Sperling, and gets off to a lively musical start with virtuoso duo piano team Anderson & Roe on “Prometheus” (nifty camerawork here, as throughout the series).

Then, “Saturn Returns: The Flight” essentially lays out the overarching yearning theme, as Henry sings “I don’t know what I hunger for” 

The jazzy “Icarus” follows, with Lewis as a modern-day father cautioning an overly ambitious son (Kilgore). 

The dreamy “Migratory V” follows with Fleming, O’Hara, and Bullock harmonizing as they marvel heavenward at the wonders of flight observing the birds above.

Original Public Theater cast member Annie Golden narrates the story of Pegasus (Jenkins)  throwing off his rider (Llana, another Public Theater veteran) when bitten by a gadfly (delightfully  goofy Stanley). Guettel himself appears on guitar in the opening moments. 

The chapter ends with a wonderfully joyful “Jesus the Mighty Conqueror” (with its resurrection motif) virtuosically vocalized by the Take 6 a capella sextet. 

The other chapters will roll out as follows: February 24 (Work); April 14 (Love); and May 26 (Faith).

This first chapter of “Myths and Hymns” can be viewed on MasterVoices’ YouTube channel, and also at mastervoices.org.

The stereo sound is superb, and diction is exemplary, though I felt the experience could be enhanced by proper subtitles, as YouTube’s automatically generated captions are not quite complete.

Screengrabs (top to bottom):

Renée Fleming

Anderson & Roe

Norm Lewis

Elizabeth Stanley

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

Heart O’Mine (Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!)

 By Harry Forbes

Over the last several months, the beloved New York institution dedicated to all things Victor Herbert, has been streaming video chestnuts from its past seasons. Now, Artistic Director Alyce Mott has put together a newly produced revamp of one of the company’s most astute presentations, “Son of Dublin,” the 2017 concert derived from the copious Irish-themed songs from Herbert’s catalog, as well as that of his notable grandfather, composer, novelist and painter Samuel Lover.

The new version -- with 26 songs in all -- has been completely rethought for the virtual world, and some of the playlist (four new songs here) and most of the cast have changed. The result is both a visual and aural delight, and quite a different experience from its precursor. 

Away from a stage setting and audience, and given the intimate singing-to-the-camera approach, the show in its new incarnation registers as a cozy evening of parlour songs. Certainly the early grouping of Samuel Lover songs take on that antiquated albeit charming feel.

Once the focus shifts to Herbert, the level of sophistication (and, arguably, our interest) rises, though the songs here are mostly in Herbert’s sentimental, romantic, and nostalgic vein. 

The cast comprises VHRP reliable repertory company including Drew Bolander, Joanie Brittingham, Alexa Devlin, Jovani Demetrie, Jonathan Hare, Andrew Klima, Caitlin Ruddy, Christopher Robin Sapp, and David Seatter who serves as an affable narrator, giving us the historical context, and providing a seamless flow in his customary seasoned and endearing manner.

Video Editor Alison Dobbins, working in tandem with VHRP’s frequent stage director/choreographer Emily Cornelius, has provided pleasing and clever visuals. Atmospheric Gaelic backdrops, and ingenious video effects such as a moment when a singer seemingly crosses over the virtual line to interact with the person in the next frame, add visual variety and fun.

The staging is positional, so in spite of everyone’s disparate location -- the cast was, in fact, spread out across the country -- they seem to face each other, looking up or down as the position of colleagues shifts, creating a cunningly artificial but enjoyable sense of interaction.

There is, for instance, a particularly delightful staging of “Barney Maguire” from “Miss Dolly Dollars,” sung by Bolander accompanied by the three ladies of the cast who appear in moving picture frames, with animated birds thrown in for good measure. 

One of the highlights of the “Son of Dublin” concert was a rare performance of the “The Bards of Ireland” song cycle compiled by Herbert for a St. Patrick’s Day Dinner of The Society of the Friendly Sons of St. Patrick, with President William H. Taft in attendance. And that atmospheric grouping has been retained here.

