Jitney

Review: Jitney

I am a huge fan of playwright August Wilson; I consider him second only to Tennessee Williams in my reckoning of the greatest American playwrights of all time. Jitney was the first to be written of his “Century Cycle” plays – a set of ten incredibly powerful works about the African-American experience in each decade of the 20th Century – but the last to be produced on Broadway. It is also, I believe the only of the cycle plays to have been written in the decade it portrays.

Set in the Hill District of Pittsburgh (as most of the Century Cycle is) Jitney focuses on an office out of which a motley crew make a living by driving unlicensed cabs, the “Jitneys” of the title. When the city threatens to board up the business and the boss’ estranged son returns from prison, pressure reaches a boiling point.

Jitney is clearly the work of a young playwright – the exposition is presented a touch too baldly, and certain transitions are managed with a jarring suddenness that feels accidental rather than intentional. That said, the characters are every bit as vividly drawn as in any other Century Cycle play, and Wilson’s acclaimed mastery of language – in registers ranging from gleefully gritty to eloquently elevated – is already complete and confident.

Director Ruben Santiago-Hudson has been steeped in Wilson’s plays, as performer as well as director, more that just about anybody else. And indeed, Santiago-Hudson knows just where to lean into the young Wilson’s prophetically strong moments, and when to drive his ultra-solid cast carefully over the speed bump. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

rusalka

Review: Rusalka

To make a longish story short, Rusalka is a tragic operatic Czech variation on The Little Mermaid. It also takes elements of the older fairy tale novella Undine (and all three have roots in the medieval legend of Melusine). There’s also a strong musical influence from Wagner here tooand not just musical: The opera opens with a trio of water spirits teasing a gnomish creature, exactly the same opening as Wagner’s Das Rheingold.

It is also very Czech. While Little Mermaid and Undine are obvious influences, the libretto takes much more directly from the fairy tales of Czech authors Karel Jaromír Erben and Božena Němcová. As with all of the works of the opera’s composer Antonín Dvořák, Rusalka draws directly on Czech folk music for its melodic and rhythmic sense. Also, Rusalka is a lake nymph in contrast to Little Mermaid‘s ocean -dwelling heroine, which makes sense for land-locked Czechia.

Director Mary Zimmerman, whose work is packed full with beauty and fantasy, is an ideal interpreter for this dark fantasy. Choreographer Austin McCormick is known for his baroque-inspired sexual fantasies, and his second act court dance goes all the way there, in breathtaking fashion. Rusalka is in the outer reaches of opera’s “standard repertoire” so I’m not surprised this is my first time hearing it. Conductor Sir Mark Elder gives it a rich and surging account which more than sold me on the opera’s many and varied pleasures.

The buzz about this production, though, is all about Kristine Opolais in the title role, and it is more than earned. She gives just the right luminescent lusciousness to the lovelorn nymph, especially in the gorgeous aria “Song to the Moon.” Eric Owens was a revelation as Nibelung dwarf Alberich in the Met’s recent Ring cycle, and he is marvelous again here as Dvořák’s similar (but much kinder) water goblin Vodník. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

marcos-valle-and-celso-fonseca

Review: Marcos Valle & Celso Fonseca

I like bossa nova singer / songwriter and all around luminary Marcos Valle because he combines a strong sense of syncopation and groove with a rich and vibrant harmonic palette – these things will get my attention anytime. Add to that a sunny disposition and sensibility best expressed by his signature song “Summer Samba (So Nice)” (made famous by Astrud Gilberto), and I’m in musical love.

In his current club act at Birdland, Valle is backed by a trio of musicians whose precision and energy border on the supernatural. When they lock into the groove that Valle is playing on the keyboard – which is most of the time – the room positively levitates with musical excitement in its most direct form. The effect is so dynamic, in fact, that I found myself wishing that Birdland had a dance floor. Even more than your typical samba, this is music that moves.

About half of the concert is duets with a Brazilian singer / songwriter from the generation following Valle’s, Celso Fonseca. In contrast to Valle’s infectious brio, Fonseca emanates a wry laid-back quality that is described by his signature tune “Slow Motion Bossa Nova.” The two compliment each other surprisingly well, Valle energizing Fonseca, Fonseca contributing witty color to Valle’s drive. They made an album together in 2009, Página Central, and the instrumental selections from that album are the evening’s most fiery moments, taking as much from the funkier end of disco as from Brazilian music. Hot stuff, indeed!

Valle is also joined by his vocalist wife Patricia Alvi on a handful of numbers, and she brings a quality similar to the women of Sergio Mendes’s Brasil ’66, which works especially well on Valle’s 1967 bossa nova classic “Crickets.” Overall, one of the most stimulating cabaret shows I’ve seen in some time.

For tickets, click here.

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

nellie-mckay

Review: Nellie McKay

Nellie McKay is a highly individual talent, a supreme stylist, with wild, crazy creativity and substantial musical intelligence to match her razor-like interpretive ability. McKay has become something of a specialist in biographical cabarets – experimental performance art meets high society cabaret – and has put together another such special show about Billy Tipton, a jazz pianist who was discovered to have been a woman after his death.

The key word in that last sentence is “special” – A Girl Named Bill is cabaret as only Nellie McKay could do it. She does the entire act while literally playing the role of Tipton, right down to period-accurate costumes and props. And period-accurate music and speaking styles as well. A perfectionist sense of history on complete display.

Sometimes McKay’s complex acts can seem under-rehearsed. Not here. While she is certainly stretching the abilities of herself and her immensely talented band to their limits, these is a sense of ease. It’s swimmingly successful, no small achievement. McKay doesn’t narrate, so you might be well advised to look at the Wikipedia biography of Tipton before you see the show.

