As it was at the overture and shall be at the exit music, bliss without end. Amen.

Theatre Aficionado at Large

Tag: Kelli O’Hara

A New Old World Revisited

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Late in the second act of The Light in the Piazza, Margaret Johnson tells Signor Naccarelli “There is no survey of the facts like time.” He doesn’t understand what she means, but in the years since the show’s premiere I’ve come to appreciate what she was saying. Piazza opened on Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater on Monday, April 18 2005. I was in the house that night and fell hard and fast for a complex, character-driven musical for grownups. I’ve never had quite so visceral a reaction to any other show before or since.

The musical garnered favorable notices, and went on to win a whopping six Tony Awards (out of 11 nominations), extending its limited engagement four times, and airing as part of Live from Lincoln Center on PBS. Time has proven kind to the show. There have been many regional productions, the cast album is popular among musical theatre fans, and songs from the score are being sung to death in classes and auditions everywhere.

I first took notice of The Light in the Piazza in early 2003, when I saw a news article announcing that Victoria Clark had been cast for the world premiere at Seattle’s Intiman Theatre. Unlike most 19 year olds, I was familiar with the 1962 film adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer’s novella (because of its star Olivia de Havilland). The story involves Margaret Johnson, a wealthy southern matron and her beautiful daughter Clara, who are vacationing in 1950s Florence, Italy. Clara was injured in a childhood accident involving a Shetland pony, leaving her mentally and emotionally stunted. When love blooms between Clara and the handsome Fabrizio, Margaret steps in to try and stop them.

My friend Noah Himmelstein attended one of the early Broadway previews and called me afterward to tell me I had to see it. He told me I should sign up for the LCT student rush program and insisted I avoid any samples of music or preview clips before seeing it. I was staggered when I was able to score a $20 to the show’s opening night (my first).

My professors excused me from all my classes that day, and I decided to spend my afternoon roaming about midtown, before heading to the Beaumont Theatre (another first for me). I people-watched in the lobby as John Lithgow, Helen Hunt and Maggie Gyllenhaal walked by until it was time to settle in to my rear loge seat.

As for Adam Guettel’s score, it was love at first measure. The moment I heard that first harp gliss, I knew deep inside that I was going to love what I was about to hear. My most vivid memories of opening night are the rousing ovation Victoria Clark received for “Dividing Day,” observing the pair next to me clutching each other and weeping as Kelli O’Hara sang the title song, and how the applause would not subside until Adam Guettel, Craig Lucas and Bartlett Sher took a bow. My immediate reaction was to call Noah on my way out of the lobby, telling him it was the greatest musical I’d ever seen. He read me Eric Grode’s rave review from Broadway.com over the phone. When we hung up, I dreamily roamed about the plaza at Lincoln Center (almost bumping into Mike Nichols and Diane Sawyer).

To say that the musical consumed my life would be an understatement. It was all I could talk about for the remainder of its run. I talked about the show at length with anyone who would listen (I’m still occasionally apologizing to my closest friends). I even bought the cast album the day before its official release at Colony Records, and it didn’t leave my CD player for five months.

Then came the repeat attending. I was living in New Paltz, NY at the time, going to college and working at the campus library. Sundays were my day off so I would take an early Trailways bus into Manhattan, pick up at a ticket at TKTS and spend my afternoon being transported to 1953 Florence. I was at the final performances of Mark Harelik and Kelli O’Hara, the Live from Lincoln Center telecast and the highly emotional closing performance. In all, I saw the original Broadway production of The Light in the Piazza twelve times. I only wish I had gone more.

Before it was officially announced, I found out that there would be a 10th anniversary reunion concert when one of the cast members posted his regrets that he couldn’t be there. It took some sleuthing, but I was able to figure out that it was indeed happening in April at the Vivian Beaumont Theatre. (It’s actually the 11th anniversary, but that’s a minor point). The moment tickets went on sale, I tried to get LincTix but was told “We’re sorry there are no tickets available.” I tried again and got the same message. So I panicked and bought a full-price front row center seat in the loge. No regrets.

Appearing in the concert were original cast members (in alphabetical order) Michael Berresse, Sarah Uriarte Berry, David Bonanno, Victoria Clark, Patti Cohenour, Beau Gravitte, Mark Harelik, Jennifer Hughes, Felicity LaFortune, Matthew Morrison, Kelli O’Hara, Adam Overett, Joseph Siravo, and Diane Sutherland.

On the day of the concert I could hardly contain my excitement. I was doing something I never thought I’d get to do again: to hear this score sung by this cast in the same venue. As people gathered in the lobby I was flooded with so memories: people watching the first nighters by the understudy board, or trying the show’s signature cocktail on my 8th trip (it wasn’t great). I remember browsing through the cast albums at Tower Records or books at Barnes and Noble (both long gone), or just happily roaming the LC campus. Everywhere I looked the night of the concert, I saw friends, including some I had seen the show, the most poignant of all being Noah.

The orchestra, led once again by Ted Sperling, was onstage, centered between upstage pillars of the massive set for The King and I. It was a delightful surprise to hear the complete overture, which was abridged during the show’s preview period (but recorded in its entirety for the cast album).

