The Collegiate Chorale offered a starry and exceptionally well-sung concert staging of The Mikado at Carnegie Hall on April 10 under the direction and baton of Ted Sperling. This marked my first time seeing the classic Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, though I am familiar with some of the more famous songs (and am a fan of Mike Leigh’s essential Topsy-Turvy, which details the fascinating gestation of the original production).
The Mikado is set in Japan, but in reality the characters and situations are a direct send up of mid 19th century England. The silliness of the show, its delightfully flippant point of view on death and execution and farce make for a pleasant evening. The concert staging doesn’t lend itself well to the comic nature of the libretto, so the opening was a bit slow. But after a bit, everything clicked and the audience was treated to an engaging comic romp.
Kelli O’Hara and Jason Danieley were in top form as Yum-Yum and Nanki-Poo. O’Hara held the audience rapt with her gorgeous rendition of “The Sun Whose Rays” Chuck Cooper was a well-sung Mikado, while Steve Rosen added some laughs as “Pish-Tush.” Jonathan Freeman was delightfully droll as Poo-Bah. Amy Justman and Lauren Worsham added stellar support, especially when they joined O’Hara for a spirited rendition of the famous “Three Little Girls.”
However, the evening belonged to Christoper Fitzgerald and Victoria Clark. As Koko and Katisha, they all but leveled the house with the climactic “There is Beauty in the Bellow of the Blast,” capping off an evening of mass hysteria from the two actors. Fitzgerald sang an updated version of the famed “A Little List, with references to tweeting, Kardashians and Newt Gingrich. This ruffled the feathers of a few purists who grumbled about it during intermission (and incidentally were also added to the list), but in spite of their misery, it was highly entertaining. He later scored major laughs with “Tit-Willow.” Clark entered like a harridan, with garish makeup, tussled hair held back from her eyes with chopsticks, and walked away with the show in her pocket. Her entrance was such a surprising contrast to the stately concert attire, she stopped the show before she even opened her mouth. Then she opened her mouth and proceeded to steal every single scene she was in.
The only unfortunate aspect of the night: that the Collegiate Chorale didn’t record this wonderful concert, with its illustrious chorus. It deserves to be heard again.
As the fates would have it, New Yorkers have the opportunity of seeing rare revivals of two of Kurt Weill’s more fascinating musicals (both written with librettist/lyricist Maxwell Anderson): Knickerbocker Holiday and Lost in the Stars. City Center Encores is presenting the former as part of its 2010-11 season, but for two nights the Collegiate Chorale and conductor James Bagwell presented an especially rare revival of the former.
Based on Washington Irving’s parody of self-important histories of the early 19th century, Knickerbocker’s History of New York, is a tongue-in-cheek, slyly revisionist fairy tale about Dutch controlled New Amsterdam (with knowing references to far-off territories like Harlem). Irving is even on hand as a character, a down-on-his luck gossip columnist looking for income and posterity who manipulates his characters to make the certain decisions (so as not to irritate the wealthy descendents).
Brom Broeck loves Tina Tienhoven. However, Brom is a proud hot-headed American who will physically assault anyone who gives him orders. Tina’s father, the head of the town council, disapproves and arranges for his daughter to marry the new Governor of New Amsterdam, Peter Stuvestant. Hijinks ensue. The show combines elements of traditional romance and political satire. Through the character of Peter Stuyvestant, Anderson took pointed digs at Franklin Roosevelt, with allusions to the New Deal and the president’s attempt to pack the Supreme Court. (Anderson so disliked the New Deal, he supported Wendell Wilkie and never registered for Social Security).
Ultimately it’s The Threepenny Opera meets Of Thee I Sing. There is a certain unevenness to the show that I think is hard to overcome without strong direction (and I think might only work best in a full scale production). Anderson’s lyrics are rather mundane, a weakness that is particularly glaring when paired with Weill’s music (which was halfway between Weimar and Broadway). The book mixes its satire and romance, but the blending of the two falls short – the plot is absurd and the tone uncertain. The best lines go to the town council and Stuyvestant. The combination of script and score make it an unusual musical which starts to overstay its welcome toward the end of the second act and the score starts feeling repetitious.
Ted Sperling directed the evening with a semi-staged, limited movement exercise with men in tuxes and ladies in evening gowns. The focus was the music, but some attempts were made at movement but strictly limited. This simplicity is the nature of the Collegiate Chorale’s concerts, with the emphasis on the music than anything else. However, I’m not sure if it was the sound system or the venue, but it was at times difficult to understand some of the lyrics, particularly during the company numbers. (For the record, I could make out every single word at their presentation of A White House Cantata at Frederick Rose Hall at Jazz at Lincoln Center three years ago).
