Classical Music Buzz > Out West Arts
Out West Arts
Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond
624 Entries
Peter Lieberson Photo: Rinchen Lhamo
The Los Angeles Master Chorale kicked off the Spring leg of their season with a beautiful reflective program this weekend pairing two large orchestral works for chorus and soloists – Peter Lieberson’s The World in Flower and Brahms’ Ein Deutsches Requiem. Both works focus on redemption in the face of death and provided an opportunity for the chorus to shine. That’s not unusual; they and their Music Director Grant Gershon are always great. But sometimes the chorus doesn’t quite get the starring role it deserves, especially when placed as the backdrop of so many other simultaneous musical forces. Brahms’ Requiem is a familiar staple. It's easy to hear it performed by any number of the worlds’ great orchestras often with the most rarified of conductors and soloists. But sometimes the choral contribution to such performances can be left wanting by comparison. Take Daniel Harding’s 2010 performance with the Dresden Staatskapelle in New York with Matthias Goerne and Christiane Karg. Beautifully played and sung, the work sounded somewhat flat and uninvolved, and the chorus while admirable was a ramshackle amalgam of various local choral groups. The work fared little better with the Los Angeles Philharmonic in 2011 under Gustavo Dudamel. Again Goerne was joined by Christine Schäfer and the LAMC, but the whole affair collapsed under Dudamel’s typically ponderous, excessive conducting penchants. The LAMC performances this weekend with the assembled orchestra under Grant Gershon couldn’t have been farther from either such previous outings. Here the chorus was given pride of place and room to shine without the intrusive overworked contributions from previous conductors. With the focus shifted, the Requiem came alive underscoring Brahms’ humanistic approach to the mass. Suddenly this was a requiem for and by the people, and that community spirit shone through for a stirring and often quite touching hour.

Of course, the fine work of the soloists Hayden Eberhart and Brian Mulligan also helped make the evening such a success. Mulligan has repeatedly given remarkably strong and earnest performances on so many stages this year that his international super star status seems all but a certainty now. He was no less impressive here, muscular and warm with a note of heartbreak deep inside, he gave another stirring vocal performance here. Mulligan was also one of the soloists for Lieberson’s The World in Flower alongside mezzo and Los Angeles favorite Kelley O’Connor. Neither vocalist is a stranger to contemporary music (O’Connor will tour with the LAMC and the LA Philharmonic this spring to take John Adams’ The Gospel According to the Other Mary around the world) and their experience paid off here. The song cycle, which features settings of poems by a variety of authors including Rilke, Hopkins, Whitman, and Neruda, was put together for Lieberson’s wife who sadly died before the work’s completion and premiere. Lieberson himself had completed a round of chemotherapy for his own cancer prior to orchestrating the work and the spiritual life-affirming elements of the piece hit very hard. O’Connor and Mulligan soared above the exquisite choral writing for a remarkable opening to the concert. Lieberson used a more constrained sound palette for The World in Flower in contrast to several other of his late works (his percussion concerto, Shing Kham will receive its world premiere by the LA Philharmonic next season) but the even-handed tone fits well amid such charged material overall. It was a beautiful start to the year from the LAMC. One that brings hopefully as much joyful artistry as they offered up this weekend.
1 year ago | |
Tag
| Read Full Story
Peter Eötvös Photo: Siegfried Ketterer
Friday brought the latest frustration in what has been one of the most unexpectedly disappointing Los Angeles Philharmonic seasons in recent memory. Great nights with the LA Phil at Walt Disney Concert Hall have been few and far between lately, and Friday’s program under Pablo Heras-Casado featuring the works of 20th-century Hungarian Composers was one of the biggest let-downs yet. The centerpiece of the evening was the world premiere of a new commission from Peter Eötvös, a violin concerto entitled DoReMi written for Midori. Eötvös has been featured around town all week and his appearances here were some of the most anticipated of the year. And yet not unlike Tuesday’s concert staging of his Angels in America, DoReMi fell far short of its promise. The single movement work does capture a playful spirit as suggested in the title – one concerned with the basic building blocks of music composition. Eötvös is taking a wry wink at the relationship between these most elemental of tones. This playfulness is also reflected in the way other members of the orchestra often share or swap the solo material in various asides or outright duos passed to and between the ostensible soloist Midori and the Concertmaster or even the Principal Violist. At first I wondered if Midori, not a name that leaps to mind when thinking of contemporary music, was picked at random for this project through some new violin concerto generation software. But her virtuosity is never to be taken lightly and she flew into one thorny discordant passage after the next. She clearly dug in with wild swings bouncing to and fro off the other orchestral elements.

