Monday, August 12, 2019

Moulin Rouge!


If you like splash, “Moulin Rouge!” is the show for you. Even more than the Baz Luhrmann movie, on which the musical is loosely based, it can hold your wonderment without abate from start to finish. Let us begin with the enchanting lighting design.

This superabundance of lights basks in everything from several chandeliers to hundreds or seeming thousands of colored bulbs all over the stage and parts of the auditorium. Also neon lights, chamelioning it up from color to rich color. Justin Townsend outlines the stage in concentric heart-shaped frames of differently colored light, simultaneous or successive, to our irresistibly dazzled delight.

Then take the costumes by veteran Catherine Zuber. They can be seriously beautiful or slaphappily comic, but always helping the wearer to the desiderated character. Like the men in top hats and evening garb, smoking cigars, in various parts of he stage, mostly balconies; or, in diverse configurations, the group of cancan dancers, performing or just oolalaing to heart’s content.

Much of the music that Justin Levine has culled, arranged and orchestrated derives from very smart jukeboxes melodious to begin with. Eight experts assisted Levine in their various capacities, all to good effect.

But what about the book by John Logan, primarily the tragic story of the young, innocent composer, Christian (here an American), in love with Satine, experienced   headliner at the Moulin Rouge and courtesan of a certain age? It is clearly influenced by Alexandre Dumas fils’s truth-inspired drama, “La Dame aux Camelias,” and by what Francesco Maria Piave’s libretto for Verdi’s “La Traviata” made of it.

There are thus also the wealthy Duke of Monroth, Christian’s rival for Satine’s body if not heart, and Harold Zidler. a historic figure, compere for both the show and the nascent show within the show for which Christian is providing the music, and which features the secondary, comic couple of Nini, a dancer,  and Santiago, a Hispanic performer, known as the King of the Tango.

Interwoven throughout is the bevy of girl dancers, largely governed by Toulouse-Lautrec, a patron of the Moulin, painter and cripple, enacted by the gifted Sahr Nigaujah.

Satine marks the return to the stage after a long absence by the wonderful Karen Olivo, who looks never a day older or a bit less convincing than of yore. She manages the role with its inherent self-contradiction with exemplary professionalism and compelling charm. She also carries consummately the choreography of Sonya Tayeh, which is consistently evocative.

As Christian, the youthful Aaron Tveit manages the not all that easy task of making innocence interesting in a penetrating role, and there is steady support   from Danny Burstein as Zidler, Robyn Hurder as Nini, Ricky Rojas as Santiago, and Tam Mutu as an almost too appealing Duke.

The show profits greatly from the long-active designer Derek McLane, whose scenery does admirably by conjuring the Paris of 1899 and the particular ambiance of the Moulin Rouge, keeping the versatile sets from succumbing to sprawl. This is a show to make the young feel mature, and the old blissfully young again.

Road Show



It was clever of Encores! to revive Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s musical “Road Show,” a musical with some gorgeous music both for individuals and choral. The orchestra under James Moore performed, as is the custom at Encores! admirably, and the chaste scenic design by Donyale Werle like the sober costumes by Clint Ramos were all to the good. So too were Will Davis’s direction and choreography, proving that indeed less can be more.

This is a road show in the sense the that its main characters, the fabled Mizner brothers, Wilson and Addison, moved all over the place along what seems like very divergent roads to what ends up as a shared one. Here is how Sondheim puts it in his book “Look, I Made a Hat,” concerning a show that exists in three different versions:  “Wise Guys,” a1998 reading,  “Bounce” of 2003, my favorite, and “Road Show.” (2008), the final one,

The storied brothers started out in the small California town of Benicia, and headed from the 1880s for the world and their end in the 1930s. Here is how Sondheim puts it; “Wilson was a conman, entrepreneur and. wit, Addison was chiefly an architect. Their personalities were polar opposites, but their relationship was intense and complicated. The show charts their lives from Benicia California through their adventures in the Klondike gold fields of the 1890s to the extremes of New York City society in the early 1900s and into the Florida real estate boom and bust of the 1920s, for which they were largely responsible,”

The difference was that Wilson was a “brilliant and shifty fellow who through a colorful life was at times a goldminer, a saloon keeper, a prize fighter, a cardsharp, a conman , manager of a hotel for criminals as well as the manager of the world’s welterweight champion, a celebrated Broadway playwright, the husband of one of the richest women in America,, a raconteur known for his wit, an entrepreneur majorly [sic] responsible for the Florida real estate boom and bust of the 1920s, a drunk, a cocaine addict, a notorious womanizer, and finally a Hollywood hack and a successful one..” Conversely, the younger brother, Addison, was a closeted homosexual, a gifted If somewhat bizarre architect, think Boca Raton. Of all this you would need more than a clever musical, perhaps a television series.

