Review: Maria Stuarda

Maria Stuarda

Bravissima, Radvanovsky! This season Sondra Radvanovsky is proving her bel canto mettle by playing a trio of Tudor queens with starring roles in three operas by Gaetano Donizetti. This month, she plays the lead role in Maria Stuarda, better known in the English-speaking world as Mary, Queen of Scots. It’s a wonderful vehicle for her enormous, soaring, shimmering, effortless coloratura; this surely puts her in opera’s very highest circle of stars.

The opera gives us a highly fictionalized version of the final days of Mary Stuart, held prisoner by her cousin, Queen Elizabeth I. It follows Friedrich Schiller’s play of the same name in inventing a meeting between the two that never happened. Also, much is made of a supposed love between Elizabeth’s favorite courtier Robert Dudley of Leicester and Mary, when historically Leicester strongly resisted Elizabeth’s suggestion that he marry Mary to smooth things over politically.

Elza van den Heever’s performance as “Elizabetta” is vocally strong – she attacks the role with a brilliantine ferocity. Her physicalization also suggests a powerful and fierce woman, but with an odd twist. This Elizabetta struts and swaggers like a cowboy. It’s a strong choice, but also undeniably a strange one. As Maria, Radvanovsky is decidedly not a victim, defiant until the last possible moment, and then a beacon of radiant acceptance once it is clear there is no escape.

Director David McVicar’s production is stately and a tad solemn, but never descends into sleepy stasis. John McFarlane’s sets and costumes capture Elizabethan grandeur, though I wish he used a wider and more varied palette than white, black and red. I can hardly wait to see the conclusion of the triad, Roberto Devereaux, in which Radvanovsky will take her own turn playing the great Elizabeth. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Les Pêcheurs de Perles

Pêcheurs de Perles

A rare Bizet at the Met! I’ve been immersing myself in obscure opera over the last couple of years, giving myself a crash education in forgotten corners of this gloriously gaudy art. Getting to know the French repertoire in detail has been one of this process’s greatest pleasures, and seeing a rarely performed Bizet work in its first Met production in over 100 years is icing on the cake.

Originally set in ancient Ceylon, Les Pêcheurs de Perles tells the story of Leïla, a beautiful Hindu priestess pursued by two close friends who become rivals for her love. The piece is for better or worse a big hunk of Orientalism. British director Penny Woolcock attempts to address that by setting the story in a poverty-ridden slum of today’s coastal Southeast Asia. I’m not sure that helps, particularly.

The Orientalism is, thank goodness, in the final analysis window dressing for a pretty straight ahead love triangle. This production was spurred by soprano Diana Damrau’s love of the role of Leïla, and indeed it fits her rich coloratura voice like a velvet glove. Mariusz Kwiecien here plays Zurga the more politically powerful of her suitors, with great dignity.

The other suitor, Nadir, is a dreamer, and Matthew Polenzani sings the role with a remarkable floating, billowy tenderness. I’d love to hear him do opera from the classical period, say Mozart or Gluck.

Projection design firm 59 Productions can do no wrong as far as I’m concerned. They set the highly-innovative gold standard for projections, and their work here is pretty powerful, finding new and exciting way to communicate the awesome and terrifying power of the ocean.

Conductor Gianandrea Noseda is a master of late Romantic color, and that mastery is on luscious display here. His account of the music is simultaneously grandiloquent and tight, giving in to Bizet’s surging beauty – it’s all very theatrical and lavish, as one always wants at the opera. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Buster Poindexter

Buster Poindexter photo credit David Andrako

This guy’s smarter and wittier than the “worldly and urbane” Mick Jagger! So says legendary rock journalist Lisa Robinson in her recent memoir There Goes Gravity, and I’m inclined to believe her. David Johanson (aka Buster Poindexter) was arguably the king of rock in early 1970s New York, as the lead singer of glam punk legends the New York Dolls.

Poindexter is Johansen’s martini sipping, jacket required alter ego. At this point, after retiring and returning to the Buster multiple times, it essentially signifies that Johanson will be singing the Poindexter repertoire, while wearing a pompadour. When he talks about himself in the act, he calls himself David.