Yet oddly, all of this playfulness never amounted to much joy. The piece came off mechanical and frequently muddy. There was a homogeneity to it all as well that left one wanting for a bit more development or direction. Of course, part of the problem here may rest in the hands of Heras-Casado. Despite some exemplary outings with the L.A. Phil in the past, his assails of Kodály’s Háry János Suite and Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra were wanting. There were moments of lush sound, but an edge was missing in both. No hint of folk or ethnic influences here. Instead both works wandered without focus or much direction with the same muddy sound-constrained dynamic range. What should have been a barn-burner was instead reduced to a little night music. And for the lions of 20th-century Hungarian music, that is not enough. Not by a long shot.
1 year ago | |
Tag
| Read Full Story

This is great. One of Salonen's last gifts to the Los Angeles Philharmonic during his tenure as music director, this Violin Concerto (played here by the Finnish Radio Symphony Orchestra) is probably the most important example of the genre since John Adams'. (Unsuk Chin's is another contender for this title to be sure.) The soloist is Leila Josefowicz for whom the worked was composed and she gives an athletic, enthralling performance in this clear, well-balance DG recording. The concerto is paired with Salonen's Nyx which is also receiving its premiere recording.
1 year ago | |
Tag
| Read Full Story
Elza van den Hever and Joyce DiDonato Photo by Ken Howard/Met Opera 2012

This Saturday, the Metropolitan Opera will broadcast a live performance (in HD as we are incessantly reminded) of the company’s new production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda across the world. I saw the production on New Year’s Eve and although there is not a single surprising thing about it, you should go see it. The primary reason is because of the biggest non-surprise in the show – the incomparable vocal artistry of American mezzo Joyce DiDonato in the title role. She sang the role spectacularly in Houston earlier this year to great acclaim and she is no less successful here. She is nothing short of radioactive in this performance. Her vocal lines are so beautifully shaped and cared for, her inner reserve as the imprisoned queen so heart stopping, it will leave you stunned. Her opening scene, the second part of Act I, may be one of the best things I saw on any opera stage all last year. DiDonato has taken the mantle as one of opera’s true international super stars in recent years, and here she delivers with a title role deserving of her superb artistry.

Of course a world-class performance from DiDonato is no surprise. Sadly given the artistic fortunes of today’s Met, most of the off kilter underwhelming elements of the production otherwise should also come as no shocker. David McVicar’s by-the-numbers staging has all the dramatic tug of a Macy’s window display. It’s dark and lovely but slavishly follows the house imperative against interpretation or analysis. All of that is fine and well, but what McVicar does to the poor soprano Elza van den Heever is nearly unforgivable. She takes on the other meaty role in the opera, Elizabeth I of England, and musically you could ask for little more from her. San Francisco audiences were lucky enough to hear many of such performances during her time there, and her Met debut is a notable one. Except for the cartoon villain mannerisms McVicar foists on her character, like trying to snap a riding crop in two as a sign of anger, for example, in one of the opera’s several unintentionally laugh out loud moments. This is not good theater – plain and simple.