Even so, Sondheim and Weidman have come up with quite a musical of some 19 winning numbers, among which my favorite is ‘The Best Thing That Ever Has Happened,” as fine a number as anything in the Sondheim catalog. It is sung in “Bounce” to a woman, but here to a man.

The show needs two splendid actors in the principal roles, and here it gets them in Raul Esparza (Wilson) and Brandon Uranowitz (Addison), both terrific in their different ways, both excellent singers. Esparza is one of America’s best actors tragically undervalued  and underemployed. His Wilson moves idiosyncratically and nervously yet also gracefully with the agility of a dancer, along with crystal - clear delivery of dialogue, and  his disputes with his younger brother are part of a uniquely blended natural and theatrical charm. Uranowitz, in turn, puts to good use his talent for comedy plus a childlike innocence combining jovially with adult smartness.

What both Mizners are in this version is ever so fond of their mother, beautifully played by Mary Beth Peil. Whenever either son is in trouble, he comes back home to her to be affectionately chided and straightened out. The admonitory father, earlier deceased, is nicely handled by Chuck Cooper of the commanding baritone.

The final scene is a moving effusion of brotherly love and a reminder of the show’s leitmotif, and its contrasting traversals. Wilson points ahead: “Addie,, you know what that is? It’s the road to opportunity!” To which Addison: “It’s the road to eternity. ” And Wilson sum up, “The greatest opportunity of all. Sooner or later we’re bound to get it right.”

As Will Davis directs, they’re close together, moving upstage, away from the audience as the final darkness falls. Too bad that this excellent production for Encores! as always plays only a few performances.
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Sunday, July 28, 2019

In Praise of Slow


Americans are almost always in a hurry, though rush is all too often rash. Even cars are often sold on speed disallowed by law, and so essentially useless. Emblematic is horse racing, , with a winner (think Secretariat) enshrined in historic memory, less speedy losers deservedly forgotten. In just about all sports speed is of the essence, and what Americans are indifferent to sports? Only in sex, for which, significantly, “sport” was once a synonym, is slowness desirable and premature orgasm a failing.

Accordingly, by proverbs and adages, speed is viewed as positive. However jokingly, we tend to get “run like a bunny” or “speedy Gonzales,” or yet “fastest gun in the West,” to say nothing of disapproval for “slow pokes” and “dawdling,” with “dragging your feet” or “Fools rush in where wise men fear to tread” especially notorious. There is, exceptionally, a song, “On top of Old Smoky/ All covered in snow,/ I lost my true lover/ For loving too slow,” in which slowness is not reprehended, though probably not referring to the duration of the sexual act itself. 

But even in an affirmative sense, too much of a good thing may be undesirable. Take   the charming poem “The Lost Race,” by the poet priest Canon Andrew Young, which I reproduce in its entirety.

       I followed each detour
       Of the slow meadow-winding Stour.
       That looked on cloud, tree, hill,
       And mostly flowed by standing still.
       
        Fearing to go too quick
        I stopped at times to throw a stick
        Or see how in the copse
        The last snow was the first snowdrops.

        The river also tarried
        So much of sky and earth it carried;
        Or even changed its mind
        To flow back with a flaw of wind.

         And when we reached the weir
         That combed the water’s silver hair,
         I knew I lost the race—
         I could not keep so slow a pace.

There are a few places where signs demand that cars go slow—in the vicinity of schools, hospitals, and perhaps churches; otherwise the car corresponds to the equine lower body of a centaur, usually in an especially speedy gallop, as in, say, stretches of Texas, where slow is not even dreamed of.

