Let's Talk Off Broadway

Yvonne Korshak reviews Off-Broadway, Broadway, Film and Art

Category: Opera

Cast of Antigone by Jean Anouilh, adapted merging text and opera by Eilin O'Dea. Translated by Lewis Galantiere

REVIEW Antigone | By Jean Anouilh | Translated by Lewis Galantière | Fusion Theatre

                                                … the force of destiny …

Here’s an amazing experience!   You walk into a small off-Broadway theater.  The stage is about as minimal as can be – mainly there’s a baffle board at the back and an upright piano to the side.  Early on  Antigone, kneeling, agonized by Creon’s order forbidding burial for the body of her rebellious brother, expresses her anguish with an operatic soprano aria, “Pace, pace, mio Dio”  from Verdi’s La Forza del destino.  What a shock!  And what a way to convey intense emotion in a play.

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The 17th Century Actor Edward Kynaston

REVIEW Prince of Players | Opera by Carlisle Floyd | New York Premier | Little Opera Theatre of NY

|… what a difference a king makes …

In Prince of Players, a private, personal and intimate story – that of an actor thrown out of work by a King’s decree — plays out against a canvas of broad historical meaning.  Although I’ve seen thoughts to the contrary, I found it monumental, and Carlisle Floyd’s swelling, varied music, performed by a cast of fine singer-actors supported by a full orchestra fulfills and amplifies the strong emotions and large resonances.

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Review | Slow Dusk and Markheim | Two Operas by Carlisle Floyd

In new chamber arrangements by Inessa Zaretsky and Raymond J. Lustig, The Little Opera Theatre of NY at 59E59

What a wonderful evening of theater.  Two short American operas, narratives set to dramatic music, superbly performed.  One leaves thrilled and elated.

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L-R Jennifer Roderer, Sarah Beckham-Turner, Alexander Charles Boyd in SLOW DUSK. Photo Buckman

SLOW DUSK takes us from commonplace to ecstatic, to tragedy, from afternoon to dusk.  Aunt Sue is shelling peas on the porch of a farmhouse in the Carolinas when Jess comes in from the fields, we learn of their concern about their niece, Sadie, who’s seeing to much of Micah — his family belong to the Truelights and they belong to the Disciples, and anyhow she’s smart and he never finished eighth grade.  They’re wild for one another and agree to marry but — not family as in Romeo and Juliet — accident intervenes, as fast as it can in life. 

This is Carlisle Floyd’s first opera based on his own short story:  the language is at times over simple but the

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Bray Wilkins and Sarah Beckham Turner in SLOW DUSK. Photo Buckman

music is bold, strong, apt, and intensifies the drama, and the characterizations are both archetypal and realistic.  (I thought, Eugene O’Neil’s Desire Under the Elms could use Carlisle Floyd’s music.)  

The voices might not have carried to the last rows of the Metropolitan Opera house but in this medium sized theater they were overwhelming and very moving.  The acting, direction, costuming and setting are superb.  The impact is powerful. 

Wow, am I glad I’m here!  I thought, almost dazed — what’s next?

Next came one of the most impactful performances I’ve ever seen.  Again it’s short, a lot happens , and you’re left breathless and elated.  MARKHEIM, based on a story by Robert Louis Stevenson, takes you to London 1880, and

 

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L-R Scott Six and Jeremy Milner in MARKHEIM. Photo Buckman

Christmas Eve, when an elegant man, Markheim,  who has squandered his family fortune enters a pawn shop to raise cash — drug dealers will kill him if he doesn’t pay up. 

Here, again, characterizations, narrative and music form a gripping whole.  A confrontation between the pawn dealer and Markheim doesn’t end well as Markheim, who’s spent his life digging himself into a hole goes in deeper.  A mysterious Stranger in evening clothes enters.  Now, I’ve seen some wonderful Devils in theater, from Don Juan in Hell to Faust:  this

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L-R Jeremy Milner and Marc Schreiner in MARKHEIM. Photo Buckman

is the Devil whose Hell I’d really consider.  He’s sly, smart, sophisticated, articulate and choreographically active.  With a Devil likethis, redemption’s a tough sell, though there is a kind of redemption …. with an awful lot of collateral damage.

The night I attended Marc Schreiner played the Stranger and he was so seductively charismatic I’d be reluctant to see anybody else in the part — what sheer fun! — and that goes for all the cast of both operas.   Yet, at the same time I’d like to see the other cast since every aspect of this production is so completely fulfilled I imagine they are equally outstanding.

Because there are two casts, I’m listing here the cast the night I attended:  SLOW DUSK:  Aunt Sadie was mezzo-soprana Jennifer Roderer, Jess was baritone Alexander Charles Boyd, Sadie was soprana Sarah Beckham-Turner and Micah was tenor Bray Wilkins.   MARKHEIM:  Josiah Creach (the pawnbroker) was tenor Scott Six, Markheim was bass-baritone Jeremy Milner, Tess (the shop girl) was soprano Marie Masters and A Stranger was tenor Marc Schreiner.  There is an ensemble Christmas carolers.