There are many other highlights: among them, Devlin’s moving “The Angel’s Whisper” (one of the Lover numbers); Klima’s “Mary Came Over to Me”; Jovani’s “I Love the Isle of the Sea”; Bolander's "Believe Me If All Those Endearing Young Charms"; Seatter’s nostalgic “Belle O’Brien”; Brittingham’s sensitively vocalized “Heart O’Mine”; and Hare’s rueful “Molly.” VHRP Musical Director Michael Thomas -- his hands on the keyboard frequently on view in split screen effect -- gets to reprise his solo moment with the ‘Lament” from the song cycle, while of course, providing sterling accompaniment throughout.

Most of the songs are stand-alones not from Herbert’s musical and operetta songbook. However, besides the aforementioned “Barney Maguire,” we have the sparkling Ruddy delivering a saucy “Barney O’Flynn” from “Babes in Toyland,” and the three ladies warbling the infectious “Tip Your Hat to Hatty” from “Angel Face.” (the only number with some sync issues in an otherwise remarkably polished production). Inevitably, the presentation concludes with stirring highlights from Herbert’s most Irish operetta, the gorgeous “Eileen”: tenor Sapp takes the demandingly lyrical title number and the fervent “Ireland, My Sireland”; Ruddy and Bolander the jaunty “I’d Love to be a Lady”; and Klima and Brittingham the soaring “Thine Alone.” 

Given the technical excellence of the presentation, credit must also be given to stage manager Brooke Dengler; Audio Editor Shaun Farley; and Video Editor Gayle Añonuevo.

After the credit roll, Mott promises more video goodies (one a month) starting in January with an encore presentation of “The Serenade.”)

“Heart of Mine” is running through Saturday at 7 p.m. ET, with a matinee on Sunday at 2 p.m. ET. Tickets can be purchased at vhrp-live.thundertix.com.

More information on the Victor Herbert Renaissance Project can be found here.

Photos: Alison Dobbins

Top to bottom:

Left to Right: Drew Bolander, Christopher Robin Sapp, Jonathan Hare, Jovani Demetrie and Andrew Klima singing “Cruiskeen Lawn”

David Seatter, Heart O’ Mine Narrator and VHRP LIVE! founding company member.

Caitlin Ruddy and Drew Bolander, “I’d Love to Be a Lady” 

Left to Right (top): Jonathan Hare, David Seatter, Andrew Klima; left to right (bottom): Jovani Demetrie, Alexa Devlin, and Joanie Brittingham

Left to right: Caitlin Ruddy, Alexa Devlin, Joanie Brittingham, and Drew Bolander sing “Barney Maguire”

Caitlin Ruddy sings “Barney O’Flynn”

Joanie Brittingham, soprano and Andrew Klima, tenor, singing “Thine Alone.”

Alyce Mott, artistic director, VHRP LIVE!

Thursday, October 22, 2020

My Song for You - Marta Eggerth & Jan Kiepura University of Music and Performance Vienna

By Harry Forbes

Devotees of classic Hollywood musicals -- the sort that are the staple of Turner Classic Movies -- will know Hungarian soprano Marta Eggerth for her glamorous appearances in the Judy Garland films, “For Me and My Gal” and “Presenting Lily Mars.” But that’s only a small part of a career that started in the 1920s when she was still a teenager with phenomenal success on the opera and operetta stage, followed by a long string of European movies. Operetta masters like Franz Lehár, Paul Abraham, and Hans May vied to write songs for the vivacious blonde beauty with the silvery voice.

