Saturday, April 30, 2011

Broadway Postcard No. 6: War is hell, but 'War Horse' is terrific

A scene from War Horse. (Photo by Paul Kolnik)

By Hap Erstein‭

Avenue Q arrived on Broadway some eight years ago with its snarky,‭ ‬often off-color humor to claim that puppet shows are not necessarily mere kids‭’ ‬stuff.‭ ‬That heretical suggestion has now been confirmed forever by the emotionally charged‭ ‬War Horse,‭ ‬an epic tale of a young man and his trusty steed,‭ ‬set against the horrors of World War I.

A transfer from the National Theatre of Great Britain,‭ ‬it now resides at Lincoln Center’s vast Vivian Beaumont.‭ ‬This used to be considered a highly problematic playing space,‭ ‬but to see how beautifully a huge,‭ ‬yet intimate production like‭ ‬War Horse fits here‭ ‬--‭ ‬or‭ ‬South Pacific or‭ ‬The Coast of Utopia before it‭ ‬--‭ ‬one wonders how there could have ever been naysayers about the physical plant.

Anyway,‭ ‬War Horse is based on a children’s book by Michael Morpurgo about‭ ‬Albert,‭ ‬the son of an alcoholic Devon farmer who falls in love with a chestnut-colored horse named Joey that his father purchases on a jealous whim.‭ ‬When Joey is sold into the‭ ‬cavalry to aid the war effort,‭ ‬Albert runs away from home and enlists‭ ‬in the army in an attempt to reunite with the semi-thoroughbred.

It is not a particularly complex or subtle story and the production is more narrative pageant than play,‭ ‬but the stagecraft of the life-sized puppets and a backdrop of animated hand-drawn projections make this one of the must-sees‭ ‬--‭ ‬you’ve never seen anything like it before‭ ‬--‭ ‬of this Broadway season.‭

The animals were created by the Handspring Puppet Company and they are awe-inspiring.‭ ‬Joey is manipulated by three people,‭ ‬visible at all times,‭ ‬either standing next to the horse or inside him.‭ ‬But the miracle of what Handspring hath wrought is that the humans virtually disappear as Joey comes to life,‭ ‬turning his head with such expression,‭ ‬flicking his tail or slogging through the mud of war-torn France.

And while it seems silly typing these words,‭ ‬another astonishing Handspring creation is an adorable goose puppet on wheels that is the sole comic relief of the‭ ‬2-hour-40-minute production.

Ultimately,‭ ‬War Horse is about the brutality and destruction of war,‭ ‬but if you are willing to stipulate from the start that war is rotten,‭ ‬you can concentrate instead on the alchemy of live theater.‭ ‬And puppetry.

‭ * * *

The only downside of my trip so far‭ ‬--‭ ‬OK,‭ ‬after my horrendous day of flying to get here and after the painfully bad‭ ‬People in the Picture‭ ‬--‭ ‬was a broken interview with Karole Armitage,‭ ‬the choreographer of‭ ‬Hair,‭ ‬who agreed to sit and talk with me about the show coming to the Kravis Center next season.‭ ‬So I schlepped down to the Joyce Theatre on‭ ‬19th Street,‭ ‬where her modern dance company is performing and waited for a half hour for her to show up,‭ ‬before I had to hurry uptown to see‭ ‬War Horse.‭

Karole,‭ ‬where were you‭? ‬Call me.

Friday, April 29, 2011

Weekend arts picks: April 29-May 1

Street Surfer‭ (‬1986‭)‬,‭ ‬by Robert Vickrey.

Art:‭ ‬The technique of egg tempera painting,‭ ‬perhaps most memorably wielded by artists such as Giotto,‭ ‬was eclipsed by oil painting in the‭ ‬15th century.

But egg tempera still draws creators,‭ ‬and the acknowledged modern master of this technique was the American artist Robert Vickrey,‭ ‬whose paintings of nuns,‭ ‬children,‭ ‬and long,‭ ‬dark shadows distinguished him as an artist whose aesthetic was appropriate for a time of societal unease.‭ ‬Vickrey died April‭ ‬17‭ ‬at age‭ ‬84‭ ‬in Naples,‭ ‬only nine days before a retrospective of his work was to open at the Boca Raton Museum of Art.

Robert Vickrey:‭ ‬The Magic of Realism opened Tuesday night,‭ ‬and will run until June‭ ‬19.‭ ‬The exhibit contains about‭ ‬40‭ ‬paintings that show the breadth and innovation of Vickrey’s style,‭ ‬which has something of the stillness of Edward Hopper and Giorgio di Chirico.‭ ‬Hours are‭ ‬10‭ ‬a.m.‭ ‬to‭ ‬5‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Tuesday through Friday,‭ ‬and noon to‭ ‬5‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Saturday and Sunday.‭ ‬It’s open from‭ ‬10‭ ‬a.m.‭ ‬to‭ ‬9‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬on the first Wednesday of each month.‭ ‬Tickets are‭ ‬$8,‭ ‬$6‭ ‬for seniors,‭ ‬and‭ ‬$4‭ ‬for students with valid ID.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬392-2500‭ ‬for more information.

Markus Rygaard and William Jøhnk Nielsen in‭ ‬In A Better World.

Film:‭ ‬This year‭’‬s Oscar winner for best foreign-language film has taken a while to be distributed in the United States,‭ ‬but the wait has been worthwhile.‭ ‬It is‭ ‬In a Better World,‭ ‬directed by Susanne Bier,‭ ‬who made the original Danish version of‭ ‬Brothers‭ ‬and dabbled in the Hollywood pool with‭ ‬Things We Lost in the Fire.‭ ‬Her latest is a meditation on violence in various permutations,‭ ‬but centrally about a young boy who is new to a small Danish town,‭ ‬the misfit who befriends him and the bullies who goad them to exact revenge.‭ ‬Bier knows how to involve an audience and impart a little wisdom,‭ ‬even if it comes wrapped in melodrama.‭ ‬Opening locally today.‭ ‬– H.‭ ‬Erstein

Carolyn Defrin in The Sparrow.‭

‭ ‬The Arsht Center deserves credit for scouting,‭ ‬finding and bringing to South Florida a remarkable piece of stagecraft from The House‭ ‬Theatre of Chicago called‭ ‬The Sparrow.‭ ‬Directed with simplicity and imagination by Nathan Allen,‭ ‬it is a fable about a small town devastated by a tragedy‭ ‬10‭ ‬years earlier when a train crashed into school bus full of kids that mysteriously drove onto the tracks.‭ ‬Now,‭ ‬the one survivor‭ (‬the wondrous Carolyn Defrin‭) ‬returns to town to finish high school and,‭ ‬unfortunately,‭ ‬remind the townsfolk of their loss.‭ ‬The production,‭ ‬part dance piece,‭ ‬part metaphysical science fiction and entirely terrific,‭ ‬has been likened to‭ ‬Carrie‭ ‬crossed with‭ ‬Mean Girls‭ ‬and‭ ‬Wicked.‭ ‬At the Arsht’s Studio Theater through Sunday only.‭ ‬– H.‭ ‬Erstein

Eglise Gutierrez.

Music:‭ ‬The Cuban-born soprano Eglise Gutierrez has been appearing in local opera productions for some time,‭ ‬and memorably so as Lucia in Florida Grand Opera’s production of Lucia di Lammermoor last season.‭

This weekend,‭ ‬she joins the Miami Symphony Orchestra for two concerts with the Master Chorale of South Florida featuring the music of Gabriel Fauré:‭ ‬His immortal Requiem‭ (‬Op.‭ ‬48‭) ‬and the hauntingly beautiful‭ ‬Pavane‭ (‬Op.‭ ‬50‭)‬.‭ ‬Gutierrez will sing a selection of arias for the concert,‭ ‬titled‭ ‬Death and Resurrection by conductor Eduardo Marturet.

The Master Chorale is making its last appearance with director Joshua Habermann,‭ ‬who is leaving to take over the chorus of the Dallas Symphony Orchestra.‭ ‬He’s done strong work with the chorale in his tenure,‭ ‬and this concert will be a good way to say farewell.

The program will be heard twice‭ – ‬at‭ ‬8‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Saturday at the Wertheim Center on the campus of Florida International University,‭ ‬and at‭ ‬8‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Sunday at Gusman Hall on the campus of the University of Miami in Coral Gables.‭ ‬Tickets for the concerts range from‭ ‬$30‭ ‬to‭ ‬$60‭; ‬call‭ ‬305-275-5666‭ ‬for more information.

Tim McGraw.

Tim McGraw has one of the most enviable records of achievement in all of contemporary country music,‭ ‬with no less than‭ ‬32‭ ‬No.‭ ‬1‭ ‬singles in the course of his career.

He’s also branched out into other kinds of stage work,‭ ‬including an appearance this season as the host of‭ ‬Saturday Night Live,‭ ‬and film work in‭ ‬Country Strong‭ (‬with Gwyneth Paltrow‭) ‬and‭ ‬The Blind Side.‭ ‬But his music remains central,‭ ‬and this weekend,‭ ‬he and his Dancehall Doctors will be appearing with Luke Bryan and The Band Perry on McGraw’s‭ ‬Emotional Traffic tour.

Tickets for the‭ ‬7‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬show at the Cruzan Amphitheatre range from‭ ‬$25-$85,‭ ‬and are available through LiveNation or Ticketmaster.

Jeff Beck.

SunFest continues its remarkable lineup of performers this weekend with appearances tonight from Gregg Allman,‭ ‬from Toad the Wet Sprocket and Ziggy Marley on Saturday night,‭ ‬plus guitar legend Jeff Beck on Sunday night.

There are many other fine performers during the three remaining days of West Palm Beach’s biggest yearly blowout,‭ ‬and music fans who want to take in all of it will find themselves able to hear acts on the progressive scene,‭ ‬such as Circa Survive‭ (‬5:30‭ ‬tonight‭)‬,‭ ‬MGMT‭ (‬9:30‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Saturday‭) ‬and Sick Puppies‭ (‬3‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Sunday‭)‬,‭ ‬and long-established bands such as Styx‭ (‬9‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Saturday‭) ‬and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band‭ (‬2:15‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Sunday‭)‬.

Passes for SunFest range from‭ ‬$34-$66‭; ‬hours for the festival on Flagler Drive from Banyan Boulevard to Lakeview Drive run from‭ ‬5‭ ‬to‭ ‬11‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬today,‭ ‬noon to‭ ‬11‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Saturday and noon to‭ ‬9‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Sunday.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬800-786-3378‭ ‬or visit‭ ‬

Broadway Postcard No. 5: 'Mormon' is best musical of the season

Andrew Randells and Josh Gad encounter a Ugandan,‭
‬in The Book of Mormon.

By Hap Erstein

Trey Parker and Matt Stone have been freaking out television’s Standards and Practices folks‭ (‬a/k/a censors‭) ‬for almost‭ ‬15‭ ‬years with their purposely profane animated series‭ ‬South Park,‭ ‬so it should come as no surprise that their first Broadway musical,‭ ‬The Book of Mormon,‭ ‬will never get any awards for good taste.‭

They should,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬clear off their mantelpieces for the imminent arrival of multiple Tony Awards for this runaway hit musical,‭ ‬by all accounts the season’s best.