But the greatest purveyor of mostly unwelcome speed is television, whose racing images outstrip the most excited heartbeat. How many times have I hoped to linger with something worth a moment or two more before the next thing of equal or possibly lesser interest had supplanted it, but there is no stopping the TV it.

To be sure, slowness can be problematic, as when my fast-walking wife is halted by
stops to allow catching up by me, reduced by age to sauntering. On the other hand (or foot), that slow saunter is the only way to get to know a city you want to know and fully enjoy. This may not work for, say, Detroit, but does very much so for, say, Paris. There, on my all too brief visits, except once on a Fulbright, I have reveled in places and people to see. Much has been made of the beauty of the Paris sky, even though a sky depends on what it frames: buildings, monuments, parks, vantage points, persons passing by or lolling on benches. 

Sitting outdoors at a café, taking in the surroundings, one may well be struck by the slowness of so many passing Parisians. That is how I spotted the American ballet dancer performing in Paris who became my girlfriend for a very pleasant while.

And what about the pleasure of learning from what one reads unhurriedly? It is said that if you read slowly, you get more out of it by remembering more. I have always been a slow reader, and occasional attempts to read faster have dependably failed, quite possibly profitably unbeknown to me. I have until fairly recently, had a pretty good memory, although I cannot tell whether more so than faster readers. But let’s face it, there is both good and bad learning from books, and not all good is slow, just as not all fast is bad. But definitely, some good stuff has to be read slowly; I can’t imagine racing through a page of Proust, or even of Henry James, and so much of modern poetry—need I name names?—has to be read slowly or, even more slowly, reread.
                                                                                                                                                              Which brings me to the praise of what is considered to be difficult reading that postulates  slowness, and thus to the praise of slowness itself. That is, when and where “slow “ works, where it isn’t merely the writer  wallowing in obscurity to make him or her seem more profound.

Finally, in music, it is more often than not in a sonata or symphony that the slow movement is by far the most beautiful. It is the adagio or lento that carries  the lyricism, the melody, best. If you don’t believe me, ask Faure, ask Debussy.

Broadway’s Rising Stars



Every year we get a “Broadway’s Rising Stars” show produced by Scott Siegel at Town Hall, a revue of songs performed by recent college graduates aspiring to careers in musical theater other than opera. Some in this thirteenth version already have a bit of a career, having performed with certain orchestras. But all are clearly candidates for Broadway shows and every one of them display genuine talent.

What they do is sing a number from a Broadway show, some with a bit of dancing, or an independent solo number by some established composer, which suits their particular talent, and the evening on July 24 was a pleasure from start to finish. The show’s finale was the contribution of Ali Stroker, now costarring in a revival of “Oklahoma” as Ado Annie, to general acclaim. Here she sang enthusiastically “Be a Lion,” the song from “The Wiz” with which she appeared ten years ago in “Broadway’s Rising Stars.”

Here go the following appreciations. Gabrielle Baker for “If You Knew My Story,” charmingly from “Bright Star.” Jack Brinsmaid, firm in “Corner of the Sky.” Christopher Brian earning an A for “Museums.” John W. Dicaro for a glowing “Once in a Lifetime.” The double delight for twin brothers John and Matthew Drinkwater for “Agony” in the show’s first half, and equally so for “For Good “ in the second. Mara Friedman warm with “Electricity” from “Billy Elliot.” Brian J. Gabriel persuasive in “Make Me a Song” by William Finn. Adan V. Gallegos ably navigating the challenging “I’ll Imagine You a Song.” Esmeralda Garza, apt with “You There in the Back Row from“13 Days From Broadway.” Jonathan Heller’s splendid contribution to the group’s joint “Make Our Garden Grow.” Victoria Kemp justly moving with “Climb Ev’ry Mountain.” Bettina Lobo, eloquent in “This Is Me.”  Tyler McCall for a lively “Defying Gravity,” Albert Nelthropp digging deep into “At the Fountain.” Cameron Nies for a fine rendition of a prophetic “On Broadway.” Luana Psaros for a soulful “I’m the Greatest Star” from “Funny Girl. “Jacob Roberts-Miller with a forceful “Taking the Wheel.” Didi Romero smart in “My Simple Christmas Wish.”