Richard Cordova conducted the lavish fifteen-piece orchestra:  the richly inventive and dramatic music heightened the emotional content and filled the theater with beauty.

The human scale, the authenticity in the costumes and ambiance as well as in the acting, the set and lighting create an extraordinary “you can’t get enough of it” visual appeal.

Just listing the performers brings back their vivid characterizations and the joy of the entire production – the joy of excellence.  These operas and others of this Carlisle Floyd’s works are available on audio media but I haven’t located any videos of them.  I’d sure like to see as well as hear his two-act opera Susannah.  

SLOW DUSK and MARKHEIM play at 59E59 Theater, in midtown Manhattan (yes, that’s the address) in a limited run through December 14, 2014.  For more information and tickets, click on live link of title.

Yvonne Korshak

Comments are very welcome.  Scroll down, click on comments, write in comment box and click on “post.”  Emails are private and never appear with comments.

The Threepenny Opera | book and lyrics by Bertolt Brecht | music by Kurt Weill | English adaptation by Mark Blitzstein|directed and choreographed by Martha Clarke | The Atlantic Theater

Mack the Soupsoon (… couldn’t resist …)

From the first moments of the overture, discordant and musical, played by superb musicians from the back of the stage, you know you’re experiencing something great.  The Threepenny Opera is one of the greatest pieces of musical theatre of the 20th Century — it’s up there with Porgy and Bess — and happily this production fulfills it.

Based on John Gay’s 18th-century The Beggar’s Opera, The Threepenny Opera was first produced in Berlin in 1928.  It’s an outstanding and unusual  example of a political point of view, here Brecht’s socialist critique of capitalist society, transformed into art that’s not preachy:  skip the preaching, as Jenny reminds us in her “Solomon Song.”  Yet the message,  “First feed the face, and then talk right and wrong,” comes across loud and clear — and joyously.

Set in 19th century London and populated by low-life characters, including prostitutes, beggars and thieves, the show centers on a lean, mean crook Macheath, known as Mack the Knife.  Irresistible to women, he turns the head of Polly, the protected daughter of the wise-to-the world Mr. Peachum, “King of the Beggars”, and Mrs. Peachum.  When Macheath marries Polly (sort of), a furious Mr. Peachum determines to have him hanged;  there are crimes aplenty to accuse him of but the Chief of Police is — guess what — corrupt.  Still, caught in the snare of his “old dependency — women”, as Mrs. Peachum sings it, he comes near to death, only to … see the show!  It’s such a great ending.  Yes, more joyous irony.

What a marvelous wealth of songs!  The singers are all good but some capture the grating quality of the style of Weimar Berlin with which Martha Clarke imbues the show.  John Kelly as the Street Singer delivers a wonderfully subversive introductory “Ballad of Mack the Knife” and is charismatically sleazy throughout in the role of Fitch. Mary Beth Peil is  tough and terrific as Mrs. Peachum.  These two most fully capture the character of the music and the essence of The Threepenny Opera.

As Macheath, Michael Park understands the meanings of his all-out songs and gets them across with rich vigor, but his persona, and gorgeously tailored suit, are too comfortable looking — too capitalist — for Mack the Knife.  Not knife-like, he’s more a Mack the Soup Spoon.  F. Murray Abraham is gruff and tender as Mr. Peachum, though he’s not a great singer.  Laura Osnes sings Polly’s songs with a beautiful, strong voice, though she seems too worldly-wise in advance, rather than learning a thing or three from Macheath.

Now what about Jenny?  A big question for this show.  Jenny, a prostitute and maid in the brothel, and Macheath’s sometime lover, is the pivotal role Lotte Lenya sang in the original Berlin production in Berlin in 1928 and again in the 1956 production at the Theater de Lys in New York City, and often heard recorded since.  In this production Jenny is misconceived:  turning her back of the strident, no-holds-barred Jenny that Miss Lenya gave and that’s scripted, Miss Clarke gives us a depressed, near-ingenue Jenny, played by Sally Murphy, even to the point of changing the words to suit this passive characterization.  Ending her famous revenge fantasy song, “Pirate Jenny,” by imagining all “the bodies piled up” in front of her, Miss Murphy sings with a shrug: “So what?”  A far cry from Lotte Lenya’s vengeful words:  “That’ll learn ya.”

Maybe Miss Clarke thought Lotte Lenya’s tough Jenny was too iconic, so went the other way.  At any rate, this passive characterization lets us down also in “Solomon Song” where, abandoning irony for woebegone, Miss Murphy sings, face turned away, brushing across the far walls of the set like a teen-ager without a prom date.  The role is salvaged only by the fact that it’s a stupendous song, and Sally Murphy is a poignant, fine performer so that wistful, though off-key, didn’t interrupt the impact of this wonderful show.