It is the tale of a couple of squeaky-clean,‭ ‬though enormously misguided Mormon missionaries who head off to Uganda to spread the word of Joseph Smith to the perfectly content natives.‭ ‬It shows not only Parker and Stone’s well-established talent for irreverence,‭ ‬but a firm awareness of the tenets of musical theater and a working knowledge of its history.‭

For when,‭ ‬late in the second act,‭ ‬the carefully but erroneously taught Ugandans enact their version of the genesis of Mormonism,‭ ‬Parker and Stone are savvy enough to relate it in a tongue-in-cheek send up of the Little House of Uncle Thomas sequence from‭ ‬The King and I.

Joining the South Park guys to write the score and script is Robert Lopez‭ (‬Avenue Q‭)‬,‭ ‬and the songs have a similar infectious sweetness,‭ ‬with plenty of that show’s shock punch line language.‭ (‬CBS,‭ ‬which is already wondering how to identify the play‭ ‬The Motherf‭**‬ker with the Hat on the Tony Awards,‭ ‬will also have to be resourceful to find a musical number from‭ ‬The Book of Mormon that can be aired intact.‭)

The main thing is that Broadway has a big fat hit in‭ ‬Mormon,‭ ‬one that is likely to attract a new young audience to the theater,‭ ‬which is great.‭ ‬And even though the religion is certainly the target of lots of ridicule,‭ ‬do not be surprised if this show attracts new disciples to it.

‭ * * *

During the day,‭ ‬I pursued a feature story on casting directors,‭ ‬specifically the New York-based casting pros who have South Florida theater clients,‭ ‬talking about how they aid in matching theaters and performers long distance.‭ ‬I had lunch at the Edison Hotel Café‭ (‬a/k/a The Polish Tea Room‭) ‬with Janet Foster,‭ ‬who casts shows for Palm Beach Dramaworks.‭ ‬Then I headed downtown to the Pearl Studios,‭ ‬where I met and interviewed Bob Cline,‭ ‬whose clients include the Maltz Jupiter Theatre.‭ ‬It’s turned into a good story.

Then,‭ ‬before dinner with Bill Hirschman of the‭ ‬South Florida Theater Review,‭ ‬my former on-air partner on the Internet TV show‭ ‬Aisle Say,‭ ‬I high-tailed it to Bloomingdale’s to buy a guilt gift for my wife,‭ ‬who stayed home in Florida while I got to play this week in New York.‭

Thursday, April 28, 2011

The View From Home 24: New releases on DVD

By John Thomason

Heartless‭ (‬IFC‭)
Release date:‭ ‬April‭ ‬12
Standard list price:‭ ‬$17.99

A visionary director whose visions are all too infrequent,‭ ‬Britian’s Philip Ridley has made just three films in‭ ‬21‭ ‬years,‭ ‬making Robert Bresson look like a workaholic.‭ ‬His audience is tiny and seems unlikely to grow:‭ ‬His outstanding debut,‭ ‬The Reflecting Skin,‭ ‬has never been released on DVD in the United States,‭ ‬and his sophomore effort,‭ ‬The Passion of Darkly Noon,‭ ‬is long out-of-print.

Ridley’s third and latest picture,‭ ‬Heartless,‭ ‬may revive nominal interest in the director’s scant resume,‭ ‬if only because it has the advantage of being available.‭ ‬Unlike his previous forays into humanity’s dark chasms,‭ ‬this gonzo horror comedy resides in a clearly identifiable genre hybrid that has,‭ ‬for years,‭ ‬been growing in popularity.‭ ‬But a Ridley film wouldn’t be a Ridley film if it was accessible to a mainstream audience‭; ‬simultaneously loud and quiet,‭ ‬blunt and subtle,‭ ‬art-house and grind-house,‭ ‬gruesome and sentimental,‭ ‬Heartless exists within these dichotomies,‭ ‬ping-ponging between tones and textures with the abandon of a director who doesn’t care if the midnight-movie masses like,‭ ‬or even get,‭ ‬his psychotic ramblings.

Like Ridley’s other films,‭ ‬Heartless is a pre-apocalyptic thriller depicting a world crumbling at the seams,‭ ‬physically and morally.‭ ‬Photographer Jamie‭ (‬Jim Sturgess‭)‬,‭ ‬forever tainted by a large red birthmark over his left eye and part of his body,‭ ‬prowls the decrepit streets of East London for material.‭ ‬It’s the kind of place that would makes the Fleet Street of‭ ‬Sweeney Todd look like a stroll down Sesame Street.‭ ‬Sharp-toothed demons and rival gangs patrol the metropolis,‭ ‬graffiti plasters every public space and Molotov cocktails erupt on a daily basis.‭ ‬The world is going to Hell,‭ ‬literally it seems:‭ ‬A paranoid,‭ ‬gun-toting shopkeeper rails against society’s descent into Hades,‭ ‬and Ridley similarly alludes to the Devil by having Jamie read Dante’s‭ ‬Inferno and order a drink called the Faust at a nightclub.

When most everyone close to Jamie begins to systematically die,‭ ‬he confronts the source of the terror:‭ ‬A gaunt,‭ ‬scarred Mephistopheles by the name of Papa B‭ (‬Joseph Mawle‭)‬,‭ ‬the self-proclaimed‭ “‬patron saint of random violence.‭” ‬He agrees to remove Jamie’s debilitating birthmark in return for Jamie’s spray-painting of blasphemous messages on the street‭ – ‬or so he thinks.‭ ‬Devils,‭ ‬obviously,‭ ‬cannot be trusted‭; ‬the bargain actually forces Jamie to murder someone in cold blood,‭ ‬remove his heart and feed it to Papa B.

Within this grisly,‭ ‬B-movie scenario is the kind of scabrous humor,‭ ‬artistic expressionism and thematic density of a more serious-minded picture.‭ ‬Ridley controls the film’s color palette with painterly exactitude,‭ ‬bathing one scene in darkroom reds,‭ ‬the next in spiritual yellows,‭ ‬the next in placid greens.‭ ‬Everything is propped and set-designed in service to Ridley’s atmospheric rigor,‭ ‬where everyone’s tattoos and birthmarks suggest the branding of otherworldly beasts,‭ ‬and where Christian iconography battles spatially with Satanic forces.

For the comedy,‭ ‬the scenes between Jamie and Papa B are a dry-witted interlude to the best scene in the film:‭ ‬a cameo by Eddie Marsan‭ – ‬the driving instructor from Mike Leigh’s‭ ‬Happy-Go-Lucky‭ – ‬as the devil’s on-site‭ “‬weapons man,‭” ‬impatiently issuing mission directives to the flustered Jamie.

Arguably,‭ ‬Heartless falls apart at the end,‭ ‬plunging too deeply into the dubious waters of flashback-induced sentimentalism.‭ ‬But it doesn’t negate the powerhouse of uninhibited emotion that preceded it.‭ ‬The film’s thematic cauldron examines religion,‭ ‬man’s free will,‭ ‬schizophrenia,‭ ‬youth violence and the perennial anxiety over inner vs.‭ ‬outer beauty.‭ ‬The film’s minions of trench-coated,‭ ‬leathery lizards are just the means Ridley is using to touch on life’s most monumental,‭ ‬and unanswerable,‭ ‬questions.

Rabbit Hole‭ (‬Lionsgate‭)
Release date:‭ ‬April‭ ‬19
SLP:‭ ‬$15.49

Hedwig and the Angry Inch director John Cameron Mitchell might seem an unusual choice to helm a film adaptation of David Lindsay-Abaire’s terrific play‭ ‬Rabbit Hole.‭ ‬But the camp-master handles the material‭ – ‬a survey of the emotional wreckage left on a middle-aged couple after their young son is killed in a traffic accident‭ – ‬better than you might expect,‭ ‬directing this chamber piece with appropriate sensitivity and realism.‭ ‬Better yet,‭ ‬screenwriter Lindsay-Abaire clearly recognizes the difference between film and theater,‭ ‬expanding his spartan story with added characters,‭ ‬locations and storylines.‭ ‬The movie isn’t perfect:‭ ‬The Oscar-nominated Nicole Kidman was justly praised as the grieving mother,‭ ‬but costar Aaron Eckhart shoots over the top in the film’s most dramatic scenes,‭ ‬hoping in vain that sheer volume will convey everything.‭ ‬But the only major flaw here is the image itself.‭ ‬Mitchell shot the film on the dreaded but ever-popular Red One digital camera,‭ ‬giving the movie a distractingly ruddy complexion.‭ ‬Judging it purely on its visual aesthetic,‭ ‬Rabbit Hole is one of the great casualties of the digital conversion.

Ingrid Bergman in Sweden‭ (‬Kino‭)
Release date:‭ ‬April‭ ‬19
SLP:‭ ‬$27.49

Though she starred in an impressive canon of Hollywood movies,‭ ‬Ingrid Bergman was always an actress of the world,‭ ‬working for everyone from Hitchcock to Rossellini to Renoir.‭ ‬No nationality escaped her.‭ ‬But before her late‭ ‘‬30s discovery by David O.‭ ‬Selznick that started her A-list ascent,‭ ‬she was a humble actress in Sweden,‭ ‬making some‭ ‬11‭ ‬movies in her native tongue that,‭ ‬today,‭ ‬are barely remembered.‭ ‬Kino’s three-disc box set hopes to change that,‭ ‬bringing two of those films back in print and another to DVD for the first time.‭ ‬The collection includes the original,‭ ‬1936‭ ‬version of the romance‭ ‬Intermezzo‭ – ‬whose Hollywood remake a few years later introduced Bergman to American audiences‭ – ‬as well as the facial-disfigurement drama‭ ‬A Woman’s Face and Per Lindberg’s crime thriller‭ ‬June Night.

A Summer in Genoa‭ (‬Entertainment One‭)
Release date:‭ ‬April‭ ‬12
SLP:‭ ‬$11.99

Five months after the fatal car crash of his wife,‭ ‬a college professor‭ (‬Colin Firth‭) ‬and his two daughters‭ (‬Willa Holland and Perla Haney-Jardine‭) ‬spend the titular summer in Italy to assuage their still-palpable grief.‭ ‬Not much happens until Mary,‭ ‬the youngest daughter,‭ ‬begins to see visions of her dead mother‭ (‬Hope Davis‭)‬,‭ ‬whose appearances put Mary in danger.‭ ‬Despite its A-list cast‭ – ‬including Catherine Keener as Firth’s ex-flame,‭ ‬who accompanies him on the excursion‭ – ‬and top director‭ (‬Michael Winterbottom has helmed‭ ‬A Mighty Heart‭ ‬and‭ ‬24‭ ‬Hour Party People,‭ ‬among several masterpieces‭)‬,‭ ‬A Summer in Genoa petered into obscurity after a dismal festival run,‭ ‬and it never picked up theatrical distribution in the United States.‭ ‬From a commercial standpoint,‭ ‬it’s easy to see why‭ – ‬there’s nothing gangbusters about it,‭ ‬and Winterbottom’s meandering,‭ ‬restless camera never gains anything resembling a narrative thrust.‭ ‬But perhaps that’s the point:‭ ‬He wants us,‭ ‬like the characters,‭ ‬to gradually unravel as we lose ourselves in a foreign land.‭ ‬A good effort from a great filmmaker.