Headlining the starry concert was Victor Garber as Peter Stuyvestant, the charming if fascistic governor of New Amsterdam, who captivated the entire audience with his mesmerizing rendition of “September Song.” After playing classic mezzo-belt roles in her recent Broadway outings, the resplendent Kelli O’Hara returns to her soprano roots as the ingenue Tina (and gets the opportunity to soar into the coloratura stratosphere). Relative newcomer Ben Davis sang with a strong baritone that evoked memories of the late, great Richard Kiley. Together, they shared the haunting “It Never Was You.” Comic support was provided by Broadway stalwarts David Garrison, Steve Rosen, Brad Oscar, Brooks Ashmanskas, Jeff Blumenkrantz, as a bumbling (the way of the world parallels to current society did not go unnoticed). Bryce Pinkham played Washington Irving and shared a spirited duet with Davis’ Broek. Christopher Fitzgerald was on hand as Davis’ comic sidekick, but the role didn’t offer the brilliant physical comedian opportunity to do much of anything.
The real stars of the concert, though, were Mr. Weill’s original orchestrations and vocal arrangements (he was one of the few composers to serve in that capacity). Bagwell conducted the American Symphony Orchestra with great energy. This concert was recorded by Ghostlight Records for the first complete recording of the score. There is an old recording that was commercially released, made up of highlights from radio performances by the original cast (which starred Walter Huston as Stuyvestant), making this impending incredibly important to the history of American musical theatre. And since Encores doesn’t appear to be interested, perhaps the Chorale will offer Weill and Alan Jay Lerner’s Love Life, which is another landmark score lacking a definitive recording.
The Drama Desk Awards, held Sunday evening, were once again shown via web cast on Theatermania. I recall the time they used to show them on PBS, but I guess that’s ancient history at this point. Anyway, this year the quality of the live stream was better than ever. However, from a technical standpoint there were some unusual shots, angles and closeups. I know it takes place in a glorified high school auditorium, but can’t they place the winners closer to the stage? Most of the time was filled up waiting for them as the presenters looked out during what seemed dead air.
The ceremony itself was rather uninteresting on the whole. Patti LuPone was an adequate host, who got in a couple of laughs but was really just there to keep things moving (at a clip). No performances, nothing too too exciting in terms of winners. The onstage pianist played far too many bizarre pieces, most jarringly “Don’t Fence Me In” every time Fences won an award. Many of the wins had me nonplussed; I was genuinely bored at a second tie between Montego Glover and Catherine Zeta-Jones for Best Actress in a Musical. (They shared the prize with the OCC too). Let’s not go for the trifecta on that front, folks. However, there a couple of surprises including Christopher Fitzgerald’s win for Finian’s Rainbow. Santino Fontana’s unexpected win for Brighton Beach Memoirs provided the most memorable of all acceptance speeches. He was genuinely shocked and completely amazed, and it added to its charm
Another surprised winner was Jan Maxwell, who won for Best Actress in a Play for her superlative comic turn in The Royal Family. She’s likely to be bested by Viola Davis in Fences (who was a Featured winner here) at the Tonys, so it was nice to see her recognized here for that work (Maxwell is a Drama Desk regular, but a Tony bridesmaid). She was very emotional and immediately apologized, “I’m sorry, I’m usually an aloof bitch. Surprises get to me.”
Martha Plimpton inadvertently established a memorable running gag following a spirited non sequitur about Mitzi Gaynor complimenting her shoes. Other Mitzi comments would follow, but the biggest laugh went to Outstanding Solo Performance winner Jim Brochu who started his acceptance with “Oh, and Mitzi Gaynor just told me to go fuck myself.” Brochu, who won for his turn as Zero Mostel in Zero Hour declared F. Scott Fitzgerald a big fat liar, stating, “there are second acts.”
For a ceremony that boasts recognition of Broadway, Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway, the deck seems quite stacked in favor of Broadway. I’m not saying it’s a crime, but it just seems that you’re more likely to get it if you’re a Main Stem show. There were five major Off-Broadway wins – The Scottsboro Boys won for lyrics, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson won for its book and When the Rain Stops Falling won for its sound design. Love Loss and What I Wore took home Unique Theatrical Experience and Zero Hour won Outstanding Solo Performance. Other than that, it was all Broadway. Scottsboro and Yank! are now ineligible for Drama Desks next year, so automatically next year’s nominations should be interesting.
Seeing as it was the Lost finale, there were fewer fellow watchers on Twitter and environs this year. However, participants inside the auditorium were encouraged to tweet so that kept it somewhat interesting throughout the night. Let’s hope the Tony Awards are more interesting.
When it comes to Broadway cast albums I almost always have a tendency for the original Broadway cast; they are usually definitive, including those made in the aural ice age of the 78 rpm platters or the dawn of the LP in the 1940s. Stereo came into play in 1956, Goddard Lieberson at Columbia was the champion of the original cast recording.