In 1934 she met, fell in love with, and subsequently married the dashing Polish tenor Jan Kiepura, Calaf in the Vienna premiere production of “Turandot” The idol of thousands, they came to be known affectionately by the public as the “Love Pair.” But after the Anschluss with Nazi Germany, they were forced to flee their Austrian home as each had partial Jewish heritage. They relocated to the United States where, among numerous engagements, both gave recitals together or apart, Kiepura sang at the Met,  and the couple triumphed on Broadway in “The Merry Widow” (a work they were to perform altogether 2000 times) and on tour. They were, in short, a “superstar” couple before the term was coined.

Now, Vienna’s exil.arte (center for banned music) at the University of Music and Performance (mdw) -- admirably dedicated to the recovery of the legacy of musicians and music lost during the Nazi regime -- have mounted what looks to be a fabulous exhibit honoring the pair and their friends and colleagues such as Ralph Benatzky, Maria Jeritza, Erich Wolfgang Korngold, Lotte Lehmann, Artur Rubinstein, and Billy Wilder. Contemporaries whose artistry was stifled in their homeland. Many of their not-so-fortunate contemporaries were, of course, arrested, jailed, or murdered. The exhibit was launched on Tuesday, October 20, and transmitted via a Trans-Atlantic hookup between Vienna and The Austrian Cultural Forum New York (ACFNY).

On the Austrian side, there was Dr. Gerold Gruber, founder of the exil.arte society; Dr. Suzanne Korbel of the University of Graz who curated the exhibit; Wolfgang Sobotka, president of the Austrian Parliament; and Ulrike Sych, president of the University of Music and Performance in Vienna (mdw). The event was kicked off by tenor Ramón Vargas who offered a stirring “Recondita armonia” from “Tosca” and the Neapolitan song, “Passione,” in fitting tribute to Kiepura. 

Dr. Gruber announced that the center’s acquisition of the Kiepura-Eggerth estate -- posters, photos, costumes, portraits, reviews,concert and opera programs -- brings the total number of estates under exil.arte’s auspices to 17. These estates -- from composers, conductors, and singers of the 1920s, 1930, and 1940s -- are analyzed by the exil.arte center from both an artistic and stylistic perspective. 

In New York, ACFNY Director Michael Haider gave the opening remarks, after which opera expert Ken Benson offered a succinct overview of Kiepura and Eggerth’s distinguished and multi-faceted careers, and warmly remembered Eggerth whom he once had occasion to interview, and who, incredibly, continued to sing well into her 90s. (She died in 2013 at the age of 101.)

But it was the remarks of the lustrous couple’s son Marjan Kiepura, a distinguished pianist specializing in Chopin, and his wife Jane Knox-Kiepura, a dedicated archivist of her mother-in-law’s career, who were able to offer the most personal reminiscences. Kiepura shared heartfelt memories of his father who died of a heart attack when Marjan was just 15. At his peak, the exuberant Kiepura might spontaneously serenade hundreds of fans standing on a taxi after a performance. But Marjan remembered both his father and mother as very centered, down-to-earth people who cared just as much about, say, their son’s toothache as about their careers. Jan died of a heart attack in 1966, prompting the grieving Marta to give up singing for several years after, until her ever-devoted mother persuaded her to take it up again.

Knox-Kiepura -- who has meticulously catalogued Eggerth’s filmography -- spoke of the difficulties of tracking the 45 films made by the couple, over more than a dozen of which are currently presumed lost. The cinematic adaptation of Lehar’s “Zarewitsch” is one such.  Still, as the films were distributed so widely globally, often retitled in different countries, Knox-Kiepura holds out hope that more may be yet recovered. Interestingly, such was the couple’s international fame that these films were often shot in multiple languages. Meanwhile, though print quality varies, some of the films can be viewed on YouTube. 

A clip from the 1949 film, “Valse Brilliante,” with the couple performing an amusing riff on Mozart’s Turkish March, demonstrated their abundant charm and humor. And an exciting clip of Kiepura as Calaf in “Turandot” confirmed the excellence of his ringing tenor.