The Met orchestra sounded lovely if under-rehearsed on opening night under maestro Maurizio Benini. Hopefully things will have settled down in time for the broadcast on Saturday, but on New Year’s Eve the sound was sluggish and wandering at times. Matthew Polenzani is also on stage as Leicester, but, thanks to Donizetti, blink and you’ll miss him. In the end this is Donizetti’s version of Schiller’s play, and the dueling queens, who never actually met in real life, are still the centerpieces. And the Met has recruited two formidable women in these roles making this very predictable new production worth seeing despite its many failures.
1 year ago | |
Tag
| Read Full Story
Measha Brueggergosman Photo by Mat Dunlap

So, after being on hiatus, how do I get started again? I say just jump right back in.

Opera composers have long relied on stage plays as a source of dramatic material. It seems a natural choice: take something stage worthy to begin with and set it to music. What could possible go wrong? On occasion composers have even taken the text of a play as a libretto in and of itself, though more often than not they use an adapted version of a text for their own music dramas. It’s as true now as ever, and a recent visit to Los Angeles by Hungarian composer Peter Eötvös reminded us that these stage-to-stage endeavors are rarely as uncomplicated as they might seem. On Tuesday night, the Los Angeles Philharmonic New Music Group under its “Green Umbrella” series gave the local premiere of Eötvös’ version of Angels in America, the landmark multiple award winning two-part drama from Tony Kushner. The opera received its world premiere in Paris in 2004 and has been seen in several different venues both in America and abroad. It has undergone many changes and re-orchestrations over the last decade from a small predominantly electronic instrument-based ensemble to the larger chamber orchestra-sized one that appeared in Los Angeles this week as part of a series of events Eötvös is participating in here this week.

In some ways this is asking for trouble. Angels in America is a play a lot of art loving folks here hold near and dear to their hearts, particularly here in Los Angeles where the play first stumbled forth onto the stage of the Mark Taper Forum. Gay men of a certain age view Kushner’s play as their play in a sense – or at least a highly biographical take on their own lives and communities in the not so distant past. But an opera, even a long one, can’t absorb all seven hours of Kushner’s miraculous, wordy wonder, and like composers before him, Eötvös had to make some hard choices, which he did with Kushner’s assistance and that of librettist Mari Mezel. What's left is a peculiarly non-American take on the most American of plays with much of the political context stripped away. Some grumbling was to be expected with such a devoted audience, but the grumbling seemed fair even beyond the devotion of an audience for the original work. Angels in America in this instance is as disappointing as often as it isn’t.

The problem lies in Eötvös’s focus almost exclusively on the magical realism in the piece. He is enamored with the hallucinogenic, fantastical dream sequences of the play from Prior Walter’s wrestling with the Angel to Roy Cohn’s extended dialogues with Ethel Rosenberg. They are undoubtedly some of the strongest moments in the play, and they are well served with Eötvös modernist dark discordant score. Sadly though a single piece of theater, the work falters without a clear overarching framework. Understandably cuts have been made, but it feels like they have been made again and again in the wrong places. Scenes are kept for the beauty of their language or their profound sentiment, but necessary connecting narrative elements are too easily lost, creating confusion in the final act as to exactly how things got to the point they have. Worse yet, Eötvös’ monochromatic score cuts against the proceedings as often as it seems to drive the action forward. Angels in America turns out to be as didactic as an opera as it is a play. But while that works on stage, it fails overall in the concert hall.

Musically, the members of the Los Angeles Philharmonic and their guests availed themselves of this score, which featured both acoustic and electric instruments as well as amplified voices, expertly. Pablo Heras-Casado served as the conductor as he will for the world premiere of Eötvös’ new Violin Concerto written for Midori this coming weekend. He kept things well coordinated and relatively fleet for such a wordy libretto. Measha Brueggergosman appeared as the angel and gave a lusty, visceral performance as a supernatural creature in a sea of human neurosis and pain. David Adam Moore’s Prior Walter was the center of the large eight-person cast and handled singing about erections when it was called for with a believable ease. There’s as much spoken dialogue in the show as sung text and the cast included many other fine vocalists such as Julia Migenes and Janice Hall. All of the eight vocal actors on stage were joined by three other vocalists: Jamie Jordan, Abigail Fischer, and everyone’s favorite local barihunk Abdiel Gonzalez who provided layering and augmentation to the individual sung lines throughout in a sort of mini mirror chorus. It was one of Eötvös’ most clever and resounding musical effects in an evening that often provided drama and more than a little magic. Even if it did so at the expense of delivering a unified dramatic whole.
1 year ago | |
Tag
| Read Full Story

