Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Merchant of Venice at Shakespeare in the Park

It was the hottest night of the year, and the relief provided by the occasional cool breeze was fleeting at best, but I made up my mind to accept it, especially once the sweat stopped dripping, and in the end, it was amazing to be back in the Delacorte, seeing a full production starring a certified legend and a graceful up-and-comer, uninterrupted by rain or too many sounds from the busy streets. The gentle but persistent heat, the well-staged lighting, the brooding atmospheric music, the basin of water at the center of the stage in the second half, all added up to an enveloping feeling I loved, being outside in summer participating in one of those communal activities that makes the city great. And it was free.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Angels, wings sold separately

Eric Whitacre's Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings, whose concert version received its New York premiere tonight at Carnegie Hall (presented by DCINY), is a cannily crafted mash-up. Mix together quasi-Biblical fantasy narrative, electronic beats, martial-arts dueling, cinematic choral writing, solidly written musical-theater numbers for an ensemble of seven soloists, and, yes, some derivative dialogue, and you might get something like what we saw tonight. It's the closest I've ever come to seeing a video-game soundtrack staged live. And thus, I found the experience fun but not very emotional. The world depicted is sort of like Lord of the Flies, if they'd had more organized leaders in the group. The heroine of the show, Exstasis, played by Whitacre's wife, Hila Plitmann, seeks to break free from the order imposed by Logos and find the wings that were plucked from the children years earlier when their parents locked them inside a fortress to protect them from the darkness outside and prevent them from flying away. The lyrics are imbued with themes of flight vs. strength, freedom vs. authority, of being alone, and keeping things together, and they are lyrical. It wasn't hard to imagine visual representations of many of the scenes. (I understand the more fully staged productions of this work have included Japanese-style anime.) Sadly, too much of the spoken dialogue is the kind you've heard so many times before in cheaply written cartoons and subpar action movies. That said, there was a charm and humor to many of the simple lines uttered by bass-baritone Rodolfo Nieto in the character of Gravitas. Overall, the soundscape Whitacre creates helps to make you forget about the shortcomings; the 400+ member chorus on stage tonight added to the epic feeling the show seeks to create.

This one-off concert performance elicited two standing ovations from an audience filled by many who knew the choristers, and the musical motif introduced by "What If" was catchy enough to inspire some whistling on the way out. The work did run for several weeks as a fully staged musical at the Boston Court Theatre in Pasadena in the summer of 2007, and won accolades from Variety for pulling off "stunning effects" that transcended the 99-seat house. Tonight's performance was less than 90 minutes without intermission, while that production ran two and a half hours, which leaves me wondering what was cut. I can see this piece finding an audience if it were to mount another long run, and it definitely deserves respect for its craftsmanship, even if I was left a little earthbound by the experience.

Monday, June 14, 2010

Whitacre on a grander scale

That Eric Whitacre concert performance I mentioned last month is tomorrow. The details: "Paradise Lost: Shadows and Wings" (concert version - New York Premiere) at Carnegie Hall, 8pm, Tuesday June 15, 2010. I'll report back on my impressions within a few days.

Thursday, June 03, 2010

Both sides of the moat

Before I lived here, I never stayed here very long. I don't think I ever spent the night in a New York City hotel room as a kid. There wasn't much reason to, as long as we had extended family living less than an hour away. And of course, this city was a more dangerous place when I was growing up, which I don't doubt might've had something to do with the desire not to spend too much time here, beyond the obligatory tourist spots. I don't remember the city providing much of an emotional pull, either. As a little kid who drew skyscrapers on graph paper and devised new transit systems, I had an interest, no doubt, but not the insistent kind of whisper that I know some people have about this place, before this place becomes theirs.

I'd probably trace my desire to live here first to the experience of another city: Manchester, England. Studying abroad there was the first time I gained the confidence needed to navigate an urban center on my own, and feel like the hubbub and noise was willing to open up and let me in and not crush me whole. Granted, Manchester is no Big Smoke or Big Apple, but most of the same elements are there on a smaller scale. Later, it was about knowing people who lived here, and seeing how they bent their little corners of it to accommodate a life.