Broadway Postcard No. 4: Astonishing Rylance, lame 'Picture'

Mark Rylance in Jerusalem.‭
(‬Photo by Simon Annand‭)

By Hap Erstein

Mark Rylance may just be the best actor working in the theater today.‭

You might agree if you saw Jez Butterworth’s‭ ‬Jerusalem,‭ ‬a powerful,‭ ‬but somewhat overwritten three-hour marathon drama about an iconoclastic former daredevil stunt rider and occasional drug dealer who rails against the world.‭

Rylance originated the role of Johnny‭ “‬Rooster‭” ‬Byron at the Royal Court Theatre in London,‭ ‬where he won every award in sight for his performance and there is reason to think he will do the same over here.

He,‭ ‬of course,‭ ‬won a Tony Award already a few years ago for elevating the farce‭ ‬Boeing-Boeing‭ ‬--‭ ‬no small feat‭ ‬--‭ ‬and again sent critics to their thesauruses earlier this season to find ways to praise his supporting work in the modern verse satire,‭ ‬La Bete.‭

I did not see either of those productions,‭ ‬but I first encountered Rylance about eight years ago playing the role of Viola in Shakespeare’s‭ ‬Twelfth Night at the Globe Theatre in London,‭ ‬where he served as artistic director for‭ ‬10‭ ‬years from‭ ‬1996‭ ‬to‭ ‬2006.‭ ‬The production was cast as The Bard would have‭ ‬--‭ ‬all roles played by men‭ ‬--‭ ‬and Rylance’s performance as the young shipwrecked heroine had not an ounce of camp or irony,‭ ‬but was virtually‭ ‬kabuki in its feminine delicacy and authenticity.

Which is to say it had absolutely nothing in common with his‭ “‬Rooster‭” ‬Byron.‭ ‬The two roles are simply the most astonishing display of performance versatility I have ever seen.‭ ‬If there is time this week,‭ ‬I’m going to try to see his‭ ‬Boeing-Boeing performance at the Lincoln Center Library’s performing arts video collection and am determined to see whatever he does onstage in the future.

‭ * * *

Alexander Gemignani,‭ ‬Chip Zien,‭ ‬Donna Murphy,
‭ ‬Joyce Van Patten and Lewis J.‭ ‬Stadlen in The People in the Picture.‭
(‬Photo by Joan Marcus‭)

Stars can often elevate the material they are in,‭ ‬but even the terrific Donna Murphy can do little to help the new musical,‭ ‬The People in the Picture,‭ ‬a mawkish little show that so wants to leave us in puddles of tears,‭ ‬but never bothers to earn the emotional responses it seeks.‭

I saw the show Wednesday afternoon at one of its final previews,‭ ‬where there were certainly some audience sniffles evoked,‭ ‬but not from yours truly,‭ ‬and I am an easy crier.

Murphy plays a Jewish stage actress in Warsaw,‭ ‬Poland,‭ ‬just before and during World War II,‭ ‬and then as a grandmother in the United States,‭ ‬where she is frail and starting to drift into dementia.‭ ‬Of course,‭ ‬with the switch of a wig and a change of posture and dialect,‭ ‬she keeps bouncing back and forth in time.

The problem is the show wants to be about Holocaust remembrance,‭ ‬Jewish identity and survival instinct,‭ ‬but it conveys those complex subjects with button-pushing shorthand that grates.‭ ‬Nor does it help that the lyrics‭ (‬and book‭) ‬by Iris Rainer Dart‭ (‬who wrote the novel‭ ‬Beaches‭) ‬are painfully predictable when they are not merely clunky.

Murphy acquits herself well enough,‭ ‬but other talented performers like Chip Zien,‭ ‬Lewis J.‭ ‬Stadlen and Joyce Van Patten are distressingly underutilized.‭ ‬When‭ ‬The People in the Picture opens‭ ‬this evening,‭ ‬it will be the official last show of the season,‭ ‬an unfortunate end to a year with numerous high points.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Broadway Postcard No. 3: Three Boca producers, and struggling with Stoppard

Tom Riley and Bel Powley in Arcadia.‭
(‬Photo by Carol Rosegg‭)

By Hap Erstein

Tuesday was an even better weather day in New York,‭ ‬with the temperature climbing into the‭ ‬80s,‭ ‬and locals shedding their clothes like it was the second coming of summer.‭

My dance card was busy with interviews and,‭ ‬in the evening,‭ ‬a much-anticipated viewing of Tom Stoppard’s‭ ‬Arcadia.
But first,‭ ‬always in search of a Florida angle on the Broadway season,‭ ‬I met and spoke with three former Boca Raton residents‭ ‬--‭ ‬Philip Morgaman‭ (‬27‭ ‬years old‭)‬,‭ ‬Frankie J.‭ ‬Grande‭ (‬28‭) ‬and Brian Kapetanis‭ (‬28‭) ‬--‭ ‬high school pals who are the lead producers on the acclaimed new revival of‭ ‬Born Yesterday.‭

How they wore down playwright Garson Kanin’s estate to get the performance rights to the play when others had previously been turned down,‭ ‬how they raised the‭ ‬$3‭ ‬million budget and shepherded it from pre-production to rehearsals to a star-studded opening night‭ (‬yes,‭ ‬even Liza Minnelli attended and endorsed the show‭) ‬is a great,‭ ‬upbeat story.‭ ‬Stay tuned.

I also stopped by the new‭ ‬42nd Street Studios to talk with Diane Paulus,‭ ‬director of the Tony-winning revival of‭ ‬Hair,‭ ‬currently on tour,‭ ‬headed back to Broadway this summer and on to the Kravis Center next season.‭ ‬Over her lunch half-hour,‭ ‬she talked about mounting the show,‭ ‬a passion project‭ ‬that has turned into a cash cow.

Somewhere around‭ ‬1‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬I noticed that my cellphone had lapsed into a coma,‭ ‬refused to make or receive calls.‭ ‬But this is New York,‭ ‬so I popped into one of the many AT&T stores,‭ ‬where a friendly,‭ ‬efficient sales/technician staffer performed emergency surgery on the phone and send me on my way with it in working condition in a matter of minutes.

If I could have used it inside the Barrymore Theatre,‭ ‬I could have called for assistance trying to understand‭ ‬Arcadia.‭ ‬Stoppard is my single favorite playwright,‭ ‬but sometimes he packs his scripts so densely with ideas that you feel your head will explode trying to take in all the information and processing it.‭ ‬I’m afraid that is the way I felt about‭ ‬Arcadia,‭ ‬and I had already seen the play,‭ ‬back in‭ ‬1985‭ ‬when it had its American premiere at Lincoln Center.

Operating on parallel tracks with characters existing in‭ ‬1809‭ ‬England and today,‭ ‬dealing with the laws of thermodynamics and British landscape gardening techniques,‭ ‬there is plenty of Stoppardian wordplay along the way,‭ ‬but also a lot of cerebral thought that eluded me.‭ ‬Worse,‭ ‬I had always heard that the original London production had been an overwhelming emotional experience,‭ ‬but I found both American versions to be dry-eyed head trips.

There was some nice work from the cast‭ ‬--‭ ‬notably Tom Riley,‭ ‬Lia Willams and Miami’s Raul Esparza‭ ‬--‭ ‬but I’m still waiting for a truly satisfying production of what many call Stoppard’s masterwork.‭

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Music review: Pianist Weisman brings meaty program to Piano Lovers series

Assaff Weisman.

By Greg Stepanich

Assaff Weisman leads a busy life as a pianist,‭ ‬teacher‭ ‬at the Juilliard School,‭ ‬and chief of an international‭ ‬chamber ensemble whose debut disc arrives later this year.

To put it another way,‭ ‬he‭’‬s a thorough,‭ ‬expert musician,‭ ‬the kind on‭ ‬whom the classical world depends to keep the art form relevant and fresh for audiences and students.‭ ‬What remains for him is to carve out a truly distinctive style at the keyboard,‭ ‬and there were hints of what that could be at his recital Friday night in Boca Raton.

Appearing before a rather large house at the Steinway Gallery,‭ ‬Weisman presented music by Haydn,‭ ‬Liszt,‭ ‬Brahms and Debussy‭ ‬in a wide-ranging,‭ ‬demanding program that showcased the pianist‭’‬s command of different styles‭ ‬and his impressive technique,‭ ‬his sensitivity to dynamics and his interest in challenging repertoire.

The late Haydn sonata‭ (‬No.‭ ‬49‭ ‬in E-flat,‭ ‬Hob.‭ ‬XVI:‭ ‬49‭) ‬that opened the concert was notable for its clarity and evenness,‭ ‬being smooth and polished from the first to the last.‭ ‬It could have used some more personality‭; ‬the first movement‭ (‬whose opening five-note riff needs to be absolutely precise,‭ ‬though it wasn‭’‬t here‭) ‬needed a stronger,‭ ‬Beethovenian sense of forward motion,‭ ‬which perhaps could have been achieved in part with a little more drama,‭ ‬more lift on those Fifth Symphony-style precursor motifs‭ ‬in the middle,‭ ‬and wider dynamic contrast throughout.

Similarly,‭ ‬the second movement,‭ ‬lovely as Weisman‭’‬s tone production was,‭ ‬would have benefited with starker colors,‭ ‬especially in the B-flat minor triplet section and the transition section after it.‭ ‬The melodic fragments in the left hand of the triplet section,‭ ‬for instance,‭ ‬needed to strike a slightly longer pose,‭ ‬and each of the variations of the opening material might have come across with more shape had there been the tiniest of pauses before them.

Weisman played the last movement,‭ ‬marked as a minuet,‭ ‬with a leisurely tempo and much the same steady approach as the first two.‭ ‬And while it was quite attractive,‭ ‬more contrast,‭ ‬again,‭ ‬would have been welcome,‭ ‬perhaps with dynamic breadth on those cadential triplets,‭ ‬which would have reminded listeners why generations have cherished the musical wit of Papa Haydn.

The Debussy‭ ‬Estampes that followed the Haydn offered a good deal of well-applied color,‭ ‬particularly in‭ ‬Pagodes,‭ ‬the first‭ ‬of the three pieces in the set.‭ ‬Most notable was the hushed quality of much of Weisman‭’‬s performance,‭ ‬which created a compelling atmosphere of lush,‭ ‬perfumed stasis.

A bit too much of this mood carried over into‭ ‬La soirée dans Grenade,‭ ‬which sounded somewhat sluggish and much in need of some snap,‭ ‬especially in the habanera pulse that undergirds the‭ ‬piece,‭ ‬though technically speaking it was well-handled.‭ ‬The closing‭ ‬Jardins sous la pluie‭ ‬opened with a good,‭ ‬crisp tempo and ended with a powerful sense of steadily building exultation‭; ‬although this music is more akin to Debussy‭’‬s‭ ‬Pour le Piano than some of the later Preludes,‭ ‬a more evanescent approach to its initial pages would have given it greater contrast with the other pieces and a more striking profile.