As for the future, Dr. Gruber indicated the exhibit would remain at the center for at least a year, after which there’s a possibility of touring to Paris, Berlin, and perhaps New York. The three-minute overview of the exhibit was extremely tantalizing and a more extensive online guided tour would certainly be welcome. Gruber hinted that this, as well as screenings of the couple’s films, might also be in the offing, and advised checking the exil.arte website for updates.

So, too, Haider revealed the good news that a major restoration of their 1937 film, “Zauber der Boheme,” is in the works with newly minted subtitles. 

The launch event can be viewed here.

Photos (top to bottom):

Marta Eggerth and Jan Kiepura

(l.-r.) Franz Lehár, Marta Eggerth, Emmerich Kálmán

“The Merry Widow” with Marta Eggerth & Jan Kiepura

Portrait of Jan Kiepura as Cavaradossi by renowned painter Boris Chaliapin, son of Feodor Chaliapin

The lost “Zarewitsch” film

Marta Eggerth and Jan Kiepura sign autographs after a Detroit concert in 1954

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

West Side Story (The Broadway Theatre)

By Harry Forbes

This is not your grandmother’s “West Side Story” by any means, but then, would you expect anything less from avant-garde Belgian director Ivo van Hove? The virtual police lineup of the Jets gang that opens the show signals right from the start that this will be a different approach. The usual design hallmarks of a Hove production are here, most especially Luke Hall’s truly massive video projections which often dwarf the players. But, as most of the projections are close-ups of the live action, the conceit is less objectionable.

Beyond that, Jerome Robbins’ iconic choreography, normally sacrosanct, has been replaced by more contemporary movement choreographed by van Hove’s fellow countryman Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker. 

The settings -- Doc’s drugstore, Maria’s bedroom, the dress shop, etc. -- are recessed and either partly or entirely out of audience view, courtesy of van Hove regular Jan Versweyveld’s set design. 

Lovers Tony (Isaac Powell) and Maria (Shereen Pimentel) are here tattooed kids in a modern vein. The Jets are not the Irish, Polish, Italian kids of the 1950s, but a distinctly diverse gang, headed by an African-American Riff (Dharon E. Jones). With the extensive diverse casting, it must be said that it is sometimes difficult to tell one side from the other.

There’s no intermission after the Rumble, as usual, and the show plays straight through for a total length of about one hour and 45 minutes. 

But for all of that fiddling with tradition or more likely because of it, I found the production more often thrilling than not. Leonard Bernstein’s music still sounds absolutely splendid under the baton of Musical Director Alexander Gemignani. Bernstein, Sid Ramin, and Irwin Kostal shared credit for the original orchestrations, and now the reliable Jonathan Tunick has reorchestrated. 

The last Broadway revival was 2009, under the direction of the late book writer Arthur Laurents. An attempt was made to give it a bit of a facelift with new Spanish lyrics (by Lin-Manuel Miranda) for the Puerto Rian characters, but was otherwise in a traditional vein. And yet for all its virtues, it wasn’t half as compelling as this one.

I can’t praise Powell and Pimentel enough. All their vocal moments are highlights. Powell’s “Something’s Coming” and “Maria” are superb, as is Pimentel’s “I Have a Love,” and the rapturous “Tonight” duet. Dramatically, they make Tony and Maria’s love extremely real and their plight heartbreaking. Ramasar is more assured as Maria’s brother, Bernardo, than he was as Jigger in the recent “Carousel” revival and, of course, his dancing is predictably exciting. And Yesenia Ayala is a highly satisfying Anita in all respects. The “America” number really lands, and she nails “A Boy Like That.” Her climactic taunting in Doc’s store is here staged as an outright rape.

“I Feel Pretty,” its lyric so often disparaged by lyricist Stephen Sondheim himself as inappropriate for the character of Maria, has been dropped, and so has the “Somewhere” ballet. I missed the former but less so the latter. In any case, “Somewhere” is beautifully sung by Powell and Pimentel, as Richard Beymer and Natalie Wood (or their voice dubbers) did in the film, rather than an offstage soprano, with symbolic balletic couplings (including some same sex ones) behind them. That poetic sequence is, in fact, a high point in the production.