And then six years and a few weeks ago, I was here. I still remember the feeling after I moved into my first Manhattan apartment, and my parents and girlfriend at the time had left me, and I was alone with the darkened, high-numbered city street and the clanking old Otis elevator and my keys to an apartment occupied by untold former souls. I felt a pang of fear. What was I getting myself into? You have to really want to live here, or you'll break under the weight, I'd been told. As someone who has at times let the winds of fate blow in to a vacuum of assertive will, I was afraid. But that feeling passed. Very quickly. So much so that I can't affix it to any other moment after that first night alone in the city. Now, it has become home and it is a part of me. When I visit the suburbs, it feels like I pass through an invisible film of time, back into the place of my youth. Except that so many of the things and people who populated that existence aren't the same. After a few days, I'm more than happy to return to my modest studio apartment with the big windows and the brownstones and the park not far and the passersby and the hybrid taxis and the whooshing buses and the moon and the sun.

When you are happy in a place like I am, you want to share that happiness with the people you love. But in coming here and making myself a part of it, I guess I have forgotten what it's like to be on the other side of the moat. NYC is still loud and dirty and expensive and crowded and too paved over and surrounded by water and hard to visit and hard to stay. Any one of those things would be enough to set a normal person on edge, but love is blind. Especially when you embrace a place so much as to begin seeing its traits, good and bad, in you. All of which is to say that I'm trying not to be offended or hurt or disappointed when sensing or knowing flat out that people I love don't really love the place I call home. I'm choosing to believe that there's a core that can be traced within me and understood by others' hearts that was, is and will be separate enough from this big hot mess of a city.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Eric Whitacre at Carnegie Hall

Last month, I got a chance to see one of M.'s favorite contemporary composers conduct a concert of his work at Carnegie Hall. Eric Whitacre has made a decent career out of creating work that's beautiful and engrossing but also highly accessible to amateur musicians. I'll admit that in the past, I've steered clear of comp tickets offered for scholastic groups performing at Carnegie -- there seem to be a lot of them -- but the promise of seeing Whitacre do his own work and M.'s own recommendation was enough to sway me this time. I wasn't disappointed, and it made me re-evaluate my expectations when it comes to such shows. (I too was a scholastic musician once, so why not assume they're good, even if I'm not a proud family member, as so many in the audience usually are.) The recent concert featured two super-choirs, comprising smaller groups from across the country and even a few from abroad. They were clearly well-rehearsed and many seemed to show an affection for Whitacre's music and maybe even the man himself (think movie star Aaron Eckhart with longer hair).

Like a pop star, the composer offered some patter between each piece, none of which were very long. He says he didn't really "discover" classical music until around age 18, and his works do reflect someone who's in search more for a captivating soundscape than, say, skillfully executed counterpoint. That's not a bad thing. It's fair to assume that coming to the classical realm late in life left him open for experimentation, and fewer qualms against going for cool effects. A hint of one such effect came as each of the young choristers walked onto stage carrying a single sheet of blank copier paper. The props' intention was revealed at the end of "Little Birds," set to a poem by one of Whitacre's favorite poets, Octavio Paz. As the piece ends, the choir snapped the flock of papers above their heads for a quick vigorous flutter. Granted, more avant-garde composers have been using extra-musical effects for decades, but they came across as more plain-hearted and accessible in Whitacre's hands. You can almost imagine him saying to himself, "Would it be really neat if we did this ..."

Because he so often writes with the young musician and the chorus in mind, I don't think Whitacre has quite become a staple of the more traditional classical circuit yet. But maybe that's starting to change. He's set to conduct the London Symphony Orchestra and Chorus in October in a program that also features his wife, soprano Hila Plitmann. He's also apparently going to be composer in residence at a college in Cambridge this fall, a university that has a rich and storied choral tradition. Well before then, he'll be back at Carnegie June 15 for the NY premiere of the concert version of his musical "Paradise Lost," which includes electronic beats, anime projections and Japanese drummers, and has been performed in various incarnations since 2003.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Anyone Can Whistle and Inner Voices

I find it easy to agree with professional arts reviews and hard to take the opposing view. Perhaps it's my aversion to conflict and confrontation, perhaps a lack of confidence in the wake of people with more years of thinking critically from red velvet seats. But I found myself slightly at odds with a certain highly regarded local publication with respect to two recent shows.