The actors had chairs and music stands lined up towards the lip of the main stage area and performed the show mostly off-book in the thrust space. The cast was, if anything, better than they were ten years ago; deeper, richer. There was a magical combination of nostalgia and muscle memory. They hit similar marks from the original staging with just a few props. Certain line readings brought familiar laughs. They even went so far as to recreate the breathtaking hat trick that incites the love story.

Victoria Clark, who won a Tony for the original production, is still a tremendous force as Margaret, the guarded, patrician mother. Her beautiful dramatic soprano is the perfect complement for the charming, complex woman she created years ago, and dare I say it, she looks even better now than she did then. The show has inexplicably never played London, and I think it’s time that both Piazza and Ms. Clark made their West End debuts.

Kelli O’Hara was something of a revelation to me, which is a bit surprising considering I saw her in the original production seven times (and I thought her spectacular then). She was freer and funnier; more at ease with making Clara’s pain and confusion more layered and more deeply felt. Her soprano is in peak form and her upper register is flourishing. The evening showed just how much Ms. O’Hara has grown as an artist and a leading lady in the past decade. Her rendition of the title song was a bona fide showstopper, as though everything she had ever done in her entire career had built to that one flawless moment.

Sarah Uriarte Berry sounds better than ever, and was on fire as jaded Franca, giving the best performance I’ve seen her give of her first act solo “The Joy You Feel” (for the record, her high F in “Aiutami” was jaw-dropping). I’d love to see Ms. Berry take on The Bridges of Madison County as soon as possible. It was also great to see stalwart Patti Cohenour back on Broadway, even if only for one night. Her soprano is still strong and supple, and it was quite moving to see her wiping away copious tears during “Love to Me.”

Speaking of tears, emotions ran high throughout the night. At any given moment, you could catch a performer welling up whether it was Kelli onstage, Kelli watching Vicki, Vicki onstage, Vicki watching Kelli, etc. The audience and cast were practically ugly-crying as one by the end of “Fable.”

When the lights came up, the person next to me, a total stranger, handed me a tissue without saying a word. It was a profound experience for me; one of the most personal of my life. I was overwhelmed by memories of a very happy, joyous time in my life and was glad to be able to share it with so many friends, old and new.

My Favorite Performances, 2015

Kristin Chenoweth, On the Twentieth Century – Very rarely have I seen a marriage of performer and character more perfect than Chenoweth and Lily Garland. Ferociously funny, surprising, and using her multi-octave voice to breathtaking comic effect, she dominated from her entrance as a dowdy rehearsal pianist to her manic, idiosyncratic delivery of “How dare you?” in the last scene, which I found so hilarious, I almost had an asthma attack. A dazzling comic star turn.

Judi Dench, The Winter’s Tale – Shakespeare’s bizarre little play was given a beautiful production as part of Kenneth Branagh’s year-long season at the Garrick. As Paulina, King Leontes’ trusted advisor, Dench swept onto the stage and delivered Shakespeare’s dialogue as if it were as natural as breathing air. Her command and breathtaking control, particularly in scenes where her character is constantly on the verge of getting herself into serious trouble, gave me full-body chills. There’s a certain element of audience affection for a legend involved here, but a performance couldn’t stand on that alone. Dench has prove herself, once again, as one of the foremost Shakespearean interpreters of our time.

Ellen Greene, Little Shop of Horrors –  This summer’s Encores! presentation was more a revival in the religious sense than theatrical, with the faithful coming to worship at the altar of Ellen Greene. It’d been 33 years since Little Shop first opened off-Broadway, but Greene entered in that form-fitting dress, blonde wig and the years faded away. A triumph of humor and pathos, Greene resurrected the non-specific accent, dead-pan wit and heart as big as all out doors. The audience screamed its approval when she entered, and by the time she and her formidable co-star Jake Gyllenhaal finished “Suddenly Seymour,” the entire audience at City Center leapt to its feet for a thunderous standing ovation. During the character’s final scene, I’ve so rarely seen a performer make an audience vacillate between tears and laughter every other line. I rarely consider use the word “definitive,” but Ellen Greene’s Audrey is so perfect and iconic there is just no other term for it.

Matt Henry, Kinky Boots – I hadn’t seen Kinky Boots before its London production (because accents) and I am grateful to have seen Henry’s triumph as Lola (a role which won Billy Porter a Tony). Killian Donnelly slays as Charlie, the proprietor of the boots shop, but the evening belongs to Henry, who is fierce, funny, and moving. Mr. Henry’s flashy, flawless star turn is probably as close as we’ll ever get to Grace Jones in a stage musical.

Ruthie Ann Miles, The King and I – Providing formidable support in the court of Siam as Lady Thiang, some of Miles’ greatest moments were her arresting silences. She observed, listened, and absorbed in all her surroundings as the concerned mother of a Crown Prince, but also as the wisest person in the room. Watching her rejoice when her son accepts Mrs. Anna, or seeing her instant grief during the finale, hers was a performance of astonishing complexity. “Western People Funny,” a number that has proven problematic in recent years became, in her hands, a droll indictment of Western imperialism.

Kelli O’Hara, The King and I – A performance of such grace and strength, I found myself weeping with joy the moment she started to sing “Hello, Young Lovers,” and again many more times (most surprisingly “Getting to Know You”). She offers a first-rate rendering of the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein score, and brings a staunch feminist sensibility to Mrs. Anna (some of which is due to Mr. Hammerstein, but Ms. O’Hara’s Anna isn’t taking guff from any man). Funny, heartwarming and often quite tender; it’s a performance I want to relive again and again.