In this much grittier context, the comic “Gee, Officer Krupke” now seems a bit out of place, though it’s sung with edge, while sobering projections of police/gang member interaction fill the wall behind, adding a rather unnecessary irony to the already targeted lyrics.

Though Robbins’ choreography was classic, the new moves here are quite compelling on their own terms. The Dance at the Gym, The Rumble (in the rain), and the other setpieces have a wonderfully fresh feel, and there’s a marvelous bit when Tony and Maria are parting after their famous “Tonight” duet -- not performed on a balcony/fire escape -- but on level ground, are being pulled apart (symbolically) by their respective family and friends. 

An D’Huys’ costumes are strictly contemporary, dispelling any sense that the action is taking place in the Fifties. Tom Gibbons’ state-of-the-art sound design is beautifully balanced, highly essential given all the off-stage action. 

In the speaking roles, there are standout turns by Daniel Orekes as Doc, Pippa Pearthree as Glad Hand, who vainly entreats the kids to make nice at the gym dance, and Thomas Jay Ryan and Danny Wolohan as the racist cops, Lt. Schrank and Krupke. 

Though the revisions may sound radical, all in all, this “West Side Story” emerges as far more respectful of the true spirit of the show than other revisals such as last season’s misguided and distasteful “Oklahoma!” to name one.

(Broadway Theatre, 1681 Broadway; 212-239-6200 or westsidestorybway.com)

Photos by Jan Versweyveld

Top: Shereen Pimentel, Isaac Powell and cast

Below: Amar Ramasar, Yesenia Ayala and cast

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Madeleine (VHRP Live!)

By Harry Forbes

Alyce Mott’s enterprising company dedicated to all things Victor Herbert risked alienating the operetta regulars by presenting not one of his extravagantly melodic musicals or operettas, but rather his virtually tune-free 1914 one-act “modern” opera.  The piece had debuted at the Met in 1914, sharing the bill with, of all things, “Pagliacci” starring Enrico Caruso, by all accounts, an ill-advised pairing. 

Mott had already broken similar adventurous ground with her spectacular presentation of his 1911 grand opera, “Natoma,” in 2014. But in truth, “Madeleine” was an even more daring venture, as unlike the lush “Natoma,” the work was conceived as an opera in the manner of Richard Strauss or Wolf-Ferrari. There are virtually no stand-alone arias, a fact decried by music critics in 1914. Rather, the whole piece is laid out in conversational structure, heavy on recitative. It’s very much a play set to music.

Herbert’s source was, in fact, a French play by Decourcelles & Thibaut, “Je dine chez ma mere” (I Dine with My Mother), which he had read in the original language, declaring it was just the property for which he was looking for his next project. He translated it himself, but then set actor/playwright Grant Stewart to the task of crafting the actual libretto. Critics complained about the thinness of the source material, yet even Richard Wagner was said to be an admirer of the original play.

The plot, such as it is, concerns a famous opera diva Madeleine Fleury (Claire Leyden) who, at the start, is happily anticipating celebrating a New Year’s Day dinner with one of her many admirers. These include Chevalier de Mauprat (Thomas Woodman), François, Duc d’Esterre (Andrew Klima), and struggling artist Didier (Jonathan Hare), the last a dear childhood friend. She is attended by her maid Nichette (JoAnna Geffert), and other servants including Germain (Keith Broughton), a footman (Shane Brown), and a coachman (David Seatter). Everyone -- including an offstage baron -- ends up declining Madeleine’s invitation and all for the same reason: a tradition of dining with their mothers. When lastly, Didier reminds her of their happy times together as children, Madeleine, who till then had been behaving very peevishly about her friends’ perceived disloyalty, softens, and decides she’ll dine alone after all...with the restored portrait of her mother with which Didier has just presented her. A lovely melodic theme, associated with the portrait, ends the roughly 55-minute work.