"Anyone Can Whistle," playing through Sunday as part of City Center's Encores series, confirmed, as opposed to questioned, the collective decision of the original audience. (Other shows, particularly some by Sondheim, have shone in revival after flopping in debut.) The book by Arthur Laurents is still a mess, but several of the songs are worthy to be appreciated as individual works apart from the one for which they were created. And the best presenters of those pieces on Thursday night were Sutton Foster and Raul Esparza. I was underwhelmed by the performance of Donna Murphy. She seemed to shine more as a dancer than a singer, which worked well as part of dance sequences that added some much needed kick to the cheesy plot. (I couldn't help thinking of the less successful Off-Broadway musicals I've seen at New World Stages during certain moments.)

I was excited to see the second installment of Inner Voices, running through April 24 at 59E59, after really enjoying the previous three-parter two years ago at the now-closed Zipper Factory. I think the "solo musical" is a fascinating form that deserves to have a broader repertoire. I loved "Mosaic," the first of two pieces. I also knew Heidi Blickenstaff's work in [title of show], so I was happy to see her perform again. It gently morphed from a digitally aided childhood reminiscence to an adult crossroads imbued with contemporary concerns about legacy. The interaction with the her laptop worked really well and didn't feel as forced as it might have. It felt very true to life since so much of our milestones and conflicts are happening with a computer as intermediary or confidant these days. The music was beautiful as well.

The second act, “Whida Peru: Resurrection Tangle,” seems to be more the popular of the two among professional reviewers, but I found it disappointing. After the initial confusion of the quirky scenario settled down, it became rather thin, trying and repetitive. I also don't think the piano player acting as the voice of the spirit world really worked that well, and didn't understand how the main character's sex change was vital to the story. She seemed overstuffed with werid character traits, quirky for quirks' sake. Maybe I'm becoming less appreciative of work that is good fodder for cerebral description but doesn't produce an emotional impact. That's one of the reasons I love going to the theater. Isn't it why a lot of people do?

Sunday, March 28, 2010

Laura Linney

I had a lot of respect for Laura Linney before we went to see her give an on-stage interview tonight at the 92nd St. Y (my first time at the UES institution) and I left with even more. Sometimes you see long-form talks with actors (late-night TV interviews aren't long enough to really get a real sense of someone, I think: a prompted anecdote or two, some banter, cut to commercial, set up the clip, etc.) and they reveal themselves to be less intelligent or less witty or less captivating that you might assume from their performances. Not so with her. Her talk, with Jordan Roth (the 30-something president of Jujamcyn and son of Daryl and Steven Roth of theater and real estate fame), was so filled with insight it felt like it was a performance she might have rehearsed. Granted, not all of these things are totally earth-shattering, and maybe they're more common if you work in acting or have studied it, but I found them interesting to hear. Some takeaways:

*The sometimes thrice-nightly ringing of cellphones in the middle of shows has added a new obstacle for actors on stage, especially during moments of high drama or tension, she said. Do you pause and wait for the awkward moment to pass or barrel on through as if nothing is different? Of course, there have always been potential interruptions in plays and public speaking (and, say, babies crying in the middle of priests' homilies), but there's something new to this nuisance. Callers don't usually know what they are interrupting, whereas less technological interruptions are often prompted by what's going on in situ.

*She said rehearsal has different definitions in the world of live acting and filmed work. Rehearsing for TV or film can feel more like a "negotiation" ("Can we change this line?") than a chance to delve deeper into the characters. As someone who is used to getting the chance to work through a theater character over and over again, whether in the rehearsal room, in previews or even throughout the run of a show, she said she's surprised at how any good work ever makes it to the screen when so much about TV and film is about getting into the virtual can and moving on. Actors, she said, will be heading home after a day of shooting and only then fully understand what they should've done in a particular scene. She also said that actors have a lot more power on stage than they do on screen.

