Archive for March, 2010

Cooper’s London

March 24, 2010




Ruthie Henshall: Chicago Express 
West End to Broadway in 48 Hours!

 I’ve always been a fan, ever since her dazzling turns in Crazy for You and She Loves Me! In fact, she’s been a non-stop pleasure in everything she’s done—even the flops! So I had a wonderful time interviewing Ruthie Henshall (called by Encore Magazine, UK, ”probably the greatest musical performer in Britain”) backstage at the West End’s decade-long revival of Kander and Ebb’s eternal hit. She’s done it all*, brilliantly (even playing both Velma and Roxie in New York), and is taking Roxie trans-Atlantic again in record time. Her last night on stage in London is April 24; she’ll open in New York on April 26. (I hope she’s on a flight where you can rent a bed.) Our YouTube conversation:

*To learn more about Ruthie:
FROM OUT OF THE PAST:  Flirting With Disaster

If you’re in London for some memorable theatre and you can’t get tickets for Jerusalem, then my advice is: go for seats for Schnitzler’s Sweet Nothings at the Young Vic.

Just as Jerusalem is one of the best contemporary plays of the moment, with a totally spot-on production and superb acting, Sweet Nothings, originally Liebelei (1895), by Arthur Schnitzler, is a wonderfully gripping rendering (in a very accessible new version by David Harrower) of one of the landmarks of fin-de-siècle Viennese theatre as it embraced the modernity of playwrights like Chekhov, Strindberg, Ibsen, and Schnitzler himself. Liebelei has a quality that also reminds me of early Eugene O’Neill.

Though Liebelei takes you back to the world of stifling conventions and duels of honour in the final decadence of the Hapsburg Empire, Schnitzler’s questioning of and avant-garde reactions to his world are very clear in the drama; the struggles of the characters, their sexual and moral confusions, are brilliantly realized by a group of fine actors. It’s consistently captivating, at times hilarious, and also a troubling play that satisfies on many levels.

For lovers of television’s The Tudors, Natalie Dormer (Anne Boleyn) shines as the overtly good-time Mitzi; Kate Burdette is simply superb as Christine, making the most of her remarkable final scene; and newcomer Tom Hughes claims the stage as Fritz. Watch the characters shape-shift, growing and changing before your eyes. They display strengths of resolve and emotion, or weaknesses of moral understanding, that you never expected; you go out into the night thinking about them.

The ensemble work of the whole, smallish cast is impeccable. The play is performed in a simple, revolving set by Karl-Ernst Herrmann that hints at both Art Deco and the gemütlichkeit of the era; as do the evocative costumes by Moidele Bickel. But the form and approach of the play are completely modern.

Luc Bondy’s production does what a good evening in the theatre should do: I was always in the moment, and got real pleasure out of the stagecraft and acting. but I’m still pondering the characters, their reactions, how it could have been different—and the meaning of living in Vienna 1900. Having just read Stefan Zweig’s moving and thought-provoking novel, Beware of Pity, I was also struck by the cross-echoes between the two works. I recommend this novel as an appendix to the play, and vice-versa.

Sweet Nothings plays at the Young Vic until 10 April. Make time and space for it!

Down in the Depths

From 26 March until 17 April you can also catch the revival of a fascinating promenade play, Kursk, at the Young Vic, created by the Sound and Fury company . You’ll find yourself doing exercises with the crew, spying on the Russian fleet. When the Kursk is trapped beneath the sea and your ship is the nearest one in a position to rescue the sailors, fellow-human beings doing the same job as you, you want to help (instead of worrying about the “enemy” political system under which they live). But if you go to their rescue, you will reveal you have been in the area spying. A dilemma! It’s a taut, compelling evening.




A Small Warning

The 1970 play Serenading Louie by Lanford Wilson is on at the Donmar Warehouse until 27 March. It is best avoided unless you have a very curious turn of mind or are desperate to see Jason O’Mara (of the US version of Life on Mars) live on stage. The good news is that, because it’s the Donmar, you probably can’t get tickets anyway.