What made the slight plot so compelling on this occasion were the lively and intelligent staging by Mott, a fine cast, a particularly absorbing performance by Leyden who pulled out all the stops vocally and dramatically, and an excellent group of musicians playing, not an arrangement, but a savvy reduction of Herbert’s original. Of course, the Met’s orchestra numbered 57 players. But with conductor Jestin Pieper and music director and pianist William Hicks at the fore, leading a violin, cello, bassoon, and harp, the sound was still richly textured. 

One was able to appreciate Herbert’s superb orchestration, with its myriad leitmotifs, about 20 in all, for different characters as well as some inanimate objects such as a necklace. So even when stage action was at its most minimal, the orchestra was alive with colorful detail and, yes, drama, with the result anything but static. 

Leyden brought splendid conviction to the part of the lonely and increasingly angry heroine, in addition to lustrous vocal sheen from her opening offstage cadenza to her final poignant moments in front of her mother’s portrait. Her singing of “A Perfect Day,” the sole traditional aria in the piece (and one demanded by Met star Frances Alda), was exquisite. It is a demanding part, as Madeleine is almost never offstage, but Leyden never flagged. 

The cast was altogether on top of Herbert’s difficult score, and the dramatic demands of the text. Klima was especially good conveying the Duke’s eager demeanor as he presents Madeleine with some new horses for her stable, but then extreme discomfort when he finds himself the butt of her wrath. Hare was likewise outstanding as he awakened tender memories in the unhappy heroine. And Geffert was also very persuasive as Madeleine’s devoted maid.

Of the original, critic Richard Aldrich had written: “...the character of the English diction heard in the performance, was not such as to bring the literary quality of the text home to the listeners, or make it matter much what that quality was.” 

Such was happily not the case here. Some high-lying sections notwithstanding, diction was remarkably clear throughout. 

The piece proved conclusively another strong affirmation of Herbert’s amazing versatility. That he could write so impressively in the operatic idiom, so stylistically different from those 45 light musical theater pieces he created between 1894 and 1924, continues to astonish. 

The 18th century setting of the original was not reflected in the costumes, and the piece might as well have been taking place in modern day. But Leyden looked smashing in her burgundy gown, Geffert was decked out in maid attire, and evening dress sufficed for the rest.

The presentation was bookended by an enlightening discussion with Mott, Pieper, and Hicks about the musical aspects of the opera, and a Q&A with the whole cast.

At its premiere, “Madeleine” was admired more for its craftsmanship than truly taken to heart either by audiences or the music press, but based on this admirable mounting, I believe critical consensus today would be far different.

The production certainly vindicated Mott’s faith in it, and post-show audience buzz was positive. Melody in Herbert’s traditional vein, however, will return on May 5th and 6th with VHRP’s “Mlle. Modiste,” which will conclude VHRP’s impressive French-themed season.

(Victor Herbert Renaissance Project Live!, Christ & St. Stephen’s Church, 120 West 69th St.; www.vhrplive.org; March 3 and 4 only)

Photos by Jill LeVine:

Top to bottom:

Remember our childhood together
Didier, Madeleine
Jonathan Hare, Claire Leyden

A Lover’s Greeting
Andrew Klima as the Duc d’Esterre, Claire Leyden as Madeleine

The New Victor Herbert Orchestra takes a bow
Jestin Pieper, conductor; Christopher Lee, violin; Lisa Alexander, bassoon; Clay Ruede, cello; William Hicks, music director and pianist; hidden with Harp, Susan Jolles.

Madeleine dines with her mother
Claire Leyden

The Company of Madeleine

L-R  Jestin Pieper, David Seatter, JoAnna Geffert, Jonathan Hare, Andrew Klima, Claire Leyden, Thomas Woodman, Keith Broughton, William Hicks, Shane Brown, Jordan Liau, Alyce Mott