Well in case you hadn’t noticed, it’s been awhile since I’ve been able to update Out West Arts. I’ve gotten some notes of concern from long-time readers over the last few weeks and just wanted to assure everyone that I’m not dead and am very much alive and likely in a theater or concert hall near you. Unfortunately, as many of you know OWA is entirely a labor of love for me and occasionally a few other participants around Los Angeles, but it has always been subject to the forces of my own life in the off line world. I’ve never talked much about that here and don’t intend to start now, but suffice it to say that family responsibilities have put added pressure on my time over the last two months and writing OWA has not made it onto the agenda for awhile. The hiatus won’t last forever, though. I’ve seen great stuff like Glass’ Einstein on the Beach and Joyce DiDonato’s kick-ass Carnegie Hall recital in support of her new recording Drama Queens. And I’ve seen garbage too, like much of the current Los Angeles Philharmonic Season so far. (If Salonen’s performance of Wozzeck with the Philharmonia Orchestra on their recent Los Angeles visit didn’t bring tears to your eyes for the lost past, you should have heard the Mahler 9 they did together.) But fear not, I’ll be back to spew more in the not too distant future. So, stay strong sports fans and by all means if you see me in public, stop by and say hi.
1 year ago | |
Tag
| Read Full Story
Andrew Norman
Hot young composers seem to be everywhere these days. It takes something special to stand out, especially in this world of social media and hyper-connectivity, but American composer Andrew Norman has quickly made an ever growing name for himself. And best of all he manages this remarkable feat with something decidedly old fashioned – his music. His work has been featured on local stages many times including some notable performances by the Los Angeles Philharmonic. But this former USC student begins making a big splash of a return on the local scene this month when he takes up a three-year stint as Composer-in-Residence for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra, which will open its season at the Alex Theater in Glendale this Saturday October 6th. Included on that program conducted by LACO Music Director Jeffrey Kahane will be Norman’s The Great Swiftness and the orchestra will continue to feature his works and new commissions on several occasions over the next few years. This is more good news for everyone as Norman, one of this year’s finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in music, will be bringing his energy and insight to a local audience with a huge interest and appetite for contemporary music. Before things get started, though, Norman was kind enough to take a minute to answer the OWA 10 Questions to tell a little about where he’s going, his favorite hamburger, and his love for working with kids.
  1. How important is contemporary technology to your creative process?
    My relationship with technology is complicated. I'm not a natural with computers. At all. So I have yet to write a piece that has any component of electronic music in it. Which I feel bad about, but am also growing to accept as part of my (possibly anachronistic) creative identity. But I do use notation software - sometimes early in the writing process, sometimes late - and occasionally midi playback, depending on the kind of music I'm writing.
  2. What’s your current obsession?
    Rearranging the furniture in my living room. I find endless fascination in the many ways objects can be in a room.
  3. You’ve been appointed Composer-in-Residence for the Los Angeles Chamber Orchestra starting this year, one of several such positions you’ve held with various ensembles. How important is this sort of long-term collaboration with a specific group of musicians to your work?