*She has a reputation for not liking to be photographed, a feeling she's obviously had to get under control as she's become more famous. Elaborating on it tonight, she said she didn't like it because there was something standing in the way of a true human connection. The camera turns it into a one-way street, she said, whereas face-to-face interaction and live theater allow for exchange. She said there's a sound to 500 people listening intently and she knows what it feels like NOT to hear that sound when she's on stage. Audiences become like a single organism, she said. Sometimes they break off into multiple parts, but are always ready to coalesce again.

*I learned that she does not like to sing or doesn't do it very well and thus probably won't be appearing in any musicals. (I'd wondered whether she might someday appear in the Tales of the City musical that I saw in workshop form at the O'Neill last summer, although I'm not sure which role she'd play. It would be a stretch at this point to play Mary Ann Singleton, the role she had in the miniseries of the mid-to-late '90s.)

*One of the costs of being an actress, she said, is missing out on a lot of the regular human milestones and holidays that we might take for granted (weddings, funerals, birthdays, Thanksgiving, etc.) when work calls. If acting is really a vocation, then you have to be OK with getting your life sucked up for weeks or months at a time on a project. And with success also comes the ability of others to shape the way you appear in public, to do things over which a more private person might want to have more control. But even with acting success, you're still an employee at the end of the day, she said, and you hope that you get the chance to work for good people and be a part of good projects.

*One of Linney's next big projects is a dark comedy premiering on Showtime this summer called The Big C, for which she is a producer and the lead actress. Oliver Platt and Gabourey Sidibe also will star.

*She's told this elsewhere before, but her first big show was as an understudy at Lincoln Center Theater in Six Degrees of Separation. She was so excited to see her name in a Playbill, she ran down to greet the arriving pallet of programs, ripped one off, rushed to the women's room and flipped through to find her name, which appeared as "Lavro Linney." She said it's now a nickname of hers among certain friends: Lavro or just Lav.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Won't you take me to Kabletown?

It's fair to say that "30 Rock" is one of the smartest comedies on TV right now, but the writers have been taking it to another level the past few episodes by poking fun at the Comcast-NBC Universal deal. They've always been pretty cheeky about GE and the "Sheinhardt Wig Company" over the years, but the Comcast takeover hasn't even been completed, and they've already written it into the storyline and jokes, usually introduced by Alec Baldwin's character, Jack Donaghy, uttering with disdain: "Kabletown ... with a K" and "a company from ... Philadelphia." (Tina Fey, like me, grew up in the suburbs of Philly.) I guess it's not entirely inappropriate for a sitcom about an SNL-type sketch program, which thrives on topical humor. But it still feels a little brave, especially since the show's ratings aren't as good as NBC would probably want them to be. Or course, NBC probably feels that way about a lot of its shows. (Cue the part where the Kabletown exec tells Jack that buying NBC counts as a charitable donation.) Maybe it's gallows humor.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

March warmth

The simple act of running into people you know in parts of the city you wouldn't expect is one of those things that makes me perk up and smile at life. It happened twice this past weekend, when we truly started to shake off the chill of snarky, wintry portmanteaus (snowmageddon, snowpocalypse, snowicane) and revel in the earnest joy of spring. Or if not the season itself, then the promise of it. We passed a fellow chorister from the parish at 96th Street while walking down from Hamilton Heights to see Riverbank State Park. The next day, we saw one of a former co-worker of mine in the Botanical Garden near Fordham. Where warm-weather dreams were concerned, some imagination was required: Along the Hudson, the outdoor pool was still empty, of course, and the nearby water-play area still had slow-melting remnants of the most recent blizzard. But the Bronx conservatory's rain-forest room packed an instant thrill of tropical heat that made me think of Costa Rica as I tied my North Face around my waist and folded my long sleeves up to the elbows. An unlimited-ride MetroCard and a corporate membership offered a few, low-cost moments of kinship with those vacationing Facebook friends and their remotely uploaded photos from the actual Caribbean.