I am looking forward to these talented kids appearing in sundry prominent shows, with their names gracing the Who Is Who listed in the respective programs. Meanwhile I can tell you that, as far as I am concerned, these gifted youngsters are not merely rising, but already risen stars.
                                                                    

Saturday, July 6, 2019

Betty Buckley & Donald Margulies


There are two ways to be an actor—either to disappear into the role, or to let the role come to you. In other words, to be a modest interpreter or an overwhelming personality. In still other words, be like Laurence Olivier and Meryl Streep, or like Cary Grant and Carol Channing. Either way can work in the right hands.

In the recent revival of “Hello, Dolly!” on Broadway, one could get Bette Midler, Donna Murphy or Bernadette Peters, and I leave it to you to decide which of them was what I shall call Mode A, and which Mode B. There have been exceptions and surprises: George C. Scott could actually play a character based on Noel Coward, a case of a Mode B actor doing well at Mode A. Good looks are helpful in either mode, but funny looks could be just as good, think Zero Mostel and, yes, Barbra Streisand.

Now we come to the Dolly of Betty Buckley, whom she has been playing since September 2018 in the National Tour. Ms. Buckley is that rare performer who somehow manages both modes simultaneously. But please don’t make the mistake of assuming that my admiration for her is based on friendship; if anything, it is the other way round, with my friendship based on admiration.

So here we were at the Kennedy Center, my wife and I, sitting very close to the stage. But I kept wondering: Who is this woman playing Dolly Levi? Sometimes it was indeed someone I knew, but at other times it was someone whom I had never met before. A wig can look like a fedora on a mule; Betty wore hers as if they had been cohabiting since early childhood.

Notable is a scene in which Dolly is esuriently stuffing herself at the expense of the rich man she secretly intends to marry. The way Midler played it, it was something, from the domain of Marx Brother farce. Here it had humanity along with the humor. It was not so much greedy as well-earned.

And something else. Any actor will tell you that the hardest thing to convey is thought, to look like someone who is cogently thinking. The screen can do it with close-ups and lighting, on the stage there is no such recourse: you have to act it. Buckley did it subtly with swiftly modulating expressions.

One minute she is very much the cozy woman I know, merely somewhat disguised; the next minute, I cannot believe that this person only a few feet away is really Betty Buckley:  Mode A and Mode B are triumphantly merged. She is not just the actress who can also sing or the singer who can also act; she is the complete performer about whom such questions do not even arise.

Now for another matter altogether: Donald Margulies’s current Broadway play, “Long Lost.” This Manhattan Theatre Club production is not quite up to the playwright’s best, Margulies marvels such as “Sight Unseen” and “Dinner With Friends,” but it is still as good as, or better than, most of what is now playing..

What is the problem? Well, in a fully successful play you want to identify with one or another character, may even feel compelled to do so. But in “Long Lost,” an older brother, Billy, who has become some sort of hobo (it is not specified just what kind), gone for a good many years, shows up uninvited at younger brother David’s successful businessman office. Equally undesired, he follows David even into the latter’s grand, Park Avenue style apartment, for what may be an unwelcome and undetermined guest-room stay.

David’s wife, Molly, is the head of an important charity operation she initiated, but had, it emerges, a drunken one-night stand with Billy on the eve of her wedding to David. They now have a charming collegiate son, Jeremy, a sporadic student at the distinguished Brown University, who takes to Billy perhaps a little too much. It further emerges that, given a troubled marriage, David has for long had a clandestine mistress on the side. Billy’s meddlesome presence causes revelations difficult for all concerned.

A problem with all this is that none of the adults comes off as a particularly winning personality, except perhaps Jeremy, but he is hardly a grown-up. Despite mostly apt dialogue, none of it is all that compelling, and we get an uneasy mixture of comedy and drama. There are no surprises to speak of either.