Liszt‭’‬s three‭ ‬Petrarch Sonnets opened the second half,‭ ‬which played to Weisman‭’‬s strengths as a provider of long,‭ ‬legato lines and singing tone.‭ ‬This was particularly true in the outer sonnets,‭ ‬Nos.‭ ‬47‭ ‬and‭ ‬123,‭ ‬which were beautifully tender and serene,‭ ‬and in which Weisman was able,‭ ‬in No.‭ ‬47,‭ ‬to provide a very attractive,‭ ‬glassy hush for the high-register accompaniment figures in the right hand.

The Sonnet No.‭ ‬104,‭ ‬though,‭ ‬is equal parts fire and introspection,‭ ‬and‭ ‬in the bravura section in the middle Weisman sounded somewhat labored,‭ ‬and without enough lightness of touch to make a good contrast between the display of the middle section and the inwardness that opens and closes the piece.

For his final selection,‭ ‬Weisman chose the‭ ‬Handel Variations of Brahms‭ (‬Op.‭ ‬24‭)‬,‭ ‬a fine,‭ ‬underappreciated piece in Brahms‭’‬ most exuberant early manner,‭ ‬thick figurations and all.‭ ‬Weisman did an admirable job of pacing this work so that it built gradually and inexorably to the final fugue.

This pianist‭’‬s feeling for cleanness of texture stood him in good stead in the opening theme‭ (‬from‭ ‬the Harpsichord Suite No.‭ ‬1‭ ‬of Handel‭) ‬and the first variation,‭ ‬the chattering march music of the seventh and eighth variations,‭ ‬and the‭ ‬siciliano‭ ‬of the‭ ‬19th,‭ ‬which he played with a charming,‭ ‬engaging lilt.

The more lyrical variations‭ ‬– Nos.‭ ‬5,‭ ‬11‭ ‬and‭ ‬12‭ ‬– also came off quite well,‭ ‬as did the repeated appoggiaturas of the‭ ‬21st.‭ ‬In addition,‭ ‬Weisman raised serious energy in the more tumultuous variations,‭ ‬such as No.‭ ‬14,‭ ‬and especially No.‭ ‬24,‭ ‬which was among the most exciting playing of the evening.

Weisman played the closing fugue quite well,‭ ‬with a big,‭ ‬powerful ending that had the audience‭’‬s full attention.‭ ‬Still,‭ ‬varied as the fugue is,‭ ‬it still remains resolutely in the home key of B-flat,‭ ‬and this reading of the final section could have used some more shade and dramatic dynamic contrast.‭ ‬There has to be a sense of being taken into new territory,‭ ‬and this performance was just a touch too homebound.

For an encore,‭ ‬Weisman played the Impromptu in E-flat,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬24,‭ ‬No.‭ ‬3,‭ ‬by the forgotten Russian pianist and composer Sergei Bortkiewicz‭ (‬1877-1952‭)‬.‭ ‬This is a big,‭ ‬Rachmaninovian utterance‭ (‬it‭’‬s subtitled‭ ‬Eros‭)‬,‭ ‬full of expansive gestures and a breathless theme that drops by half-steps,‭ ‬though without the melodic distinction of Rachmaninov or Scriabin.

Weisman played it with power and sweep,‭ ‬if a bit too deliberately,‭ ‬and the audience‭ ‬responded warmly.‭

Assaff Weisman is a fine musician,‭ ‬an accomplished‭ ‬pianist who can play his instrument with persuasive skill and command.‭ ‬It seems to me that the next step for him is to add more color and shade,‭ ‬and a greater sense of mystery and drama,‭ ‬to his playing in order to fully realize his considerable talent and‭ ‬break new artistic ground.

The next event in the Piano Lovers series is set for Saturday,‭ ‬May‭ ‬14.‭ ‬Serbian-born pianist Misha Dacic will play an all-Liszt program in honor of the composer‭’‬s‭ ‬200th birthday.‭ ‬Tickets for the‭ ‬7‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬recital are‭ ‬$20‭ ‬in advance,‭ ‬and‭ ‬$25‭ ‬at the door.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬929-6633‭ ‬for more information.

Broadway Postcard No. 2: Timely reminders of the AIDS epidemic

Larry Kramer and Joe Mantello.

By Hap Erstein

The sun came out Monday in New York,‭ ‬a lovely, crisp,‭ ‬cool day,‭ ‬but I spent most of it inside,‭ ‬thinking about AIDS.

I spent the evening at one of the final previews of the revival of Larry Kramer’s impassioned,‭ ‬angry,‭ ‬autobiographical‭ ‬The Normal Heart,‭ ‬written in‭ ‬1985,‭ ‬when the syndrome was a death sentence.‭ ‬Little factual was known about its cause or containment,‭ ‬let alone a cure,‭ ‬and Kramer was founding a politically charged service organization called Gay Men’s Health Crisis,‭ ‬for which the playwright-to-be was its motivator and hot-headed own worst enemy.

All of this is recounted in‭ ‬The Normal Heart,‭ ‬and seeing it today is like going back in a time capsule to a very dark time in recent history,‭ ‬but a trip worth taking.‭ ‬People of all stripes continue to contract AIDS,‭ ‬yet the earlier urgency and concern about the epidemic has waned.

It is not a very well-written play,‭ ‬but a powerful production.‭ ‬Characters speechify to us instead of talking to each other,‭ ‬but there is no denying the force of these rants,‭ ‬particularly as performed by Joe Mantello‭ (‬as the Kramer character‭)‬,‭ ‬his‭ ‬New York Times Styles reporter lover‭ (‬John Benjamin Hickey‭) ‬and‭ ‬Pushing Daisies‭’ ‬Lee Pace as the organization’s spineless president.‭

It is the sort of work one hopes finds an audience,‭ ‬but suspect it will be an uphill battle,‭ ‬given Broadway ticket prices and the public’s penchant for burrowing its head in the sand.

In any event,‭ ‬it was a rather celebrity-studded audience Monday evening with Joan Rivers,‭ ‬Bob Balaban,‭ ‬Christine Baranski and co-director Joel Grey‭ (‬on his night off from‭ ‬Anything Goes‭) ‬in attendance.‭ ‬And standing on the sidewalk after the play was a frail,‭ ‬old man quietly passing out printed letters adding a few bitter facts about AIDS to the evening.‭

It was Kramer,‭ ‬now‭ ‬75,‭ ‬still angry,‭ ‬still trying to get the world to pay attention.

‭ * * *

Anger is,‭ ‬of course,‭ ‬a perfectly appropriate response to AIDS,‭ ‬but for‭ ‬25‭ ‬years,‭ ‬the support group Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS has been raising money for the AIDS-related social service work of the Actors Fund.‭ ‬And the culmination of the group’s spring fund drive for a quarter century has been the Easter Bonnet Competition,‭ ‬a group congratulation by the theater community for its efforts in the form of a snarky,‭ ‬often emotional entertainment.

I have fortunately been in New York at the right time to catch this show for several years now,‭ ‬and it is often a high point of the week.‭ ‬No,‭ ‬it will never win Tony Awards since it only runs for two days,‭ ‬but an impressive amount of energy and creativity goes into the production.

Basically,‭ ‬cast members of current shows write,‭ ‬stage and perform skits and musical numbers,‭ ‬often making fun of their own shows or other shows,‭ ‬and the digs can be comically scathing.‭ ‬Leading targets this year included the hibernating,‭ ‬on-hiatus‭ ‬Spiderman‭ (‬predicted to be the only show to ever win Best Musical and Best Revival in the same season‭)‬,‭ ‬Kathleen Turner’s fast-shuttered play‭ ‬High‭ (‬make up your own punch line‭) ‬and the moribund,‭ ‬much-touted flop from last fall,‭ ‬Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown.

A sprightly opening number kidding the chipper characters of TV’s‭ ‬Glee was directed and choreographed by Shea Sullivan‭ (‬who devised the knockout dances for the Maltz Jupiter Theatre’s recent‭ ‬Crazy for You‭)‬,‭ ‬a rising talent.

I certainly got misty-eyed over a tribute to the late Doris Eaton Travis,‭ ‬the‭ ‬106-year-old former Ziegfeld Follies girl who had appeared‭ ‬--‭ ‬and often tap-danced‭ ‬--‭ ‬at the Easter Bonnet for the past‭ ‬12‭ ‬years and died two weeks after last year’s event.‭ ‬And a retrospective of bonnets past by the cast of‭ ‬La Cage aux Folles was worth a throat-lump,‭ ‬as was Kerry Butler’s rendition of the event’s traditional finale,‭ ‬David Friedman’s‭ ‬Help Is on the Way.

In the‭ ‬25‭ ‬years of the Easter Bonnet Competition,‭ ‬Broadway Cares has raised over‭ ‬$40‭ ‬million. ‭ ‬Quite incredible.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Broadway Postcard No. 1: Scratch the dim sum brunch

By Hap Erstein

Whatever you’re doing today,‭ ‬you’re having a better day than I am,‭ ‬I assure you.

Today was my travel day,‭ ‬heading to New York for my annual end-of-season Broadway show trip.‭ ‬For the past month,‭ ‬I have been combing through the listings,‭ ‬strategizing,‭ ‬negotiating with press agents,‭ ‬planning eight days of theatergoing.‭ ‬And because I was starting with a Sunday matinee‭ (‬Sister Act‭)‬,‭ ‬I booked a‭ ‬6:30‭ ‬a.m.‭ ‬flight out of West Palm Beach.‭

All I had to do was arrive,‭ ‬bleary-eyed,‭ ‬in time for the flight.‭ ‬What could go wrong‭?

I got there in plenty of time,‭ ‬boarding was orderly and efficient,‭ ‬but soon the pilot came on the PA system reporting that there was faulty,‭ ‬inadequate water pressure to the lavatories.‭ ‬There were New Yorkers on the flight,‭ ‬however,‭ ‬so you could hear mutters that we would all cross our legs and defer our bathroom needs until after we landed,‭ ‬but that apparently cuts no ice with the FAA.

So mechanics were called,‭ ‬or rather the one mechanic on duty,‭ ‬because this is Easter Sunday.‭ ‬And anyway,‭ ‬the one mechanic was busy working on an American Airlines snafu.‭ ‬By the time he got around to us,‭ ‬an hour had passed,‭ ‬so the pilot had us all deplane to‭ “‬stretch our legs.‭” ‬Not a good sign.‭ ‬Whatever happened to Delta being ready when you are‭?

So much for my planned jaunt to Chinatown for dim sum brunch.‭ ‬But if the plane took off in the next hour or so,‭ ‬I would easily make the matinee,‭ ‬not to mention the‭ ‬6:30‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬official opening of‭ ‬Born Yesterday,‭ ‬the revival with Jim Belushi.

And we waited,‭ ‬and we waited,‭ ‬or at least I did while other passengers started bolting,‭ ‬making reservations on alternative flights.‭ ‬Maybe they’ve flown on Easter before and know how scarce other seats can be.‭ ‬By the time I bailed out,‭ ‬all I could get that would get me to New York this day was‭ ‬--‭ ‬I’m not making this up‭ ‬--‭ ‬a‭ ‬4:30‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬flight from West Palm to Atlanta,‭ ‬followed by one from Atlanta to‭ ‬Detroit‭ ‬--‭ ‬then Detroit to La Guardia,‭ ‬landing at‭ ‬11:59‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Oy.