Johansen is at his best when assaying international material – a rattling version of calypso standard “Zombie Jamboree” is one of the high points, as is a ragged boogie take on Italo-pop classic “Volare” (made famous by Dean Martin). Sometimes the act veers even closer to pure rock-and-roll, as with his interpretation of “Piece of My Heart” that owes its arrangement to the hit Janis Joplin version (for the record, that’s a very good thing).

Johansen clearly has real affection for the pop standards and early R&B that form the backbone of this act. The fun here is hearing these songs given new life with a combination of excellent musicianship and gutbucket energy worthy of the New York Dolls.

And there’s nothing particularly ironic about the act, either – the closest Johansen comes to schtick are the Vegas jokes he tells between songs, and even these gems of bad taste feel somehow lovingly curated, and are sometimes presented with such conviction that the punchline arrives with unexpected surprise and joy. This act is a hard swinging good time, and definitely recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Tosca

Kristin Sampson as Tosca, James Valenti as Mario Cavaradossi and Michael Chioldi as Baron Scarpia Inaugural NYC Opera Performance General Director: Michael Capasso Conductor: Pacien Mazzagatti

New York City Opera is back! I have a personal reason for being excited – by the time I started reviewing opera in fall of 2013, their previous incarnation had already closed up shop and filed for bankruptcy, and I had definitely wanted to cover them. Plus, it’s just plain nice to have a middle-sized company, between the obligatory grandeur of the Met and the scrappy inventiveness of the indie opera companies dotting the city landscape.

This Tosca is staunchly traditional: it replicates the sets and costumes by Adolfo Hohenstein from the opera’s premiere production in 1900. Stage director Lev Pugliese may or may not be making an effort to replicate Nino Vignuzzi’s original staging; he certainly steers the staging to hit all the marks of a very traditional Tosca.

I’ve stated before that I only object to traditionalism when it gets in the way of imagination and entertainment. This production is definitely entertaining – Tosca is such a bodice-ripper that doing it straight-on can hardly fail to engage. And the cast is focused with the moment-to-moment flow of the story; this is decidely not Tosca on autopilot.

This production’s Cavaradossi, James Valenti, has a powerful and flexible voice, more than capable of meeting the dramatic and lyric sides of the role. Soprano Kristen Sampson gave Tosca a warmer shade than she usually gets – you got the feeling this Tosca was aware that her jealous feelings were probably unfounded. That’s not exactly the way the role’s written, but it’s not so strange as to be implausible, and gave Tosca some additional, and welcome, humanity.

The real story of this production, though, is Michael Chioldi as the ultimate opera villian Scarpia. He’s easily the best actor in the cast, projecting a truly elegant surface under which murky waters roil. This was definitely a “love to hate you” kind of Scarpia, with vocal power, confidence and technique to back it up. Overall, a rock-solid Tosca, not at all a bad way to get NYCO back on its feet.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Tommy Tune

Tommy Tune photo credit David Andrako 2016_01_12_CafeCarlyle_15

This cabaret act is a testament to what a good director Tommy Tune is – and before you ask, yes, I do mean that as a compliment. Singing was never his leading talent, although he’s just fine at it, thank you. No, this club act makes it clear that it’s more about how he frames things.

And the frames are many: his angular shoulders and elbows, eccentric lighting cues which were clearly designed according to his specifications, the song selection (not a single ballad thank you), his tap dancing in almost every number. The songs are all familiar standards, but Tune’s long-time music director Michael Biagi drops in quotations from other music – a little “Rhapsody in Blue” here, a little Chicago there – that comment on the familiar songs like footnotes.

This also means that no one song stood out as a particularly effective interpretation. Rather, they were all effective numbers in a one-man musical about his career in showbiz. The genre is light-hearted backstage comedy, packed with joy and a little bit of rueful melancholy. He’s completely at ease and whimsical, which suits him very well.