To be sure, there is convincing stage design by the dependable John Lee Beatty and assured costuming by Toni-Leslie James, as well as savvy lighting by Kenneth Posner. Daniel Sullivan has directed with his customary expertise, but somehow I expected more. This despite solid performances from Kelly Aucoin (David), Annie Parisse (Molly), Lee Tergesen (Billy) and Alex Wolfe (Jeremy). This quartet also benefits from none of them being too histrionic or excessively familiar,
but making a virtue of ordinariness is not the simplest thing in the theater or indeed in the world. In the end, one counted on being moved at least when Billy and a visiting Jeremy have a nice scene together in a retirement facility, but even that leaves one, if not exactly cold, only lukewarm.




Monday, June 17, 2019

Gozzoli, Etc.

I’ve always been fond of tiny triumphs that seem to come out of nowhere to score surprise effects. Let me evoke three such incidents.

One long ago day some of us were cruising the labyrinthine Metropolitan Museum, when a modest-sized painting loomed by itself ahead of us, whereupon I suddenly exclaimed “That is a Benazzo Gozzoli!” That proved right, which amazed my companions, and me even more.

First, at that time, I knew nothing about Gozzoli, as I more or less still don’t. Second, I had never even had a college Renaissance art course. Third, Renaissance paintings have much in common, and there was no way in which that minor effort by a minor painter stood out in the least. Fourth, I made that identification from some distance, and, fifth, on the run, which tends to blur things. Sixth, there was no earthly reason for my making that or any unsolicited call in the first place. My friends, in any case, were duly impressed by my accurately attributing a lesser work, and must have thought I knew quite a lot about Renaissance painting. Even now, I only wish I did.

This does, however, bring to memory a much later event, when the Times’s chief art critic,  John Canaday, who liked me and published some of my stuff about art and movies, wanted to take me on permanently. This, however, required the approval of the hated and dreaded powerful Sunday editor, Lester  Markel, who had allegedly caused the suicide of one or two subordinates. Wanting to check up on my qualifications, he pointed to an art work on his wall and asked me to identify it. Heaven only knows out of what dark substratum I summoned “Early Raphael sanguine, Portrait of a Man,” and, hang it, I somehow managed to hit it right. But that job I never got, as a phone call from the monster’s secretary, a couple of weeks later, informed me. I guess that was because, in our conversation, the monster asked me what I could tell him about the rivalry between the Met and MoMA, as to which could snatch up some available modern art works, a subject about which I had scant knowledge and less interest.

And then there was that dinner party with friends where the conversation turned to the then very popular movie, Akira Kurosawa’s  “Rashomon.” I volunteered that the film was based on a fiction by the prematurely deceased, highly gifted Ryunosuke Akutagawa, which I hadn’t read yet. What impressed the person who spoke  Japanese was not so much that I knew the movie’s provenance, but that in pronouncing Akutagawa I almost elided the U, as, apparently, Japanese speakers do. But this had nothing to do with my knowledge of anything, only with the unstressed U making pronunciation of the long name easier.

However, let not the foregoing be viewed as intended self-praise.  In fact, I admit to being on occasion mulishly impervious to justifiable correction. Let me cite a prize example of it, going back many years, when my Polish American friend Stanislas  Wellisz and I used to converse in French so as to avoid forgetting it. At that time,
my French was less good than that of Stash, my not yet having assimilated  the wit of Sacha Guitry and Jean Renoir on film, and, in literature, such giants as Jules Renard and Guillaume A[pollinaire for charm, Alphonse Allais and Georges Feydeau for wit, and Jean Giraudoux and Anatole France for elegance.

Thus I foolishly insisted on rendering “It rains” as “Ça pleut,” and Stash exasperatedly correcting me with “Il pleut.” I don’t recall how many times I resisted his correction, driving him up the wall, until I finally complied. To this day, I may be prone to similar obstinacy without the benefit of a like tutor. Absolutely nobody could lessen my admiration for Jacques Prévert in the unlikely case it were needed by that wonderful artist. There are cases where obstinacy is justified.






Monday, May 20, 2019

Name Fudging

I can’t help it but I am an entrenched traditionalist—or, if you prefer, conventional soul—about names. I have no serious quarrel with those who invent names for themselves, but if you want a name hallowed by history, I say, “Stick to the tradition and don’t meddle or muddle with spelling or pronunciation.”