Benjamin Scheuer, The Lion – Scheuer wrote and performed this solo bio-musical, which takes us through the highs and lows of his life (thus far). He touches on a complicated relationship with his father, a battle with cancer, but Scheuer’s memoir is inspiring and moving, never maudlin. He’s more of a singer-songwriter (and virtuosic guitarist) than actor, but his enthusiasm and connection with the audience was authentic, sincere and ultimately profound.

Chita Rivera, The Visit – Ms. Rivera headlined this dark, unrelenting weird musical adaptation of the Duerrenmatt play about a revenge-seeking widow. I wasn’t sure how I felt about the show after the first preview, but it kept me up most of the night thinking about. I ended up seeing the show three times (I liked it!), including the closing where Ms. Rivera, one of the legendary pros, went on with laryngitis. She modified what was a mesmerizing performance in the spur of the moment into something transcendent. I knew by the time she got to the end of the first line of her first song that we were in for something truly special. 85% of her singing was sprechstimme, making the moments she could actually sing all the more impactful. The lack of voice only seemed to enhance her performance; everything was more visceral, more haunting and more devastating. Her eleven o’clock number received a 75-second standing ovation. A master class like none other.

Imelda Staunton, Gypsy – This performance so rocked my solar plexus that I flew over to see the show twice more during its final week. Staunton’s Rose is a harrowing, yet irresistible creation with one foot in classical theatre and the other in musical comedy. I have never been so moved by this most classic of musicals. I didn’t think it was possible at this point to surprise me, but within 60 seconds of her entrance, I had gasped aloud in shock.  Staunton’s arc is so complex and fully-realized that it made her performance at the Savoy so unsettling real and perhaps identifiable. Her “Rose’s Turn” was less a mad scene than a journey of harsh self-discovery, and her immediate breakdown afterwards was a like an exorcism. What also astonished me was how her focus sharpened over the course of the run (I’ve seen other Roses who have gone off the rails by the end of their contracts) and made certain moments smaller, more disciplined, and ultimately more impactful and terrifying. The end result was the greatest performance I’ve ever seen in a musical.

Lydia Wilson, King Charles III – Mike Bartlett ingeniously repurposes the history play as futuristic speculation, taking a look at what might happen when Queen Elizabeth II dies and Prince Charles ascends the throne. Anchored with a Lear-like portrait of Charles by the sensational Tim Pigott-Smith, the play offers the blank verse, asides and even the ghost you might find in Shakespeare. What struck me most was Lydia Wilson’s portrayal of sunny Kate Middleton as a privately Machiavellian wife; a performance of such surprise cunning that she would make Lady Macbeth flee in terror. Her feminist soliloquy explaining her actions is one of the high points of this contemporary masterpiece.

The best ensemble I saw (out of so many great ones this year) was the cast of the Tooting Arts Club production of Sweeney Todd, which I saw during its return West End engagement. With the show was pared down to its barest elements, a cast of 8 and an audience of 69 experienced a most intimate, harrowing production of the Sondheim-Wheeler classic in the most apt location: a meat pie shop. We were seated at long tables on uncomfortable benches; there was even an option to eat pre-show pie and mash. Some audience members were pomaded, while others were lucky enough to have their throats briefly kissed by Sweeney’s razor. This conspiratorial atmosphere was so perfect that the audience didn’t applaud until the end of each act; it would have destroyed the magic. Jeremy Secomb, Siobhan McCarthy, Duncan Smith, Ian Mowat, Kiara Jay, Nadim Naaman, Joseph Taylor, and Zoë Doano were exceptional. (PS: you haven’t lived until Sweeney Todd has wielded a cleaver a foot from your head).

My Favorite Performances, 2014

Bryan Cranston, All the Way – It was staggering to see Cranston transform from the dopey dad on Malcolm in the Middle to the now-legendary Walter White on Breaking Bad. His performance as President Lyndon B. Johnson during the first year of his presidency was another astonishing feat. A tour-de-force, Cranston delivered a towering performance that was thrilling and captivating and occasionally unsettling. While the play itself seemed like it could have used some editing (particularly in act 2), Cranston’s performance was worth top dollar admission.

Jan Maxwell, The City of Conversation – While my feelings on the play are a bit complicated, my admiration for Jan Maxwell’s stunning portrait of a Washington DC doyenne dealing with her complex family knows no bounds. In fact, I’d say that this is the greatest performance I’ve seen Maxwell give, and I was lucky enough to see her in Coram Boy, The Royal Family, Lend Me a Tenor and Follies. It was worth the price of admission just to watch her excoriate her reprehensible daughter-in-law in the second act. This played off-Broadway at the Mitzi Newhouse; I wish Lincoln Center had just opened it on Broadway so Maxwell could win her long-overdue Tony Award.

