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