Syracuse Stage’s ‘Cry for Peace’ a declamatory chorus of horrific tales too easily ignored
No actors to be found here — just real people recounting real atrocities in a real world far from the comfort of our own
By Barbara Haas
Timothy Bond, artistic director of Syracuse Stage, has often expressed his belief in the community-building power of theater — the belief that when people sitting together in the same space share a response to the same story, fellow-feeling is strengthened.
It’s little wonder then that Bond greatly admires the work of Director Ping Chong, who has gone to communities around the country to create oral-history theater works in which real people, not actors, tell their own stories. Participants have included Native Americans, people with disabilities, children who witnessed civil disorder or domestic violence, and — here in Syracuse three seasons ago in Tales from the Salt City — stories of people from other cultures who have made Central New York their home. “We’re all insular,” Chong said then, “but in the end we come to realize that all humanity is the same. All islands connect under water.”
In Cry for Peace: Voices from the Congo, at Syracuse Stage through September 23, five people share their personal experiences. The three men (Cyprien Mihigo, Emmanuel Ndeze, Kambale Syaghuswa) are from the Congolese community of about 300 people who have found political asylum here in Syracuse from the tribal warfare that has ravaged their country. Beatrice Neema, also from the Congo, is a surrogate for another woman who wanted to share her story but wished not to appear in person. Mona de Vestal, of African-Belgian parentage, has a very different, but related, story to tell.
Syracuse Stage Dramaturg Kyle Bass worked over a period of years with Chong and assistant Sara Zatz to craft a script that combines the personal histories of these five with the underlying history of the plundering by Western nations of their vast, resource-rich country.
Naturally, the stories these people have to tell are pretty horrific. They speak of abandoning family and village to avoid being forced to serve in the army, of running for your life to reach the comparative safety of a neighboring country, of imprisonment, of years in a refugee camp, of atrocities witnessed and suffered — stories that elicited sympathetic gasps from the audience.
It’s kind of a shock, then, when stories of such people whose experiences seem worlds away from our own snug little lives are transposed to our own home town. And how does it feel to be living in America? For a few, the sense of insecurity follows them here. They are separated from family, from village, from all that is familiar. They worry, and with good reason, about those left behind in the Democratic Republic of the Congo. They are unwilling to let their tribal identities be known to other Congolese here, and resist the efforts of Cyprien Mihigo to pull the Congolese community together. The most hopeful sign has been that in choosing teammates for a soccer match, they chose the best players rather than members of their own tribe.
Chong allows his five narrators to tell their story simply, seated with their scripts before them in a semi-circle. He evokes the beauty of Africa at peace through occasional songs and projected images. But his way of organizing these people's stories has a curiously alienating effect. All five participate in each other's stories in a declamatory way we used to call choral speaking. They punctuate the narrative with simultaneous clapping and shout out the year together, as if the chronology is what really matters. That works fine for important historical events, such as 1960, when the Congo won independence from Belgium. But is it of prime importance to establish whether the year was 1995 or 1996 when the woman telling her story was gang-raped? Somewhere along the way from lived experience to prepared script, the emotion has vanished from the telling.
The narrators recite the words in their scripts with varying degrees of dramatic flair in a language that doesn't always fall comfortably from their tongues. Because Mona de Vestal speaks so well (she came to America as a youngster), hers is the story that emerges most clearly. Unlike the others, her struggle is within herself, since as a Belgian-African she incorporates both the oppressor and the oppressed. A student at NYU when the bloodshed was at its height in the Congo, Vestal was hurt to see New Yorkers going about their daily lives, oblivious to what was happening in her mother's country.
But then, that’s why all five of these people are willing to share their stories: They want us to know.
What: Cry for Peace: Voices from the Congo, at Syracuse Stage
Where: Archbold Theatre, 820 E. Genesee St., Syracuse
When: Sep. 15, 2012
Remaining performances: 7:30 p.m. Sep. 20; 8 p.m. Sep. 21; 3 and 8 p.m. Sep. 22 and 2 p.m. Sep. 23
Length: 1 hour and 20 minutes, no intermission
Tickets: $20 general public; $15 for subscribers and flex pack holders. Call (315) 443-3275 or visit SyracuseStage.org.
Family guide: Adult themes, disturbing accounts from the Congolese Civil War
Covey Company’s ‘Barefoot in the Park’ keeps the gags fresh — and the laughter continuous
Neil Simon’s classic comedy, while somewhat dated, stands up well in this effervescent ensemble effort directed by Garrett Heater
http://cnycafemomus.com/Laurel_Saiz.htmlThe Covey Theatre Company’s Barefoot in the Park is a charmingly acted artifact of another era in American theater… and American life.
Barefoot in the Park, Neil Simon’s first huge theatrical success, opened on Broadway in 1963 and ran for more than 1,500 performances, launching the career of Robert Redford in the romantic male lead. It was a successful movie in 1967, starring Redford and pre-Hanoi sex kitten Jane Fonda, and featured the memorable Johnny Mercer and Neil Hefti theme song by the same name.
The romantic comedy is set in 1962 and centers on the first few weeks of married life for Paul and Corie Bratter. Paul is somewhat insufferable and straight-laced. Corie is an effervescent and joyful new bride. They’ve just moved into their first apartment — a small, ill-equipped flat on 48th Street in New York City that’s five flights up (six, if you count the stoop). In his 1998 memoir Rewrites, Simon wrote that every play, comedy or tragedy, has to be about “an event. Like the first time ‘something’ has ever happened.” For Barefoot in the Park,that event is moving into the new apartment — which becomes a comic foil and character in its own right, causing much of the conflict between the protagonists and the ensuing highjinks among the entire ensemble.
Paul, played with deadpan seriousness by J. Allan Orton, is trying to buckle down as a newly hired lawyer, reminding his wife repeatedly that he has a court case to attend in the morning. Corie, played with delightful and sweet aplomb by Sara Weiler, has gone directly from her childhood home to this first apartment as a married woman — with just a six-day honeymoon at the Plaza Hotel in between. She spends every day on the phone calling Paul at work because she’s bored. When he’s home and flees to the bedroom to prepare his case, Corie pleads, “Can’t I come in to watch you?”
Corie’s identity is “Mrs. Paul Bratter” — as she proudly exclaims to Harry Pepper, the Bell Telephone installer played by Bill Hughes. And having “my very own phone!” is a milestone for her. Did Corie go to college? We don’t know. Has she contemplated doing something other than paint all the walls an overly pastel blue? We also don’t know. When Corie’s mother Ethel Banks (hilariously played by Karis Wiggins) comes to visit, we learn that at the ripe old age of 50 she too can’t imagine entering the workforce.
