Monday, August 15, 2011

Bitter Sweet (Bard College)

By Harry Forbes

One’s joy that someone finally had the good sense to mount Noel Coward’s musical masterpiece – his glorious operetta “Bitter Sweet” from 1929 – was, as it happened, seriously undermined by a minimalist, avant-garde staging that, while faithful to the essentials, was so stylized that it emerged far removed from the spirit of the original.

If this were an oft-revived work, such as one of Gilbert and Sullivan’s chestnuts, perhaps a novel approach could be tolerated. But as so many in the audience, judging by the pre-performance chatter, were anxious finally to see a legendary show they had heard much about but never actually encountered, it seemed a shame not to have rewarded their curiosity with a traditional staging.

Rather than following the script’s time frame of an old woman reminiscing in the 1920’s on the great tragic romance of her life in 1875, this production began in 1969, and traveled back to 1920, a conceit which, in many respects, worked against many elements of the period-specific text.

The story centers on Sarah Millick, a well-to-do young Englishwoman who elopes with her Austrian piano teacher Carl Linden, on the eve of her marriage to a stuffy young man. In Vienna she and Carl live in relative penury, he working as a pianist at Herr Schlick’s Café, she as one of the establishment’s dancing partners for the patrons. When a military officer presses himself on Sarah (now Sari), Carl jumps to her defense and is killed in a duel.

Normally, the actress playing Sarah gets to demonstrate her versatility, first as the wise old woman, then an ardent young girl of 16, then a poised middle-aged widow, and, finally, back to the present, as her elderly self again. Here, unaccountably, the part of the older Sarah (now Lady Shayne) was given to the great British actress Sian Phillips. Delightful as it was to see her here, the double-casting was wrong, but director Michael Gieleta seemed intent on imposing a “Follies”-like structure on the show with the young Sarah interacting across the decades with her older self.

Other ghostly effects were conveyed by Christopher Akerlind’s lighting which cast dark shadows on the wall to remind us, presumably, that this was all a flashback, an effect more creepy than evocative.

The younger Sarah was played by Sarah Miller, who sang well, although her mezzo timbre gave her songs a more covered quality than the bright, open sound the part ideally requires, and handled her line readings intelligently, affecting – like the rest of the cast – a decent English accent. But, somehow, she lacked the indefinable luminosity that a leading role such as this absolutely demands. And, sorry to say, she was saddled throughout with an unfortunate hairstyle.

Phillips appropriated what should have been Miller’s opening declaration to follow one’s heart, “The Call of Life,” and rendered it in an accomplished speak-sing manner rather than with the soaring lines the score requires. Phillips also opened the second act with an artfully studied reading of “Zigeuner,” but Miller at least got to sing that song in full near the end of the show.

There wasn’t any particular chemistry between Miller and her leading man, William Ferguson, but his gleaming tenor was outstanding, and he played with a charming Viennese accent, something of a novelty since most of the Carl Lindens on LP were Italian tenors.

Also standing tall in the cast was Amanda Squitteri as Manon, the entertainer at Schlick’s Café. She milked her big number, “If Love Were All,” for all it was worth, singing superbly and playing the vivacious star with great style that compared favorably with that of the incomparable Ivy St. Helier, the part’s originator, who memorably recreated her role in the 1933 film version.

James Bagwell conducted Jack Parton’s mercifully traditional arrangements with style. If one closed ones eyes during the songs, one almost could pretend this was an authentic presentation. But there was no overture, the extended musical set pieces were truncated, and most of the ensemble sections were sacrificed for a “chamber opera” effect. Even Sarah’s glorious “Tell Me What is Love” was shorn of most of the chorus’s response which is what really makes the number click. The opening party, the café, and Lord Shayne’s house all looked sadly underpopulated.

I didn’t care for the setting of the satiric “Green Carnations,” Coward’s paean to the gay young men of the day, as a cabaret number in Schlick’s café. And surely the saucy “Ladies of the Town” in this café were far too vulgar. Gieleta staged them as if this were the Kit Kat Klub from “Cabaret,” with a decadence that was not what Coward had in mind.

Dialogue was overly deliberate, and often had a hollow ring in the exceedingly spare setting. There was little sense of fun or gaiety. Apart from the café numbers, there was little dancing, and a dour mood pervaded all.

In his New York Times review of Florenz Ziegfeld’s original Broadway production, Brooks Atkinson wrote admiringly, “It is a production composed of miniatures, each one neatly turned. It is charming; it is subtle and witty.” You’d be hard pressed to glean those qualities from the directorial choices here, more suitable to Pirandello or “Wozzeck.”

