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Wednesday, April 17, 2024

William Grant Still and the Harlem Renaissance

The Orchestra Now (TON) regularly presents concerts keyed into exhibitions at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. The most recent, William Grant Still and the Harlem Renaissance, focuses on Still's "Symphony No. 2, Song of a New Race," reflecting the Met exhibit, "The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism." Still had an impressive career full of firsts for Americans and African-Americans. He wrote five symphonies, nine operas, and four ballets, along with various choral works, art songs, and chamber pieces. His best known piece is probably his "Afro-American Symphony," which was the most frequently performed piece by an American for years, pre-1950. TON conductor/founder Leon Botstein chose to focus on Still's second symphony, which he felt was not sufficiently known.



The structure of these "Sight & Sound" performances starts with a curator discussing the art exhibit with accompanying slides, followed by Botstein's introducing the music through brief excerpts and a detailed discussion of the piece's strengths, meanings, and context. Then the piece is played in full, followed by a Q and A.

Tisch Curator at Large Denise Murrell's introduction to "The Harlem Renaissance and Transatlantic Modernism" was elucidating and thoughtful. Botstein's discussion of the music was also elucidating and thoughtful and also sometimes funny. He's a charming teacher. The excerpts from the symphony were inviting, and the orchestra was excellent. Strangely enough, the whole symphony was less than the sum of its parts, at least to me.

At the beginning of the Q and A, a Black woman complained that the performance exploited and appropriated Still's work and was arguably racist. With our country's history of systemic racism, the accuser's feelings and distress are understandable. I wish now I had heard Botstein's answer, but I left because these discussions seem to me to be impossible by their nature. (Also, to be honest, I was antsy.) What could Botstein really say? How can one answer such strongly felt emotions? Particularly when you've just been called racist?

I have an answer, however, since I'm not standing there in public like Botstein was. I think that the accusations were unfair.

I should mention that my friend and I had already noted how few Black people there were in the orchestra and the audience. That fact at least partially reflects racism in education and opportunity in the USA. But the woman's comments were specifically about this orchestra playing Still's piece.

First, TON was likely making little to nothing doing this performance. They were taking nothing from Still; I can't see how that would constitute exploitation.

As for appropriation: Botstein's discussion was the exact opposite of that. He spoke at length of Still's experiences, of the pitfalls of people of color or various ethnicities writing for a largely white audience, of how much he respected Still's work, and of how important it be that Still not be forgotten. Botstein in no way took credit for the work or tried to adopt it. Instead, he worked in service to the piece.

As for the day being racist, I do not think it is racist for a white conductor and largely white and Asian-American orchestra to play work by an African-American composer. I also think it's fine for gay people to play straight people in movies (and vice versa), for Asians to play Jewish roles, for men to write female characters, for Black people to perform in classics, and so on. The bottom line is the quality of the work.

The best depiction I have ever seen of a conversation between two teenaged girls was written by John Sayles. In Appropriate, currently on Broadway, Branden Jacobs-Jenkins, a Black man, has written a strong play featuring only White characters. Barbara Kingsolver's brilliant Demon Copperhead is written in the voice of a young man in Appalachia. And so on.

And, yes, I think it is okay for a non-Black orchestra to play music by a Black man, particularly in the context that Botstein provided. (Though, of course, there should be more Black people in the orchestra!) What wouldn't be okay would be for Still's work to be neglected due to the current cultural climate.

Wendy Caster

Saturday, March 30, 2024

To My Arms/Restore (Doug Varone and Dancers and MasterVoices)

The recent collaboration between MasterVoices and Doug Varone and Dancers was nothing short of amazing. Brilliant dance, gorgeous singing, thrilling musicians--it was the proverbial feast for the eyes and ears. I felt rich watching the show; what could be more precious than incredible talent creating incredible art? (The credits are listed below.)