I know they loved it in New York. Maybe they could do the style then; maybe it seemed innovative at the time. I bet the accents didn’t slip into British occasionally, either. Serenading Louie was one of the first of what were called the Big Chill dramas, and it left me and everyone I know very cold indeed as a play. You are better off spending your time reading John Updike’s Rabbit, Run or Philip Roth’s American Pastoral if you want to know more about disappointed jocks discovering that the American dream has disintegrated in their grasp.

That said, the performances redeem what I think is a truly dreary and mundane play, especially Jason O’Mara’s, though he does not quite plumb the depths of the character’s fury at his frustrations with the world. I didn’t much like the faux melodramatic ending either, but admired his performance of it.




Change of Heart + Mind: Romeo + Juliet + Rupert Goold

 I sat through Rupert Goold’s production of Romeo and Juliet at Stratford last week. I know I’m still a minority voice, but once again I was disappointed; his approach is glitzy, theatrical and superficial. Like a Chinese meal, you will be hungry again for more an hour later. At times, line readings and interpretation were beside the point.

 The play certainly looks good and the audience seemed to find it fascinating; and it ‘s a much better script for Goold to work with than Enron. At least it has believable characters, real motivation, brilliant structure , and a future!

I’m not sorry I saw it, but it has left very little behind. I felt very little for Romeo or Juliet as they died in their tomb, though the balcony scene was rather good. I also could not figure out why everyone was dressed in period costume, while Romeo and Juliet were dressed in contemporary hoodies, but I am sure there is some deep philosophical reason for this; and for suggesting it is set in gloomy Inquisition-ridden Spain instead of sunny Italy. Nevertheless, if you insist on revisiting the tomb, Romeo and Juliet is in repertory at Stratford throughout this summer.

I saw the Prokofiev ballet at the Royal Opera House recently and felt it did better service to Shakespeare than this production of the actual play. If you want to attend the RSC this season, I suspect that David Farr’s King Lear starring Greg Hicks (returning this coming May), and Antony and Cleopatra ,with the consistently wonderful and amazing Kathryn Hunter as Cleopatra, will be far better bets. And Gregory Doran, who can do no wrong, is devising a Morte d’Arthur, June 11 – August 28; all in rep ( for schedule).


The Phantom Returns: Pulp Fiction at the Opera

I’ve always liked the idea of Eternal Love. But – despite ten million pounds in advance ticket sales–Love Never Dies, the show (by Andrew Lloyd-Webber) is a bit of a vampire sucking the blood of its previous successes: It is Undead! (And am I wrong, or does its Big Hit Tune echo “Tara’s Theme” from Gone With the Wind ?)

 I wouldn’t want to go too deeply into the convoluted plot that makes the Phantom himself head entrepreneur of Coney Island in 1867 (Barnum and Ziegfeld, eat your hearts out!); brings to Coney Island a troubled Christine and Raoul ten years later than the Phantom story; or posits some sexual stuff that never could have happened in the first story (but without which there is no plot for the sequel you might want to call Death Wish 2). After all, it’s only a musical.

So I moved on, deciding to forget the anachronisms as well, like the Art Deco-style sets (a good half-a-century too early), because maybe that just showed how cutting-edge the Phantom was as a producer. And I did like the quasi-Betty Grable “by the sea” number in Act Two (20th Century Fox all the way), for the delightful and very talented Summer Stralen. If she can get through this mashup so brilliantly, imagine what she will do with a really good part!

But I was irritated by the forced New-Singing-in-the-Musical style designed to pump up the emotions, the ersatz plot—all fake seriousness and drab posturing—a totally inane story (wannabe melodramawhere are you David Belasco, when we need your dramatic sincerity and wit?), and most of the forgettable music.

The score was simply recycled from the previous shows (or Max Steiner) and clearly designed, like the singing, to get that obligatory standing ovation at the end. Truthfully, Love Never Dies felt like a show put together by solely by the numbers, right down to the Act One surprise twist and the Act Two jaunty opening.

Yet it wasn’t entirely despicable: the cast gets high marks for working with true commitment, no matter what. The Phantom (Ramin Karimloo, who would have an intresting voice if he didn’t have to push it all the time), and Raoul (Joseph Millson, whose recent comic turn in The Priory was very appealing and more interestingbut then, he had an intelligent script and an appealing and consistent character to work with) are rather good; Liz Roberson, as Madame Giry does a fine imitation of Judith Anderson as Mrs. Danvers in Rebecca (only she wants to push Christine off the pier instead of out a window); but Sierra Boggess’ Christine seriously made me miss Kathryn Grayson. There was a time…

I can’t see why, if he was so interested in the period, Andrew Lloyd Webber didn’t do something with Gangs of New York, Herbert Asbury’s 1927 book about the 19th-century, say.