    SO IMPORTANT. Music making can and should be personal thing, and the more we can do to make new orchestral music a more personal sort of collaboration, the more honest and energized the final product will be. I love getting to know an orchestra and writing for them as people, not just players.
  4. Music education and working with young people has played a big part in your career to date. How does this activity contribute to your work as a composer?
    Young people have so much creative energy! Working with young people is like tapping into this huge, unbridled energy source; I can fill up and take it back to my own work. Sometimes I feel bad because I get SO much out working with kids - I hope they get something, too.
  1. What music made you want to be a composer?
    When I was a little, little kid my parents would play this compilation tape of the greatest hits of the Baroque. I think it was somewhere between Air on the G String and Pachelbel's Canon that I decided to become a composer.
  2. What’s your second favorite opera after Berg’s Lulu?
    Britten's Peter Grimes. I stood through half a dozen performances of it as an usher at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion back in the day.
  3. When should I clap?
    Whenever you feel like it.
  4. You’re one of The USC Thornton School’s most beloved graduates. What do you miss most about living in Southern California after your time in Europe and New York?
    Disney Hall and In-N-Out Burger.
  5. You recently completed a concerto for theremin and orchestra as part of your tenure as Composer-in-Residence with the Boston Modern Orchestra Project. Are there other unusual instruments or combinations of them you have future plans to write for? And may I suggest more pieces for the ondes martenot?
    Actually, the theremin concerto was written first for Carolina Eyck and the Heidelberg Philharmonic, and later adapted for BMOP. But yes, I tend to be drawn to instruments with dangerously wide vibratos (theremin, ondes martenot, aging mezzo sopranos...), and I learned so much from writing the theremin concerto that I want to write another, and another. There's so much you can do with it! And I've got a shot at being the Wieniawski or Vieuxtemps of the Theremin world - like in a 100 years thereminists in conservatory will earnestly debate the varying merits of Norman 4 vs. Norman 3 or 5. That's the kind of immortality I want.
  6. What’s the next big thing we should be looking for from Andrew Norman?
    I don't know! Let's focus on me figuring out how to write music today, and once I've got that down I'll get back to you.
1 year ago | |
Tag
| Read Full Story
The Joffrey Ballet's 1987 production of The Rite of Spring used the original sets, costumes, and choreography from the 1913 production. Photo by Herb Migdoll
The Los Angeles Philharmonic and music director Gustavo Dudamel returned to their winter home at the Walt Disney Concert Hall this very hot weekend to open up the 2012/2013 season. I’ve always found these initial performances of the fall season a little unsteady over the years. There’s something about the move that while relieving in the acoustic sense, still feels unsettled like everyone is getting back to the way things ideally should be with the better programming and better sound that audiences have been starving for all summer. This year was no exception, but it was a particularly unsatisfactory weekend for Dudamel and the Philharmonic. In fact, this weekend’s show, which I caught on Sunday, may have been the worst single performance I’ve heard him and the orchestra give together over his musically erratic, artistically lackluster tenure as music director here in L.A.