Doug Varone Dancers Photo: Erin Baiano

It's frustrating to write about MasterVoices's wonderful but brief productions since they're always over when I do. Here instead is some info on MasterVoices's next production, The Grapes of Wrath by Ricky Ian Gordon and Michael Korie. 




I unfortunately missed this show the last time around, and I am looking forward with great excitement to seeing it this time around. Based on John Steinbeck's classic novel, it features Kyle Oliver, Nathan Gunn, Margaret Lattimore, Mikaela Bennett, Bryonha Marie, Victor Starsky, Malcolm MacKenzie, Schyler Vargas, Christian Pursell, John Brancy, David Fleiss, and Jan Constantine, plus the 120 wonderful singers of  MasterVoices. The narrators are Joe Morton and J. Smith-Cameron. It's April 17th at Carnegie Hall, and (not-overpriced!) tickets are still available. (For more info, click here.)

I'm thrilled to see The Grapes of Wrath because of some predictable reasons: I am a huge fan of MasterVoices and musical director Ted Sperling, and I loved Gordon's musical My Life With Albertine. 

But here's what has really raised my excitement: I have two discerning theatre-going friends who have seen hundreds of shows. They have loved many of them, but when they speak of The Grapes of Wrath, they get this look of wonder on their faces, and they communicate such love and awe that I can practically hear a choir singing behind them. So, of course, I can't wait for The Grapes of Wrath. 

And I hope to see you there.

Wendy Caster


To My Arms

Choreography by Doug Varone

Music by George Frideric Handel, Suite of arias and duets from the operas Atalanta, Orlando, Giulio Cesare, Samson, Serse, Agrippina, Scipione, Alexander Balus, Semele and Teseo*

Lighting Design by Derek Van Heel

Costume Design by Caitlin Taylor

Dancers:

1. Courtney Barth and Ryan Yamauchi
2. Joniece “JoJo” Boykins, Daeyana Moss and Thryn Saxon
3. Brad Beakes and Jake Bone
4. Courtney Barth
5. Joniece “JoJo” Boykins and Daeyana Moss
6. Jake Bone
7. Thryn Saxon with Marc Anthony Gutierrez
8. Full Company
9. Brad Beakes
10. Courtney Barth and Ryan Yamauchi
11. Full Company

Liz Lang, Soprano
Emily Donato, Soprano
Jake Ingbar, Countertenor
John Easterlin, Tenor
Benjamin Howard, Baritone

Accompanied by New York Baroque Incorporated
Oboe: Andrew Blanke
Violin: Ravenna Lipchick, Shelby Yamin
Viola: Jimmy Drancsak, Annie Garlid
Cello: Serafim Smigelskiy
Bass: Wen Yang
Theorbo: Adam Cockerham
Harpsichord: Caitlyn Koester

Ted Sperling, Conductor

Restore
(Part 2)

Choreography by Doug Varone
Music by Nico Bentley, Handel Remixed
Lighting Design by Derek Van Heel
Costume Design by Caitlin Taylor

Courtney Barth, Brad Beakes, Jake Bone, Marc Anthony Gutierrez, Joniece “JoJo” Boykins, Daeyana Moss, Thryn Saxon, Ryan Yamauchi

With MasterVoices

Accompanied by New York Baroque Incorporated

Ted Sperling, Conductor

Friday, March 22, 2024

Orson's Shadow

Having thoroughly enjoyed the 2005 production of Austin Pendleton's Orson's Shadow, I was looking forward with excitement to the current production, directed by Pendleton, at the Theater for The New City. I am happy to report that this version is a worthy successor to the original. 


Austin Pendleton and Cast
Photo: Jonathan Slaff

Orson's Shadow takes place in 1960, with Orson Welles desperately seeking financing for a movie, critic Kenneth Tynan looking for a way to work at the new National Theatre, and Laurence Olivier stuck between the old (his wife Vivien Leigh; his traditional approach to acting) and the new (his girlfriend Joan Plowright; an edgier approach to acting). They all come together when Tynan talks Olivier into accepting Welles as the director of his production of Ionesco's Rhinocerous. Their interactions are volatile and button-pressing as they try to conjure up a workable version of a play that none of them particularly likes or respects.

