Archive for May, 2015

Cooper’s London

May 26, 2015





Old Tunes/Best Tunes (Again)…

With too many stages awash in irrelevant updates that gypsyforgo context and intentions, it’s a pleasure to welcome back two old friends who simply refuse to go out of style. First, you must definitely see the Gypsy that recently opened at the Savoy Theatre. Jonathan Kent’s meticulous production recreates the original approach but also glosses the characters with real subtlety so that both the “play” (or book), the songs and show numbers are balanced perfectly against each other. The imaginative new orchestrations by Nicholas Skilbeck and Tom Kelly are brilliantly and brightly played by a superb pit band under Skilbeck that certainly has the right pulse and sound—they remind you what a brilliant composer Jule Styne was.

This is, I would say, is Styne’s most consistently theatrical score, and the lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and book by Arthur Laurents are as trenchant and gripping as anything they ever did.

pulver+suttonThere are many good reasons to revive this show (originally Ethel Merman’s calling card); one of the most compelling is having Imelda Staunton in Merman’s part as Mama Rose. She has most of the stentorian tones that are needed for the role as originally written and her interpretation of the brassy Madame Rose has an underpinning of pathos and pain that are superbly touching at unexpected moments.

But the entire cast is superb. Lara Pulver manages
the transition from the shy, wallflower Louise to stripper Gypsy Rose Lee very convincingly—and also has a lovely voice; Peter Davison is charming and appealing as Herbie; and Gemma Sutton is excellent as the appalling, frustrated and hardened older Dainty June. Special mention should also be made of Dan Burton’s Tulsa and his standout dance routine. As for that gimickevergreen icon “You Gotta Get a Gimmick:” Anita Louise Combe and Julie Legrand are delightful as Tessie Tura and Electra, while the uber-talented Louise Gold is a superb trumpet-blowing Miss Mazeppa. She not only bumps and grinds but has managed to inject the perfect rasp into her voice for the part. The three strippers are a highlight of a show that is inventive and generous in its stagecraft. The material never flags; it also makes one want to read Gypsy Rose Lee’s memoirs, upon which this musical is based.

I could quibble that the production is traditional and not Gypsy-A-Memoir-by-Gypsy-Rose-Leeparticularly revelatory of anything new about the show, but with such an energetic and exceptionally strong cast and such attention to detail both musically and dramatically, it would be invidious.

If you are pining for a reliable night of music theatre that also tells a terrific story via some memorable performances and with a central star turn that is as good as it gets, this is the show for you.

Of course, people who only know Staunton as Vera Drake or from the Harry Potter films will probably be surprised that she is a subtle and classy musical comedy star; but those of us who saw her as a virtually definitive Miss Adelaide in thesavoy National Theatre’s Guys and Dolls years ago will be delighted to rediscover aspects of her talent that don’t get enough attention or exercise. Another bonus is the theatre itself, the Savoy being one of the most interesting venues in the West End with its silver-coated art deco design.

This Gypsy is a fine example of the current trend in the UK for revivals of 20th century theatre pieces that evoke the original production. Now here’s an idea: if only there were talents (and funds) out there for new material for people like Staunton or Pulver and for building original, contemporary shows on them the way they used to for Mary Martin or Ethel Merman…

Suffering Salesman:

Willy Loman still has what it takes

death of a salesmanSecond, opt for Greg Doran’s excellent and moving production of Arthur Miller’s iconic play, Death of a Salesman, now finishing a run at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford and is moving to the West End in London on May 9. It’s already selling out, so get your tickets before it opens (on May 9). Like Gypsy, it’s another perfect example of if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t fix it.

As always, Doran reads and interprets the text without imposing any extraneous thoughts from the outside, but mines its meanings and moods with great subtlety and sensitivity. He has forged a superb ensemble of actors working seamlessly together, and produced results that I think would please Arthur Miller himself. It looks very good on the large thrust stage of Stratford’s main theatre. The design by Stephen Brimson Lewis is superbly faithful to the stage directions and concept of the original text and makes full use of the facilities of the house; the lighting by Tim Mitchell helps distinguish between the action that is in the real present and that which is inside Willy Loman’s head. With a poignant jazz score by Paul Englishby to accompany and underscore the action, the characters of Miller’s modern day American tragedy are set in a suitable context.