At this point, even if you’ve seen all five seasons of Mad Men, you may want to pinch yourself as a reminder that this really was the norm in the pre-Feminine Mystique era. In 1962, only 30 percent of married women worked. The General Social Survey (GSS), an annual survey of social attitudes among the American public conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, found that as late as 1977 “more than half of respondents felt that mothers working was harmful to children.” Times have changed. Barefoot in the Park may be a Neil Simon classic, but it is dated.
What doesn’t change is that people love to laugh. And like so many Neil Simon plays, this one delivers. With spot-on direction by Covey Artistic Director Garrett Heater and great performances by the entire cast, Barefoot in the Park provides continuous opportunities for raucous laughter.
One of the greatest catalysts for laughter in this play is the aforementioned flight of stairs, which every character treats as if he or she has just climbed all 102 floors of the Empire State Building. One by one, they stagger and wheeze their way through the front door of the apartment, occasionally needing assistance to be pulled in the rest of the way, like dead weight. As a device, this shtick never gets stale at the hands (or perhaps feet) of this strong troupe of comedians.
A lot of the pratfalls are sparked by a second continuing catalyst: the abundance of liquor all are sloshing down. Corie mixes up knock-em-dead cocktails in her ill-equipped apartment with as much frequency as Don Draper in the ad man’s Madison Avenue office. One of the funniest scenes in the entire play follows an evening at an Albanian restaurant on Staten Island (where all have had just a bit too much Ouzo), as Paul at last loses control, flailing and flopping on the couch with his equally impaired mother-in-law — who had compounded things by her copious use of “little pink pills”).
The restaurant (and Ouzo) came recommended by Paul and Corie’s upstairs neighbor, Victor Velasco — a gourmand of indeterminate origin (and accent) who helped the young bride pick out chotskies for the apartment while introducing the group to some rather daring foreign culinary items.
Ed Mastin is superb as Velasco, and his ensuing encounter with Corie’s mom is a highlight. At the beginning of the play, Banks’s role in life appears to be sending Corie daily wedding presents (all carried up the stairs by the Delivery Man, played by Bernard Kaplan — who like the others milked the ordeal for all it’s worth). Velasco proceeds to open up Banks to new realms of experience.
As contrived as parts of the plot to this story may sound, theatergoers should know that there were real newlyweds living in this improbable Manhattan apartment.
Neil Simon adored — truly adored — his first wife Joan Baim, who tragically died of cancer in 1973 after 20 years of marriage. The Rewrites narrative of Simon’s first days of marriage to Baim, a former actress and dancer, reads like a plot summary of Barefoot in the Park. The ridiculously small bedroom was true: “One could open the window by standing on the bed, but opening the small closet on the opposite wall was another matter. What we did was walk across the bed, [and] pull the closet door open about three inches, a major feat in itself.” The same for the large hole in the skylight fourteen feet above, the bain of Paul’s existence in the play: “Unfortunately, this also permitted rain, sleep, and snow to fall gently and otherwise on the sofa, the only good piece of furniture we had.” Despite the holes in the ceiling, telephone booth-sized bathroom and impossible bedroom, they were “gloriously happy” in their cheap, multi-flight walk-up. Their young love is what he remembered, treasured and set down for posterity.
Barefoot in the Park might be a sociological artifact, but it is also the lasting valentine to the true love of a real-life couple. And, yes, Joan did like to walk barefoot in Washington Square Park.
Details Box:What: Neil Simon's Barefoot in the Park, by The Covey Theatre CompanyWhere: Bevard Theater, John H. Mulroy Civic CenterWhen: Sep. 14, 2012
Remaining performances: 8 p.m. September 21, 22
Length: Two and a half hours, with two intermissionsTicket: Purchased at door, $20; purchased online, $21. Call (315) 420-3729 or http://thecoveytheatrecompany.comFamily guide: Nothing objectionable
Always a pleasure to hear this celebrated pianist, but Serkin's overly meditative and contemplative delivery tests the listener's patience
By Kevin Moore
Contrary to the popular view of Beethoven as composer of primarily dramatic and powerful works such as the Eroica, Fifth and Ninth Symphonies, Appassionata Sonata or Coriolan Overture, the predominant character of his piano music is joyous lyricism and expressive beauty. It appears to me that Peter Serkin is by nature a deeply thoughtful, somewhat introverted pianist with an intellectual bent. Especially in a program consisting mostly of works from the composer’s late period, all of this would appear to make the ideal combination of pianist and music. Yet on Thursday evening this was only occasionally true.
Beginning with the Eleven Bagatelles, Op.119 the pianist seemed to impose a concept of pure meditation on the music. Most of these were played softly and slowly — allegretto became andante, andante became adagio, forte became mezzo-forte, piano became pianissimo, etc. The musical flow was so attenuated that the listener was kept at arm’s length from Mr. Serkin’s private meditation. It made me, as well as several younger listeners around me, impatient.
It is true that he played with a wonderful clarity of texture, immaculate pedaling, consistently beautiful tone and beautiful and detailed attention to melodic figuration, but all within an apparently meditative limitation. For my taste in Beethoven, that was a bit frustrating. When Beethoven wrote forte it must mean something comparative. Despite some very beautiful moments, the performance overall simply lacked contrast.
The same limitation applied to the Piano Sonata no.31 in A-flat major, Op.110. This is one of the “eternal verities” of music and there is a tendency to deify the music. That often involves over-doing every little nuance in the name of “expressiveness.” The short second movement Scherzo did have a bit more muscle although the trio was somewhat mangled. That’s no crime, however. All pianists who play this piece, even the greatest ones, have such moments with that perilous passage. In the third movement’s “Sorrowful Song” section there was some beautiful and expressive playing, and again the meditative predominated. Even the final fugue seemed to take forever to develop into that scintillating and joyous ending. Yet by that point it just seemed too little too late.
Serkin’s performance of this work reminded me of a story told by the pianist’s good friend, Richard Goode. Like Serkin, Goode studied with the distinguished Mieczyslaw Horszowski at Curtis. The gist of Goode’s story was that when he first learned the A-flat Sonata he worked exceptionally hard on it and was pleased with the results. He couldn’t wait to hear what Horszowski would say. Goode played the work for him and thought to himself that surely no one had ever played it as emotionally as he. When the playing stopped there was silence for a few moments. Horszowski then walked over to Goode and slowly put his hand on his shoulder. “Richard,” the teacher said quietly, “this sonata is for piano, not for pianist.” Goode said he never forgot that.
The point, of course, is that it’s often too easy and tempting to “gild the lily” and run the risk of overbearing Beethoven’s sometimes very direct message. This is an interpretive choice, and the results of such choices may vary from night to night. Last night I don’t think those choices worked particularly well in these opening works.