Of course, part of the reason for this may have been the works programmed for the occasion, which included Stravinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps, a work that served as the calling card for the orchestra under former music director Esa-Pekka Salonen, and one they recorded together to some acclaim. Those very familiar interpretations were well known to virtually all regular members of the L.A. Philharmonic’s regular audience. And certainly a different interpretive style is natural and to be expected. But Dudamel’s take on this landmark of the 20th Century fell short in virtually every way imaginable. Gone was the percussive, rhythmic dance sense of the piece. Gone was the brisk, ferocious aggressiveness grabbing at your throat and the sharp edged clarity and uniformity cultivated by the orchestra – the sound that in part had catapulted them to the forefront of world orchestras for their performances of 20th Century works. Instead Dudamel led the orchestra through a performance that had some animalistic qualities, but was disorganized and confused often to the point of cacophony. Gone was the sense of rhythm and timing with Dudamel’s trademark indulgent and inexplicable tempi. The sound went in all directions, at once blunting the force of the performance and leaving one perplexed as to what the point was. This was not a Rite that sounded like the harbinger of the 20th Century, but one that was lost wandering in a disorganized sea of noise.

The rest of the evening fared little better. The show started with a lifeless and cold tour through Ravel’s Pavane pour une infant défunte. This did little to pave the way for the world premiere of a new work from longtime L.A. Philharmonic collaborator composer Steven Stucky whose 20 minute single movement Symphony rounded out the first half of the evening. The work was of a similar structure to his prior Radical Light and Silent Spring in format with contrasting material that waxes and wanes from a more subdued entrance the composer refers to as “peaceful” to contrasting moments more reflective of turmoil. The piece isn’t programmatic in any way as Stucky himself insists, but instead relies on a series of orchestra gestures execute with flair by Dudamel and the players. But it was hard to get behind the piece with much excitement when the overall feeling was that the music was somehow resting in the background of something else. Granted the work didn’t get shown in the best of lights sandwiched between two musical debacles as it was, so further listening is warranted. But in the meantime, one can only hope that as in year’s past, the show that opens the regular weekend programming of the fall season for the L.A. Phil is not the standard bearer for the year to come but a transition period from which much greater things will happen.
1 year ago | |
Tag
| Read Full Story
Joyce DiDonato and Nicole Cabell Photo by Cory Weaver/SFO 2012
If Vivienne Westwood and Gerhard Richter had a love child and that particular offspring were an opera production, it might look like Vincent Boussard’s new staging of I Capuleti e I Montecchi which arrived in San Francisco this weekend after its premiere run in Munich. Bellini’s take on the Romeo and Juliet story, which is not influenced by Shakespeare’s famous play but the source material the bard himself used, has elements most in the audience will find familiar if only slightly rearranged. Here we have Romeo who has just killed Juliet's brother, competing for her hand in marriage against Tybalt in this version of the story that focuses more on the warring families. Boussard’s production though runs from any of the typical trappings associated with this tale of doomed lovers with one of the most obtuse and abstract stagings to grace the San Francisco stage in some time. Vincent Lemaire’s large grey abstract backdrop which evokes a battle on horses towers over the empty stage at sharp uncomfortable angles which is made even more obtuse with the addition of garish neon colored rag collections that the cast wear as costumes designed by none other than Christian Lacroix. And while all the characters in the show are male with the exception of Juliet, the women who do appear onstage evoke the oblivious world of Edina Monsoon with their giant frizzy wigs and Technicolor wardrobe.

And yet, there is something to this, and I’ll admit that by intermission, this barren off-kilter world communicated something to me about the isolation the two young lovers felt as if totally removed from a reality that keeps intruding on the only thing they can see – each other. Guido Levi’s lighting is a masterpiece of rich shifting color that communicates as much emotional subtext to the evening as the musical and theatrical components. It brings to mind the best of the work of Robert Wilson with its painterly approach to a set that can otherwise be static and dull to look at. This production will not make everyone happy and the opening night audience did toss out its share of boos. But there is something to this and some startling images including when Juliet climbs atop a sink in her room, in fact the only feature of any kind in her room, in an attempt to reach out for a statue of two lovers suspended high above the stage and her floor. In essence it is a production that mirrors the very spirit of bel canto opera itself – one that achieves its ends by dealing within a strictly controlled and outwardly pleasing aesthetic milieu despite the shifting dramatic or emotional content of the libretto at any particular moment.

Of course the show also benefits from three of the most important American vocal artists working today. Joyce DiDonato’s international reputation continues to grow and is well deserved. Her Romeo is known around the world and San Francisco is lucky to have such a gripping, colorful, and inviting performance to behold. She floats pianissimos with ease and never gives a hint of unsteadiness or strain flying through the ornamentation of her part. Her Romeo is often heartbreaking and boiling over with emotion. Eric Owens plays Juliet’s father anchoring the few moments on stage that don’t involve either of the lovers. But perhaps the biggest surprise for me on this evening was Nicole Cabell. Her career has grown surely and steadily over the last seven years or so with appearances in a number of major French roles as well as Mozart. But none of this would have prepared one for the riveting, ornamented, and detailed vocal performance she turned in on opening night. Cabell delivered on all the promises of her big competition wins of recent years as a Juliet who was alternately loving, sad, and increasingly emotionally unstable. Her duets with DiDonato were some of the best operatic singing I’ve heard all year. This Juliet is a major leap forward for Cabell and suggests that it wont be long before she is at the top of the operatic game on a much bigger scale. And with the supportive but never indulgent ear of conductor Riccardo Frizza both she and DiDonato shone even in moments where the orchestra sounded a bit rough around the edges. Saimir Pirgu had several good moments as Tybalt as well, although the tenor did exhibit some unsteadiness at the very top of his range on this evening.