Atkinson also called the show “decorous entertainment, reveling in the billowing costumes of a grandiose age of style, and courting humor in the bouncing bustle.” Gregory Gale’s costumes here -- though attractive in their way – couldn’t hope to be as picturesque.

Adrian W. Jones’ high-walled set, with its tall glass doors, evoked photographs of the original production. The substitution of a crimson curtain in place of the doors and the inclusion of a crescent-shaped little stage allowed a nice transformation into the café.

Still and all, misguided though the concept was, the production offered a chance to hear most of Coward’s evergreen songs performed live in something akin to their original context, generally strongly vocalized and played, and with Phillips adding a classy authenticity, however superfluous, to her inauthentic role.

Search online on YouTube for the priceless Pathe footage of the original London production (nearly 30 minutes worth, although silent) to see how “Bitter Sweet” ought to be done.

(Theater Two, The Richard B. Fisher Center for the Performing Arts at Bard College, 845-758-7900 or; closed 8/14)

Friday, August 12, 2011

Death Takes a Holiday (Roundabout Theatre Company)

By Harry Forbes

This handsome and generally involving musical from composer/lyricist Maury Yeston and book writers, the late Peter Stone and Thomas Meehan, has a number of good things going for it.

It’s based on a once-popular play by Alberto Casella, adapted originally by Walter Ferris, (and later filmed to general acclaim with Fredric March and then again with Brad Pitt as “Meet Joe Black”), and thus it’s nice to have the property back on the boards in any form. It’s composer Yeston’s first major New York score since 1997‘s “Titanic.” It’s been cast with blue-chip actors. All the technical elements are first-rate. And it’s nicely directed by Doug Hughes in his first musical outing.

It could still use more fine-tuning, and there are some less-than-scintillating patches, but the production bespeaks quality. And the narrative holds one’s attention.

The setting is an Italian villa, post-World War I. In the opening scene, heroine Grazia (Jill Paice) and her cronies are driving along the road after a party. They crash, she’s thrown from the car. and by any rights, should have died. But Death, in the handsome person of Kevin Earley, has become smitten with this effervescent creature, and for the first time, he allows one of his intended targets to emerge unscathed.

In short order, he turns up at he home of her parents, the Duke and Duchess (Michael Siberry and Rebecca Luker), and though the Duke know who he is, Death insists he be allowed to stay the weekend incognito, and that the Duke must keep mum about his true identity. In this way, Death can learn what it’s like to be human and experience the thing called love which he’s heard so much about.

In his guise as a charming Russian prince, he sets about romancing Grazia who, before long, breaks off her engagement to her sour, heavy-drinking fiancé Corrado (Max Von Essen).

There’s also a doctor (the suavely charming Simon Jones), once engaged to Grazia’s now-dotty but ultimately wise grandmother (also outstanding Linda Balgord) who continues to mistake him for her late husband, lovelorn Daisy (Alexandra Socha) who sets her cap on Grazia’s castoff lover, and flapper Alice (Mara Davi), who had been married to Grazia’s late brother who died in the war, and who tries to seduce Death with Yeston’s liveliest number, “Shimmy Like They Do in Paree.”

Except for the majordomo (Don Stephenson), the sulky Corrado and Daisy’s pilot brother (Matt Cavenaugh) who has special reason to distrust this “prince,” everyone falls for Death’s ruse, and finds him perfectly charming.

The cast is uniformly excellent. I was disappointed not to have seen Death played by that excellent British actor and singer Julian Ovenden who was felled by laryngitis after opening night, but his replacement Earley is unquestionably a first-rate vocal replacement. His smooth manly baritone makes a nice contrast to all those “Les Miz” high tenors so prevalent in pop opera musicals today.

Yeston’s score sounds quite nice on first hearing (and I have a hunch will improve upon repeated plays of the forthcoming CD). The songs bear the stamp of his trademark romanticism, almost operetta-like at times, sounding to my ears more like “Titanic” than “Nine.” Among the standouts are Luker’s lovely “Losing Roberto” and the female trio, “Finally to Know,” and Death’s 11 o’clock number, “I Thought That I Could Live,” powerfully delivered by Earley.

There’s something of an inconsistency of the tone of the book, the bittersweet romantic quality sitting uneasily beside some tiresome comic bits, but I don’t know how much of that is true of the source material or the work of Stone and Meehan.

Kevin Stites leads the small orchestra with sensitivity, choreographer Peter Pucci provides some nice 20’s moves, though this isn’t much of a dancing show. Derek McLane’s sets, Catherine Zuber’s costumes, Kenneth Posner’s lighting all contribute to a pleasing period ambience.

(The Laura Pels Theatre in the Harold and Miriam Steinberg Center for Theatre, 111 W. 46th Street, NYC), 212-719-1300 or; through September 4, 2011.)