On the other hand, the Six Bagatelles, Op.126, which opened the second half of the recital, were a very different story. The word “bagatelle” may translate as “trifle,” but there is certainly nothing trifling about these pieces. And Peter Serkin made the most of these profound pieces with a flowing, natural exposition of pieces that revealed Beethoven’s basic humanity as clearly as anything he had written. Along the journey were some wonderful and vivid contrasts that made the music come alive. I enjoyed it immensely.
The recital ended with the deservedly popular Sonata in E-flat major, Op.81a, subtitled Les Adieux, or Das lebewohl in the German editions. The slow opening of the first movement was serious and touching at the same time, as it should be. However, the allegro seemed eccentric and jagged to me, and the pacing seemed discontinuous as if Serkin was attempting to characterize every little detail. I didn’t find it particularly convincing.
The rest of the sonata was played for all it was worth. The vivacissimamente finale was exactly that — very fast — and captured perfectly the exuberance and joyous character of the work, even if not quite every note (which really doesn’t matter when the music itself comes across so vividly). The pianist complied graciously with an encore, the fast, witty, short and catchy Finale from the Sonata no. 25 in G major, Op.79.
Serkin drew a full house for this recital, with overflow folding chairs all around the outside and in the back of the sanctuary. I was sitting in one of them against the wall on the non-keyboard side. However, the acoustics are such that I could hear perfectly, and honestly — I prefer not to watch pianists: I’d rather listen and not be distracted by the physical details of what they’re doing. I believe it’s more important to hear the music than to see the musician.
The Skaneateles Festival deserves praise for sponsoring Peter Serkin. Events like this are all too rare in Central New York, and despite my interpretive quibbles, hearing such a wonderful and interesting artist play great music is a real pleasure.
What: All-Beethoven recital by pianist Peter Serkin
When: August 23, 2012
Who: Skaneateles Festival
Where: First Presbyterian Church, Skaneateles, NY
The move towards a more eclectic variety of programming, which last season precipitated a change in the festival’s name from the Cooperstown Chamber Music Festival to the Cooperstown Summer Music Festival, reflects the group’s willingness to experiment with expanded musical styles in the hopes of attracting a larger audience with increasingly wider interests.
What: Cooperstown Summer Music Festival
Program: The Horszowski Trio
Where: Otesaga Resort Hotel, 60 Lake St., Cooperstown, NY
When: August 5, 2012, 7:30 p.m.
Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, including intermission
Information: call 1(877) 666-7421
Ticket prices: Regular $25, Students (6-18 yrs.) $15
Order tickets by phone: 1(800) 838-3006, open 24/7
Next: Tierney Sutton Band, 7:30 p.m. Sunday, 8/12, Otesaga Resort Hotel, 60 Lake St., Cooperstown, NY
‘Armide’ a lavish courtship of music and ballet fit for a king
But French Baroque opera is an acquired taste that can tickle your
sensibilities — or test your patience
By David Abrams
“It’s good to be the king,” says a smug Mel Brooks famously while dressed as Louis XVI in the 1981 film comedy, History of the World, Part I. But for listeners brought up on a steady diet of da capo and bel canto arias from 18th and 19th-century operas, the seemingly endless drone of récitatifs and airs endemic to 17th-century French Baroque opera may not turn out to be an entirely “royal” experience.
Credit Glimmerglass Festival for staging its first-ever production of an opera from the French Baroque era, in keeping with its mission to produce new and little-known works. Its production of Jean-Baptiste Lully’s last completed opera, Armide (1686), shined impressively both visually and aurally, particularly in its charming choral and dance numbers.
Still, French Baroque opera, like French Vieux Boulogne, is an acquired taste that may take some warming up to. And while Saturday’s audience at the opening premiere of Armide included a large number of enthusiastic champions of the tragédy-lyrique (Lully’s term for opera), there were plenty of empty of seats to be found in the Alice Busch Opera Theater. And more following intermission.
The current production is a joint collaboration with the Toronto-based Opera Atelier, whose co-directors Marshall Pynkoski and Jeanette Lajeunesse Zingg directed and choreographed the present Glimmerglass effort, respectively.
The plot, a convoluted story set to a libretto by Phillippe Quinault (after Torquato Tasso's epic poem, Gerusalemme liberata), is set against the backdrop of the early Crusades and centers on two principal characters: the Muslim sorceress-princess, Armide, and the undefeated Christian warrior-knight, Renaud. Although sworn enemies, these two are swept into a stormy relationship that pits love against duty and wisdom.
The often-stagnant drama is livened considerably by frequent divertissements — stylized ballet-dance episodes that were required fare for composers serving the dance-happy French monarchy. Far from superfluous interruptions to the action, these “diversions” were designed to enhance the mission of the actors and actresses.
In his lively and informative pre-concert talk, Pynkoski likened the actors to storytellers and the audience to participants — which was an agreeable arrangement to the aristocratic circles of the absolute monarchy during the reigns of Louis XIV to XIV. Still, ballet-operas found only limited acceptance outside of France, and up until recently were largely ignored by mainstream opera companies.
Opera Atelier is largely responsible for the renewed interest in Armide, and was recently invited to reprise its Toronto performances at the Opera Royal of Versailles. Heading the cast of singer-actresses in those performances was Peggy Kriha Dye as the title character — who is cast in that role for this Glimmerglass production. Dye’s character proved a fireball of unrelenting hate, anger, scorn and frustration. And this after she falls in love.
Dye captured the listener’s attention early on, beginning with the Act One Je ne triomphe pas du plus vaillant de tous, in which she reveals the mighty range of her fury and frustration. And when she sang the dramatic recitative Enfin, il est en ma puissance, as she hovers — dagger in hand — over the sleeping Renaud, one can she how deeply she reaches into the core of the her character’s agonizing ambivalence between feelings of love and hate.
As a singer, Dye’s supple soprano is rich in nuance of expression and she uses her entire body in bringing her troubled character to life — inviting the audience to feel, and not just hear, Armide’s agony.
Still, the character of Armide does not invite any appreciable degree of sympathy. By the time this sorceress gets to her last number, Le perfide Renaud me fuit, I had already lost all patience with the non-stop agonizing and lugubrious self-pity. By the fifth act I seriously contemplated rising from my seat and shouting, “get over it, witch!” Or something to that effect.
As the mighty warrior Renaud, Colin Ainsworth captured the persona of the mighty Crusader who ultimately chooses honor and duty over love and self-indulgence.
Ainsworth has a pleasant tenor that maintains its luster in the higher registers — although on this occasion his voice seemed a bit raspy at times, as if singing through a cold. One of the bright spots of his vocal efforts was the second-act air Plus j’observe ces lieux, an exquisite sicilienne sung as the warrior prepares for a lengthy sleep, that Ainsworth delivered with lavish expression, buoyed by the tender gestures of his hands, arms and body.
