Sunday, June 26, 2011

A Masterful 'Master Class' Brightens the Post-Tony Season

Tyne Daly.  Photo by Joan Marcus

Normally, the weeks following the Tony Awards are a down time for new productions on Broadway, a space in which to catch up with shows you haven’t gotten around to as yet or to make a return visit to ones you’ve already seen.

So how amazing is it that we are being gifted this summer with not just one, but with two likely candidates for Tony nominations for 2011-2112—one for best revival of a play, the other for best revival of a musical!

I speak of the masterful production of Terrence McNally’s Master Class, now in previews at the Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, and the forthcoming production of the iconic Stephen Sondheim musical, Follies, set to open later this summer at the Marquis. Both of these are arriving in New York after successful runs at the Kennedy Center.

It is too soon to say much about Follies, especially since casting has yet to be solidified, but I do want to sing the praises of whomever it was who decided to give New York theatergoers the opportunity to see and hear it performed with a full 28-member orchestra and with Jonathan Tunick’s original orchestrations. No tuba-totin’ Sally in this production!

Meanwhile, there is Master Class, starring the über-talented Tyne Daly as the operatic über-diva Maria Callas in McNally’s Tony-winning play, which he based on a series of actual master classes that Callas conducted for opera students at Juilliard in the 1970s (closing in on the end of her life, as it happens, lending the play some extra poignancy.)

On the face of it, Ms. Daly is not an obvious choice to play the role of the famous—some would say infamous—jet-setting, self-promoting, and, at least as depicted in Master Class, well-past-her-singing-prime soprano.

“I’m not glamorous, I don’t have a look, I don’t know anything about opera, I have no Italian, and I’m too old,” Ms. Daly is quoted as saying of herself in a recent New York Times Magazine profile.

Assuming all of these things not to be merely a matter of false modesty, then it must have taken a lot of mut (German for “courage” or “guts,” a word the character of Callas—who certainly had a lot of mut herself—says is the only thing German she is partial to) for Ms. Daly to take on the role.

The pants suit and scarf created for her by Martin Pakledinaz and the wig by Paul Huntley take care of the glamor; wonderful acting takes care of the rest.

When the original production of Master Class opened on Broadway in 1995, it won a ton of praise for its star Zoe Caldwell as well as for the then 25-year-old Audra McDonald as one of the young students who face Callas’s critical review of their singing. That production ran for just shy of 600 performances, with Patti LuPone (and later, Dixie Carter) stepping into the lead role after Caldwell's departure.  It was Ms. LuPone whom I saw in the role, and what I recall is a Maria Callas with a load of arrogance, a vicious tongue, and a dismissive attitude toward the young and vulnerable vocal students who paraded before her.

Ms. Daly’s take is far different and rather more complex.  For one thing, her Callas has a real sense of humor--laced with sarcasm, yes, but a gentle sarcasm that is actually quite funny.

When she speaks of Joan Sutherland, for instance, she pauses as if trying to find a way to be kind, before finally settling on “she did her best.”  

That line, and similar put-downs, would have been delivered by Ms. LuPone as if she truly meant them to stab; instead Ms. Daly gives us an experienced crowd-pleaser who knows how to play to a gathering of admirers.

Indeed, the early lines of the play are directed straight to the audience, as if we were actually there to observe these master classes. We’re told, for example, that we have no “look,” and that if we are unable to hear everything she has to say, “it’s your fault; you’re not concentrating.” Again, as you might imagine, these lines could be delivered as if spewed forth by a harridan.

But Ms. Daly’s Callas is no Nazi bitch from hell; rather she is audience-savvy, intelligent, and insightful about her craft.  And—despite her occasional lapses into reverie and at least one moment where she forgets to contract her claws—she provides what sounds to this amateur opera-goer to be good advice to the students.

By the way, the three students, played by Sierra Boggess, Alexandra Silber, and Garrett Sorenson, are wonderfully cast and—to the extent we are allowed to hear them sing without interruption—have lovely voices.  Jeremy Cohen as the accompanist Manny and Clinton Brandhagen as the unimpressed stagehand also do excellent work. It is a pleasure to see an entire company of actors so in sync.  

Bravo as well to director Stephen Wadsworth and to scenic designer Thomas Lynch, who makes us feel as though we were in a studio or small auditorium where a real master class would be taking place.

I’d be remiss if I were to suggest that Master Class is utter perfection. It could use some editing, and surely little would be lost if the near schizophrenic “conversations” Callas has with Aristotle Onassis, the long-time lover who discarded her for the even more glamorous Jacqueline Kennedy, were to be excised. I wonder, too, about Ms. Daly’s shifting accent (vaguely Greco-Roman, mixed with traces of German), but all in all, this is a splendid production that should garner at least a couple of Tony nominations (revival of a play, leading actress) when the time comes.