As the art form of the American musical has evolved, the technology with which music is recorded – and played on – has changed precipitously. Time constraints, technological limitations are no longer an issue. When there is money for an album, there is now room for dialogue, bonus material and occasionally a DVD companion. The problem is in the market – the original cast album has gone from one of the most lucrative areas of the music industry in the 1950s and 60s to a niche market. Pirating makes matters even worse. However, the producers take an extra special care in making sure the album released is the best it can be.
That said, I tend to prefer the contemporary recordings of new musicals as opposed to revivals. Perhaps its my ear lacking adjustment or just my personal preference, but in spite of all the great technological advancements, many of the older shows being re-recorded tend to lack the energy that makes the show work in the theatre, or the original cast album come to life in your room. So many of the new revivals sound as though they were recorded in a small studio, whereas the originals contain palpable theatre performance preserved for the ages. Revivals such as South Pacific,Gypsy and Hair were stunners onstage, but their respective albums fail to capture the magic. However, there are many older recordings that do capture that magic, in particular those Columbia albums of the 50s and 60s.
So while I vary my listening – I can have up to as many as 10 recordings of a particular score (and I do make it a point to listen to each to listen for variations in performance, orchestration, relevance, etc) I do find myself preferring to go back to the originals. However, there are always exceptions to the rule.
Finian’s Rainbow is one of those exceptions. I’ve never particularly cared for the 1947 original cast album released by Columbia (it was their second theatre recording; the first was the previous year’s revival of Show Boat). It preserves David Wayne’s Tony-winning performance as Og, but I’m perpetually bothered by the mannerisms of star Ella Logan. I don’t know if she found it charming, or was trying (in vain) to mask her Scottish accent, but her consonant heavy crooning gets on my nerves. A 1960 revival album is better, but lacks star power with the exception of contralto Carol Brice’s rendition of “Necessity.” Then there’s the film adaptation, a bloated anachronism from 1968 that fizzles on impact. A 2004 off-Broadway revival at the Irish Rep also received a delightful recording, but that featured that production’s spare 2 piano reduction.
It was the recent Encores! and Broadway revival that really introduced me to the many joys of its classic whimsy. This dated, “unrevivable” mix of satire and fantasy was suddenly back in fashion, a resounding production that led to its latest cast album, a stunning effort from PS Classics. The new disc is one of the most complete recordings of the score, featuring the glorious original orchestration under the baton of musical director Rob Berman. Everything sparkles from the first notes of “Glocca Mora” in the overture to its bittersweet finale. The overture is presented in its entirety, as well as the entr’acte. Recorded here for the first time is the second act “Dance of the Golden Crock” with its haunting harmonica accompaniment provided by Guy Davis. It’s noteworthy to hear “If This Isn’t Love” in its entirety, dance break and all. It was a showstopper in the theatre, and remains so on disc.
I’ve already exhausted many superlatives on this musical production, which should still be running. Despite some reservations with the book, the ebullient cast and creative team created one of the most beguiling revivals of the year, with stellar performances and the perfect mix of satire and sentiment. I expected the show to receive good notices, but I didn’t anticipate that its old fashioned charm would bring it the best notices of any show to open this season (to date).
Kate Baldwin and Cheyenne Jackson sparkle. She is entrancing from her first note in “How Are Things in Glocca Mora?” Nothing will ever erase the memory of hearing her sing this song for the first time, in the most bewitching deliveries of the ballad I’ve heard. Every element of her performance is captured here: her flirtatiousness, her feistiness and her unique charm. Jackson’s performance comes across better on disc than it did in the theatre. If Woody seemed a bit stiff onstage, his baritenor is perfect for crooning the period score. The chemistry between the two of them here is palpable (particularly on the standard “Old Devil Moon”).
Jim Norton supplies his gruff but lovable Finian, getting to do more singing than most prior actors in the role. Christopher Fitzgerald chews it up as the impish leprechaun Og, who score major points with the eleven o’clocker “When I’m Not Near the Girl I Love.” Terri White’s “Necessity” would bring down the house in the St. James, Carnegie Hall or Giants’ Stadium. Her contralto reverberates like thunder on the horizon – and rightly stopped the show at every performance. Chuck Cooper leads the second quartet “The Begat” with charm and gusto.
For those who are still lamenting its premature closing, much like myself, the recording recalls many fond memories. Those who missed it will get a feel for the treasure they missed. The resulting product is in my estimation the definitive cast recording of Finian’s Rainbow and one that I plan on revisiting time and again.