Next to Dye, Canadian soprano Meghan Lindsay is the production’s standout singer in the dual role of Sidonie and the Water Nymph. Athough minor characters in this opera, Lindsay’s roles delighted the crowd with her sweet and sinuously expressive vocal delivery, made all the more meaningful through the enhanced movement of her hands — which generally resembled those of a ballerina. The fact that she is a Glimmerglass Young Artists speaks volumes about the depth of this program.
Lindsay was paired with fellow Young Artist Mireille Asselin (in the dual smaller of Phènice and Lucinde) who also possesses a lovely voice, although I wished she had projected a little more strongly early on.
The competing themes of love and hatred in this drama are personified respectively by a winged dancer resembling Cupid (Love) and and a fiery character resembling the Devil (Hatred).
As Love, Rennie proved a first-rate dancer and gifted athlete whose character sports a large (and I imagine somewhat heavy) pair of wings upon his back at all times. When the sorceress Armide places Renaud into a magical state of unconsciousness, Love hovers over the sleeping warrior’s body performing gentle, ceremonial-like hand gestures that looked like an ancient version of a Reiki treatment.
But when fighting the demons unleashed by Love’s nemesis, Hatred, Rennie twisted and turned his way across stage in a series of acrobatic gyrations — charging his body, wings and all, through the crowded troupe of dancers onstage like a bull in china shop. Had he been dancing like this on the Thruway, Rennie would surely have gotten pulled over.
As Hatred, Curtis Sullivan cuts a menacing (if not somewhat campy) figure, standing in front of a “ring of fire” intended to intimidate but looking hardly more menacing than a hoop through which animals jump at the circus.
Aaron Ferguson and Olivier Laguerre, as the goofy pair of knights dispatched to break Armide’s spell over Renaud, provided a much-welcome dose of comic relief to the otherwise solemn dramatic action in the final act. The pair worked well together with respect to the timing and execution of their moves onstage. Still, Young Artist Ferguson’s tentative tenor still has a way to go — as does his French diction.
As Hidraot, João Fernandes (listed in the program as a bass but leaning a bit closer to the timbre of a baritone) began singing slightly under-pitch early in the first act but soon warmed up and delivered a worthy performance as Armide’s nefarious uncle.
The troupe of dancers (which included choreographer Zingg) looked spectacular onstage in their colorful attire and moved about the stage with grace, poise and a finely tuned ensemble of movement. I enjoyed the ballet divertissements at least as much as the singing, and had it not been for this visual phantasmagoria I don’t know if I could have lasted through some two and one-half hours of récitatifs and airs.
The Glimmerglass Festival Orchestra, while hardly what may properly be labeled a “period ensemble,” responded willingly to the urging of conductor David Fallis. The instrumentalists faithfully executed the highly stylized writing of the French Baroque — from the over-dotted rhythmic figures of the overture to the deeply ornamented melodic lines figures in the airs, and finally to the fury of the relentless ostinato rhythms during the title character’s angstful Venez, venez, Haine implacable.
Fallis used a wide arsenal of hand motions to mold the sound he wanted from the singers, instrumentalists and chorus, while the continuo (consisting here of harpsichord, cello, bassoon and a pair of theorbos) conducted the lion’s share of the accompanying responsibilities.
The orchestra pit was raised rather high in this production (it’s important to maintain a firm sighting of the singers and dancers in such dramatic works), and this afforded listeners a birds-eye view of Fallis’s shapely cues. His delicate hand gestures in the choral numbers in particular drew some incredibly lovely singing from an ensemble clearly eager to please him.
Since precious little of Lully’s original choreography has survived, Zingg had to fashion a series of stylized Baroque dances that remained faithful to the performance practice and the spirit of late 17th-century France. Her graceful, tasteful and often athletic dance numbers were among the highlights of this performance.
David Moody’s magnificent Glimmerglass Festival Chorus — perched high stage right in the third-tier loft — provided some of the most emotionally convincing and musically engaging moments of this production.
The opulent, multicolored removable pastel flats by set designer Gerard Gauci were visually alluring, resembling something of a cross between the Met’s The Enchanted Island and a Disney fantasy film.
Dora Rust D’Eye’s richly colored costumes channeled all eyes squarely on the dancers during the handsome ballet numbers, although I felt the full-length Renaissance dresses robbed the audience of the opportunity to see what I imagine was some fine legwork on the part of the female dancers. Curiously, Armide wore the identical red gown throughout the entire opera — a decision possibly intended to underscore the sorceress’s unwavering sense of fiery anger and frustration.
Glimmerglass’s production of Armide will either transport you to a time of opulence, elegance and polish — or have you looking impatiently at your watch. But if you agree that it’s good to be the king, you ought to do what Mel Brooks did and see for yourself.
What: Jean-Baptiste Lully’s Armide
When: July 21, 2012
Who: Glimmerglass Festival
Where: Cooperstown, N.Y.
Time: 2 hours and 45 minutes, with one intermission
Call: Glimmerglass Box office: (607) 547-2255
Ticket prices: $26 to $132 weekends; $26 to $112 weekdays
(discounts for students, educators and seniors)
Remaining performances: July: 29m; July 31m; August: 5m, 9, 10, 13m, 18, 23 (m=matinee)
Eric Owens shines in Glimmerglass’s emotionally charged ‘Lost in the Stars’
But Weill and Anderson’s theatrical adaptation of the compelling Alan Paton novel about South Africa in the 1940s gets ‘lost in translation’
By David Rubin
Lost in the Stars, Kurt Weill and Maxwell Anderson’s adaptation of Alan Paton’s powerful novel of South Africa in the 1940s (Cry, The Beloved Country) is an unusual work in the history of American musical theater. It is really a stage drama with music, containing only 60 minutes or so in a show of more than two hours’ duration. Weill offers many musical styles to the audience — embracing blues, folk, Tin Pan Alley and occasionally opera. It was written for Broadway. It opened at New York’s Music Box Theater in 1949 and managed a respectable run of 281 performances.
While it is not an opera, it is surely operatic in its demands on the lead character. That character is the black clergyman Stephen Kumalo, a man of such dignity, charity, and nobility that he is, for Weill and Paton, all that is good in the native South African people.
The character of Kumalo delivers many of the important songs in the piece. These include the famous title song in which he fears that his god has left him and his people to wander lost in the stars; his decision to travel to Johannesburg to find his lost son Absalom (Thousands of Miles); and his appeal to his god Tixo for guidance as he struggles to decide how to help Absalom — who has murdered a white man and faces hanging for it (O Tixo, Tixo, Help Me).
It is hard to imagine Lost in the Stars succeeding without a towering Kumalo. In bass-baritone Eric Owens, Glimmerglass has one. While a bit young for the role and not quite world-weary enough (at least as Paton created Kumalo), Owens brings Kumalo to life. His rich, warm, magnificent voice is just right for the clergyman. He projects every word of his songs and considerable dialogue clearly. (Only the songs receive supertitles.)