With Love Never Dies, we have a new genre: Pulp Musicalcreated with the same cynical approach but far less authentic lowbrow energyto milk the audience. This show puts the Con back into Coney Island. And it did get its standing ovation at the end, so clearly the scam works. But, alas, not for me.

Update: Love Never Dies was scheduled to be resuscitated in New York this November; it’s just been postponed til next year…..

Apollo’s Girls

March 23, 2010

On the Road:

March 9, 2010

Planes, Trains, and Automobiles

There was not one empty seat on Lufthansa’s flight 413 to Munich, no legroom, and no sleep to be had. But when they said it was snowing in Germany, they really meant it; what looked like  two feet of the stuff blanketed cities, fields, and trees. Munich was like fairyland and Dessau, where I went to visit the Bauhaus (by train) remained unshoveled. But—hear this, New Yorkers—it also remained white!

On the train to Leipzig (it was actually late!), dozens of academics were poring over last-minute presentation edits before disembarking for a big congress. The best news (hear this one): cellphone users are required to leave their seats for the vestibule while calling! One young professor became livid when the caller in back of him conversed in what we would consider a whisper, insisting that the miscreant follow the rules. With downcast eyes, he made the remainder of his call behind glass. I wanted to stand up and cheer.

In Dessau, the Bauhaus looked like the icon it is; clean, restored, tech rooms humming with electronics and post-graduates trying to solve the problem of shrinking cities. The Masters’ Houses shimmered with their original dense wall colors, discovered under decades of flat white, adding a new element of design. The canteen was full of students studying, imagining, eating drinking and talking. Can they do it again in a way that counts for now? They are certainly trying. The winter is cold and quiet, but tourists will be coming as soon as it warms up, hoping to catch a bit of the original fire.

On to England, where the standout was a stay in Oxford with my co-blogger, Mel Cooper, and a visit to the newly refurbished Ashmolean Museum, England’s oldest (1643). In its lower-level tutorial rooms, England’s best and brightest have invented thrilling ways to present mankind’s epic climb from the primordial slime up into civilization, and to lead you inexorably into the collection itself. I cried. It’s a must! (P.S.: the shop has booty from all over the world. My favorite: a purple pencil with the museum’s name, capped by a silvery miniature eagle with SPQR on its base (₤1).

Then, to London and the Austrian Cultural Forum for an exhibition of Wolf Suschitsky’s life work. He’s now 98, and his photos of landmark events and personalities cover the walls and most of the 20th century. The Forum’s low-key (but hip) director, Peter Mikl, showed me through the building’s recent makeover. Its elegant 19th-century Rutland Place mansion has been modernized, but well and truly understood; they’ve kept the luscious rugs and furniture, the contemporary art, painted everything white, and removed the walls between its adjoining front and back stairs—rendering the old upstairs/downstairs class system literally (and slyly) transparent. The Forum hosts and co-produces a wealth of terrific programs within, and all around London. Be sure to check their Web site if you’re planning a trip.





A Day at the Young Vic, a Night at the National Health

Finally, looking forward to the premiere of I Am Yusuf and This Is My Brother at the Young Vic, (it’s reviews were enthusiastic), Mel and I found our own real-life drama on a different stage. Mel fell just before curtain time, tearing essential ligaments and muscles, and causing excruciating pain. The theater staff produced tea and sympathy, found a wheelchair, and called a nearby hospital. A paramedic came almost at once with a medivan, helped Mel into it, and we sped to St. Thomas’ Hospital as guests of the National Health.

First of all, the emergency room (as at any private hospital in the US) was crowded, mandating a certain amount of triage. Unless you’ve sustained gunshot wounds, a heart attack, a stroke, or have been run down by a bus, you will have to wait. But there all comparisons ended. The emergency room was also calm and quiet, and as soon as Mel had been asked if he was allergic to any medications, the nurse gave him painkillers (without the allergens). This made the wait infinitely more endurable.

We landed eventually in the orthopedic quarter, where Mel was put on a gurney to rest until a doctor could be summoned to order an X-ray. Meantime, Nurse Helen introduced herself by saying (cheerfully!) “How can I help?” She and her colleagues did everything to make the wee hours less tedious; when I asked if there was any nearby takeaway,  she said, “Oh, we have sandwiches. Not a huge selection, but they’re not bad.” There were four kinds. When asked what we owed her, she explained that the hospital kept them on hand for staff and patients at no charge. We chose two to share (they weren’t bad)! An hour later, Nurse Helen took a coffee break, and asked if she could bring us anything. We chose tea. It, and she, returned ten minutes later. Question: When was the last time you were in an emergency room that was quiet, or where a nurse offered sandwiches and tea?

Eventually, the doctor arrived: a lovely young woman from the sub-Continent with a luminous smile. She wheeled Mel to X-ray herself. Soon she reappeared with the good news that nothing was broken, that Mel would be given crutches (and some practical tips on how to use them from Nurse Helen), more pain medication, and the promise of visits from a nurse practitioner and physiotherapist at home until he was mended.

We took a taxi back to Oxford after nine hours at the hospital, and a burning need on my part to ask why, exactly, so many Americans refuse to believe (without a shred of evidence) that a Public Option run solely to minister to the sick (rather than to make the biggest profit possible from their misery) is also run much more humanely? Not to mention the fact that it is entirely free. And that we are, in fact, the only country in the Western world without a national health plan.

And One More Thing…

Given the sorry programming at BBC America, riddled with commercials, I couldn’t leave England without tuning in to the mother lode: the BBC itself. What a difference! Caught Part One of an extraordinary documentary: The Legacy of Lawrence of Arabia. Not done on the cheap (and every pound visible on the screen), it was a reality check on the enormous gulf for English-speaking TV viewers that is the Atlantic Ocean.

Legacy weaves together current deployment, the testimony of several high-ranking Arabists, Lawrence’s saga, clips from the feature film with Peter O’Toole, and some archival footage of key players of 90 years ago–with lessons in Arab culture and tribal structures. It is amazingly lucid and gripping, as well as a paradigm for what can be accomplished with skill, will, and talent.

Presented by the protean Rory Stewart (a scholar, epic hiker, Tory candidate for Parliament, and perhaps contender for Prime Minister in the long run), Legacy is probably too smart and too controversial for broadcast in the US. But there is a ray of hope: Brad Pitt has bought the rights to produce a film about Stewart, starring Orlando Bloom. “That’s correct,” says the elfin Stewart,” but I’d have been better played by Danny De Vito.”

Then there’s the no-holds-barred Q.I., Stephen Fry’s weekly romp with a panel of sharp-tongued panelists, that asks questions and has a marvelous time riposting with the answers. Not only brilliant, but very, very funny. And, like Legacy, with no commercials. There is a Utopia… And it has just laid off 25% of its staff.

Back home, caught Donald Margulies’ Time Stands Still on Broadway—wonderfully literate and up-to-date, with standout performances by everyone in the cast: Daniel Sullivan has directed with his usual perfect pitch for modern dilemmas. And speaking of perfect pitch: also caught the newest cast (the third) in Yasmina Reza’s God of Carnage. Director Matthew Warchus shares Sullivan’s gift, and has been blessed by the God of Comic Timing. The play’s sharp edges and antic physicality are now being deployed brilliantly by Dylan Baker, Jeff Daniels, Lucy Liu, and Janet McTeer.

The Guggenheim: Happy Birthday in Plain Site

March 5, 2010

Forget the boring speeches and stiff-necked platitudes that mark most public occasions; the Guggenheim is celebrating its 50th anniversary with some very original re-thinking of its mission and—from roof to rotunda—its fabled space. First, its spiral ramp has been denuded of art and filled instead with visitors on the hoof; all part of the interactive An Accidental Encounter, by Berlin-based Tino Sehgal.

You walk up the ramp, welcomed by guides who engage you in conversation. They’re very young when you start, and rise in age as you spiral up, until the last few reveal the wisdom of a lifetime. You keep walking, they keep talking. All of them are sociable, and hand you off (just as the dialogue gets interesting) to the next friendly sherpa.