Pendleton expertly uses this situation to consider love, acting, peaking young, madness, and the business of theatre and movies. His cast is not always physically apt, but all are quite good: Brad Fryman as a aggressively boisterous Orson Welles, Patrick Hamilton as a chain-smoking Kenneth Tynan, Ryan Tramont as a breath-takingly self-centered Laurence Olivier, Natalie Menna as a painfully self-aware Vivien Leigh, Kim Taff as a quietly perceptive Joan Plowright, and Luke Hofmaier as Welles's bemused assistant.

With a show about real people, there's always the distracting issue of, do the actors look like the person they're playing? It's ultimately irrelevant: eg, Ryan Tramont's lack of resemblance to Olivier doesn't hurt his excellent performance, once you get used to it. And you can't expect anyone to actually look like Vivien Leigh--that's one heck of a high bar--but Natalie Menna succeeds in her depiction nevertheless.

A more serious problem--common to historical novels and biopics as well--is the vibe of parasitism when artists use the fame and personalities of real people to provide excitement and drama in their own work. These characters say lines written for them whether or not the real people ever said them or would have said them.

I do, however, have to admit that Pendleton uses these particular people well. The show is moving, fascinating, funny, and heart-breaking. It's a bit baggy--with not much editing, its two hours with an intermission could easily be 90 minutes without--but overall it is a strong production of a strong show. 

Tickets for Orson's Shadow are $25 ($15 for seniors and students). It's amazing, and exciting, that such quality can be accessed at such reasonable prices. (Orson's Shadow runs through the end of the month. For more info, click here.)

Wendy Caster

Tuesday, March 19, 2024

Doubt

 

The current production of John Patrick Shanley's play Doubt (starring Amy Ryan, Liev Shreiber, Zoe Kazan, and Quincy Tyler Bernstine) is not as good as the amazing original production from 2005 (starring Cherry Jones, Brian F. O'Byrne, Heather Goldenhersh, and Adriane Lenox), but that's okay. This well-directed, well-acted, solid production does justice to the excellence of the play. 


Liev Schreiber, Amy Ryan
Photo: Joan Marcus


And an excellent play it is! The story of a high school principal (Sister Aloysius; Amy Ryan) in the 1960s suspecting a priest (Father Flynn; Liev Schreiber) of "interfering" with a 12-year-old African-American boy, Doubt expertly shows how perceptions of guilt and innocence differ among observers, even when exposed to the same evidence. Once Sister Aloysius begins suspecting Father Flynn, she perceives everything he says and does as proof of his guilt; it's a case study of confirmation bias. (However, the fact that she finds him guilty with insufficient evidence does not prove he is innocent!) 

Doubt also examines sexism in the church, old ideas versus new, and how values can clash even when people are acting in good faith (if, indeed, they are acting in good faith). 

Then there is the mother of the boy, who is vividly aware of the benefits--and costs--to her son of being in this school. She lives in a world where difficult, horribly pragmatic decisions sometimes need to be made, and she has the strength to make them. Her one scene, an extended discussion with Sister Aloysius about Father Flynn's treatment of her son, is complex, surprising, and in many ways the core of the show.

Amy Ryan clearly depicts Sister Aloysius's rigidity and lack of humor. I was disappointed not to see Tyne Daly, who had to drop out due to health problems, but the level at which Ryan is performing--with virtually no rehearsal--is impressive. Liev Shreiber is good as the priest, but I expect more than "good" from Liev Shreiber. His sermons are remarkably bloodless. Zoe Kazan does sweet ignorance beautifully; her innocent face works in her favor. Quincy Tyler Bernstine is effective as the mother, though I wish there had been more fire in the scene between her and Sister Aloysius.