Owens is also singing Amonasro in Glimmerglass’s Aida this season, and he will be giving a solo recital of music made popular by Billy Eckstein on July 27. Given that he is also a superb Wagnerian (he sang Alberich in the Met’s Ring Cycle), his range is impressive.
Owens is a special artist, with a long career ahead of him. His Kumalo is not to be missed.
The chorus is the second most important character in Lost in the Stars, sometimes commenting on the action as spectators and sometimes interacting with Kumalo as his parishioners. The chorus was particularly persuasive in singing about traveling to Johannesburg (Train to Johannesburg) and reacting to news of the murder (Murder in Parkwold).
Sean Panikkar, with a lithe tenor voice like clear water, was a sympathetic Leader or Narrator. He begins the work with his description of Kumalo’s little rural village and the surrounding countryside (The Hills of Ixopo). Panikkar was a constant welcome presence as he commented on the action.
The role of Absalom’s pregnant girlfriend, Irina, was sung by mezzo Brandy Lynn Hawkins — a member of the Young Artists Program. Hawkins has a voice of warmth and strength. She portrayed Irina as older and wiser than the naïve girl in Paton’s original. As the prostitute Linda, Chrystal Williams was entirely convincing in her song of double entendre, titled Who’ll Buy? Amos Nomnabo was expert in the small role of John Kumalo, Stephen’s sleazy brother. Both Williams and Nomnabo are also in the Young Artists program.
A special place in the pantheon of child singers/actors goes to little Caleb McLaughlin in the role of Alex, the nephew of Stephen Kumalo — who has come to live with him in the countryside. McLaughlin stopped the show late in the second act with Big Mole, ostensibly a child’s song about a big black mole digging ever deeper into the earth. I took it as a song about the lost potential of South Africa’s young black population, but also its resiliency. McLaughlin’s pitch was close to perfect, his diction clear, and his manner beguiling. I laughed and cried at the same time. The audience loved him.
Lost in the Stars is a problematic work for many reasons. Paton’s novel is almost as much about the journey of the white father James Jarvis as it is about Stephen Kumalo. But in Lost, the murdered son of James Jarvis — named Arthur — barely registers as a character, and James Jarvis is a stick figure of a South African white racist. How he eventually overcomes his racism to embrace the native cause and Stephen Kumalo — so moving and credible in Cry, The Beloved Country — is entirely lost in Lost.
Weill and Anderson didn’t even give James Jarvis anything to sing. It is a speaking part, delivered in predictably nasty fashion by Wynn Harmon. Indeed, the only whites permitted to sing are in the chorus. As a result, Jarvis’s embrace of Stephen Kumalo and his parishioners at the very end of the opera are neither sung nor credible. Indeed, it deflates what should have been a moving close to the piece. If ever a plot cried out for a duet between Kumalo and Jarvis, this is it. Weill and Anderson clearly had their reasons for keeping the whites from singing, but those reasons hurt the dramatic potential of Lost in the Stars.
Given the dramaturgical shortcomings of the piece, director Tazewell Thompson did a solid job. Set designer Michael Mitchell presented the audience with a spare wooden box divided into two playing levels separated by a low step. It was filled, as necessary, with tables, chairs, a lamp, and other props. Thompson expertly moved from scene to scene within this simple box, sometimes by dropping wooden slats to separate front from back.
He created some startling stage pictures. Especially noteworthy were the citizens of Johannesburg as they read their newspapers about the murder; and the pregnant Irina surrounded by glowing white sheets — hanging on lines to dry in the breeze — as she sang of her affection for Absalom.
Anthony Salatino provided choreography to heighten the sense of place.
John DeMain conducted the small orchestra (no violins) expertly. He is also conducting The Music Man this summer, so he seems to have become the company’s Broadway maestro.
By bringing back Lost in the Stars and putting its famous title song into context, Glimmerglass has done a service. The audience reacted with great enthusiasm and emotion — not to mention some tears — at the curtain. Now, for the full story of the Kumalo-Jarvis relationship, read the book.
What: Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars
When: July 22
Time: 2 hours and 35 minutes, with one intermission
Remaining performances: July: 28m; July 28; August: 3, 7m, 11, 16, 18m, 20m, 25m (m=matinee)
Glimmerglass’s provocative ‘Aida’ combines great singing, shocking images
No room for elephants or camels on Zambello’s daring geopolitical stage
Francesca Zambello, the artistic and general director of the Glimmerglass Festival outside Cooperstown, New York, plants her artistic stake in the ground early in her provocative, updated, and often brutal staging of Verdi’s chestnut, Aida.
Immediately following the dying notes of the overture, an enormous explosion rocks the 900-seat auditorium as the audience is plunged into a contemporary Middle East conflict. Soldiers rush in to what looks like the bombed-out shell of a former government palace. Perhaps Sadaam Hussein lived here, or Muammar Gaddafi, or Bashar al-Assad.
Verdi’s Egyptians have become Kalashnikov-toting, combat-boot wearing militiamen or terrorists. Forget the sandals and spears. The chorus in Act One, Scene One, calling for a victorious return from battle against the invaders (Ritorna vincitor) was bloodthirsty and raucous. I expected a CNN journalist to provide a voice-over commentary.
Zambello incorporated other post-9/11 references. In Act One the soldiers studied their laptop computers. In Act Three, in which Aida tricks her beloved Radames into revealing his battle strategy, the action was played in and around a military jeep. In the Judgment Scene in Act Four, Radames refused to answer the charges of treason even though he is being subjected to waterboarding in a most terrifying manner. I doubt I will ever see this scene again divorced from that image of Radames bound to a chair, gagging, feet twitching, as he experienced the sensation of drowning. In the final scene, Radames was injected with a paralyzing nerve drug by his captors, then strapped to a gurney in a vertical position and left to die.
When this opera is set in the historical mist of ancient Egypt it is easy for the audience to ignore the creaky geopolitical overlay and focus instead on the love triangle of the captured Ethiopian princess Aida, the Egyptian military hero Radames with whom she is in love, and the Egyptian princess Amneris, her rival for the affections of Radames.
In this production, however, televised images in our heads of the very real brutality that has been raging for more than a decade in the Middle East limit any American’s interest in this trivial love affair. Who cares about Amneris’s jealousy when Zambello makes the audience recall waterboarding?
She made it even easier to forget the rivalry between Aida and Amneris by dressing them — particularly Amneris — in glamorous gowns that would be appropriate at a $10,000-a-ticket fundraiser at the Temple of Dendur in the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Why is a Muslim girl in the middle of a 21st-century war zone in the Middle East dolled up in slinky green, gold, and peach confections, acting like a spoiled party girl? No wonder Radames spit in her face—truly—as she tried to save him from his fate.