Susan Mosher, Holiday Inn (Goodspeed Opera House) – I’ve always considered the film of Holiday Inn superior to its semi-remake White Christmas, and I feel the same applies to the respective stage vehicles. I don’t have much love for holiday shows of any kind, but I was taken by total surprise by this screen-to-stage adaptation of the Hollywood classic. I smiled non-stop for two and a half hours, when I wasn’t laughing at the hijinks. One of the show’s greatest gifts was a bold and brassy comic turn by Susan Mosher as the mechanic/handywoman/den mother who is utterly endearing, loving and outrageous. I cried actual tears of joy as she led a tap-happy company in a show-stopping rendition of “Shaking the Blues Away.” I hope the powers-that-be keep her for the inevitable Broadway run. I want an original cast album, and I want Susan Mosher to win the Featured Actress Tony.

Megan Mullally, Guys and Dolls (Carnegie Hall) – When it was announced that Nathan Lane would reprise his acclaimed performance as Nathan Detroit opposite Mullally, I immediately bought tickets without a moment’s hesitation. The one night concert at Carnegie Hall was musical comedy heaven from the first note to the last. Everyone was on point, well-sung and hilarious. However, it was Mullally’s Adelaide that walked away with the evening. Funny, warm and vulnerable, she had the audience eating out of the palm of her hand all night. I hope she considers revisiting the role in a longer Broadway run.

Kelli O’Hara and Steven Pasquale, The Bridges of Madison County – I ended up seeing this overlooked gem seven times in six weeks, much to my surprise. O’Hara was given the role of a lifetime as Francesca Johnson, an Italian-born Iowa housewife who finds herself having a brief, yet impassioned romance with a National Geographic photographer. She sang gloriously, and imbued the character with such depth that it was impossible not to care for and about her. Pasquale gave one of the finest male vocal performances I have ever heard in my life. Together, they soared in Jason Robert Brown’s glorious duets, especially the showstopping “One Second and a Million Miles,” which got a mammoth standing ovation and cries of “Bravo!” from the packed house at the show’s closing performance on May 18, 2014 (trip #7). The original cast album is one of the best-recorded in the last five or ten years; a thrilling document of a beautiful, short-lived experience.

Alex Sharp, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time – Never leaving the stage for a moment in this transcendent adaptation of Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel about a teenage boy with autism, Alex Sharp gives one of the most astonishing tour-de-force performances I have ever seen. I had mixed feelings on the book, but found myself enthralled from beginning to end by this imaginative adaptation. Sharp, fresh out of drama school, is making his professional debut, and his performance is a must-see. I don’t think I breathed during the last revelatory twenty minutes of the first act, as I was on edge as to what Mr. Sharp was going to do next. There aren’t enough superlatives to describe the commanding work he is doing onstage at the Barrymore. I look forward to following what promises to be an astonishing career.

One of the best ensemble experiences I had all year was the Encores! production of The Most Happy Fella at City Center. In a starry cast led by Laura Benanti, Shuler Hensley, Heidi Blickenstaff, Jay Armstrong Johnson and Cheyenne Jackson, the production was a glorious, thrilling success (even more impressive since the entire cast was battling the flu that week). It was a great thrill hearing the original orchestrations played by 35 musicians, and to see a Golden Age musical presented with separate singing and dancing choruses. Of the Encores! shows of this season, this was the one that deserves a second chance and a cast recording.

‘The Bridges of Madison County’ on Broadway

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Recently, I referred to the 1956 musical The Most Happy Fella, Frank Loesser’s lush romantic masterpiece, as a “grown-up musical for grown-ups.” Much of the current Broadway musical theatre is made up of subversive comedies, by-the-number adaptations of movies, and pre-packaged song catalogs. Sincere romantic musical plays tend to be a tougher sell these days. The most recent example I can think of is Giant with its sweeping score by Michael John LaChiusa. However, that show played a limited run off-Broadway at the Public (though it should have been on Broadway at the Vivian Beaumont). Well, a new grown-up musical for grown-ups has come to Broadway and it’s Jason Robert Brown and Marsha Norman’s beautiful adaptation of The Bridges of Madison County.

Based on Robert James Waller’s best-selling novel, Bridges tells of a four day, once-in-a-lifetime affair between an Italian housewife and a National Geographic photographer in 1965 Iowa. The husband and the kids leave for the state fair, and she is planning to relax with iced tea and a novel. However, fate has something else in store for her when the photographer pulls into her driveway to ask for directions. The novel was excoriated upon its release, but sold millions of copies and became a 1995 film starring Clint Eastwood and Meryl Streep.

The bittersweet new musical, now playing at the Schoenfeld Theatre, may be the best incarnation of Waller’s story. Francesca (Kelli O’Hara) married an American soldier after her fiancé died in WWII to escape war-ravaged Naples. Robert (Steven Pasquale) has drifted through life as a roving photographer, never comfortable with commitment or settling down. Truth be told, their romance doesn’t feel like an affair, or for that matter even remotely adulterous. There is no true villain or antagonist; it is circumstance that brings them together and ultimately thwarts the possibility of “happily ever after.” In many ways it is reminiscent of Brief Encounter, with two ordinary people discovering an overwhelming passion that had previously eluded them.

Jason Robert Brown has written one of the most ambitious, openly romantic scores heard on Broadway since Adam Guettel’s The Light in the Piazza. It is, I think, his best work since Parade. He serves double duty as orchestrator and creates a beautiful string-based chamber sound. Marsha Norman’s book complements Brown’s score, establishing rich characters with vivid attention to detail. It is to the credit of both that the events never feel cheap or saccharine, and even the most banal word comes from a place of infinite emotion.