The design elements are a bit odd. The scenery is attractive but the scenic designer (David Rockwell) is not kind to people sitting audience right, with a wall often in the way of a clear view. And the director (Scott Ellis) is no better: we had the Zoe Kazan's back for much of the show and were given only two brief opportunities to see Quincy Tyler's Bernstine's full face. I don't know if "cheating" (that is, subtly moving one's body over time to be better seen by the audience) is considered old-fashioned, but it surely would have been welcome. The costuming is effective, except that Father Flynn's clothing was a little too nice; did the pants of priests in the early 1960s really taper so perfectly? The lighting is beautiful, clean, and subtle. 

My feelings about Doubt have evolved over the years, as thousands of priests have been revealed as serial molesters. I was more open to the idea of Father Flynn being innocent in 2005. However, Doubt is so well-written that I am still not 100% sure what I think. 

Perhaps the most impressive thing about Doubt is that, under all of the ambiguity and thoughtfulness and compassion lies a brilliantly smooth structure. The play is economical and its 90 minutes seem to take half that time. I suspect, and hope, that Doubt will be done over and over again well into the future. It certainly deserves to be!

Wendy Caster

Sunday, March 03, 2024

Bliss Street Releases Cast Album

 


Bliss Street cast

 

While theater is an art form with a shelf life — sometimes a show outlives its closing. Such is the story with Bliss Street, an Off-Broadway show at Theater for the New City that played from April 27 to May 14, 2023, which just released its cast recording last week. The production looked at the New York 70’s rock and roll scene and celebrated Paul Sub’s Coventry, a 5,000 square-foot music venue once located on Bliss Street in Queens, and hosted such bands as Kiss, The Ramones, Blondie and the New York Dolls.


Using Abra Bigham’s book based on Rich Brotman and Charlie Sub's concept, the show interwove Paul’s club experience with his son Charlie’s, who grew up immersed within the music scene. Charlie also wrote the words and lyrics for Bliss Street. The original show included virtual scenery by Carlos Almonte of MotionBlur, offering the audience a glimpse of how Charlie remembered that world.

His band, Charlie Sub & Sound Dogs, is featured on the album, “Bliss Street: The New Era.” The release offers songs from the show that embrace the vibe of glam rock, mixing it with a contemporary feel.

Bliss Street show at Ethyl's

The raucous music is feisty and fun but sometimes the beat seems stronger than the lyrics like in the number, “Built This House.” Still, there is much here to enjoy, such as “Coventry Tonight” with its simple piano intro and sweet duet recalling the venue’s significance.

Besides the album, Charlie keeps Bliss Street alive at Ethyl’s, his venue in Manhattan, which hosts a monthly show featuring Bliss Street music. You can hear the music of Bliss Street on the official YouTube channel.


Friday, March 01, 2024

This Is Not a Time of Peace

 

In Deb Margolin's new play, This Is Not a Time of Peace, directed by Jerry Heymann, Alina's father, Hillel, has become unstuck in time. He "travels" in memory (metaphorically? metaphysically? hallucinatorily?) between 2004, when he is an old man in assisted living, and 1950, when he was hounded by Joseph McCarthy for being a communist and  eventually blacklisted. Whether he actually was a communist is deliberately unclear. Also unclear is whether his perception of his 1950 reality is accurate. 

Alina tries to keep up with Hillel as he switches time periods, attempting to understand him and his history and also to discern the true story. Did the president really offer Hillel a seat in the cabinet? Which president? If Hillel was brought up before HUAC, why does there seem to be no record?

Charlotte Cohn as Alina
Photo by Steven Pisano

Alina has ambiguity in her own life as well. She feels detached from her amiable husband because she feels that he doesn't "see her," which, truly, he doesn't. She is also having an affair with a hunk who insists on having feelings for her, despite her attempts to limit their interactions to the physical. She has a daughter who doesn't appear in the play and seems to barely exist for her.

