Review: L’Amour de Loin

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Finnish composer Kaija Saariaho’s much-praised 2000 opera has a darkly shimmering beauty to it, and director Robert Lepage has created a gorgeous production for its Met premiere that leans powerfully into that shimmering quality. Lepage and set designer Michael Curry have draped strip after strip of LED lights across the immense Met stage. With those strips, “lightscape image designer” Lionel Arnould paints constantly shifting washes of color that vary from evocative abstractions to almost realistic representations of the Mediterranean Sea. It’s breathtakingly beautiful, and suits Saariaho’s music to a “T”.

There’s precious little to the plot of L’Amour de loin. Very loosely based on the legend of French troubadour prince Jaufré Rudel (c. 1100-c. 1147), it tells of Jaufré’s idealized love for a woman he has never seen – Clémence, countess of a Crusader colony in Lebanon – with messages brought back and forth by an unnamed, androgynous, seafaring Pilgrim.

Saariaho’s music may sparkle, but it’s also dissonant – influenced as much by the steely atonality of Webern as the hazy sensuality of Debussy. Saariaho has also incorporated material redolent of the medieval era, including actual melodic elements from Jaufré’s own songs. When these primitively tonal melodies emerge out of the dark tides of Saariaho’s music, the effect is remarkable. It happens first in a passage sung by the pilgrim, sung here with resonant gravitas by Tamara Mumford, and it’s like a sunset breaking through the clouds.

Making her Met debut, conductor Susanna Mälkki navigates the complexities of the score with great assuredness and expressiveness. Susanna Phillips, as Clémence, gets a plethora of bravura passages and high notes which she handles with great power and musical intelligence. As Jaufré, Eric Owens is the production’s beating heart, bringing great passion to even the most devilishly difficult sections. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Les Liaisons Dangereuses

Les Liaisons Dangereuses Booth Theatre Written by Christopher Hampton; Based on the novel by Choderlos de Laclos; Original Music: Michael Bruce Directed by Josie Rourke Scenic Design by Tom Scutt; Costume Design by Tom Scutt; Lighting Design by Mark Henderson; Sound Design by Carolyn Downing; Hair Design by Campbell Young; Make-Up Design by Campbell Young Janet McTeer La Marquise de Merteuil Liev Schreiber Le Vicomte de Valmont Elena Kampouris Broadway debutCécile Volanges Mary Beth Peil Madame de Rosemonde Birgitte Hjort Sørensen Broadway debut Mme. de Tourval Raffi Barsoumian Broadway debut Le Chevalier Danceny Katrina Cunningham Émilie a courtesan Joy Franz Victoire Ora Jones Madame de Volanges David Patterson Broadway debut Major-domo Josh Salt Azolan Valmont's valet de chambre Laura Sudduth Broadway debut Julie Understudies: Katrina Cunningham (Cécile Volanges), Rachel deBenedet (La Marquise de Merteuil), Joy Franz (Madame de Rosemonde), Ron Menzel (Le Vicomte de Valmont, Major-domo), David Patterson (Azolan, Le Chevalier Danceny) and Laura Sudduth (Mme. de Tourval, Victoire, Émil

It’s a little different seeing Les Liaisons Dangereuses in these days of heightened awareness of the prevalence of sexual assaults on women. Our new pussy-grabber-in-cheif makes the exploits of the rapacious Vicomte de Valmont stand out even more starkly. Valmont may claim that his assaults are intentionally resistible so that woman can’t claim he forced them. Still, he does indeed grab women – who are saying no – right in the pussy. If in the past the Marquise de Merteuil’s final “war” on Valmont seemed a pass too far, it seems all too justifiable now.

As Valmont, Liev Schreiber cleverly calibrates all of this, shading his interpretation with the sense that he is more a slave of his appetites than their master. He is possibly the sexiest man ever to play Valmont, with a brooding virility that helps explain this decadent man’s appeal. Schreiber is better known for playing more macho sorts, but proves more than capable of playing – with great intelligence and sophistication at that – a dissolute, even melancholy 18th Century French aristocrat.

Former lovers, Merteuil and Valmont compete in games of seduction and revenge. And if Schreiber’s Valmont is the louche, lounging sort, then Janer McTeer’s Merteuil is the very picture of elegant yet implacable ferocity. Her consonants rustle, her vowels throb. Her hands and fingers flutter with the lethal precision of daggers. The exterior is calculating and cool, but seething lava boils underneath. It’s one hell of a performance, and if McTeer isn’t remembered with a nomination at Tony time, I’m crying foul.

Director Josie Rourke has given these star turns a gorgeous production, all candle-lit chandeliers and the effortless glamour of decay. The pace is languorous without being unbearable, a minor-key pavane of a privileged class on the brink of collapse. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: tick, tick…BOOM!

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This pop-rock musical gets most of its pungency from the score’s lively, inventive songs. tick, tick…BOOM! is also haunted by the fact that it’s an autobiographical musical from the late composer of Rent, Jonathan Larson. This gives the existential angst lead character Jonathan feels a particular edge.

tick, tick…BOOM! tells the story of an ambitious composer anxiously pondering where his career and life are headed as he approaches his 30th birthday. His girlfriend wants to get married and move out of the city, his best friend has found happiness switching from being an unsuccessful actor to a successful marketing exec, but Jonathan is still waiting on tables and trying to write the great American musical.

The score has tons of innate urgency, but director Jonathan Silverstein has smartly opted for a very grounded approach to the book scenes, creating more texture and variety. More than in previous productions, these are recognizable human beings. While in many ways tick, tick…BOOM! is undeniably a very ’90s period piece, the music is still sparklingly fresh, and the very talented cast – Nick Blaemire as Jonathan, George Salazar as his gay best friend, and Ciara Renée as his girlfriend – bring a new shine to Larson’s sophisticated vocal harmonies.