And why were Verdi’s ancient Egyptian priests not converted into mullahs with beards and turbans? Why dress them in old-fashioned robes straight out of a 1950s Met production? Why not go all in and dress Aida and Amneris in burqas?
Still, it was a pleasure to be challenged this way by Zambello. The elephants were gone. The triumphal parade was little more than the display of a few prisoners and some looted antiquities.
As one of my Welsh colleagues suggested, the production was a “dog’s breakfast.” Zambello offered too many ideas, many of them not fully worked out. But she did have the audience on the edge of its collective seat wondering what was coming next. Would Dick Cheney show up?
It is quite astounding how young singers can cope with any staging and deliver the vocal goods, and such was the case here. The announced Aida was replaced by the young American soprano Adina Aaron, a product of young artist programs in Santa Fe and Seattle. She has sung Aida extensively abroad at Finland’s Savonlinna Festival, in Marseilles, and in Busseto, Italy (a performance that was televised and recorded). In short, she was not a substitute but rather an Aida of considerable experience.
This showed in her performance, which was engaging on every level. She has a beautiful upper register with the ability to float soft notes and hold them forever. She has the volume to ride over the orchestra, which, under conductor Nader Abbassi, was occasionally overpowering and inconsiderate of the singers.
Aaron is a fine actress, emphasizing the vulnerability of Aida and her inability to cope with the violence around her. She is due to be replaced later in July by the singer originally cast, Michelle Johnson — but Aaron is worth seeing here, or elsewhere.
Radames was performed by the young tenor Noah Stewart. Born and raised in Harlem, Stewart is a product of the Fiorello LaGuardia High School and Juilliard, with additional training as an Adler Fellow at the San Francisco Opera. The opera world is lucky not to have lost him to other musical genres that are a lot more popular with his age group.
Stewart has buckets of talent. His voice has heft and an attractive vibe. He forced a bit on the high notes, and the end of Celesta Aida in the first scene of Act One was too blunt. But most tenors sing it that way. He already seems comfortable on the stage.
He has the physique of an Olympic sprinter, with six-pack abs. Stripped to the waist for the Judgment Scene, he was something to behold. This is by far the biggest vocal and dramatic challenge he has accepted. He made the most of it.
Amonasro was sung by baritone Eric Owens. Those who saw the Met’s recent Das Rheingold will vividly recall him as an Alberich of venomous intensity whose baritone easily plunges to bass depths. However, Owens scaled back his voice for Glimmerglass and blended well with his daughter, Aida. His appeal to her in Act Three to aid her people in exacting revenge on the Egyptians (Rivedrai le foreste imbalsamate) had fatherly intensity and reminded listeners that Aida is more about fathers and daughters (a favorite Verdi theme) than about war in Egypt.
The character of Amneris suffered most in this staging, in part because she was so out of place in her various glamorous gowns. She seemed to have wandered in from some other opera, perhaps Fledermaus. For the role, Zambello selected the young Greek-American mezzo, Daveda Karanas, with whom she had worked in San Francisco in her full Ring cycle in the summer of 2011. There she sang a solid Waltraute, among other Ring roles. Karanas was also an Adler Fellow at San Francisco Opera. (Clearly Zambello is drawing from a specific network of talent in her casting of young singers.)
Karanas’s mezzo is a bit brittle, without the plummy depths of some, but she projects well with considerable volume. She didn’t really command much attention until Act Four in her confrontation with Radames, when she offers to save him if only he will give up Aida. Here she sang with intensity and showed considerable dramatic skills.
Both the High Priest Ramfis (bass Joseph Barron) and the King (bass Philip Gay) were uncommonly well cast, Gay in particular. Both are members of the Glimmerglass Young Artists Program. Both are ready for successful careers.
Another Young Artist, Lenora Green, was cast in the small role of the High Priestess, and she, too, contributed to a performance of great vocal beauty.
At times conductor Abbassi unleashed more sound than I have ever heard from chorus and orchestra in the Alice Busch Opera Theater. Aida is among the grandest of operas ever presented here and an unusual departure for the company. It was exciting, for sure, but as noted above, Abbassi was not always kind to the young singers. Balances were off, with the brass overpowering the strings most of the time. But Abbassi had the measure of the score, which he has conducted often. His tempos made sense, the performance never lagged, and he moved along the final death scene, which can seem endless.
The male chorus in particular deserves special phrase for the delicate control they exhibited in hushed moments, and for the power they unleashed in saluting the Golden Kalashnikov as they headed for battle.
The bombed-out palace, which was either the location for the action or the frame for other scenes, was designed by Lee Savage and worked well enough. Some of the lighting, by Robert Wierzel, was provided by portable spots on tripods lugged on and off by performers.
This Aida suggests what Zambello intends to offer her audience when she programs an opera from the basic canon: highly talented young singers in a production that will strike you either as involving and intelligent, or unnecessarily provocative and unfaithful to the original. While she did not fully work out her modern setting, Zambello deserves credit for some striking stage images, and for assembling a terrific young cast.
What: Giuseppe Verdi’s Aida
When: July 15
Ticket prices: $26 to $132 weekends; $26 to $112 weekdays
(discounts include: 50% students, 30% educators, 10% seniors)
Remaining performances: July: 23m, 27; August: 4, 9, 11m, 14m, 17m (special matinee featuring members of Young Artists program), 17, 25 (m=matinee)
Glimmerglass hits all the right notes in ‘The Music Man’
Singing, dancing and comedic acting all gel nicely in this rare acoustical production of the famed Broadway musical
Composer Meredith Willson was so worried his listeners might miss words during the briskly paced patter (“talk-song”) sections of The Music Man, he rigged a string of microphones that spanned the entire front floor of the stage. Too bad he never got to hear his Broadway masterpiece in the listener-friendly venue of the Alice Busch Opera Theater — whose strict policy forbidding amplification is something I expect he could have lived with. And rather happily, at that.
The cast of Glimmerglass Festival’s opening-night performance Saturday spoke in strong, booming voices that in the acoustical splendor of this theater came across in crisply articulated syllables that drew attention to Willson’s crafty, mostly-unrhymed lyrics. Between sections of dialog, large ensembles of colorfully outfitted singing-dancing actors and actresses (comprised largely of Glimmerglass Young Artists) sang and danced their way gleefully across the stage and down the aisles.
All in all, this Glimmerglass production directed and choreographed by Marcia Milgrom Dodge was as visually appealing as it was vocally gratifying. And fun from start to finish.
The Music Man is, from soup to nuts, a product of Willson’s own cooking. He wrote the story, lyrics and music, and tinkered with the project for eight years and some 30 revisions. When finished to his liking, the musical comedy became an unqualified success, running for 1,375 performances and winning five Tony Awards including “Best Musical” of 1957 (beating out the mighty West Side Story).