Bartlett Sher’s direction is quite superb; his staging is simple and forthright, yet always tender. The show does tend to meander a bit in the first act, and too much time is spent at the state fair, but by the second act the focus becomes laser-sharp. When Bridges focuses on its central relationship, it reaches its emotional pinnacle, giving the story a depth I didn’t think possible. O’Hara is giving the performance of her career, with one of the most sensitive and vocally supple turns we’ve yet to see from her. Pasquale makes his Broadway musical debut at long last, and it this season’s gift to hear his soaring baritone. O’Hara’s heart-stopping “Almost Real” is a practically an operatic aria while he devastates with the eleven o’clock number “It All Fades Away,” which may well be the best show song of the last ten years, maybe more. Their duets are the sort of dreamy, soaring moments that are musical theatre at its finest. Their duet “Before and After You/One Second and a Million Miles” is a gorgeously realized musical scene, which I think compares with the legendary Bench Scene from Carousel. Their singing is matched the intensity of their onstage chemistry, which was so hot that the woman next to me started fanning herself at intermission.

The supporting cast is mostly excellent. Hunter Foster has the rather thankless role of Francesca’s somewhat oblivious husband, but he humanizes the character. Michael X. Martin and Cass Morgan provide warmly received comic relief as Francesca’s married neighbors. Morgan’s nosy Marge is played mostly in broad strokes throughout the first act, but she displays unexpected depth and surprising empathy in the second. Caitlin Kinnunen and Derek Klena barely register as Francesca’s sparring children, but mostly because the roles are so limited. Whitney Bashor sells her one number beautifully (though I understand she also had a devastating aria which was cut).

There are many things about Bridges that remind me of the aforementioned Piazza. Both shows share Italian sensibilities, its two leading players, director, and scenic and costume designers (Michael Yeargan and Catherine Zuber, respectively). Brown’s finale “Always Better” evokes memories of Guettel’s “Fable.” The leading ladies of both shows even share a surname: Johnson. Piazza opened at Lincoln Center Theatre and ran for 504 performances, which I think surprised many (including the show’s ardent admirers, myself included). Bridges, on the other hand, is a commercial risk and it hasn’t been doing so well.

I’m not sure how long The Bridges of Madison County will last on Broadway, but I feel it is a show that grow in estimation through the years, especially after the original cast album is released. After all, it seems Broadway only gets a new romantic musical once a decade. We grown-ups should savor it while we can.

Show Round-Up

Annie – I caught an early preview of the classic Strouse-Charnin musical at the Palace. I have a dubious history with this one; the last time I saw it onstage was 21 years ago and while I don’t remember much, I wanted Hannigan to win. Fortunately that was not the case in this new production directed by James Lapine and choreographed by Andy Blankenbuehler. Katie Finneran holds nothing back as Miss Hannigan, but the performance hadn’t quite gelled when I saw the show, and it didn’t help that her Rooster and Lily are barely there (and what’s up with Lily’s accent? Not cool, kids). Lilla Crawford has great sincerity and a clarion voice that brought down the house repeatedly, but her accent gets in the way. Merwin Foard, a reliable standby in so many recent productions, is finally onstage and a total delight as FDR. The real standout, though, is Australian baritone Anthony Warlow, whose sumptuous baritone is the 8th wonder of the world. His “Something Was Missing” stopped the show cold in act two. I was mixed on the set, though I loved the chandelier/Christmas tree effect. The choreography is, to put it mildly, terrible. Only the final number really had cohesion, and it was still a hot mess. Quibbles aside, the show is a charmer, thanks to its score and the sharp libretto by Thomas Meehan.

The Performers – I caught a late preview of this fast flop, which was entertaining but tremendously slight. There was no real conflict, mostly a non-porn couple who inexplicably question their monogamy while visiting Las Vegas for an adult film industry awards show. The play is rife with enough raunchy dialogue to make your great-grandmother’s monocle pop, but ultimately feels…tame. That said I found much to enjoy, and much to laugh at. Props to the terrific ensemble led by Alicia Silverstone, Henry Winkler and Cheyenne Jackson. However, the real star of the evening was Ari Graynor as Peeps, a dim, defensive porn star with a heart of gold. Everything she said or did went over like fireworks on the 4th of July, and a performance I am glad I had the opportunity to see. The play’s closure after 7 performances was a bit of a shock, as I’ve seen far worse enterprises run longer. While I don’t think it’s much of a play, I think the script could make for a more enjoyable film.

Giant – Edna Ferber’s novel is now a musical, in a sprawling retelling of the story of a Texas cattle baron and his decades long marriage to a Virginia socialite. This bold, ambitious piece is currently playing the Public Theater  and while it could use some tinkering and fine-tuning, it’s a thrilling experience. Michael John LaChiusa’s music is haunting and often soars. The show has a cast of 22, and an orchestra of 16 – rare for an off-Broadway production. Brian D’Arcy James is excellent as Bick Benedict, a cattle baron whose unconditional love for Texas is challenged by a changing world. Kate Baldwin is giving the the performance of a career as his wife Leslie. John Dossett provides brilliant, sympathetic support as Uncle Bawley, while Michelle Pawk brings gruff pragmatism to Bick’s older sister Luz. Katie Thompson is a find as Vashti Hake, a ranch heiress jilted by Bick who becomes one of Leslie’s closest friends. Thompson can really sing, and deserves to be a leading lady herself. The character of Jett Rink lacks definition and as written barely registers as an antagonist (played by a game P.J. Griffith). For a show set in and about Texas, the musical feels somewhat cramped on the Newman stage. A show of this scope cries out for a venue like the Vivian Beaumont.