Mind you,‭ ‬none of these flights have happened yet.‭ ‬I’m just supposed to be delighted that I got the rebound reservations.

So scratch‭ ‬Sister Act and‭ ‬Born Yesterday.‭ ‬Still to come‭ ‬--‭ ‬if I make it to Manhattan‭ ‬--‭ ‬is the Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS Easter Bonnet Competition,‭ ‬The Normal Heart,‭ ‬Arcadia,‭ ‬The People in the Picture,‭ ‬Jerusalem,‭ ‬The Book of Mormon,‭ ‬War Horse and‭ ‬Catch Me if You Can.‭

I’ll be blogging about these shows and whatever else I encounter in New York during the week,‭ ‬plus more complete reviews when I return home.

All I can say is,‭ ‬after this morning,‭ ‬things have to be looking up.‭ ‬Don’t they‭?

Saturday, April 23, 2011

Theater review: 'Carnage' shows parents behaving badly, but still getting laughs

Nick Santa Maria,‭ ‬Kim Ostrenko,‭
‬Kim Cozort and Michael Serratore in God of Carnage.

By Hap Erstein

Like her earlier Tony Award-winning comedy‭ ‬Art,‭ ‬playwright Yasmina Reza again explores adults behaving childishly in‭ ‬God of Carnage,‭ ‬which took Broadway by storm in‭ ‬2009‭ ‬and looks likely to meet a similarly appreciative audience at Boca Raton’s Caldwell Theatre.‭ ‬After all,‭ ‬there is a universal joy in watching others try to maintain civility and failing miserably.

As with her earlier trio of pals whose friendship dissolves before our eyes over an expensive,‭ ‬yet minimalist painting,‭ ‬the French-born Iranian writer again mines a situation that we can simultaneously identify with and feel superior to.‭

Two married couples,‭ ‬upscale residents of Brooklyn’s gentrified Cobble Hill neighborhood,‭ ‬meet for coffee and a precious pastry known as clafoutis to discuss‭ ‬--‭ ‬calmly and rationally‭ ‬--‭ ‬a playground scuffle between their‭ ‬11-year-old sons,‭ ‬in order to reach an appropriate punishment and perhaps to gain an apology.‭ ‬Fat chance.

The veneer of civility is only fleeting,‭ ‬giving way to a profane,‭ ‬high-energy,‭ ‬physical comedy production choreographed as much as it is directed by Kenneth Kay.‭

Over the course of‭ ‬85‭ ‬intermission-less minutes,‭ ‬scenic designer Tim Bennett’s well-appointed living room space‭ ‬--‭ ‬which resembles an adult sandbox‭ ‬--‭ ‬is reduced to shambles,‭ ‬and how it gets there is much of the fun.

The characters change positions at regular intervals as they form and dissolve alliances with each other,‭ ‬but initially the hosts,‭ ‬Veronica‭ (‬Kim Cozort‭) ‬and Michael‭ (‬Michael Serratore‭) ‬Novak,‭ ‬a writer devoted to art and to humanitarian causes and her volatile husband,‭ ‬a purveyor of wholesale household goods,‭ ‬are on opposite sides of the stage,‭ ‬sizing up their prey seated on the couch.‭ ‬They are Annette‭ (‬Kim Ostrenko‭) ‬and Alan‭ (‬Nick Santa Maria‭)‬,‭ ‬a passive wealth manager and a combative lawyer attached to his cell phone.‭ ‬He is barely engaged in the parenting chore before him,‭ ‬far more involved in damage control for his culpable pharmaceutical client.‭

At first,‭ ‬Annette is embarrassed by her spouse’s lack of interest in their son’s altercation,‭ ‬which turns into a physical illness brought on by the stress of the situation.‭ ‬Or maybe from the clafoutis.‭ ‬In any event,‭ ‬Reza has written in a humdinger of a projectile vomiting scene,‭ ‬and the Caldwell tech staff executes it with very credible,‭ ‬though messy skill.‭

God of Carnage is not the most profound play you are likely to encounter this season,‭ ‬but it is entertaining and Reza knows how to impart some insights on the human condition while concentrating on earning laughs.

GOD OF CARNAGE,‭ ‬Caldwell Theatre Co.,‭ ‬7901‭ ‬N.‭ ‬Federal Highway,‭ ‬Boca Raton.‭ ‬Through Sunday,‭ ‬May‭ ‬15.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$27-$50.‭ ‬Call:‭ ‬(561‭) ‬241-7432.‭

Friday, April 22, 2011

Weekend arts picks: April 22-24

Jason Edelstein and Rick Pena in Blood Brothers.

Theater:‭ ‬In only two seasons,‭ ‬Boca Raton’s Slow Burn Theatre Company has forged a reputation for producing edgy musicals outside the mainstream.‭ ‬The show that got its co-founders,‭ ‬Matthew Korinko and Patrick Fitzwater,‭ ‬interested in creating and running their own troupe is‭ ‬Blood Brothers,‭ ‬the cult hit that opened in London in‭ ‬1988‭ ‬and is still running there.‭ ‬OK,‭ ‬so maybe‭ “‬cult‭” ‬doesn’t really describe it correctly.‭ ‬The show,‭ ‬based loosely on Alexandre Dumas’s‭ ‬The Corsican Brothers,‭ ‬concerns the twin sons of an impoverished Liverpool woman who reluctantly gives away one of her babies to the affluent lady she works for,‭ ‬setting in motion a melodrama about the effects of privilege and environment.‭ ‬Slow Burn chose to wait to present‭ ‬Blood Brothers until it felt it had amassed sufficient talent and audience and that time is now.‭ ‬The production opens next Friday,‭ ‬April‭ ‬29,‭ ‬and runs through May‭ ‬8.‭ ‬For tickets,‭ ‬call‭ ‬(866‭) ‬811-4111.‭ – ‬H.‭ ‬Erstein

Bill Cunningham at work.

Film:‭ ‬Like most first-rate documentaries,‭ ‬Bill Cunningham New York puts the spotlight on a fascinating subject and gets us wondering why we knew so little about him previously.‭ ‬In this case,‭ ‬it is the‭ ‬82-year-old‭ ‬New York Times photographer whose column,‭ ‬On the Street,‭ ‬in the Sunday Styles section,‭ ‬focuses on ordinary people who dress with flair.‭ ‬Cunningham also covers the society party beat,‭ ‬but as he notes he has no interest in celebrity,‭ ‬only clothes.‭ ‬He lives a solitary life in a closet-sided studio apartment at Carnegie Hall,‭ ‬where he faces imminent eviction‭ ‬--‭ ‬the film’s only nod to suspense.‭ ‬Cunningham is a genuine throwback to the old journalism,‭ ‬and watching this portrait will probably have you yearning for those bygone days.‭ ‬ Opening today at Emerging Cinemas and Living Room Theaters.‭ – ‬H.‭ ‬Erstein

Bob Crawford, Scott Avett and Seth Avett, of The Avett Brothers.

Music:‭ ‬To compare the lineups from last year’s SunFest and the one that opens on West Palm Beach’s waterfront Wednesday is to be astounded at the enormous improvement in depth,‭ ‬breadth and relevance in this year’s roster of more than‭ ‬50‭ ‬bands.‭ ‬In addition to risings stars such as Cee Lo Green,‭ ‬the Avett Brothers,‭ ‬MGMT and Brooke Fraser,‭ ‬the lineup also includes titans of an earlier day such as Jeff Beck,‭ ‬Styx and Gregg Allman.‭ ‬Also appearing are‭ ‘‬90s darlings Toad the Wet Sprocket,‭ ‬who have contributed durable songs to the catalog,‭ ‬and there’s even an appearance that harks back to the beginnings of‭ ‬20th-century American popular music with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band of New Orleans.‭ ‬It’s a remarkable collection of artists,‭ ‬and one likely to draw everyone from true fans to casual listeners,‭ ‬one temporary nation under a groove.‭ ‬SunFest runs through May‭ ‬1.‭ ‬Hours are from‭ ‬5-10‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Wednesday,‭ ‬5-11‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Thursday and Friday,‭ ‬noon to‭ ‬11‭ ‬p.m.,‭ ‬Saturday,‭ ‬and noon to‭ ‬9‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Sunday.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬800-786-3378,‭ ‬visit‭ ‬ or your local Publix supermarket,‭ ‬or visit the SunFest store‭ ‬at‭ ‬525‭ ‬Clematis St.‭ ‬Tickets range from‭ ‬$30-$60.

Assaff Weisman.

Pianist Assaff Weisman is busy these days not just with his teaching in the Evening Division of The Juilliard School,‭ ‬but co-directing the Israeli Chamber Project,‭ ‬a group of young Israeli musicians who perform throughout the Jewish state and across this country.‭ ‬Weisman has appeared several times in Abram Kreeger’s Piano Lovers series,‭ ‬and tonight he returns for a‭ ‬program of music by Haydn‭ (‬the Sonata No.‭ ‬49‭)‬,‭ ‬Debussy‭ (‬Estampes‭)‬,‭ ‬Brahms‭ (‬Variations on a Theme by Handel‭) ‬and Liszt‭ (‬the three‭ ‬Petrarch Sonnets‭)‬.‭ ‬He’s a fine player,‭ ‬with an elegant,‭ ‬polished touch,‭ ‬and this end-of-season recital will be a good way to reconnect with a program of core repertory and observe the Liszt bicentenary.‭ ‬Tickets for Weisman’s‭ ‬7‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬concert at the Steinway Gallery in Boca Raton are‭ ‬$20‭ ‬in advance and‭ ‬$25‭ ‬at the door.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬929-6633‭ ‬or visit‭ ‬ for more information.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Film review: Documentary captures exceptional New York eye

A scene from Bill Cunningham New York.

By John Thomason

Less than two years after‭ The September Issue probed the life and work of fashion kingmaker Anna Wintour,‭ ‬a new documentary offers a look at another figure residing in the nexus of fashion and print journalism.‭

In‭ ‬Bill Cunningham New York,‭ ‬which opens Friday in South Florida,‭ ‬the subject is‭ ‬New York Times fashion photographer Cunningham,‭ ‬a man just as iconoclastic‭ – ‬and more enigmatic‭ ‬--‭ ‬than‭ ‬Vogue’s Wintour.‭ ‬Even Wintour herself manages to descend from her haute perch to say in the documentary,‭ ‬with surprising humility,‭ ‬that‭ “‬we all get dressed up for Bill.‭”

The film argues that Cunningham,‭ ‬through his columns and photo spreads in everything from‭ ‬Details to‭ ‬Women’s Wear Daily to the‭ ‬Times,‭ ‬has been the most important chronicler-turned-trendmaker in the past half-century of fashion.‭ ‬Cunningham is‭ ‬82‭ ‬years young,‭ ‬a spry workaholic in a functional blue jacket whose daily routine sees him ubiquitously cruising Manhattan streets on his Schwinn,‭ ‬snapping candid shots of outfits that catch his learned eye.‭ ‬At night,‭ ‬he attends the metropolitan area’s signature social soirees,‭ ‬photographing luminaries.

