Friday, February 24, 2012

Letter to Walker School's Cast of Xanadu

(response to a performance of the stage musical XANADU, a pastiche of songs recorded by ELO and Olivia-Newton John.  Book by Doulas Carter Beane, music and lyrics by Jeff Lynne and John Farrar, based on the Universal Pictures film.  Director and Choreographer Katie Arjona.)

Dear XANADU,

You made my face hurt from smiling so long!  I admit I came to the show a skeptic, remembering the blandness of those early 80s songs.   I feared that seeing the lights rise on that fabulous set might be a high point of the evening.

Then Justin's warmth and energy and strong voice generated good feeling right away; the Muses' unison jokes and choreography loosened me up;  Georgie's fresh voice and persona (somehow combining winking irony with naivety) won me over.

All of that happened before I laughed myself silly at Eleni and Olivia in "Evil Woman," only to be left breathless by the dance in "Whenever You're Away From Me," and touched by our musicians' big band sounds and McLain's suave crooning.  The melding of Andrews' Sisters – I saw them live, by the way – and the metal boys  was unexpected and a great musical / staging coup! 

Overall, I felt a spirit of teamwork and friendship from you all that washed over the audience, and I left refreshed.  Today I awoke singing "I'm Alive!"

I was a skeptic; now I'm a believer.  Thank you!

Sunday, February 19, 2012

V is for Vengeance: The Musical?

Over thirty years ago, author Sue Grafton set some parameters for a series of mysteries.  Learning on the job, her variations within those parameters grow in complexity until her form seems about to break apart.  Each novel follows in an alphabetical pattern;  each features detective Kinsey Millhone, each moves forward just a few months past the one before, so that, thirty years later, we're still in the 1980s.   Now, with V is for Vengeance we have a master playing with her form, this time creating something close to musical comedy.

The "opening number" draws us into the story of a cocky college graduate desperate to climb out of his debt to a gangster by gambling.  The shocking end of that chapter is followed by a high-contrast piece set in a department store where Millhone alerts store personnel to a pair of high-volume shoplifters. 

Many chapters pass before we understand the connection of chapter one to chapter two, and the novel has nearly reached its conclusion before we understand the title.  Along the way, we have chapters that involve us in the lives of characters interesting in their own right -- a suburban housewife with a philandering husband, the gangster with the code of honor, and Kinsey herself investigating the apparent suicide of the shoplifter.  Add to the mix a small time crook, friend of Kinsey, named Pinky, and a corrupt cop named Len Priddy.

Grafton takes her time tying all of these together, choreographing some coincidences and connections in the manner of a farceur, slamming doors and all. 

All the characters join in the grand finale.

I have one beef sith Grafton, and it's in the Millhone chapters.  Must we be told every detail about what she ate, when she washed, how she drove? 

Otherwise, I appreciate the craftsmanship and humane feelings behind the events and characters of the series.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

Met Opera's Enchanted Island: Distance and Intimacy

(reflection on a live performance of THE ENCHANTED ISLAND, seen in HD broadcast two days ago. )

"Devised" by Jeremy Sams, THE ENCHANTED ISLAND is what Sams calls a "mash - up" of Shakespeare plays, Baroque composers' music, 18th century stage conventions and the latest stage gadgetry.   Every scene brought a smile of appreciation for the canny ways in which Sams and director Phelim McDermott mixed and matched their resources.   This was created frankly to be a vehicle for the Met's best Baroque talents.

So, being all about showcasing technique and technology, borrowing its characters from well-known sources, how could we be drawn in to the story?  Two of the characters are played by counter-tenors (David Daniels as "Prospero" and Anthony Roth Costanzo as "Ferdinand"), their every entrance a shock at the strong high voices emerging from these grown men.  How could it be real to us with so much blatant artifice?

Unlikely as it seems, the production arouses a great tide of affection.  The stars' voices astounded as great athletes' most amazing feats would do.   Danielle DeNiese's voice skipped skyward and laterally as her character "Ariel" would do, while she got laughs for adolescent petulance and energy.  Joyce DiDonato as the witch "Sycorax" swelled a single pitch from pianissimo to painfully loud on the word "Maybe" in one aria, and projected character as well as the notes -- especially in a scene where she laments "a mother's pain" at being unable to mitigate her son's agony at rejection.  With great dignity, bass Luca Pisaroni plays the son "Caliban" in white face makeup and a lugubrious body suit, part turtle, part gorilla.   The moment when a magic potion wears off and his only girl friend suddenly runs away from him is the only moment that resonates as real world emotion;  all the rest is cued by magic and music, and makes us smile.

The real love story here wasn't to be found in the plot, but in the love of the Baroque music evinced by all concerned.   Conductor William Christie is a Baroque specialist, an expert at revealing this music to audiences.  The music was certainly a revelation: the instrumental lines rose and fell in sympathy with the vocal lines, the orchestra rocked and keened, belying the notion that Baroque music is staid and polite.   The novel twisting of the familiar stories, the spectacle, and the clear English lyrics all served to close the distance between us and that music of a distant time.