A masterful kickoff to the new theater year!

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Monday, June 13, 2011

Idle Thoughts About the 2011 Tony Awards Show

Frances McDormand: Dressed for the Red Carpet?
Whoopi Goldberg as Guinan?

I generally do not indulge in the annual folly of predicting Tony Award winners, but that doesn’t mean I don’t enjoy indulging in the morning-after folly of commenting on the event itself.

So, if you are interested, here are my random notes from the 2011 Tony Awards ceremonies that I watched on television from the living room sofa, just as most of you probably did.   

To begin with, I liked that the venue was changed from Radio City Music Hall to the Beacon Theater, regardless of whatever problems were caused by its smaller size (2894 seats as opposed to RCMH’s 5,933). The huge stage of Radio City, which had a prior booking by Cirque du Soleil, has always seemed too big for the production numbers, both visually and in the way it swallowed the sound.  Last night, all the numbers had an equal chance to try to sell themselves.

Neil Patrick Harris was a charming and congenial host.  I liked his opening and closing numbers, as well as his banter with Hugh (“I only play the big rooms”) Jackman, himself a charming and congenial four-time host who was given a spot just for the banter (“Any show you can host, I can host better…”)

The clever opening number, written by David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger, who wrote the score for Cry-Baby, made gentle fun of the notion that Broadway attracts only a small segment of the population: 

It’s not just for gays…for gays and the Jews,
And cousins in from out of town you have to amuse,
The sad and bitter malcontents who write the reviews

And, at the close, we were treated to Harris’s performance of a quickly-penned “insta-rap” summation of the evening, written by Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator and star of In The Heights.  Sample line, referencing a performance by one of the stars of The Book of Mormon:

            Andrew Rannells sang “I Believe” and he landed it
So well now he’s Mitt Romney’s V.P. candidate

Before I discuss the production numbers and the awards, do allow me a Joan Rivers Red Carpet moment by asking of Frances McDormand and Whoopi Goldberg:  What were they wearing?  And why?

Ms. McDormand, who picked up what was certainly a well-deserved Tony for lead actress in a play (Good People), came out on stage wearing a most unflattering red and black-striped shmata, over which she wore a cheap denim jacket.  And Whoopi Goldberg, who introduced the number from Sister Act, the musical for which is producer, wore an outfit that looked as if it belonged in the closet of Guinan, the futuristic character she played in Star Trek:  The Next Generation.  Not that it really matters.  Just sayin’.

Good to see Larry Kramer up there on stage as his play, The Normal Heart, took the Tony for best revival (along with acting awards for featured performances by Ellen Barkin and John Benjamin Hickey).  Too bad Joe Mantello didn’t win for best actor in a leading role.  That honor went to Mark Rylance for his work in Jerusalem, a play I found tedious to sit through.  For his acceptance speech, in keeping with the anti-establishment character he plays in Jerusalem, Rylance chose to recite an oddball piece, a "prose poem" by Louis Jenkins titled Walking Through A Wall.  It begins: 

               Unlike flying or astral projection, walking through 
               walls is a totally earth-related craft, but a lot more  
               interesting than pot making or driftwood lamps...

Make of it what you will.

As for the the musical production numbers, they all made for good advertising plugs for their respective shows.  The best of these was the title song from Anything Goes, which showed off as much as anything choreographer Kathleen Marshall’s brilliant work, so that it seemed right for both the show and Ms. Marshall to pick up top honors.  A close second was the song “I Believe” from The Book of Mormon, thanks to the terrific performance by one of the show’s stars, Andrew Rannells. 

Even the much ridiculed Spiderman:  Turn Off The Dark (Neil Patrick Harris allotted 30 seconds for some lame Spiderman jokes, though a couple more slipped through during the course of the evening) had its moment in the sun with a well-produced tender little tune from the yet-to-officially-open show. 

And even though The Scottsboro Boys was honored only through its many nominations (trounced pretty much at every turn by The Book of Mormon), it does seem that a national tour is in the cards—at least according to Don Cheadle, who introduced the medley of upbeat and winningly performed numbers from the show.  That few minutes of air time ought to sell some tickets for a show that deserves to be seen by many more than caught it during its short Broadway run.  

And you gotta hand it to Norbert Leo Butz, who picked up the Tony for best performance by a lead actor in a musical for his role in Catch Me If You Can.  Butz always gives 110% and would carry any show solely on his back if he could.  (Did you happen to see him in the otherwise tepid Enron last year?)  He sold the number from Catch Me If You Can as well as anyone ever could, although I have to confess I preferred the few moments of singing by Aaron Tveit that preceded the main number. 