As someone who knows less than nothing about fashion,‭ ‬I found Cunningham an inspiring artist‭ – ‬a counterintuitive,‭ ‬countercultural working man in a world of materialistic elites.‭ ‬We assume he collects a paycheck from the‭ ‬Times,‭ ‬but Cunningham vocalizes contempt for money,‭ ‬ceremoniously tearing up paychecks for some of his early freelance assignments.‭ “‬If you don’t touch money,‭ ‬they can’t tell you what to do,‭” ‬he says.‭ ‬He washes his clothes at a Laundromat,‭ ‬eats TV dinners and never takes a drop of food or alcohol at the glitzy galas he covers.

Cunningham is a charming,‭ ‬self-deprecating figure full of contrarian wit:‭ ‬He had no interest in photographing Marilyn Monroe,‭ ‬he says,‭ ‬because she‭ “‬wasn’t stylish.‭” ‬He takes an egalitarian approach to fashion photography,‭ ‬where movie stars,‭ ‬visiting dignitaries and bag ladies on the street share equal weight.‭ ‬The person doesn’t matter‭; ‬only the clothes do.

As in‭ ‬The September Issue,‭ ‬Bill Cunningham New York feels the need to address the supposed frivolity of fashion,‭ ‬becoming unnecessarily defensive of a culture that,‭ ‬at this point,‭ ‬needs little justification of its merits.‭ ‬After all,‭ ‬the fashion-industry staples who are interviewed for the film‭ – ‬including Wintour,‭ ‬designer Iris Apfel,‭ ‬fashionistas Patrick McDonald and Kenny Kenny,‭ ‬and Shail Upadhya,‭ ‬a retired U.N.‭ ‬official from Nepal who makes eccentric clothing out of used furniture‭ – ‬come across as intelligent,‭ ‬witty and down to earth,‭ ‬not as the vapid celebutantes Tom Wolfe‭ (‬who is also interviewed for the film‭) ‬and others diagnose them.‭ ‬Only once does one of the film’s subjects offer an insulting,‭ ‬out-of-touch soundbite,‭ ‬when she compares the work Cunningham does on the city streets to that of a war photographer.

The film dips into its murkiest,‭ ‬and most interesting,‭ ‬waters when trying to extract a personal life out of the notoriously secretive Cunningham.‭ ‬For Bill,‭ ‬it seems that everything is work,‭ ‬and work is everything.‭ ‬He’s never had a serious romantic relationship,‭ ‬he says,‭ ‬and the question of his sexuality remains unknown all the way to the credits.‭ ‬He’s also a privately religious man,‭ ‬attending church every Sunday‭ – ‬a revelation that clearly shocks director Richard Press.‭

When asked later about his faith,‭ ‬Cunningham hangs his head for an epic silence‭ – ‬watching it,‭ ‬you may think the film is stuck in the projector‭ – ‬before offering a meditative answer.‭ ‬It’s just one of the many ways this film,‭ ‬and the man it documents,‭ ‬confound our expectations.‭

BILL CUNNINGHAM NEW YORK.‭ ‬Director:‭ ‬Richard Press‭; ‬not rated‭; ‬distributor:‭ ‬Zeitgeist Films‭; ‬opens Friday‭; ‬venues:‭ ‬Living Room Theaters at FAU in Boca Raton,‭ ‬Lake Worth Playhouse,‭ ‬Mos‭’ ‬Art Theatre in Lake Park,‭ ‬Gateway Theatre‭ ‬4‭ ‬in Fort Lauderdale,‭ ‬the Miami Beach Cinematheque and the Cosford Cinema in Coral Gables.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Music review: Tchaikovsky quartet ends Delray SQ season in winning style

Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky (1840-1893).

By Greg Stepanich

On the verge of an eighth season that will include a new recording and a world premiere,‭ ‬the Delray String Quartet‭ ‬sounded confident,‭ ‬polished and vibrant as it finished up its seventh season Sunday afternoon in Miami.

Closing its fifth and final series of programs at St.‭ ‬Stephen‭’‬s Espicopal Church in Coconut Grove,‭ ‬where the competition from the Taste of the Grove festival next door could sometimes distantly be heard,‭ ‬the Delray gave solid,‭ ‬powerful accounts of two core repertory pieces before closing with an encore by the nation‭’‬s most recent Pulitzer Prize winner for music.

The quartet‭’‬s work this season has sometimes been variable‭; ‬intonation problems marred its reading of the Shostakovich Seventh Quartet earlier in the season,‭ ‬a marked contrast to the smoothness and beauty it brought‭ ‬on another concert‭ ‬to the Fourth Quartet of the American composer Kenneth Fuchs,‭ ‬whose Fifth Quartet is being written for the ensemble.

The group also has concertized‭ ‬in an increased number of venues this year,‭ ‬with appearances in Naples,‭ ‬Wellington and West Palm Beach to add to its regular concerts in Delray Beach,‭ ‬Fort Lauderdale and Coconut Grove.‭ ‬Second violinist Tomas Cotik,‭ ‬new to the foursome this year,‭ ‬makes‭ ‬a fine addition,‭ ‬as could clearly be heard throughout Sunday‭’‬s concert.

The first work on the program was the second of Robert Schumann‭’‬s three quartets‭ (‬in F,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬41,‭ ‬No.‭ ‬2‭)‬,‭ ‬which got a passionate performance overall without losing track of its classic outlines.‭ ‬That was particularly true of the first movement,‭ ‬which had good ensemble,‭ ‬a nice tempo,‭ ‬and strong playing from each of the‭ ‬musicians,‭ ‬all the while remaining right in line with the‭ ‬sturdy optimism of the movement.

The second movement,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬had plenty of emotion and color as it made its way through the mood shifts of the variations.‭ ‬The‭ ‬Molto piu lento‭ ‬section was especially affecting,‭ ‬but the main theme could have used a touch more swing,‭ ‬a little more drive‭; ‬still,‭ ‬the group produced a very pretty sound in the most heartfelt passages.‭

The Scherzo‭ ‬had a nicely aggressive feel to it because of the way the three players providing the harmony under first violinist Mei-Mei Luo‭ ‬– Cotik,‭ ‬violist Richard Fleischman and cellist Claudio Jaffé‭ ‬– punched their offbeats.‭ ‬The trio was a bit stiff,‭ ‬though,‭ ‬and needed a slightly speedier tempo and a sharper feeling of playfulness to make a more effective contrast.

In the finale,‭ ‬the quartet built up a big head of steam in the‭ ‬cello-led transition section back to the recap,‭ ‬and‭ ‬ended the work in exuberant fashion.‭

Even better was the piece on the second half of the concert,‭ ‬the Tchaikovsky Second Quartet‭ (‬in F,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬22‭)‬,‭ ‬a more expansive work than the Schumann and one‭ ‬whose full-on Romantic style seems to suit this quartet admirably.‭

This rendition of the Tchaikovsky‭ ‬appeared to have been thoroughly practiced,‭ ‬with Luo‭’‬s quasi-cadenza in the opening pages clearly‭ ‬and precisely played.‭ ‬Here,‭ ‬too,‭ ‬the quartet let all the stops out in the full-bore sections,‭ ‬with highly exciting results,‭ ‬and a logical outgrowth of the pointed,‭ ‬communicative way the primary material was played.‭

The time-switching Scherzo second movement‭ ‬had a gentle lilt and tight unity from the foursome,‭ ‬and a‭ ‬spunky trio in which Luo and Cotik traded primacy in‭ ‬the‭ ‬theme with a good equivalence of approach.‭ ‬The slow movement had lovely work from Jaffé in particular in bringing out the theme‭ (‬with its echoes of‭ ‬None but the Lonely Heart‭)‬,‭ ‬and once again ensemble was critical in coming successfully out of the explosive middle section into a restoration of the opening‭’‬s melancholy restraint.

The resonance of the St.‭ ‬Stephen‭’‬s acoustic helped the quartet sound massive in Tchaikovsky‭’‬s biggest moments,‭ ‬and so by the end of the finale,‭ ‬a sense of‭ ‬joy and athleticism was present in every measure,‭ ‬as the quartet rode Tchaikovsky‭’‬s galloping rhythms to a warmly applauded conclusion from the small but enthusiastic house of about‭ ‬40‭ ‬people.

The Delray finished off with a delightful encore:‭ ‬A‭ ‬Horseherd‭’‬s Mountain Song,‭ ‬from a collection of Chinese folksong arrangements by Zhou Long,‭ ‬a Beijing-born composer now teaching in Kansas City‭ ‬who won the Pulitzer for music on Monday for his opera ‬Madame White Snake.‭ ‬Zhou presents the folktune in engaging,‭ ‬straightforward style,‭ ‬punctuated by shouts from the players,‭ ‬and it was performed ‬– and barked‭ ‬– with gusto.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Weekend arts picks: April 15-17

Robin Wright as Mary Surratt in The Conspirator.

Film:‭ ‬Sure,‭ ‬he won an Oscar‭ ‬30‭ ‬years ago for making‭ ‬Ordinary People,‭ ‬but Robert Redford remains an underrated director.‭ ‬To see how he can bring history alive,‭ ‬involving and even a little instructive,‭ ‬check out‭ ‬The Conspirator,‭ ‬his take on the aftermath of Abraham Lincoln’s assassination,‭ ‬as seen through the conspiracy trial of Mary Surratt.‭ ‬The luminous Robin Wright plays the boarding house proprietor accused of colluding with the men who brought down the president,‭ ‬and James McAvoy is impressive as Frederick Aiken,‭ ‬the novice lawyer assigned to defend her before an unsympathetic military tribunal.‭ ‬Chances are you know the story of John Wilkes Booth,‭ ‬but this film nimbly gives us‭ “‬the rest of the story.‭” ‬And if you squint,‭ ‬you can see the contemporary issue of public-versus-military justice in the case of current Guantanamo detainees.‭ ‬Opening today in area theaters.‭ – ‬Hap Erstein

Matt Loehr and the Pink Ladies in Crazy for You,‭ ‬at the Maltz.