20 years of Encores! A Gala Celebration – This 90 minute program featuring many of Broadway’s finest talents performing under the music direction of both Rob Berman and original Encores! musical director Rob Fisher. Kelli O’Hara opened with “It’s a Perfect Relationship” from Bells Are Ringing, but her highlight was a sumptuous rendition of “Lover, Come Back to Me” from The New Moon. Raul Esparza revisited “Everybody Says Don’t” from Anyone Can Whistle and cut it up big time with the tongue twisting “Tchaikowsky” from Lady in the Dark. Rob McClure was charm squared leading “Once in Love with Amy” (and yes, the audience sang along!) from Where’s Charley? Joel Grey did “Mr. Cellophane” from Chicago, Rebecca Luker, Sarah Uriarte Berry and Debbie Gravitte revisited their glorious “Sing for Your Supper” from The Boys from Syracuse. Other numbers came from Finian’s Rainbow, Too Many Girls, Fanny, Anyone Can Whistle, Do Re MiJuno, Lady in the Dark, Carnival and Gentlemen Prefer Blondes. Of special note was a middle section of found items, including “Where Do I Go From Here?” cut from Fiorello!, thrillingly sung by Victoria Clark. The most esoteric item on the bill was the overture for Nowhere to Go But Up, a nine performance bomb from 1962. Jack Viertel had asked Jonathan Tunick about whereabouts of its “the long-lost overture” during Merrily orchestra rehearsals. Turns out Tunick had it in his apartment. The evening ended with ‘Til Tomorrow from Fiorello! (which was the very first Encores! and will be revived this January). All musical numbers used the original arrangements and orchestrations. If there was a complaint it was that the evening ended too soon.

“Nice Work If You Can Get It”

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Nice Work If You Can Get It isn’t particularly groundbreaking and it feels like the sort of show you’ve seen time and again (fans of My One and Only and Crazy for You will probably agree), but the new musical (a loose overhaul of the 1926 musical Oh, Kay! with a new plot and characters) for all its old-fashioned sensibilities, is much to my surprise, delightful. One of those fizzy champagne (or in this case, gin), check-your-brain-at-the-door comedies with gorgeous costumes, scenery and (most especially) songs.

The book (by Joe DiPietro) is chock full of 20s silliness. The plot is negligible; something about bootleggers hiding their stash at a ritzy 47 room Long Island mansion. Farcical complications ensue with lots of colorful characters along the way. Like those period shows, the scenes are a breezy set-up for one knock-out song after another. In this instance, they are the songs of George and Ira Gershwin (with one DeSylva lyric tossed in for good measure) and the evening becomes a daffy trip through the American songbook, with 20 or so of their tunes represented.

Matthew Broderick is playing the milquetoast millionaire playboy at the center of the story. The star has a certain stiffness and drollness that at first struck me as odd, but I soon warmed to the performance. Mr. Broderick has a meager singing voice which works well with the period, while his dancing leaves something to be desired. Surprisingly, I rather enjoyed him (and faithful readers will recall the last time I saw him on stage). Kelli O’Hara plays the gorgeous tomboy Billie, who gets to sing “Someone to Watch Over Me” (with a subversive twist) and “But Not for Me.” While the role has Sutton Foster written all over it, Ms. O’Hara is a gem. I particularly enjoyed her disastrous attempt at seduction “Treat Me Rough” and her masquerade as a Cockney maid (Which reminds me: Ms. O’Hara’s next Broadway outing should be My Fair Lady, not the Lincoln Center production of The King and I). I also enjoyed seeing her and Broderick recall 30s musicals with an extended dance all over the set in “S’Wonderful.”

Estelle Parsons makes an eleventh-hour appearance as Broderick’s deus ex machina Mother, in a brief but winning cameo. Jennifer Laura Thompson makes vapidity irresistible, particularly in her clever bubble bath production number “Delishious.” Michael McGrath scores big laughs as the bootlegger turned butler, while the always-reliable Stanley Wayne Mathis plays a genial police officer. Robyn Hurder and Chris Sullivan are on hand as a comic couple with a combined IQ of 45. While the twosome are funny, their duet of “Blah, Blah, Blah” is unnecessary. The scene-stealer of the night is Judy Kaye. The Tony-winning soprano plays the Duchess Estonia Dulworth, a temperance-pushing battle-axe who sets speakeasies on fire in the first act, and swings drunkenly from a chandelier in the second (in the evening’s funniest scene and biggest showstopper).

Derek McLane’s sets and Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes are the best kind of eye candy. Bill Elliot’s orchestrations are the best I’ve heard in quite some time  and are very much of the period and a joy to hear. If a cast album is recorded – and one should be – I hope they record the exit music. David Chase has supplied some glorious vocal arrangements. Kathleen Marshall directed and choreographed, her musical staging very much in vogue with the period (and not a tap shoe in sight). There are no big production numbers like Anything Goes or Crazy For You, but her best work is in the smaller, more intimate pieces.