At one point, he pays tribute to Charles “Honi” Coles his colleague in My One and Only, who had been a pioneer in tap dance and soft shoe since his youth in the early 20th Century. Tune recalls some private tap lessons with Coles, in which the master dancer instructed Tune to get progressively more “non-chalant.” And that accidentally points up this show’s one real problem – certain gestures, moments and ideas are so soft-pedaled that they don’t quite tell the story Tune likely wants them to. It’s not a major problem to have, and doesn’t prevent the evening from being quite entertaining. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: The Color Purple

COLOR PURPLE 1685_Cynthia Erivo photo by Matthew Murphy, 2015

Jennifer Hudson may be the big name, but Cynthia Erivo is the event! More on that in a moment. On the off chance you haven’t read Alice Walker’s novel, seen the 1986 Steven Spielberg movie, or seen the original Broadway production of this musical here’s the gist: The Color Purple follows a poor African American woman in Georgia named Celie from her male-oppressed childhood in the 1900s through many tribulations to a kind of hopeful self-knowledge sometime in the 1930s – a great rip-roaring story, full of despair, joy and, finally, redemption.

The central role, Celie, is profoundly juicy – Whoopi Goldberg won a Golden Globe for portraying her in the movie, LaChanze a Tony for the original Broadway showing, and if Cynthia Erivo isn’t at least nominated for a Tony this time around, it’d be a crime. In some ways, she gives the biggest, most expansive reading of Celie yet. When she sings the 11 O’Clock number “I’m Here”, it’s like the sun coming out. And when she sings the final reprise of the title song, it’s the blazing light of high noon. Celie has a huge character arc, and Erivo rides it for all its worth.

Jennifer Hudson is the familiar star name in this production, playing charismatic blues singer Shug Avery. She doesn’t enter with quite the fiery bang that Shug should, but once she starts to sing, as you would expect, it’s pure pleasure. And once she gets rolling acting-wise, she makes you believe that Shug is the irresistible hunk of sensuality and life the other character’s describe.

This revival of The Color Purple started at small but mighty London theatre company Menier Chocolate Factory, and is directed by John Doyle. Both Doyle and Menier have a knack for finding soul in human-scale productions of big musicals, and this exciting production is exactly in that vein. Doyle’s stripped-down staging follows Celie’s story with laser focus, which frames Erivo’s performance perfectly.

As happens distressingly often with Broadway musicals these days, unbalanced sound design often makes it difficult to get all of the lyrics – when Erivo is getting drowned out by a flute, there’s a problem! That said, this still ends up being possibly the most satisfying version of The Color Purple yet. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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Review: Marilyn Maye

marilyn maye-popup 2016

This legendary singer simply has to appear on the The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon (I’ve started a Facebook group with that goal)! It couldn’t be more appropriate: Johnny Carson gave her a standing invitation to sing on “The Tonight Show” whenever possible, and she ended up appearing 76 times while Carson was in the chair, a record no singer has broken since. She sounds almost exactly as amazing as she did back then!

For her January runs at the Metropolitan Room, Marilyn asks her audience to pick her “Marilyn By Request” set list by making song suggestions when making their reservations. Maye has been rediscovered by New York audiences over the last few years, and the ever growing lovefest between fans old and new is palpable in the room, which only adds to the fun.

Musical director Billy Stritch – a frequent foil for the likes of Liza Minnelli and Christine Ebersole – is the perfect match for this footloose kind of approach, combining a broad knowledge of popular music with snappy, sophisticated jazz chops. Maye exquisitely tailors her style of singing to the individual song, smooth for the ballads, swinging for the standards, and truly gritty for the bluesier numbers. And always, always fully at home in – and totally committed to – the music.

The night I went there were some really fantastic moments that I might suggest you request when you go (you really must go, I’m not giving you a choice). She did a sincerely groovy take on “Don’t Nobody Bring Me No Bad News” from The Wiz. She did “Some Enchanted Evening” for a couple that met across a crowded room at one of her shows – its not in her repertoire and she used a lyric sheet, but it sounded like she’d been singing it since South Pacific‘s initial run on Broadway. On the pop/rock side of things, she brings real warmth and soul to James Taylor’s “Secret O’ Life”.

There is simply nobody remotely like Maye, she’s an overpoweringly amazing cabaret singer. It might not be an exaggeration to call her the best jazz cabaret singer in the world. She’s certainly the last great performer in that style of her generation, still in astonishingly full command of her vocal powers. If you love songs of every kind sung like they’re meant to be sung, it just doesn’t get any better than this.

For tickets, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

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