The production’s overall concept, set, lighting and costumes are glorious.  The spirit of caricature, the costumes, and choreography are inspired by images from George Grosz’s gutsy and unblinking illustrations of Berlin low-life of the period, as Robert Ruben, who saw the show with me commented, a bringing together of art and theater that recalls Miss Clarke’s Garden of Earthly Delights inspired by Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting, reviewed here in 2008.    For instance, the sofa in the brothel and the choreographed arrangement of girls on and around it appear to be drawn directly from an illustration by Grosz, a sort of tableaux vivant. All is over-washed with Martha Clarke’s luscious glow and sense of luxury.  George Grosz deserves mention in the show’s program.

Joyous irony:  the show’s grim, underdog message — useless, it’s useless, even when you’re playing rough, useless, it’s useless, you’re never rough enough — is transformed through transcendent art: you walk out of the theater elated.    

The Threepenny Opera  plays at the Atlantic Theater in Manhattan’s Chelsea district through May 4th, 2014 — EXTENDED THROUGH MAY 11TH.  For more information and tickets, click on live link of title.

Yvonne Korshak

Comments are very welcome.  Scroll down, click on “comments,” write in comment box and click on “post.”  Emails are private and never appear with comments.

Seance on a Wet Afternoon, opera with music and libretto by Stephen Schwartz, New York City Opera

I thought an opera, Seance on a Wet Afternoon, would likely be an exciting stretch for a talented musical theater composer and lyricist like Stephen Schwartz, author of Godspell, Pippin and Wicked, but that’s not how it turns out.  The singing and acting, especially that of Lauren Flanigan as the medium and Melody Moore as Rita Clayton, is on a high level and the two children, Bailey Grey as Adriana and Michael Kepler Meo as Arthur, are impressive but everybody could use a better opera.

The medium, Myra Foster, with the aid of her husband, Bill, kidnaps a young girl, Adriana Clayton, with the idea of ultimately leading the authorities and parents, as if by spiritual intuition, to where she will deposit the still alive girl and garner a big ransom and recognition of her spiritual “gift.”  But kidnappings have a way of going awry, the Fosters keep Adriana quiescent with liberal doses of chloroform and eventually Myra suffocates her with a pillow.

That’s not the only dead child in Seance:  Myra takes directions from Arthur, her poltergeist son of about 8 years in a white space-travel type of suit whom, we eventually learn, was stillborn “without a face.”  Seance is very hard on children.  The young couple sitting next to me, with the wife pregnant, had the wits to leave at the end of the first Act and I’m glad they never heard, in Act II, that Arthur was born faceless.

Perhaps on some level anything can be transformed into significant art if some requisites are in play, as when emotions and motivations of the characters are expressed with depth, and the issues have a universal dimension but … Do we really need an opera about the abduction, chloroforming and murder of a child?  Many dramas hinge on the effect of a dead child on survivors, but that’s very different from a drama in which the focus is on a child’s abduction and murder.  Are there any other operas or plays focused on a fictional child murder in this way?  (I suppose Adriana is murderd in the screenplay by Brian Forbes based on the novel by Mark McShane, on both of which the opera Seance on a Wet Afternoon is based.)  

The music is hybrid of operatic and show music but the mix tends to weaken each.  It’s surprising that, given the significant recognition Schwartz has achieved for his lyrics, the libretto of Seance is notably flat.  “Tell me you love me,” Myra says to Bill.  “Do you still love me?”  And Bill answers:  “Yes.”  And, “I still love you.”  There are also a lot of astonishingly tepid rhymes of the croon/moon variety, often as triplets.

Also — and how easily this could have been avoided — the plot movement is sloppy.  A frantic Mrs. Clayton persuades her resisting husband to come with her to ask Myra whether she has any spiritual intuitions about Adriana’s whereabouts, at which point the police Insector, who’s been standing in his “time is of the essence” posture sits down  and Mrs. Clayton embarks on a lengthy aria.  Once the Inspector has Myra under arrest, instead of taking her off in a squad car, he takes her for a promenade, during which he leaves the stage so she can engage with a batch of paparazzi — and meet up with Arthur.  

Seance on a Wet Afternoon plays at the Koch Theater at NYC’s Lincoln Center through May 1.  For information and tickets, click on live link.

Yvonne Korshak

Comments are very welcome.  Scroll down and click on “comments,” write in comment box and click on “post.”  Emails are private — no emails appear with comments.

 

Kaspar Hauser: A Foundling’s Opera by Elizabeth Swados and Erin Courtney | World Premiere | The Flea Theater

Kaspar Hauser is an opera about a “feral child” who turned up on the streets of Nuremberg, Germany in 1833;  its music, focus on a world-battered individual, melodrama, cynical stream, and terrific sensory overload take us right back to Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill:  think Threepenny Opera.

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