Looking down as you rise, you can glimpse a couple rolling on the floor of the rotunda locked in an extended embrace. They have amazing stamina, and seem to enjoy the rigors of Sehgal’s second conceptual piece, The Kiss. Both works are concerned with connection (more on that below). You can join the dialogue (and appreciate the erotica) until March 10. After the last kiss, a series of special events in the rotunda will take place throughout the season. Plan ahead at

To ramp up the possibilities of Wright’s spiral even further, visit the fourth-floor galleries to see what 200 artists, architects, and designers (if given the chance) would do with it: Contemplating the Void: Interventions in the Guggenheim Museum. The entries are competitive and—fortunately for the viewer—often subversive and hilarious. To be savored through April 28.

Finally, to remember the Guggenheim’s glorious  past, even as you contemplate what’s coming next,  visit Paris and the Avant-Garde: Modern Masters from the Guggenheim Collection (until May 12).

And there’s more! The long-running high-end series, Works & Process is also celebrating— its 25th season. Here, the powers-that-be have come up with some very high-end names to share their creative insights with the high-end crowds that relish them. Though in jet-lag coma, I could not miss The Art of Teaching: Participation and Perception, with dancer Damian Woetzel and Harvard philosopher Michael Sandel. The idea here was to transform spectators into participants. But let’s start by giving their program the name it deserves:

The Sun King and the Messenger of the Gods.

First, Woetzel strode out from backstage in sweatshirt, chinos, and a dazzling smile (you could feel the energy, and it was contagious!) to introduce his pianist and ballerina Tiler Peck for the opening of Balanchine’s Serenade. Seamlessly, he enticed the entire audience (it was a packed house) to stand and perform with him the ballet’s simple, lyrical movements. And, by God, this divine Pied Piper had them up and swaying blissfully in moments, pointing out that “there is a bonding when you dance as one.”

As soon as the audience was reseated, Woetzel presented a clip of Sandel’s legendary Harvard Law School course, Justice — a must-see PBS series that can be streamed (free) online: Seductive in its appeal and seriously over-subscribed, Justice gets students to actually think about great moral questions, and to stand and deliver their opinions in class.

Sandel emerged from behind the screen at clip’s end to thunderous applause. He and Woetzel sat on stools and worked the crowd, spinning their stratospheric web into the evening’s purpose: cerebral and physical participation, engagement, connection! It was effortless, a flow of laughter and serious conversation. The two played off each other with delight. Talk led back to three dancers (Joaquin de Luz, Robert Fairchild and, again, Tiler Peck); Woetzel cut in on Peck, then returned her without breaking a sweat. There was more dialogue  and dance with an outline in place, but one with space, and time, for the inspired riffs that kept the hours alive.

A mischievous, demi-extemporare excerpt from Fancy Free included Woetzel; then Sandel riposted with a discussion of equality and justice…democratic deliberation. A sea of waving hands signalled questions from the audience, and a final treat (from Dances at a Gathering) wrapped it all up. After a standing ovation, the audience virtually floated up to the rotunda reception that follows every Works & Process, and out into the night.

In lesser hands, it might have turned into Art and Ideas Lite. But Woetzel and Sandel are working on another plane entirely. In spite of the evening’s levity, their goal is to “have the audience leave with a new level of awareness of art and of reasoning, to relish great questions and great creativity….” I’d have to say they succeeded brilliantly. Experiences like this are an endangered species; you are lucky to be in the house when they occur.

Upcoming Works & Process programs include events designed to further extend the use of rotunda and ramp – many of them interdisciplinary explorations of art, music, movement, and space; Hypermusic: Ascension; Vertical Opera; Icarus at the Edge of Time; another celebration (American Ballet Theatre at 70), and a heady mix of cutting-edge darlings and household names ( for a complete schedule).  Because many of its ventures are at capacity, advance ticketing is recommended. So is arriving early, to marvel at who’s in the audience with you.

There’s no other series in the city like Works & Process; it’s exhilarating, exquisite nourishment that has, like the Guggenheim, reinvented itself with a fresh and fearless look at the future. Do yourself a favor and connect to it.

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