Theater:‭ ‬Tickets are scarce,‭ ‬but well worth scrounging to catch this weekend’s final performances of‭ ‬Crazy for You at the Maltz Jupiter Theatre.‭ ‬The Maltz has made some inroads with new work this season,‭ ‬but its strength is with large,‭ ‬production number-heavy,‭ ‬established shows like last season’s‭ ‬La Cage aux Folles of this Gershwin‭ “‬jukebox‭” ‬musical from‭ ‬1992.‭ ‬Both have been directed here by Mark Martino,‭ ‬who focuses on the character work beneath the razzle-dazzle and on working well with imaginative choreographers,‭ ‬like the endlessly inventive Shea Sullivan.‭ ‬Together with star Matt Loehr as song-and-dance-man wannabe Bobby Child,‭ ‬they forge a production which sets a new standard at this dynamic north county company.‭ ‬Continuing through Sunday.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬(561‭) ‬575-2223‭ ‬for tickets.‭ ‬– H.‭ ‬Erstein

The Holy Family with Two Angels‭ (‬16th century,‭ ‬Italian‭)‬,
‭ ‬from Vatican Splendors.‭

For those of you who have not seen it yet,‭ ‬these are the last two weeks that‭ ‬Vatican Splendors:‭ ‬A Journey Through Faith and Art will be shown at Museum of Art Fort Lauderdale.‭ ‬The last day is officially April‭ ‬24.‭ ‬In case you are wondering,‭ ‬it is more art than sermon.‭

And by that I mean the exhibit features plenty of paintings,‭ ‬striking papal portraits,‭ ‬angels,‭ ‬Madonnas and mysterious artifacts.‭ ‬Walking through the show you will see a transition from the flat rigid figures of the Byzantine style to the more realistic and relaxed figures of the Renaissance period.‭ ‬The show is not a masked attempt from the Church to rescue and convert lost incredulous sheep.‭ ‬But that is precisely what one sort of wishes the museum had done.‭ ‬Instead,‭ ‬the show never gets serious enough.‭

Even for nonbelievers and curious ones,‭ ‬it feels too light.‭ ‬It takes a turn from somewhat serious to too commercial:‭ ‬beginning with objects relating to St.‭ ‬Peter’s tomb and ending with a gift shop.‭ ‬The video presentation welcoming visitors may remind you of being in a Disney park waiting for your turn to ride the attraction.‭

Pietà‭ (‬1499‭)‬,‭ ‬by Michelangelo Buonarotti,‭ ‬
cast made in‭ ‬1975‭ ‬from a‭ ‬1930‭ ‬original.

The museum took itself too seriously and neglected to give some of that seriousness to the actual exhibit.‭ ‬But if seeing means believing,‭ ‬then everyone who attends this show should walk out feeling pretty reinforced spiritually.‭ ‬Besides,‭ ‬it does not hurt to look at objects that have never before been shown outside the Vatican.‭ ‬The most dramatic in that category is‭ ‬San Sebastian‭ ‬Attended by Irene,‭ ‬a painting dating from the‭ ‬17th century depicting the moribund saint whose wounds are lit by candlelight.‭

But I know what you are thinking.‭ ‬What about the‭ ‬Pieta? ‬Yes,‭ ‬a life-size representation of Michelangelo's most famous creation is here‭ ‬too,‭ ‬in place of the real deal.‭ Tickets are‭ ‬$20‭; ‬$17‭ ‬for seniors and‭ ‬$13‭ ‬for children ages‭ ‬6-12.‭ ‬The museum is open daily from‭ ‬11‭ ‬a.m.‭ ‬to‭ ‬6‭ ‬p.m.,‭ ‬and until‭ ‬8‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬on Thursday.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬1-877-282-8422‭ ‬or visit‭ ‬‭ – ‬Gretel Sarmiento

Jeremy Denk.

Music:‭ ‬Down south this weekend,‭ ‬the wonderful American pianist Jeremy Denk continues his championing of the work of Charles Ives with a performance Sunday night at the University of Miami‭’‬s Gusman Hall as part of the Sunday Afternoons of Music series,‭ ‬now in its‭ ‬30th year.‭ ‬Denk will play the first of Ives‭’‬ sonatas,‭ ‬a big work from‭ ‬1909‭ ‬that does the usual Ives quoting‭ (‬Bringing in the Sheaves‭) ‬but also evokes Debussy-style pianism and ragtime in a tonal texture replete with tone clusters and huge,‭ ‬knotty chords that give the piece a real sense of grandeur.‭ ‬Denk then follows that with the complete‭ ‬Goldberg Variations of J.S.‭ ‬Bach,‭ ‬for a feat of pianistic bravado that you‭’‬re unlikely to see repeated too often.‭ ‬Tickets for the‭ ‬7:30‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬can‭’‬t-miss recital are‭ ‬$35.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬305-271-7150‭ ‬or visit‭ ‬‭ ‬– G.‭ ‬Stepanich

Eduardo Aladrén.

Also this week,‭ ‬the Chameleon chamber music series wraps its ninth season with music for tenor,‭ ‬cello and piano.‭ ‬Spanish tenor Eduardo Aladrén will sing Berlioz‭’‬s‭ ‬La Captive,‭ ‬Bernstein‭’‬s‭ ‬Dream With Me,‭ ‬a set of four songs by the Danish composer Joseph Glaeser‭ (‬1835-1891‭)‬,‭ ‬a song‭ (‬Rheinfahrt‭) ‬by Georg Goltermann‭ (‬1824-1898‭)‬,‭ ‬two songs by Richard Strauss‭ (‬Morgen and‭ ‬Zueignung‭) ‬and a world premiere of a song called‭ ‬El Beso,‭ ‬by the Spanish composer Javier Jacinto.‭ ‬Series founder Iris van Eck,‭ ‬a cellist,‭ ‬will play Beethoven‭’‬s‭ ‬Judas Maccabeus Variations,‭ ‬the Schumann‭ ‬Fantasy Pieces‭ (‬Op.‭ ‬73‭) ‬and the Chopin‭ ‬Grand Duo‭ ‬Concertant‭ ‬(B.‭ ‬70‭)‬,‭ ‬based on themes from Meyerbeer‭’‬s opera‭ ‬Robert le Diable.‭ ‬The pianist is the fine Serbian-born Misha Dacic,‭ ‬and the concert is set for‭ ‬3‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Sunday at the Josephine Leiser Opera Center in downtown Fort Lauderdale.‭ ‬Tickets are‭ ‬$35.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬954-761-3455‭ ‬or visit‭ ‬‭ ‬– G.‭ ‬Stepanich

Yuri Bashmet.

Next Thursday afternoon,‭ ‬at the Knight Concert Hall in Miami‭’‬s Arsht Center,‭ ‬violist Yuri Bashmet and pianist Evgeny Kissin collaborate on three great works for viola:‭ ‬The‭ ‬Arpeggione‭ ‬Sonata of Schubert,‭ ‬Brahms‭’‬ Viola‭ (‬Clarinet‭) ‬Sonata No.‭ ‬2‭ (‬in E-flat,‭ ‬Op.‭ ‬120,‭ ‬No.‭ ‬2‭)‬,‭ ‬and the valedictory Viola Sonata of Dmitri Shostakovich,‭ ‬which the composer finished only‭ ‬a month before he died.‭ ‬This will be a meeting of‭ ‬two gigantic talents,‭ ‬and the audience is bound to be filled with people who want to see one or the other.‭ ‬It‭’‬s a can‭’‬t-miss recital,‭ ‬and a great way to end the Arsht‭’‬s classical season.‭ ‬The concert is set for‭ ‬8‭ ‬p.m.‭ ‬Sunday in the Knight Hall.‭ ‬Tickets are‭ ‬$50-$125.‭ ‬Call‭ ‬305-949-6722‭ ‬or visit‭ ‬‭ ‬– G.‭ ‬Stepanich

Theater preview: 'God of Carnage' exposes the beasts within

Kim Ostrenko,‭ ‬Nick Santa Maria,‭ ‬Kim Cozort
and Michael Serratore in God of Carnage.

By Hap Erstein

There is a lot more carnage then there are signs of‭ ‬God in Yasmina Reza’s‭ ‬2009‭ ‬Tony Award-winning best play,‭ ‬God of Carnage,‭ ‬which opens this evening at the Caldwell Theatre Company in Boca Raton.‭

As she did with her earlier acclaimed comedy‭ ‬Art,‭ ‬Reza enjoys conjuring up adults moved by circumstances to act childishly.‭ ‬In that earlier play,‭ ‬it was three men,‭ ‬long-time friends whose bond is snapped when one of them buys and flaunts an expensive,‭ ‬minimalist painting.‭ ‬Similarly,‭ ‬God of Carnage concerns two civilized,‭ ‬upscale couples who come together to discuss calmly an act of playground violence between their sons,‭ ‬but are soon reduced to hostile children themselves.‭

As Kenneth Kay,‭ ‬who directs the Caldwell production,‭ ‬says of Reza,‭ “‬She’s very interested in discovering what’s underneath relationships,‭ ‬whether it’s three guys dealing with a painting or two sets of parents dealing with an altercation.‭ ‬She loves to peel away those layers.‭”

“I thought it was pretty funny,‭ ‬because OK,‭ ‬we’re adults,‭ ‬quote-unquote,‭ ‬but we also have the potential to be childish,‭” ‬says actress Kim Ostrenko,‭ ‬who plays wealth manager Annette.‭ “‬And I’ve seen it because I live in a condo and I was involved,‭ ‬unfortunately,‭ ‬with the board for a while.‭ ‬Wow,‭ ‬do you see it there.‭ ‬Those people go crazy.‭ ‬All decorum and adult behavior just goes out the window,‭ ‬and they just go down to their most primitive behavior.‭”

“We’ve seen all kinds of soccer moms and dads,‭ ‬and heard news reports of how they go ballistic,‭” ‬chimes in Kim Cozort,‭ ‬who plays writer Veronica.‭ “‬When I was working with a children’s theater program and directing kids,‭ ‬I saw these parents at the auditions accosting me,‭ ‬saying‭ ‘‬I saw you give more attention to that kid.‭’ ‬I tried to be so nice and,‭ ‬boy,‭ ‬underneath they were ready to just take me out.‭”

“It’s a human thing.‭ ‬When you strip it away,‭ ‬we are a human animal,‭” ‬adds Michael Serratore,‭ ‬playing wholesaler Mike,‭ ‬Veronica’s husband.‭ “‬We have two natures.‭ ‬We aspire to godliness,‭ ‬but we also have a base nature.‭”

In the course of the play,‭ ‬not only does civility dissolve before our eyes,‭ ‬but characters gang up on each other.‭ “‬With one word it can turn on a dime,‭” ‬says Cozort.‭ “‬Alliances can change‭ ‬--‭ ‬male against female,‭ ‬couple against couple‭ ‬--‭ ‬but you have to be present at every moment.‭ ‬We have to be on at all times,‭ ‬listening,‭ ‬ready.‭ ‬With this play,‭ ‬there’s nowhere to hide.‭”

“From a structural point of view,‭ ‬it’s the kind of play that I like to direct,‭” ‬says Kay.‭ “‬It’s got a real mix of outlandish comedy,‭ ‬some funny physical stuff and ultimately,‭ ‬it’s just a great story about these four people who come together to try to figure this incident out and solve it.‭”

Still,‭ ‬God of Carnage may not be to everyone’s taste.‭ “‬My mother is afraid to come see the show,‭” ‬says Nick Santa Maria,‭ ‬who plays cell phone-obsessed lawyer Alan,‭ ‬married to Annette.‭ “‬She said,‭ ‘‬What’s it like‭?’ ‬I said,‭ ‘‬Ma,‭ ‬it’s a comedy,‭ ‬but it’s kind of unpleasant.‭’ ‬She’s not sure she wants to see her son be unpleasant.‭”

The previous time Santa Maria appeared at the Caldwell was‭ ‬11‭ ‬years ago in Joe DiPietro’s‭ ‬Over the River and Through the Woods,‭ ‬a feel-good comedy.‭ “‬With a lot of warmth,‭” ‬he notes.‭ “‬This is the opposite.‭”

GOD OF CARNAGE,‭ ‬Caldwell Theatre Company,‭ ‬7901‭ ‬N.‭ ‬Federal Highway,‭ ‬Boca Raton.‭ ‬Friday,‭ ‬April‭ ‬15-Sunday,‭ ‬May‭ ‬15.‭ ‬Tickets:‭ ‬$27-$50.‭ ‬Call:‭ ‬(561‭) ‬241-7432.

Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Opera review: Baritones win the day at PB Opera's vocal competition

Joo Won Kang won first place in the advanced division.

By Greg Stepanich

For the Grand Finals of the Palm Beach Opera‭’‬s annual vocal competition this year,‭ ‬technical accomplishment appeared to matter most to the panel of four judges.

Baritone Joo Won Kang‭ ‬of Seoul,‭ ‬South Korea,‭ ‬won the top prize in the advanced division‭ (‬for ages‭ ‬24-30‭)‬,‭ ‬and bass-baritone Brandon Cedel,‭ ‬of Hershey,‭ ‬Pa.,‭ ‬won the top prize in the junior division‭ (‬ages‭ ‬18-23‭)‬.‭ ‬ Both sang somewhat unusual repertoire,‭ ‬and both sang with high technical polish,‭ ‬even if their performances were not as exciting as some others on the program.

A total of‭ ‬13‭ ‬singers,‭ ‬in two divisions,‭ ‬sang with a somewhat anemic Palm Beach Opera Orchestra on Sunday afternoon at the Kravis Center in the‭ ‬42nd edition of this particular contest,‭ ‬which in recent years has added an audience favorite award voted by audience text message.‭ ‬While the audience favorite in last year‭’‬s competition and the first-place winner were the same person,‭ ‬this year it was the fourth-place advanced winner,‭ ‬soprano Suzanne Vinnik of Las Vegas,‭ ‬who won the audience award in a landslide,‭ ‬according to general manager Daniel Biaggi.

Interestingly enough,‭ ‬the audience favorite last year‭ ‬(soprano Corrine Winters‭) ‬and this year sang the same soprano showpiece:‭ ‬the‭ ‬Ah,‭ ‬fors‭ ‬è lui/Sempre libera from Act I of Verdi‭’‬s‭ ‬La Traviata.‭ ‬Vinnik demonstrated a strong,‭ ‬capable voice and a high sense of style,‭ ‬especially in the way she sang those falling appoggiaturas toward the end.‭ ‬But by the end of the piece,‭ ‬which was interrupted with warm applause before the‭ ‬Sempre libera,‭ ‬she didn‭’‬t have enough power to hold her interpolated high E-flat for much time before coming down.

Brandon Cedel won first place in the junior division.

‭ ‬In the case of Cedel,‭ ‬a‭ ‬23-year-old‭ ‬who sang Count Rodolfo‭’‬s‭ ‬Vi ravviso o luoghi ameni from Act I of Bellini‭’‬s‭ ‬La Sonnambula,‭ ‬judges and the audience heard a real‭ ‬bass voice,‭ ‬one that had beautiful coloring throughout its range.‭ ‬His singing had the right sense of longing and regret that the text conveys,‭ ‬and he sang smoothly and‭ ‬cleanly,‭ ‬especially on the tiny cadenza figure at the end.

Kang,‭ ‬29,‭ ‬sang‭ ‬Vision fugitive,‭ ‬from Act II of Massenet‭’‬s‭ ‬Héroidade,‭ ‬a work that rarely gets a staging anymore but from which this aria still survives.‭ ‬Kang has a very fine,‭ ‬attractive voice,‭ ‬and excellent technique,‭ ‬which was in evidence particularly in the transition to the final recurrence of the main melody,‭ ‬which Kang handled deftly.‭ ‬This also was a performance of substantial smoothness and warmth,‭ ‬if not one with high drama.

Cedel and Kang have sizable,‭ ‬but not‭ ‬especially large,‭ ‬voices,‭ ‬and the repertoire they sang,‭ ‬while lovely and important for what it showed the audience about their capabilities,‭ ‬was not especially thrilling,‭ ‬either.‭ ‬For that,‭ ‬the audience Sunday looked to Vinnik‭ ‬and several other singers.

John Holiday won fifth place in the advanced division.

One in particular was the countertenor John Holiday of Rosenberg,‭ ‬Texas,‭ ‬who took fifth place in the advanced division.‭ ‬He sang‭ ‬Crude furie degli orridi abissi,‭ ‬from Handel‭’‬s‭ ‬Serse,‭ ‬an‭ “‬anger aria,‭”‬ and he made much of it,‭ ‬showing off a big,‭ ‬powerful voice with a marked mezzo-soprano quality.‭ ‬This is potentially a star-quality voice,‭ ‬it seemed to me,‭ ‬even though Holiday didn‭’‬t have it fully under control Sunday,‭ ‬oversinging at the end.‭ ‬But he is a singer with a round,‭ ‬fat tone quality,‭ ‬never reedy,‭ ‬and with impressive breath control and capacity.

The audience loved him,‭ ‬as they did R.‭ ‬Kenneth Stavert,‭ ‬who sang the‭ ‬Largo al factotum from Rossini‭’‬s‭ ‬Barber of Seville.‭ ‬Stavert,‭ ‬26,‭ ‬of Fullerton,‭ ‬Calif.,‭ ‬has just completed a season as one of the Palm Beach Opera‭’‬s Young Artists,‭ ‬and did fine work as Sciarrone in‭ ‬Tosca as well as in workshop versions of Handel‭’‬s‭ ‬Ariodante and Federico Torroba‭’‬s zarzuela‭ ‬Luisa Fernanda.‭ ‬He sang this very familiar aria in this competition‭ ‬last season,‭ ‬and this time came in seventh in the advanced division.

I thought that was too low,‭ ‬as I did‭ ‬last year‭ ‬when he came in‭ ‬sixth.‭ ‬His performance was funny,‭ ‬lively and well-sung,‭ ‬and‭ ‬while Stavert‭’‬s‭ ‬voice is not huge,‭ ‬it‭’‬s plenty forceful,‭ ‬and no doubt he would make a good comic on stage.‭ ‬This year and last,‭ ‬I thought he deserved better.

One other especially notable performance came from mezzo Laura Wilde,‭ ‬25,‭ ‬of Watertown,‭ ‬S.D.,‭ ‬who sang,‭ ‬of all things,‭ ‬the composer‭’‬s aria‭ (‬Sein wir wieder gut‭) ‬from the prologue of Richard Strauss‭’‬ Ariadne auf Naxos.‭ ‬It was incredibly refreshing to hear Richard Strauss at the Palm Beach Opera,‭ ‬and this was in all truth quite a good reading of this difficult piece.‭ ‬Wilde has a large,‭ ‬dark voice that was able to be clearly heard above Strauss‭’‬ busy orchestration,‭ ‬and her voice kept its strength throughout,‭ ‬with a confident high B-flat just before the close.‭ ‬She came in third in the advanced division,‭ ‬though I might have ranked her second,‭ ‬behind Holiday.

Probably the largest voice was that of Margaret Mezzacappa,‭ ‬24,‭ ‬of Euclid,‭ ‬Ohio,‭ ‬who chose‭ ‬Voce di donna,‭ ‬La Cieca‭’‬s aria‭ ‬from‭ ‬Act I of‭ ‬Ponchielli‭’‬s‭ ‬La Gioconda.‭ ‬She has a‭ ‬huge mezzo sound,‭ ‬rich and full,‭ ‬a possible successor to Dolora Zajick in dramatic Verdi roles.‭ ‬Interpretively,‭ ‬her reading of the aria came off as somewhat tentative and careful‭; ‬I could have used a little more emotion.‭ ‬She came in second in the advanced division,‭ ‬tribute to her good technique and the sheer size of the voice.

I also enjoyed the singing of baritone Joseph Lattanzi,‭ ‬another return competitor.‭ ‬The Mableton,‭ ‬Ga.,‭ ‬23-year-old came in second in the junior division with his exemplary‭ ‬Ah,‭ ‬per sempre,‭ ‬from Bellini‭’‬s I Puritani.‭ ‬Lattanzi has a lovely instrument,‭ ‬perhaps a touch underpowered but delightful to listen to,‭ ‬and he would make a memorable Germont,‭ ‬among other things.‭ ‬I‭’‬d have nudged him into first place,‭ ‬ahead of Cedel.

Also worthy of note was Jeanine De Bique,‭ ‬sixth-place winner in the advanced division with‭ ‬Padre,‭ ‬germani,‭ ‬addio,‭ ‬Ilia‭’‬s aria‭ ‬from‭ ‬Act I of‭ ‬Mozart‭’‬s‭ ‬Idomeneo.‭ ‬A‭ ‬29-year-old Trinidadian,‭ ‬De Bique‭ ‬has a mature-sounding soprano that seems to me well-suited for opera seria.‭ ‬She sang with taste,‭ ‬care and clarity,‭ ‬and made a good case for the aria.

Suzanne Vinnik was the audience favorite
and fourth-place winner in the advanced division.

Palm Beach Opera Chorus master‭ ‬Greg Ritchey led the orchestra,‭ ‬which sounded undermanned and weak for much of the afternoon‭ ‬– atypical for this ensemble‭ ‬– but it followed the singers nicely and it was quite effective in each of the various compositional styles.‭ ‬It was rather ragged in its two solo outings:‭ ‬The‭ ‬Coriolan Overture of Beethoven‭ (‬shaky unity on those last pizzicati‭)‬,‭ ‬and the first movement of the‭ ‬Unfinished‭ ‬Symphony‭ (‬No.‭ ‬8‭ ‬in B minor,‭ ‬D.‭ ‬759‭) ‬of Franz Schubert.

This last was led by Dreyfoos School for the Arts student Anthony Arcaini,‭ ‬all of‭ ‬15‭ ‬years old.‭ ‬He did a capable job,‭ ‬and his precise gestures indicate he‭’‬s undergoing a good training regimen.

The judges for the competition were Ken Benson,‭ ‬Lenore Rosenberg,‭ ‬Christina Scheppelmann and Dona D.‭ ‬Vaughan.‭ ‬Sitting with them was Artistic Director Bruno Aprea,‭ ‬who has just signed a new three-year contract with the company,‭ ‬Biaggi said Sunday.

Here is the complete list of winners,‭ ‬plus prize amounts:

Advanced division:‭ ‬Joo Won Kang,‭ ‬baritone‭ (‬$6,000‭); ‬Margaret Mezzacappa,‭ ‬mezzo-soprano‭ (‬$5,500‭); ‬Laura Wilde,‭ ‬mezzo-soprano‭ (‬$4,750‭); ‬Suzanne Vinnik,‭ ‬soprano‭ (‬$4,000‭); ‬John‭ ‬Holiday,‭ ‬countertenor‭ (‬$3,500‭); ‬Jeanine De Bique‭ (‬$3,000‭); ‬R.‭ ‬Kenneth Stavert‭ (‬$2,500‭)‬.

Junior division:‭ ‬Brandon Cedel,‭ ‬bass-baritone‭ (‬$4,500‭); ‬Joseph Lattanzi‭ (‬$3,750‭); ‬Emmett O‭’‬Hanlon‭ (‬$3,250‭); ‬Betsy Diaz‭ (‬$3,00‭); ‬Marco Stefani,‭ ‬tenor‭ (‬$2,500‭); ‬Danielle‭ ‬Adams‭ (‬$1,500‭)‬.