The title, This Is Not a Time of Peace, echos Joseph McCarthy's comment that, although the war was over, it was not really over: "This is not a period of peace." One of the main points of the play is that this comment remains apt, and maybe always has been. The 21st century has been calm in some places at some points, but everything is on the edge and on the verge. Global warming is referred to, and current politics underline the play. The sad truth is, not only is this not a time of peace, but due to human limitations, it never will be. And Alina recognizes that she is not exactly perfect herself, cheating on her husband and living a very human, messy life.

Unfortunately, these ideas and story lines don't cohere as much as they might, and the play is both too long and lacking clarity. The parallels between time periods end up more pedantic than felt. Certainly less of Joseph McCarthy and more of Alina's reality would provide a better balance. And the open monologue, which seems to go on forever, does not justify its length in terms of content or writing. Also, it was annoying that Alina does this long monologue in short lingerie, which is distracting and pointless.

For me, Charlotte Cohn was not effective as Alina. She has received rave reviews from other critics, and I suppose it's possible I just saw an off night. But the performance I saw lacked a certain level of humanity and warmth and ended up being a barrage of words. The rest of the cast--Simon Feil, Richard Hollis, Ken King, Frank Licato, Steven Rattazzi, and Roger Hendricks Simon--were quite effective, and there were moments with actual scenes that reached a level of emotion that I wish had existed throughout the play.

After all this, Alina's final monologue, considerably shorter than her opening monologue, is a lovely, moving, delicately written coda that left me wishing that the whole play had been at that level, in that voice.

Wendy Caster

Friday, February 23, 2024

I Love You So Much I Could Die

The title I Love You So Much I Could Die hints at a deeply emotional, even fervid, show. 

Nope.



For reasons that remain obscure to me, I Love You So Much I Could Die extends a great deal of effort to eliminate emotion, connection, and communication from its characteristics. The show consists of monologues interspersed with songs. The words are intoned by a generic male computer voice. The singing is performed by the author, Mona Pirnot, sitting at a desk with her back to the audience. There is little in the way of visual expression. I ended up watching the cursor on Pirnot's computer move in tandem with the sentences of the monologues, just to have something to do

In my eyes, theatre is about communication. I even have reservations about one-person shows, because I want dialogue and human interactions. I Love You So Much I Could Die pretty much removes any reason to be in a theatre. 

Wendy Caster

Wednesday, February 14, 2024

Titanic: The Musical

Last weekend, the Program in Vocal Performance at NYU Steinhardt presented a musically gorgeous production of Titanic: The Musical. The NYU Broadway Orchestra, led by Ted Sperling and featuring over 30 musicians, performed the original Jonathan Tunick orchestrations with emotion, clarity, and verve. The large cast featured fabulous singer after fabulous singer. It was an aurally glorious experience.

I already have my ticket for the Encores! version of Titanic later this year. It will likely offer a more consistent level of acting and better costumes and lighting. But it will not be better sung or played.

Wendy Caster

Monday, January 15, 2024

Here's to the Ladies Review on Talkin' Broadway

I reviewed Here's to the Ladies over at Talkin' Broadway:



Eddie Shapiro's three books of long-form interviews with musical theatre performers provide a unique, entertaining look at the reality of being a working (or work-hunting) musical actor, mostly on Broadway but also Off-Broadway and regionally. His first, Nothing Like a Dame, focuses mostly on big stars/legends, such as Angela Lansbury, Patti LuPone, and Bebe Neuwirth. His second, Wonderful Guy, focuses on a range of male actors such as Ben Vereen, Norm Lewis, and Jonathan Groff. And now he presents Here's to the Ladies: Conversations with More of the Great Women of Musical Theater, including Kelli O'Hara, Charlotte D'Amboise, and Judy Kuhn. All three books are wonderful.

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