While not as dazzling as the Encores! No, No, Nanette (still the best production of a 20s/30s musical comedy I’ve ever seen), there was enough crowd-pleasing charm and style in Nice Work If You Can Get It to keep me smiling from start to finish.

“The Mikado” – Collegiate Chorale

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.

Collegiate Chorale’s “Knickerbocker Holiday”

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.

Lucky to Be Me: The Music of Leonard Bernstein

When I purchased my ticket to NYCO‘s Lucky to Be Me: The Music of Leonard Bernstein a couple months back, it was for two reasons – Victoria Clark was singing and there would be selections from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. I’m a big Bernstein fan and love his other shows, but I revel in the opportunities I’ve had over the past couple of years to hear songs from this lost score performed in NY.

You see, ever since I first heard the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue score and Patricia Routledge’s performances of “Take Care of This House” and “Duet for One” a few years back, I’ve wanted to hear Clark sing those numbers, as she is the closest we have to a Routledge on Broadway today. When the revised score, under the title A White House Cantata, is performed, opera singers without musical theatre backgrounds have been cast and much of the warmth and humor is gone from the role of the First Lady. So you can imagine my reaction when I opened the concert’s Playbill to see that she would be delivering this particular number in the eleven o’clock spot of the show. I think I summed it up best in my tweet: ‘Victoria Clark. Duet for One. They might to need to take me out of here on a stretcher.’

But I love Leonard Bernstein music in general. His material is interesting, tuneful and memorable. There is a distinctive sound that is his and his alone, with syncopation and variation and a love of difficult time signatures. His music evokes many reactions from me personally, and I find I’m pretty much able to appreciate and often love every piece of music he has written (that I’ve heard so far). Even when the wordsmith fails, the melody is still often compelling. And hearing his music live makes me wish I had been able to witness him conduct in person; his melodies are as impassioned and enthusiastic and full of life as he was on the conducting platform.

The entire concert was a delight from start to finish, with only minor quibbles about the technical aspects and staging. The performance was onstage at the David H. Koch (formerly the New York State) Theater. The songs were performed in front of the show curtain, which I found a strange choice. The chorus spent much of its time singing from either side of the first tier seats and the space limitations while not overly distracting, seemed generally constricting.

The first act was dedicated entirely to Bernstein’s classical repertoire, with selections from Mass, Songfest and a segment from his Kaddish Symphony No. 3. Aside from a brief introduction by Donna Murphy, the first act consisted of opera singers from NYCO’s current production of A Quiet Place as well as the reliable NYCO chorus and children’s chorus. Christopher Feigum sang “To What You Said,” Bernstein’s setting of Walt Whitman’s poem in Songfest, which amused me greatly as the melody has been recycled from the Prelude to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Feigum and Joshua Jeremiah, who sang a lovely “Simple Song” from Mass, were the solo highlights of the first act.

There were some other great singers onstage, unfortunately the acoustics in Koch Theatre made it difficult to hear them over the orchestra. The best sound seemed to come from the front orchestra section, where the children’s chorus lined up to sing – facing the stage – and could be heard clearer and louder than any of the trained opera professionals. Sound remained an issue throughout the evening, though it improved greatly during the Broadway themed second act.

As for act two, it was one showstopper after another from Bernstein’s five Broadway musicals. While the shows themselves run the gamut from classic hit to obscure failure, one thing remains consistent: Bernstein wrote damned good scores for all of them. The audience, which was exceptionally polite during the more solemn first act came to life during this portion. Darius de Haas, Michael Urie and Jeremiah Johnson got it started with a lively reading of “New York, New York” from On the Town which segued directly into a winning “Something’s Coming”  from West Side Story. Kelli O’Hara was the ideal Eileen with “A Little Bit in Love” from Wonderful Town, while Christine Ebersole had a field day as On the Town’s Hildy, with dynamite renditions of “Come Up to My Place” (with Urie) and “I Can Cook Too.” Cheyenne Jackson offered a lovely “Lucky to Be Me,” with the unbelievably gorgeous choral arrangement. Michael Baritone Sidney Outlaw held the audience captive with the most haunting rendition of “Seena” from 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue that’s been heard since Gilbert Price originated the part.

Other highlights included Donna Murphy’s hilarious showstopping “One Hundred Easy Ways” from Wonderful Town, while Michael Cerveris countered with a beautifully understated, wistful rendition of “A Quiet Girl” from the same score. Clark and O’Hara danced and trilled their way through the comic duet “We Are Women” written for the original London production of Candide.  The high point of the evening was the combination of “Tonight” (sung by Jackson & O’Hara) with the “Quintet” which featured Cerveris as Riff and our Murphy as Anita. It was an electrifying performance that brought about one of the largest audience responses of the evening.

The finale packed a one-two punch: Ebersole, Murphy, Jackson and Cerveris performed the plaintive “Some Other Time” from On the Town. Then Armstrong and Jakubiak returned to lead “Make Our Garden Grow,” the finale of Candide. There is a section in the song at its climax where the orchestra cuts out while the choral group is singing in 8 parts; its effect is almost indescribable. It is one of the most spine-tingling experiences a person can have as an audience member and a perfect way to cap off the evening.