The powers that be behind the Roundabout revival of Bye Bye Birdie, the new textbook example of how notto revive a second-tier Golden Age property, should look to the St. James Theatre to learn a thing or two. The seemingly unrevivable Finian’s Rainbowhas made its way back to Broadway in a loving, vibrant production that illustrates the enchanting wit and charm that made the show a resounding success in its original production.
The musical, last seen on Broadway in 1960, has had something of a problem in receiving a full-scale revival. The libretto by Fred Saidy and lyricist Yip Harburg is generally considered the deal-breaker in resuscitating the show. While it combines elements of fantasy and whimsy with a satiric look at racial bigotry and capitalism, the book has long been considered dated, and rightly so. It is dated. Finian’s Rainbow was a period satire written in 1947 that surprised audiences with its storyline, which included a white racist senator being transformed onstage into a black man, with the use of black face. The stage trick worked for a 1940s audience, but would prove disconcerting to our more racially aware society. There’s also a leprechaun turning mortal while looking for a stolen pot of gold, a mute who communicates solely through dance, among other hijinks.
The Encores! presentation brought in resident script doctor David Ives to condense the problematic book, but in doing so left much to be desired as too much of the story was stripped away. A brand new adaptation has been arranged for the Broadway transfer, executed by Arthur Perlman which is a considerable improvement. While it doesn’t completely smooth out the script’s roughest edges, it manages to make them somewhat more palatable. (And I do love the exchange between Finian and Og involving popular musical theatre lyrics of the time).
Kate Baldwin is effervescent as Sharon McLonergan, a feisty colleen finding herself transplanted from her native Ireland to Rainbow Valley, Missitucky on her father’s whim. Sharon’s first song of the evening is the popular “How Are Things in Glocca Mora?” and Baldwin’s simple, lucid interpretation is the most spellbinding I’ve ever heard. Cheyenne Jackson is her paramour Woody, the town’s hero, who cuts a dashing figure and sings well, but is, dare I say it, wooden. Jim Norton ties together the entire production as Finian McLonergan, who incites chaos by stealing a pot of gold from a leprechaun in one of the more outrageous get-rich quick schemes known to drama. With a twinkle in his eye, and a skip in his gait, Norton appears to be having the time of his life.
There has been some recasting of roles since the Encores concert. Christopher Fitzgerald brings considerable comic charm and impishness to the leprechaun Og, and is a versatile improvement over his predecessor. David Schramm (Roy from Wings) plays Senator Rawkins with a vivacity reminiscent of the late Burl Ives, while his counterpart Chuck Cooper has a field day with the second act number “The Begat.” (It boggles my mind that no one ever thought of double casting the part before). Audience favorite Terri White belts out the rafter-shaking “Necessity,” repeating her duties from the Encores concert. However, one major difference – her performance on Broadway (as written and staged) was more of a genuine supporting turn rather than the glorified cameo it was at Encores.
Warren Carlyle’s staging and choreography are full and energetic, with “If This Isn’t Love” practically stopping the show. His earlier work from the Encores! production has been expanded and adds a certain clarity to what is essentially a convoluted story. He has the light touch necessary to bring his cast of 30 above and beyond what is normally expected from this show, and it would be interesting to see his work on top tier Golden Age material. (I wonder if he might be the man for Carnival!). The costume and lighting design are sumptuous, however, the set design by John Lee Beatty is surprisingly unattractive. There is a lovely patchwork show curtain, but the unit set is a gaudy extension of the Encores set up, which is unfortunate since the orchestra was moved to the pit.
As it was at Encores, the real star of the evening is the music of Burton Lane and lyrics of Yip Harburg. Harburg was known especially for his word play, and his tongue in cheek playfulness with the English language is complemented by Lane’s sophisticated use of melody. I dare you to leave Finian’s without one at least one of those songs running through your head. I’ve always admired its score. Harburg’s lyrics are always superlative (even his work in the flop Darling of the Day is better than most contemporary successes) and Lane is one of our most underrated composers (I enjoy On a Clear Day and even Carmelina). The score is one superb musical delight after another.
I should confess, I was never a big fan of Finian’s Rainbow. It’s story and script have left me rather cold over the years, and that certainly wasn’t helped by the tepid film adaptation or Ella Logan’s bizarre idiosyncratic performance as Sharon on the original cast album (one of the rare occurences where I prefer a revival album to the original). However, the vivacity of this production has made me reassess my opinion of the entire show, as I find myself hoping to make a return visit.
When the show played the City Center last March, I still wasn’t entirely convinced that it was worthy of a Broadway run. (The only Encores! I’ve ever felt was ready for Broadway was the superlative No No Nanette from 2008). However, in bringing Finian’s Rainbow to the St. James, much care has gone into making it a fully realized evening, and one with warmth to spare. For whatever quibbles there are with the script, the polish and poise in Carlyle’s production is enough to keep you smiling long after you’ve gone home looking for your own rainbow.