Yet for all its popular appeal, The Music Man contains precious few tunes (notably Seventy-Six Trombones and Till there Was You) capable of lingering in your musical memory long enough to hum back on the trip home from the theater. And in spite of such stand-alone hits as It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, Willson can hardly be considered a tunesmith along the lines of Irving Berlin, George Gershwin or Jule Styne. If he was going to make a hit on Broadway, he would have to find an alternate musical route to get there.
In The Music Man, Willson arrived at a novel technique whereby spoken dialog — delivered in a catchy rhythmic pattern — continues alongside a melodic instrumental accompaniment until the spoken words “catch up” to, and join with, the melody line. This technique is taken to the extreme in the musical’s opening number, Rock Island — a pitchless, spoken-only rhythmic number delivered by travelling salesmen on a moving train that calls for rapid dialog set to relentless 16th-notes that mimic the “chug-a-chug-a” motion of the train. No melody, no pitches, no problem: The era of rappers had begun.
The storyline, set in River City, Iowa in 1912 (shifted in this production to 1946), centers around a slick traveling salesman and inveterate con man, Harold Hill. “Professor” Hill travels from town to town carrying a large suitcase and lots of moxie. He sells musical instruments and marching band uniforms to schoolchildren’s parents under the guise of establishing a “boys band” in their community, but after collecting the money he skips town before they realize he can’t read music. When the “professor” reaches River City he soon falls for the town librarian, Marian — a real music teacher who can see through the scam. Through flattery and praise, Harold endears himself to River City’s students, parents and school board — all of whom begin to shed their drab lives and reinvent themselves into the beautiful images of their dreams. When Marian sees her shy, introverted younger brother come out of his shell after Harold hands him a shiny new cornet, she recognizes that the faux professor who can’t read music somehow brought harmony to River City after all, and decides not to expose him.
Dwayne Croft forged a Harold Hill who is as lovable as he is unctuous. No easy task. Aided by his solid vocal presence and a wardrobe that includes a slick double-breasted suit with spats, Croft is a confidence man who oozes confidence. All eyes are on him when he takes stage, pitching his instruments and sermonizing the crowd about the dangers of the town's new pool table. When Croft sheds his plaid jacket, dons a drum major’s cloak and gets the townspeople marching to Seventy-Six Trombones, the image of the Pied Piper is unmistakable. By the beginning of Act Two, I was ready to buy a used car from this man.
Croft was less credible as the love interest to Marian, principally because his Harold Hill remains a one-dimensional character who cannot switch gears and show any appreciable degree of vulnerability. When at the end of the show he fesses up to the boy Winthrop and admits he’s a liar and a fraud, there’s little indication of contrition or introspection.
There was nothing to doubt about Croft’s singing. His operatic baritone was sufficiently malleable to reshape itself to the demands of Broadway, as he so aptly demonstrated in Ya Got Trouble and Marian Librarian. And his attractive speaking voice was invariably clean and articulate.
As Marian, Elizabeth Futral has a well-trained operatic voice as well, but unlike her male counterpart, the soprano could not muster a stylistic switch from polished to pop. The timbre of Futral’s high register in particular reveals the unmistakable signs of her extensive training, and when she reached for the top register it sometimes sounded as if she were on the verge of switching roles to Violetta in La Traviata.
Beyond the apparent identity crisis, Futral’s soprano is lovely to listen to. I especially enjoyed Till There Was You and her touching duet with Croft at the reprise of Goodnight my Someone. And Futral’s speaking voice, while not perhaps as crisp in diction as the male leads in this production, remained pleasant and intelligible.
The standout minor character in this production was Josh Walden, a gifted singing-dancing comic who played the role of Harold Hill’s accomplice, Marcellus Washburn, to perfection. Waldron’s enthusiastic delivery made for some hilarious sight gags, and his fancy legwork in the dance numbers was a howl. He all but stole the show.
As Marian’s excitable Irish mother Mrs. Paroo, Cindy Gold fashioned a strong-willed character who played matchmaker to Marian and her would-be suitor, Professor Hill. Her duet with Futral in the clever song that spins out of rising perfect-fourths during Amaryllis’s piano lesson (If You Don’t Mind My Saying So) was alone worth the price of admission.
Glimmerglass Young Artist Megan Ort, as the mayor’s older daughter, Zaneeta, catches the eye immediately and stands out from the rest of the ensemble dancers at the school gymnasium during the rousing Seventy-Six Trombones. As an actress, Ort handsomely projects the image of the love-struck teen to fellow student and town prankster Tommy Djilas, played by Allan K. Washington.
The Pick-a-Little Talk-a-Little ladies, cohorts of the mayor’s wife comprising Glimmerglass Young Artists Samantha Korbey, Lisa Williamson, Stephanie Lauricella and Amanda Opuszynski, proved a hilarious assortment of village gossips. When Harold Hill inquires about the town librarian, Marian, they waste little time bending his ear about her shameful promotion of “dirty books,” which turns out to be Chaucer and Balzac — or as the mayor’s wife is fond of pronouncing it, BAAAAL-zac. The five ladies sang with crisply articulated diction that rendered their rapid-fire lines intelligible.
The four ubiquitous school board members who under the spell of the slick professor morphed from a bickering assortment of adversaries to an inseparable barbershop quartet (played in appropriately syrupy fashion by Glimmerglass Young Artists Eric Bowden, Adam Bielamowicz, John David Boehr and Derrell Acon) provided a steady diet of laughs and moans throughout the show. The four devoted singers rehearsed extensively with a barbershop coach to capture the proper cornball demeanor of this type of ensemble, both in vocal technique and in manner of onstage deportment. Still, by the quartet’s final number, Lida Rose, I was fighting the urge to hurl tomatoes at them.
The roles of the children — Amaryllis (Marian’s young piano student, played by Aria Maholchic) and Winthrop (Marian’s lisping younger brother, played by Opie Taylor look-a-like, Henry Wager), boosted the “cuteness factor” of the production considerably. Maholchic played the piano without benefit of a stand-in, while the listeners all but adopted Master Wager after he ignited the crowd in Gary Indiana.
Among the non-singing roles, Jake Gardiner, as the town’s overly pompous Mayor Shinn, drew a steady stream of chuckles from his near-constant state of outrage over the rapidly changing state of affairs in his otherwise sleepy hometown of River City since the arrival of the mysterious newcomer. As the “straight man” in this cornucopia of comedic characters, Gardner spoke in a boisterous, authoritative voice that commanded attention.
Director and Choreographer Marcia Milgrom Dodge’s dance numbers were appropriately snappy and extrovert but included more subdued routines as well, such as the quiet soft-shoe in the town library during the crafty Marian the Librarian. “What do you want to take out?” an impatient Marian asks Harold at the checkout desk. “The librarian,” he answers. The most visually appealing dance number came during Shipoopi — the name given to a new dance Professor Hill introduces to the students that in the current production leads to a rousing, cowboy-style square dance.