Anthony Sher powerfully portrays the ageing salesman betrayed by his dreams of glory

Death of a Salesman performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company Sam Marks as Happy, Antony Sher as Willy Loman,  Alex Hassell as Biff ©Alastair Muir 01.04.15

Death of a Salesman performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company
Sam Marks as Happy, Antony Sher as Willy Loman, Alex Hassell as Biff
©Alastair Muir 01.04.15

and his belief in the System. Alex Hassell and Sam Marks achieve faultless transitions from being his damaged grown-up sons in the “now” to being their hopeful and energetic adolescent selves in his memories and dreams with a superb grasp of the body language and vocal nuances required to portray their different ages on the stage. And for me, Harriet Walter’s is simply the best Linda I’ve ever seen. Her dignity, her fierce loyalty to her husband, her questionable collusion in his dreams that are as much a source of the unconscious damage done to her sons as are Willy Loman’s expectations, are superbly conveyed. All the smaller parts are also well-taken and deeply understood; but above all Sher’s Loman is breathtakingly sympathetic while also being brutal, insensitive, bullying and angry, a man who cannot face or understand the sources of his personal disaster. From the moment he walks on stage we can see the weight of defeat and disappointment he bears; and the contrasts to his earlier self-belief and inability to question the received opinions of his time are all the more unsettling as his memories unfold. As in Einstein’s theory, time is folded in upon itself and the pressures of the past are very much pushing on the present.

This production does not, like the superb A View frommiller2the Bridge that was recently in London, try to rethink the standard approach to Arthur Miller. Instead it is a perfect embodiment of the classic approach that was first inspired by Miller and Elia Kazan and it is truly, painfully and superbly evocative of the well-made Broadway Play of its era. Minutely detailed and truly engaged with the text and its requirements, this is, indeed, a strong playing out of one of the most important American plays of the twentieth century.

Death of a Salesman finishes at Stratford on 2 May and transfers to the Noel Coward Theatre in London, currently booked to run from 9 May until 18 July. For tickets:

Apollos Girl

May 24, 2015

Art, Music

apollo and lyre



The Oxygen of Ravishing

Absolute perfection makes its own oxygen, and, every once in a while, we get lucky. Recently, at the earthly paradise that is the Morgan Library and Museum, there were four exhibitions in absolute balanceeach one revealing a period and a unique point of view, collectively inspiring a kind of trance to buffer the rasp of city life. morgan 0Beginning with Embracing Modernism (a show to mark the 10th anniversary of the Morgan’s engagement with the 20th century) you could see up close what artists were thinking about as it passed by.

morgan6There were icons on every wall: Matisse; Schiele; a surprising Mondrian landscape(Dunes at Dornburg); a dialogue between Red Grooms and Lyonel Feininger; one of Warhol’s Campbell Soup cans (Tomato) cuddling up to a wad of dollar bills; morgan2outrage about the Vietnam War from Ken Jones and Nancy Spero; the usual mid-century downtown suspects; right up to Marlene Dumas’ morgan1“Confusion as to What Comes Out of Our Hands”almost a hundred in all. Perhaps of variable quality but, taken together, an intimate snapshot of a kinetic century by its close watchers.

Right next door, Piranesi’s majestic drawings of Paestum (on loan from Sir paestumJohn Soane’s Museum) were an 18th-century collector/architect’s (Soane’s) bow to the 6th-century B.C. builders of Paestum’s ruins. Fortunately for us, Soanes met Piranesi near the end of his life, and acquired fifteen of the huge works now at the Morgan. Just look at them! The scale, the detail, the skill with which Piranesi’s pen immortalized the ancient city. It’s the kind of human hymn that no computer working overtime on CAD can ever sing.

Also on the ground floor: Lincoln Speaks: Words that Transformed a Nation. This is a mighty statement, rich in anecdote and including a film, Lincoln Speaks. morgan9It transcends cliches by offering some of the modest catalysts that made Lincoln who he was: Kirkham’s Grammar (he memorized it) which assured him that ”Grammar instructs us how to express our thoughts correctly. Rhetoric teaches us to express them with force and eloquence.” There is a cast of the morgan10hands responsible for writing the documents inseparable from the man, and the documents themselves: the Inaugural Address of 1865; the Thirteenth Amendment to the Constitution (Abolition); the Emancipation Proclamation; and Walt Whitman’s “O Captain!, my Captain! our fearful trip is done…” written by the grief-stricken poet after Lincoln’s assassination. There is no dry history hereonly a deep well of emotion that takes hours to subside. Like all the Morgan’s shows, it can be revisited on line.

morgan 7Finally, a ride up in the glass elevators to see Barbara Wolff’s Hebrew Illumination in Our Timelike Piranesi, a bow to the distant past. But here, Wolff chooses to employ the painstaking techniques of the medieval monks who dedicated themselves to Biblical volumes . She chooses the Old Testament, gold leaf, the richest colors and exuberant imagery to celebrate her texts. A film reveals her technique. This one can be also found online to savor at leisure.