As for “Duet for One (The First Lady of the Land),” I relish every opportunity I have to hear it. It’s a challenging nine minute number that involves more than just the woman at its center and a successful performance hinges on mastering its deliberately schizophrenic nature. It was probably the starriest version I’ve ever seen with Jackson standing in for Rutherford B. Hayes and Michael Cerveris delivering the oath of office. Clark was a wonder, clearly having a field day with the material. The staging was far more cumbersome than it needed to be, but Clark was a delight. I want to hear her perform it again and again.

The Bernstein estate should seriously reconsider the withdrawal of the 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue score and create a new recording, akin to John McGlinn’s landmark reconstruction of Show Boat. While the show suffered an embarrassing failure in 1976, the score contains some dazzling material, including some truly great music left out of the concert revision, A White House Cantata. I had conversations with some concertgoers after the show and they asked me how I knew this score. They were astonished from the selections they heard and seemed genuinely interested in hearing more. “What a shame they didn’t record a cast album!” The Cantata does have a recording, but its staid and rather boring. Mr. Outlaw and Ms. Clark proved last night that the score deserves better. In the unlikely event the score ever does get a full recording, Clark should be first in line to play the First Ladies.

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Walking Among My Yesterdays

2016

2/11 - The King and I

2/12 - Manon Lescaut (Met Opera)

2/14 - Cabin in the Sky (Encores!)

2/16 - Maria Stuarda (Met Opera)

2/19 - She Loves Me (first preview)

2/21 - Translations (Oxford Arts Space)

2/22 - The Secret Garden (MCP Concert)

2/28 - Anna Netrebko in Recital (Met Opera)

2/28 - Kate Baldwin & Friends: Welcome to My Party (Sheen Center)

3/9 - She Loves Me

3/11 - Noises Off

3/21 - Sondheimas (54 Below)

4/3 - 1776 (Encores!)

4/4 - The Light in the Piazza (10th Anniversary Reunion Concert)

4/25 - White Rabbit, Red Rabbit

4/28 - Dido and Aeneas (City Center)

5/15 - Do I Hear a Waltz? (City Center Encores!)

5/25 - The Robber Bridegroom

6/3 - The Color Purple

6/8 - Bright Star

6/13 - Lettice and Lovage (Acting Company Benefit)

6/26 - The King and I

7/23 - Shuffle Along

10/24 - Sunday in the Park with George (City Center Encores! Gala)

10/29 - Kelli O'Hara at Carnegie Hall

11/9 - Guillaume Tell (Met Opera)

11/23 - Half a Sixpence (West End)

11/24 - Ragtime (Charing Cross Theatre)

11/25 - She Loves Me (Menier Chocolate Factory)

11/28 - Ragtime (Charing Cross Theatre)

11/29 - She Loves Me (Menier Chocolate Factory)

12/12 - Kiss Me, Kate (Roundabout Gala)

12/14 - In Transit

Walking Among My Yesterdays

2015

1/1 - Beautiful

1/8 - Honeymoon in Vegas

1/12 - A Good Thing Going: The Stephen Sondheim and Harold Prince Collaboration (92nd Street Y)

1/15 - On the Town

1/25 - Vanya and Sonia and Masha and Spike (Paper Mill Playhouse, opening night)

1/28 - The Merry Widow (Met Opera)

1/30 - The Elephant Man

2/6 - Lady, Be Good! (Encores!)

2/13 - The Screen (Taksu Theatre Company)

2/19 - You Can't Take It With You

2/27 - The Lion

3/1 - John and Jen

3/3 - Craig Ferguson: Hot & Grumpy Tour

3/8 - The Audience (opening night)

3/12 - The King and I (first preview)

3/17 - Hand to God

3/21 - Sondheimas (54 Below)

3/22 - Paint Your Wagon (Encores!)

3/25 - Cabaret

3/26 - The Visit (first preview)

4/1 - Wolf Hall, Part 1

4/1 - Wolf Hall, Part 2

4/8 - Gigi (opening night)

4/9 - Rhiannon Giddens at Town Hall

4/21 - Gypsy (West End)

4/22 - Wicked (West End)

4/22 - The Audience (West End)

4/23 - The Hard Problem (National Theatre)

4/24 - Women on the Verge of a Nervous Breakdown (West End)

4/25 - Buyer & Cellar (Menier Chocolate Factory)

4/25 - Matilda (West End)

4/27 - Sweeney Todd (Tooting Arts Club)

4/28 - Follies (Royal Albert Hall)

4/28 - Gypsy (West End)

5/10 - Zorba (Encores!)

5/26 - The Visit

6/2 - On the Twentieth Century

6/9 - The King and I

6/14 - The Visit

7/2 - Little Shop of Horrors (Encores!)

9/21 - Hollywood Arms (Merkin Hall Reading)

10/4 - Dames at Sea

10/14 - King Charles III

10/16 - The Pirates of Penzance (Collegiate Chorale)

10/27 - Spring Awakening

11/2 - Kate Baldwin: Sing Pretty and Don't Fall Down (Keen Company Benefit)

11/17 - Songbird

11/25 - Gypsy (West End)

11/28 - Gypsy (West End, closing)

11/30 - The Winter's Tale (West End)

12/1 - Kinky Boots (West End)

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