Larson’s crusade to bring rock into musical theatre doesn’t ring as urgently as it used to – in 2016 it’s a fait accompli and even a bit old-fashioned. But that’s thanks in no small part to Larson himself, and tick, tick…BOOM! reminds us what a nonpariel master of the rock musical he was. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Judy Collins

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No one sings a folk song more beautifully than Judy Collins, and few people sing more beautifully, period. She’s an authentic river of song, in truly golden voice in her seventies. She’ll be talking about a song in passing, and then launch into three or four lines, singing with breathtakingly casual grace and beauty. And then continue with her story “and so I told Leonard Cohen that yes, ‘Suzanne’ is a good song and I’ll be recording it tomorrow…”

In tribute to Cohen’s passing she did a medley of his “Bird on a Wire” with one of he own songs – Cohen had encouraged her as a songwriter, which was life-changing for her. When she sings a song in earnest, she’s truly arresting, imbuing each line with subtle style, implying stories behind stories.

This particular act follows on the release of Silver Skies Blue, an album of duets with Ari Hest, a 37-year-old singer / songwriter. The central part of the act is the two of them together. His songs fit Judy’s voice like a glove, and their voices sound very natural in harmony together. The song of his that stuck with me most is “Aberdeen”, about a young person’s burning ambition to leave the titular South Dakota small town.

The stories Judy tells are truly entertaining, varying from the touchingly personal to the hilariously bawdy. She is so enthusiastically invested in the music – her spectacular, undiminished talent always grants an amaziningly intense cabaret experience. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Jenůfa

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For me, the luminous sound of the score is the main appeal of Jenůfa, the watershed 1904 Czech opera by Leoš Janáček. In the current revival at the Met, Conductor David Robertson delivers a gorgeously polished account of the piece, making singers and orchestra feel almost like a single virtuoso instrument.

Finnish soprano Karita Mattila is the established star here, playing the title character’s stepmother, the Kostelnička, the moral guardian of the small village in which they live. She delivers on her reputation, singing with great clarity and passion, but it’s a credit to the quality of this production that she doesn’t particularly stand out.

Oksana Dyka is equally marvelous as Jenůfa, a victim of the village’s hypocrisy – a role which helped Mattila make her reputation. The stepbrothers in love with Jenůfa both shine as well, Daniel Brenna showing great dynamism as Laca, and Joseph Kaiser as Steva is exactly the kind of dazzling high tenor the role needs.

I’m not so in love with the story of the opera – which includes jealous men disfiguring women and infanticide – but do appreciate its psychological subtlety. The people you thought were evil turn out to be good, and vice versa; there is much redemption going around. Jenůfa is a beautiful, unique piece of music, and this is a must-hear rendition. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Heisenberg

Heisenberg MTC Friedman Theatre CAST & CREATIVE for Heisenberg View All Cast Georgie Mary-Louise Parker Alex Denis Arndt Creative Written by Simon Stephens Director Mark Brokaw Set Designer Mark Wendland Costume Designer Michael Krass Lighting Designer Austin R. Smith Original Music and Sound Designer David Van Tieghem

When looking for someone to adapt his novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Mark Haddon specifically sought out playwright Simon Stephens because of his “heart of flint.” That captures Stephens’s cool and clear-eyed observation of people with all their flaws, but it misses the underlying optimism in his writing that creates such an exciting tension with his flinty surfaces. His specific brand of guarded optimism was indeed exactly what was needed for Curious Incident, and is once again on surprisingly heartening display in his own play Heisenberg.

In a London train station, Georgie (Mary-Louise Parker) spots Alex (Denis Arndt), a man several decades her senior, and plants a kiss on his neck. Nothing is quite as it seems, either at that moment, or indeed as their relationship grows and changes. Out of unpredictable oscillations between self-interest and selflessness is born something that closely resembles love.

Both Georgie and Alex have massive defense mechanisms due to difficulties in their lives, yet gradually offer each other more and more company and comfort, because…well, why not? Parker can sometimes be abrasive and “too much” as Georgie – but that’s actually because she’s playing the character correctly. Similarly, Arndt can be a bit opaque, but that’s because Alex is opaque.

Stephens very successfully makes us care about two prickly, slippery people by giving us insights to the all-too-human pain that drives them. Mark Brokaw’s spare but very detailed direction serves Stephens’s script marvellously well. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Holiday Inn

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This musical adaptation of the classic movie has a firm grip on character and themes, but it’s a bit loosey-goosey when it comes to weaving a coherent plot. And it is so not a big deal: Holiday Inn combines Irving Berlin songs with heart and smarts, and that alone makes me happy. The various plot holes are a minor annoyance, at worst.

Like the film, the musical tells the story of Jim (Bryce Pinkham), who leaves his little corner of show business – a small club in Flatbush – to settle down at a farmhouse in Connecticut. Jim meets Linda (Lora Lee Gayer), who inspires him to bring a little bit of show biz to the farm, by turning it into an inn specializing in holiday getaways, with spectacular live entertainment.

In the film, Linda is just as much a creature of show biz as Jim is. Here, director and bookwriter Gordon Greenberg, has made her a talented woman who is actually a bit reluctant to take the stage, which is a little richer, emotionally speaking. On the directing end, Greenberg imparts an elegant briskness to the evening as a whole – and scores some points for finding real emotion in many moments. Overall, this is a show with a lot of great moments, that don’t always connect together well.

More glow emanates from the warm chemistry between Pinkham and Gayer. Corbin Bleu adds great energy and athleticism as Jim’s sometime double act partner Ted. As reimagined properties by Great American Songbook writers go, this one’s slightly above average, and definitely diverting. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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