Dodge’s stage direction included lots of sight gags, and during the singing numbers she invariably kept the background characters in-motion. Her decision to update the action from 1912 to 1946 (in order, she writes, “… to access a closer nostalgia”) nevertheless creates some unintended paradoxes. The year of Hill’s supposed graduation from the (fictitious) Gary Indiana Conservatory, identified several times throughout the show as having occurred in 1905, would have brought the good professor to about 62 years of age — hardly a credible romantic interest to Marian.
James Noone’s clever yet economical mobile sets were ingenious, taking the listeners on a journey through River City that included the town’s main street intersection, train station, school gymnasium, beauty parlor, library, and surrounding farmlands. Changes in location were accomplished by sliding panels left and right and raising backdrops up and down — none of which impeded the action onstage.
Leon Wiebers’s colorful costumes were hardly confined to Dodge’s vision of the 1940s, and often transcended the boundaries of the “swing era” to suggest 1950’s rock and the iconic Mayberry of Andy Griffith fame.
Conductor John DeMain’s mostly vivacious tempos kept pace with the kinetic stage action and kept the tightly knit chorus of townspeople and schoolchildren in-sync with the pit orchestra during larger ensemble numbers such as Seventy-Six Trombones, Wells Fargo Wagon and Shipoopi. A full strength Glimmerglass Festival pit orchestra — a rarity in revivals of Broadway shows — was up to task in Willson’s strongly rhythmic musical score.
Audience reaction to the production was overwhelmingly enthusiastic, and rightly so. I wouldn’t mind seeing it a second time — even if it means buying yet another cornet from Professor Hill.
What: Meredith Willson’s The Music Man
When: July 14
Who: Glimmerglass Festival
Remaining performances: July: 20, 24m, 26, 28m, 30m; August: 2, 4m, 6m, 12m, 19m, 24 (m=matinee)
Covey Theatre’s ‘Avenue Q’ a raunchy but endearing production that will have you laughing, blushing
Here’s one “block party” you’re not likely to forget anytime soon
By Laurel Saiz
The most entertaining local address is not Carousel Center Drive, soon to be renamed DestinyUSA Drive. It’s Avenue Q. That’s not a street in a neighborhood in the City of Syracuse or the environs of Onondaga County, but the locale of the hilarious production playing at the Bevard Theatre downtown.
Avenue Q beat out the megahit Wicked for the Best Musical Tony Award in 2004. It also trumped the witches by winning Tony Awards for best book and best original score. This catchy, top-notch production by the Covey Theatre Company, directed by Susan Blumer and Garrett Heater, certainly shows why. Avenue Q is clever and constantly engaging, with an accessible story, laugh-out-loud lines and memorable Broadway songs.
As the poster clearly shows, and most theater fans by now know, Avenue Q is a send-up of every Sesame Street trope—from oversized hand puppets in eye-popping colors to the “educational” videos explaining important learning concepts. It is by turns raunchy and endearing, ribald and touching. Like the 2011 Tony Award winner The Book of Mormon, Avenue Q includes things you never thought you’d see or hear on a musical theatre stage. Like Book of Mormon, it’s both wildly irreverent and sweet to the core.
The heart of the play and of this production are the on-again, off-again couple, Princeton—a recent college graduate with a “useless” bachelor’s degree in English; and Kate Monster—a furry, nicely coiffed substitute kindergarten teacher. They are played by standouts Sara Weiler and Heater (also the Covey’s artistic director). Weiler is just plain adorable and Heater has true stage presence. (Not to keep bringing up Mormon, but Heater would be incredible in the lead role of Elder Kevin Price.)
The denizens of Avenue Q are a mish-mash of eccentrics, including the unemployed comic Brian (played by Josh Mele); Brian’s Japanese-American—not “Oriental”—girlfriend, Christmas Eve (played by Sunny Hernandez); the Cookie Monster-inspired Trekkie Monster (played by Josh Taylor) and the Bert-and-Ernie pairing of Nicky and Rod (Rob Lescarbeau and David Cotter, respectively). When seeing Nicky and Rod’s interaction it certainly makes one wonder how many children asked their parents, “Why are Bert and Ernie always together and why do they sleep in the same bedroom if they’re not brothers?”
The superintendent of the somewhat seedy block of flats is none other than Gary Coleman, down on his luck after the demise of Diff’rent Strokes and selling off all his possessions on eBay to stay afloat. As in the original Broadway production, Gary Coleman is played by a woman—in this case Syracuse’s local treasure, Karin Franklin-King. A Miss Piggy-style temptress Lucie the Slut (played by Jodie Baum) arrives on Avenue Q to shake things up a bit, as she shakes her maracas, so to speak.
The entire cast is uniformly strong and credit must also be given to the supporting puppeteers who ably assist in the portrayal of the puppet and “monster” characters. The puppets’ eyes are fixed, yet their faces impart much nuance of expression merely by a slight angle of the head, posture of the body or position of the hands. At the same time, some puppeteering is not subtle at all. (Have reviewers ever before had to include the disclaimer “graphic puppet sex” as a guide to family viewing?)
Some of the tongue-in-cheek “lessons” depicted in Avenue Q are the reverse of those imparted by The Children’s Television Workshop’s long-running series. If you work hard and do well in school you might just end up unemployed, living on a dead-end street in an outer-borough. Instead of staying home to do your homework, why not have an excessive number of Long Island ice teas? People may not always be supportive and kind, but may relish when you have flopped, engaging in some musical “Schadenfreude.” And instead of a happy Reading Rainbow kind of world, it turns out that “Everybody is a Little Bit Racist,” as another one of the irresistible songs proclaims.
With the downturn in the economy in which college graduates are unemployed and living in less-than-ideal circumstances, it could be that Avenue Q resonates more with audiences today than it did when originally conceived in 2002 by Robert Lopez and Richard Marx as a potential television series. Rather than becoming a hit TV show, it was developed Off-Broadway and shortly moved to Broadway to its well-earned and lasting acclaim.
In Syracuse, the opening night show was sold-out, as was the Saturday, July 14 performance. The Covey Theatre Company webpage posted an additional performance in its two-weekend run, which is likely to be a best seller. With the strength and popularity of this delightful production, it’s too bad that Avenue Q couldn’t be a more extended destination.
What: Avenue Q
When: July 13
Who: The Covey Theatre Company
Where: Bevard Theater, John H. Mulroy Civic Center, Syracuse
Time: 2 hours and 30 minutes, with one intermission
Ticket prices: $26. Call (315) 420-3729
Remaining performances: 8 p.m. July 19, 20, 21
Family guide: Graphic puppet sex, strong language
Next: Neil Simon’s Barefoot in the Park, 8 p.m. Sep. 14, 15, 21, 22
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