One last glance: from June 26-October 11, the Morgan will celebrate another anniversary: Alice: 150 Years of Wonderland, bursting with Shepard’s images and everything you’ve always wanted to know about Lewis Carroll’s immortal girl child. Be there, breathe deeply of the oxygen, and make your way to the Metropolitan Museum for China: Through the Looking Glass. (another hommage to earlier sources). Clearly, Alice travels well and just keeps on growing,…

Juilliard Opera: Oxygen for the Ears

iphigeniaThis has been an amazing year for the school’s Olympian vocal ambitions, realizedeven exceededin two recent productions: Gluck’s Iphigénie en Aulide (rarely performed) and Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro (hardly a day goes by without its shenanigans somewhere on the planet).

Iphigénie is simply gorgeous music, Gluck’s gift to the memory of Euripedes’ last play (407 B.C.) and Racine’s adaptation of it (1674). Juilliard’s version was a marriage of updating (modern dress) and set (a gloss on the pared-down scenery of ancient Greek theatre) and profound respect and affection for the traditions of ancient Athens and 17th-century Paris. It was win-win all the way.

I have grown really tired of new productions of old works which, in the panic to make them palatable to new audiences, bend them entirely out of shape—both alienating their long-suffering fans and fooling no one under the age of 35. But no one involved in the creation or performance of this Iphigénie was guilty of such intentions. To start with, David Paul’s staging was simplicity itself, yet by virtue of the skill of the cast’s powerfully expressive singing and Paul Hudson’s lighting, caught and sustained fire. Heartbreak fury, and tragedy received their due, compressed for our ears. glover1
Jane Glover
, whose baton—like some celestial dowsing stick, can find every shade of dramatic juice in the rigors of Baroque musicwas breathing with the singers right up to the deus ex machina. The luxury of long and diligent rehearsal time turned an ancient epic history into an entirely modern fable for old fans and young listeners alike, strong in its emotional magic and meticulous in every detail. It’s what can happen when talent is the glue that holds intentions and realization together and everyone is on the same page.

The big bonus in following Juilliard Opera productions is being able to watch young artists develop and grow in real time as they try on major roles for size, and offer recitals in the interim. It all happens very fast. With many singers also members of the Met’s Lindemann Young Artist Development Program, it can seem almost instantaneous. Let’s just take this spring: Iphigėnie took place in mid-February followed (a scant ten weeks later) by The Marriage of Figaro. Here, thewadsworth approach was not minimal; director Stephen Wadsworth had all the bodies moving at warp speed—perfect for Figaro’s clockwork commedia—and dressed to the 18th-century nines in Camille Assaf’s brocades and knickers. From the bed and boxes of the beginning to the movable shrubbery and strategic lanterns of the
end, it was, frankly, a knockout!figaro2

But this was the real joy: not only had several singers inhabited Iphigénie’s implacable world, but Ying Fang (a heartbreaking Iphigénie) proved herself an adept and natural comedian in Figaro; as her voice soared in Susanna’s arias, figaro1her body created its own elegant and personal slapstick. Who knew? And Takaoki Onishi (faithful Patrocle) became a slippery Count Almaviva; Virginie Verrez, a striking Clymnestra, put on pants and turned into Cherubino (I should add that Myles Mykkanen’s triumph as an ardent Lensky in last year’s mykkanenEugene Onegin in no way prepared me for his bumbling Don Basilio.) But it’s unfair to single out anyone in these productions; they are marvels of ensemble performance, giving us opera as it can, and is meant to be; an intimate, emotional experience for the eye, the ear, the heart and the mind. (They) make hungry where most (they) satisfy…and there’s always next season. Pay attention to the school’s overflowing calender of performances.

%d bloggers like this: