Monday, April 27, 2015

Cavalleria Rusticana/Pagliacci

When the classic verismo double bill of Mascagni's Cavalleria Rusticana and Leoncavallo's Pagliacci last appeared at the Met, in 2009, it was clear that Franco Zeffirelli's war-horse production was badly in need of retirement. Six years later, a new production has arrived, helmed by Sir David McVicar, who's easily the most reliable director currently working in the Gelb Met. As seen over the weekend (at a performance that was also simulcast into movie theaters), McVicar's stagings scored a success, with the Mascagni appropriately dark and impassioned and the Leoncavallo brimming with passion and pain just underneath its brightly-colored surface.

Marcelo Alvarez and Eva Maria Westbroek
Photo: Cory Weaver/Metropolitan Opera
Aside from the creakiness of the previous production, the raison d'etre for this new production was star tenor Marcelo Alvarez's desire to sing the leading tenor roles in both operas. However, the first opera--set here in 1900--really belongs to the soprano. Santuzza, excommunicated (a faith worse than death in a repressive Catholic society) and scorned, longs for her former lover, Turiddu, who has returned to the bed of his married former flame, Lola. Lola's husband, the rich driver Alfio, is a vengeful and violent man; when the jealous Santuzza informs him of his wife's activities, she signs Turiddu's death warrant.

In McVicar's production, Santuzza remains onstage throughout the entire hour-long opera, silently watching from the periphery when the action doesn't involve her. It's a wise, striking choice, a reminder that she lives on the margins, integral to the life of the village though shunned by her neighbors. Especially striking was the staging of the central Easter mass (the opera takes place on Easter Sunday), which Santuzza hears from outside the church. As she prays and sings the stirring "Inneggiamo, il Signor non é morto" ("Rejoice, the Lord is not dead"), the audience is reminded of the opera's important context: though it takes place on the Catholic calendar's holiest day of forgiveness, it is something Santuzza will never receive from her supposedly pious neighbors.

Sunday, April 26, 2015


Photo: Sara Krulwich
A 2011 one-character play about a fighter pilot who transitions from combat to an assignment on an Army base as a drone pilot, Grounded, by George Brant, has been produced around the country and last ran in New York in January 2014. As Charles Isherwood's review of that production points out, the show examines the life of one woman facing "particular traumas," but "ultimately doesn't provide much fodder for larger reflections on American foreign policy or the changing mores of a changing military." An interesting profile of one woman's descent into severe PTSD, the production at the Public nevertheless doesn't pack quite the punch I wished it would.

Anne Hathaway plays a nameless, swaggering, aggressively unsentimental fighter pilot, who loves being in the air--the blue--more than anything else. She brags at the beginning of the show about her speed, stealth, and ability to drop bombs on suspicious "military-age males" from miles above. One evening, while drinking with the fellas while home on leave, she meets a man, Eric, who doesn't flinch at her tough demeanor or feel threatened by the traditionally macho work she does. She takes him home for a weekend of what confides is enormously satisfying sex. When she realizes, after redeployment, that she's pregnant (she intuits that it's a girl), she reluctantly takes leave, because as much as she loves the blue, she just "can't kill her"--and also, she's in love. After marrying Eric and giving birth to Samantha, she is reassigned to what she sneeringly refers to as the "chair force": a team of trained pilots who work out of a trailer on an Army base in Las Vegas, directing drones to drop bombs on targets thousands of miles away. While skeptical and unhappy at the thought of sitting and staring at a computer screen for 12-hour shifts instead of taking to the skies, she finds some comfort in the fact that she doesn't have to separate from her family, and that the threat of her own injury or death no longer exists.

Sunday, April 19, 2015


When all is lost, what is left? What can be salvaged? In the Flux Theatre Ensemble production of August Schulenburg's new play, Salvage, these questions are faced by survivors of a regional apocalypse. (New York City is basically gone, but Idaho and Japan seem to be okay.)

Akiko, Noma, and Mandy are searchers. Each day they put on Hazmat suits and go into the ruins of New York to find anything of value. A cobbled-together meter then registers whether the found items are likely to cause "the Tox," which is never described but clearly to be avoided.

 Mihm, Tanenbaum, Hip-Flores, Crespo
Photo: Deborah Alexander
Akiko was a teacher and the daughter of a poet; she records an audio diary addressed to her father, who did not make it through the devastation. Noma was (and is?) an actor. She explains:
Well, like, I’m still an actor even if there’s not, you know, opportunities to do it, that’s like the thing about actors, you’re still an actor even if you’re not acting, which most of the time you’re not, even when there isn’t a, you know, catastrophe, so. 

Friday, April 17, 2015

Fun Home

Photo: Sara Krulwich
There's very little to say about Fun Home that wasn't enumerated by Wendy's spot-on comments, so I'll simply say this:

I am glad that Alison Bechdel decided to tell her story ten years ago. It meant a lot to me then, as a young person coming to terms with my own sexuality and place in the world, and it continues to mean a lot to me now. And it's meant a lot to a hell of a lot of people for a hell of a lot of reasons.

I am glad that Lisa Kron and Jeanine Tesori decided to adapt Bechdel's memoir for the stage. They were the absolute right people to do so, and their deep understanding of the beautiful and painful intricacies of Bechdel's story is reflected in the brilliant musical they created.

I am glad that the Public Theater had faith in this musical and saw it through workshops, development productions, and the wildly-acclaimed, multi-extended full production that opened in the fall of 2013. The Public has given voice to a wide array of artists and stories over the course of its sixty year history, and Fun Home is another sparkling panel in their rich and diverse tapestry.

I am glad that there are artists like Judy Kuhn, Michael Cerveris, Emily Skeggs, Beth Malone, Joel Perez, and Robert Colindrez to bring these deeply flawed, tragic, staggering, and beautiful characters to life. I am glad that there are young performers like Sydney Lucas in the world, for she embodies Alison Bechdel better than I ever imagined anyone could.

I am glad that there are still producers who aren't afraid to bring a musical like this to Broadway. A musical with complicated, adult themes. A musical with a lesbian central character. A musical that rejects easy answers and unearned cheerfulness. A musical that recognizes how messy, how tragic, and how magnificent life really is, and isn't afraid to to reflect that. To the producers who moved this show uptown, to greater visibility and a wider audience, I say thank you.

I am glad that Fun Home exists. Plain and simple.

[TDF, rear side orchestra]

Tuesday, April 14, 2015


Photo: Carol Rosegg
Hamlet's a real pain in the ass, if you ask me. I don't mean the titular protagonist, though he's a pill, too. I'm talking about the show itself, which is so well-known, so riddled with famous phrases, so regularly referenced, and so often staged that, in CSC artistic director Brian Kulick's words, Hamlet "is really not a play anymore--it's kind of a sporting event: You come, you watch, you know it, and you wait--you see, well, how does Hamlet do 'to be or not to be?' How does this Hamlet do 'O this too too solid flesh?'" Hamlet might be a challenge to seasoned performers and directors in this respect, but I'm neither, so I don't feel like a total moron admitting that the very thought of tackling a show everyone knows so well--one whose lead character comes off as maddeningly mopey and indecisive; whose plot doesn't really progress all that much; and whose characters mostly stand around brooding for three-plus hours, uttering lines so familiar that they've become cliches, only to end up in an orgiastic hamster-pile of death in the last scene--seems to me like a nightmare.

The production of Hamlet at CSC, however, shook me out of my own trepidation. It is sleek and engaging, well-staged, and solidly performed. I am not convinced that the production, which takes a highly stylized, contemporary approach, will appeal to everyone (and indeed, a handful of people left during intermission at the matinee I saw). But at least as I see it, for all the glum indecision, confusing character motivations, and lack of taut pacing that this particular Shakespeare play packs into its lengthy five acts, the CSC production pays off in the end. There are very few sudden moves and no stage gore (though the deliciously scenery-chewing Glenn Fitzgerald, as a slow-burning Laertes, finally pops off at the end by racing around the house while bellowing madly, which is awesome). Yet the show never drags, thanks to the intensity of the company and the shrewd, careful direction of Austin Pendleton.

Friday, April 10, 2015

Living on Love

Renee Fleming, Jerry O'Connell, Douglas Sills
Photo: Sara Krulwich
Full disclosure: I left Living on Love, the wretched attempt at drawing room comedy improbably playing at the Longacre Theatre, at intermission. Even fuller disclosure: I would have fled after the excruciating first scene had I been seated on an aisle.

How this made it to Broadway is truly a puzzler. I imagine the producers put a fair amount of stock in the hypothetical selling power of their star, the opera singer Renee Fleming, in her first non-musical role. That Fleming--perhaps the most recognizable soprano of her generation--would be playing a temperamental diva surely seemed like synergy. Yet at the performance I attended, there were a lot of empty velvet seat-backs, despite a preview deal offering tickets for $19.57 (the price reflects the year the play takes place).

Living on Love was adapted by Joe DiPietro (Memphis) from a third-rate play by Garson Kanin called Peccadillo. A fiery Italian conductor (Douglas Sills) seems more interested in wine and women than dictating his memoir to his ghostwriter (Jerry O'Connell). When the maestro fires his scribe, his wife (Fleming) hires him to write her own autobiography, while the maestro sets his sights on a mousy young copy-editor (Anna Chlumsky).

Hilarity is meant to ensue, I suppose, but the jokes aren't just old enough to vote--they're old enough to collect social security. The actors do their best with some truly crappy material; for a first time actor, Fleming manages not to embarrass herself, despite the script's many attempts to embarrass her. Still, I don't see this as the beginning of a fruitful second career.

And I also don't see this play hanging around Broadway for long after the reviews are published. Addio--molto rancor.

[Rear orchestra, way more than it's worth]

Friday, April 03, 2015

Fun Home

The brilliant Fun Home opens at the Circle in the Square on April 22nd, and the big question is, "How does it fare in the round?"

This is a classic glass-half-full, glass-half-empty situation, but the glass is both half-full and half-empty. (For my review of the Off-Broadway production--a rave--see here.)

Glass half-full: Fun Home made it to Broadway! This is wonderful news all around: it will become better known; it will likely have more future productions; the creators and cast may receive some well-deserved awards; and we all get to see it again (or for the first time) and maybe again (I already have my tickets for next time).

And Sam Gold has staged Fun Home about as well as I could imagine it being staged in the round (oval, really). He is aware of the whole audience, and he uses the space in some satisfyingly creative ways. (I don't want to spoil them by describing them here.)

Wolf Hall

The Royal Shakespeare Company production of Wolf Hall is a simple yet gorgeous production based on Hilary Mantel's best sellers Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies. Gracefully adapted by Mike Poulton and elegantly directed by Jeremy Herrin, it gives us Henry VIIIth, some of his wives, Thomas Moore, Cardinal Wolsey, and that whole world from the point of view of Thomas Cromwell. It is beautifully designed (sets and costumes by Christopher Oram; lighting by Paule Constable and David Plater), and the acting is of the high caliber you would expect from the Royal Shakespeare Company.

And I just didn't care.

Wolf Hall is an exquisite but empty pageant. Scenes that should be heart-breaking fly by, and the show never gives the audience a moment to just feel. It is the proverbial well-oiled machine, admirably efficient but lacking heart.

(tdf ticket; 2nd row center for Part I; row N on the far side for Part II)

Thursday, April 02, 2015

The Visit

Photo: Joan Marcus
To watch Chita Rivera in The Visit is to watch a great artist at the top of her game, fully in command of the stage and fully realized in the performance that she's giving. Theater lovers should be grateful that, after fifteen years and a handful of regional incarnations, this beguiling, frequently chilling, and not entirely successful musical has finally made it to Broadway.

For one thing, it may very well be the last original Kander and Ebb musical to make it to the main stem. The brilliant team began working on the musical adaptation of Friedrich Durrenmatt's 1956 play in the late nineties, and it was first produced (with Rivera and John McMartin) in Chicago in 2001. An Off-Broadway staging at The Public Theater in 2003 was announced, but never came to fruition. Ebb died suddenly in 2004, but Kander, Rivera, and librettist Terrence McNally continued to work tirelessly to bring this daring musical to a wider audience. A 2008 production at Signature Theater in Arlington, Virginia, led to further development and a one-night-only concert in New York, in 2011. The current production, now at the Lyceum, originated at Williamstown Theatre Festival last summer. It's been streamlined to a clean ninety minutes and directed with airtight precision by John Doyle.