Let’s start with the name of the Countess of Essex, married to Prince Harry. She should be Megan, not Meghan, as she has it. Before an A, O, or U, the G is automatically hard, as in garden, government, and gutter, and as such does not require hardening by an extra H. Before an E or I, things can go either way: getting or gender, gibbon or gist. With Megan, an H after the G, is no option.

“Meghan” is manifestly de trop and  illiterate. So much for the former Meghan Markle. You might try to excuse this fault by blaming the parents who perpetrated it. But an intelligent bearer, in this age of openness, could easily have corrected it, either legally or simply by usage.

Yet what can you expect from a couple that after prolonged pondering names their son Archie ? That is not even a full-fledged name, merely a diminutive for someone called Archibald. It derives from the Teutonic Ercanbald, meaning nobly bold.

Of course, you might argue that President Clinton, for example, would go by Bill, even if he was christened William Jeffferson Clinton. When it comes to preference, however, he might as easily have called himself Habakuk or Marmaduke if he chose to; the aura of William would cling to him anyway. Other politicos too have used nicknames for their first names, presumably making them more friendly and eligible.

Now take the case of that obnoxious female chef on TV, Rachael Ray. Rachael for Rachel is absurd. That second A is clearly derived by faulty analogy from Michael, but serves no purpose (e.g, different pronunciation) except to look pretentious. The fact is that both Michael and Rachel come from the Hebrew, the one meaning “who is like to God,” the other “a ewe,” “emblematic of gentleness,” as the great linguist, Eric Partridge, on whose book, “Name This Child,” all my wisdom is based.

Although English names come from all over, some even from old English, Scottish or Welsh sources, the ones that I would most consider affected are a number of women’s names ending in “ah,” where the problem is that they are, for the most part too historic. Too snobbishly faithful to their origins. The terminal H is particularly useless, given that, in English, it could easily be dropped.

Take Deborah, a bee in Hebrew, which to my eye would look better as Debora. Or take now Sara and Sarah, equally popular, though the first is all that’s really required. It derives from the Hebrew “Sarai, meaning quarrelsome, which in time became Sarah, meaning “princess,” influenced no doubt by “Sar,” a prince. Nora, or Norah, is largely from the Irish. Writes Partridge: “earlier Onora, a Hibernicism  for ‘Honora’ or ‘Honoria.’” That final H seems to me the very acme of meddlesomeness, as in Norah O’Donnell, the new anchor for “CBS Evening News. The classic Nora, perhaps under the influence of Ibsen, strikes me as much the finer.” Hannah, according to Partridge is “a doublet of Anne,” whatever that exactly means, and seems to me, who have never encountered it, truly fudging the obvious and quite sufficient Hanna. Ann and Anne seem to me equally unsullied .
 
However,  I rather like Anna, “the original form of Anne,” according to my master Partridge; not because of Tolstoy’s masterpiece, which I shamefully admit to never having read, but because of any personal associations--Nordic, Teutonic or Slavic--that I may have gleaned from readings or acquaintances. Thus the heroine of Lanford Wilson’s play “Burn This” is called Anna. Eugene O’Neill even gives us an Anna Christie.

 As a tennis fan, let me conclude with two instances from the tennis world. Nick Kyrgios, the Australian ace of clearly Greek origin, has himself and the world pronouncing the name as Kyrios, the middle G unsounded. Why? It’s no tongue twister in its written form, so what has that poor G done to be avoided? Perhaps the danger of being an undesired mispronunciation in English as Kyrdgios.

More curious yet is the case of the African American Tiafoe (his parents immigrated from Africa), who calls himself Frances Tiafoe. He has been duly warned that Frances is a woman’s name, but that he had its masculine version, Francis, at his ready disposal. No, he insisted, Frances it must be. This though he doesn’t sport the least feminine trait, looking rather like a very butch male person. Francis, extremelyMy popular among Elizabethans, “derives from Old German, Franco, a free lord.” But isn’t there something a trifle too free about such gender-bending?


Readers, if you can shed light on either of these instances, kindly do so. My own full name John Ivan Simon, had that redundant middle name (Ivan is just another form of John) added by my father to make me sound, in his view, more American, what with the popularity hereabouts of middle names. To me, it seems more Russianizing than Americanizing, and I have been avoiding it whenever possible.