Speaking of Mr. Butz, his acceptance speech was one of the more gracious and humble ones I’ve heard in a long time, and it made for an emotional moment when he paid tribute to his sister, without playing up the fact that she was murdered in what was deemed to be a homophobic hate crime at the time when her brother was in the midst of rehearsals for Catch Me If You Can.

There were, of course, some other moments that I could have lived without—some long-winded or under-prepared acceptance speeches, some bits of entertainment that weren’t so entertaining, and a repeat performance of a number from last year’s winning musical—but on a whole, this was one of the better Tony Awards shows in recent years, with more Broadway show people and fewer drop-ins from Hollywood, better timing, better acoustics, and good solid hosting. 

Nice way to wrap up a year of Broadway theater-going.  Bravo!

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Monday, June 6, 2011

Welcome to the Magical World of Tony Kushner's 'The Illusion'

Amanda Quaid, Peter Bartlett, and Finn Wittrock

Here’s a trivia question for you.

What do these two plays have in common: A Free Man of Color, John Guare’s off-kilter take on US history that played last fall at the Vivian Beaumont, and Tony Kushner’s The Illusion, now on display at the Signature Theatre Company’s Peter Norton Space?

The answer is, they both give a nod to a 17th century French playwright by the name of Pierre Corneille, prolific and successful in his time but rather less well-known nowadays than his contemporaries Molière and Racine.

In Guare’s play, Corneille is the supposed father of the title character, Jacques Cornet. For his part, Kushner based The Illusion on Corneille’s L’Illusion Comique, in which Corneille wove elements of classicism and commedia del’arte into a kind of tragi-comedy along the lines of one of Shakespeare’s “problem plays,” say Measure for Measure or A Winter’s Tale. (Come to think of it, that tragi-comedy motif does seem to run through Guare’s work as well.)

The Illusion is the third and last of Kushner’s plays being presented by Signature this season (following Angels in America and The Intelligent Homosexual’s Guide to Capitalism and Socialism With a Key to the Scriptures.) Originally produced in 1988, three years before Angels was unveiled, The Illusion is unlike pretty much everything that Kushner has written since, a work that owes as much to Shakespeare as to Corneille (I detected references to Hamlet, The Merchant of Venice, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, and The Tempest) and one that uses heightened language, poetry, and romantic imagery, while throwing in a mix of modernism, all to great effect.

Being unfamiliar with L’Illusion Comique, I can only discuss The Illusion based on its own merits, of which there are plenty, despite Kushner’s seeming unwillingness to acknowledge that pencils have erasers as well as points (which is to say the play, which does sag occasionally, could stand a 20-minute trim).

The Illusion opens very dramatically and spookily in the dark (the spookiness is splendidly aided and abetted by Bray Poor’s just-right sound design that includes creepy echoes and hawk screeches). The elderly Pridamant of Avignon (depicted here most magnificently by David Margulies, one of the production’s three terrific stage veterans) has entered the grotto of the magician Alcandre.

Pridamant is desirous of finding out what has become of long-estranged son, whom he kicked out of his home 15 years previously. It seems that time has softened some of the edges, and Pridament wants to bring about some sort of reconciliation before he dies. Alcandre (the resplendent Lois Smith, veteran actor #2, in a role usually played by a man) agrees to help, and as the play unfolds, Alcandre shows Pridamant various scenes from the son’s life.

In the three scenes, which shift in style and mood, the son’s personality runs the gamut from callow romantic to callous womanizer. Finn Wittrock does a fine job in the shifting roles, as do Sean Dugan as his chief rival, and Amanda Quaid and Merritt Wever as the women in his life. Wever plays a spunky maid of the type often found in a Molière play, though I must confess she is so modern in her outlook that at one point I half expected her to start singing  "The Miller’s Son" from Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music.

Peter Bartlett, veteran actor #3, does a laugh-out-loud star turn in the wildly comic role of Matamore, another would-be rival, who transforms over time into a dreamy and lost soul seeking to find his way to a life of solitude...on the moon, no less

While I am handing out praise, I want to recognize the splendid original music by Nico Muhly, the costume design by Susan Hilferty, the set design by Christine Jones, and the best swordplay I have seen in a very long time, thanks to fight director Rick Sordelet. All of the strange and powerful proceedings are well-directed by Michel Mayer.

On many different levels, this lovely play is infused with magic, in which Alcandre is assisted by her (sometimes) deaf and mute servant (the excellent Henry Stram), who offers his own touch of strangeness and shape-shifting to the goings-on.

But ultimately, it is the magic of theater that prevails—a wonderful message for any dedicated theater buff to walk away with, and a splendid way to bid adieu to the old Peter Norton Space as the Signature Theatre Company prepares to move to its new home (designed by architect Frank Gehry) down the street. 

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