Sure there are oddities that chafe in this evening like the giant staircase that dominates the stage in the closing scene of the Act I and the opening of Act II. But in the end, the aesthetic holds and there is a consistency of approach and care that takes this opera about warring families and manages to put Bellini’s version of the lovers right at the center of the action. The show comes highly recommended on many levels and can be seen at the War Memorial Opera House through Oct 19th.
1 year ago | |
Tag
| Read Full Story
Amanda Detmer and Sanaa Lathan Photo by Michael Lamont/Geffen Playhouse 2012
Lynn Nottage’s most recent play By The Way, Meet Vera Stark has arrived in Los Angeles for it West Coast premiere this week at the opening of the fall season for the Geffen Playhouse in Westwood. The play is a distinctly light-hearted follow-up to Nottage’s last stunner of a play, Ruined about the atrocities of war faced by African women on this very planet in these very days. But even though we are making the acquaintance of Vera Stark for the first time, Nottage is treading territory and a certain light-hearted tone familiar to her audiences in such works as Intimate Apparel. Vera Stark is an actress in a time and place, 1930s Hollywood, where African-American women rarely get the opportunity to do any work at all in their chosen profession. In fact much of the evening deals with Stark’s relationships with the white folks she works with as she struggles to find her place in a town where she and her friends are largely unwelcome outside of serving in a variety of domestic and supporting roles both on screen and off.

But Stark, a sharp sly Sanaa Lathan, perseveres landing a large role, though it is still as a maid, in the fictional 1930s classic film “The Belle of New Orleans” opposite her white friend, cousin, starlet and employer Gloria Mitchell, played here by Amanda Detmer. This film will end up establishing Stark’s name in cinematic history and serves as the substrate for the play’s second act ostensibly set during a modern–day film conference where fake scholars debate the legacy of Stark while also revisiting her last filmed interview as part of an appearance opposite Mitchell in a 1970s TV talk show guest spot. If it sounds like the play gets “meta” it does. But not necessarily successfully. Filmed segments are mixed with live action here including a live performance recreation of the video interview segment from the 1970s. While the first half of the show has an almost madcap sitcom feel to it with Stark and her friends desperately trying to finagle roles in a big Hollywood film, the second half portends to be far more sophisticated. It rarely succeeds in getting there, though, as director Jo Bonney burdens the academic conference framing device with stock cartoon faux-academic caricatures that grouse and mug for comic effect in what struck me as an unintentional parallel to the minstrelsy that Stark and her friends find themselves constrained to recapitulate in an effort to work breaking down walls in their own chosen field.

It is the confused tone that makes By The Way, Meet Vera Stark most frustrating. The show goes deliberately for cheap laughs when in range of making its biggest points. Nottage also seems uncertain of how to balance this content against the drama of the interpersonal relationship and history of Mitchell and Stark, which at times is offered up as a mystery only to be abandoned in favor of other pursuits and never revisited. The play does cover territory worth considering, though, and despite its faults and the missteps of an overly jocular production, By The Way, Meet Vera Stark does manage to give voice to a particular moment in American cultural history with respect to African-American women that doesn’t always make it way on real life stages. The show continues at the Geffen through the 28th of October.
1 year ago | |
Tag
| Read Full Story
11 - 20  | 123456789 next
InstantEncore