Instead, she presents us with loosely sketched vignettes of Tipton’s life, mostly letting the music do the story-telling. Tipton did impersonations in his shows, which gives McKay license to do songs by Jimmy Durante, Elvis Presley, Liberace and Bob Dylan.

The gender-bending element of the show gives McKay plenty of opportunities for humor, which she is all too willing to take. Most enjoyable of all is a running gag in which McKay’s hirsute band titter like schoolgirls, to which she scoffs, “Ladies, please!” But she also gets very serious about gender identity, especially in a hair-raising version of Jelly Roll Morton’s very sexually explicit “Whinin’ Boy Blues.”

McKay ties together all of the thematic and musical aspects of the show in a whimsically rousing rendition of “Why Can’t a Woman Be More Like a Man?,” from My Fair Lady. McKay’s combination of irony and heart-on-sleeve sincerity is utterly unique, her performance style multifarious and unpredictable. She’s a true original, and it’s an exceptional pleasure to see and hear her take such exciting risks in such an intimate setting.

For tickets, click here.

 

candide

Review: Candide

I’m biased here: I am a complete Leonard Bernstein nut. I’ve been very excited ever since I first heard about the New York City Opera revival of Candide. It’s not the unimpeachable masterpiece that Lenny’s West Side Story is – the book is famously problematic – but it is still enough of a joy that as long as you nail that sublime Bernstein score, it’ll be a grand night out. Nail it this company does, and the results are glorious.

Based on Voltaire’s 1759 novella of the same name, Candide follows the naïve titular character as he strives to maintain his optimism in the face of brutal experience. The sprightly, brilliant score is one of the best things Bernstein ever wrote, and starts with my personal choice for best musical overture of all time. This production was first staged for NYCO in 1982 by legendary director Harold Prince, featuring Voltaire as ringmaster of a circus. While the staging is showing some signs of age, Prince has refurbished many moments for an overall better flow.

Jay Armstrong Johnson imbues the title role with a charming guilelessness. Meghan Picerno plays Candide’s true love Cunégonde, filling her signature song “Glitter and Be Gay” with wit and surprise. Gregg Edelman attacks the campy business that Prince gives to Voltaire with real relish. Linda Lavin makes a full meal of the smaller plum role The Old Lady. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Review: Roméo et Juliette

Well, this is lovely! I’ve never been a big fan of these star-crossed lovers; I thought of them as “stupid damn teenagers” even when I was a stupid damn teenager myself. But add some music to the story and it instantly gains a lot of interest – all that yearning gives abundant opportunities for making beautiful music. I’ve long been a fan of Prokofiev’s ballet version for that very reason. And Charles Gounod, composer of this operatic version, misses few opportunities for making glorious musical hay out of these adolescent passions, not only in the pair’s big arias and duets (which positively glow), but also in sensuously sparkling waltzes for the party scenes.

Director Bartlett Sher’s sturdy production drew inspiration from two films, Federico Fellini’s Casanova and Patrice Chéreau’s La Reine Margot. It leans more heavily toward the gritty grimness of Chéreau, where I would definitely have preferred more of the color, eccentricity and perversity of Fellini, but I’d call that a matter of personal taste. Sher’s staging certainly serves the material quite well. Choreographer Chase Brock, making a very impressive Met debut, makes those waltzes whirl and pulsate with a terrifically sculptural sense of space.

In the time that I’ve been covering opera at the Met, I’ve come to be a great fan of conductor Gianandrea Noseda. He triumphs once again here with a notably light touch, giving Gounod’s glittering score much welcome space and air. We also get a light touch from this productions Romeo, Vittorio Grigolo, but one that is not mutually exclusive with soaring passionate flights in the role’s upper register.

But the real story in this production is its Juliette, Diana Damrau. It was announced before the evening started that Damrau was suffering with a cold, but would be performing nonetheless. If we hadn’t been told, I would have been delighted by her liquid coloratura dynamics, but under these circumstances sounding so marvelous is nothing short of awesome. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

natasha-pierre-the-great-comet-of-1812-photo-by-chad-batka-119357-lucas-steele-and-denee-benton-in

Review: Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812

This tops many outlets “Best of 2016” lists, and is often compared favorably with super-musical Hamilton in terms of innovation and sheer vivacity. What do I think of it? Well, similar to the way I feel about Hamilton, I at least really enjoyed it about as much as everyone else. As for innovation, well, this sort of thing has been done a lot before, especially in the 1970s, though I can’t deny the dexterity of execution here far exceeds anything I’m aware of in this vein.

Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 is composer / writer Dave Malloy’s inspired, stylistically eclectic musical adaptation of a 70-page slice of Leo Tolstoy’s epic novel of Russia under attack from Napoleon, War and Peace (some of the spicier and more romantic pages of the novel, it should be said). Director Rachel Chavkin has staged Malloy’s pluckily intellectual creation in a style that in the 1970s was called “environmental,” and today goes by the moniker of “immersive.”

Having worked on immersive productions myself, I’m not taken so much by the idea of Chavkin’s immersive staging – it’s just one of many ways this material could have been staged. What I am taken by is the breathtaking skill and creativity with which Chavkin has applied it.

Here’s one example that stands out for me: our hero Pierre visits a club. For this scene, a 1812 Moscow aristocratic private club is portrayed as S&M night at a 1990s mega-club. It’s a fun idea, but also a really dumb and corny one. Granted that things could get pretty wild at the 1812 club, what with the epic consumption of vodka, but it’s still really apples and oranges.

However, Chavkin, lighting designer Bradley King and choreographer Sam Pinkleton attack the sequence with such precision and energy that the sheer visceral impact is undeniable, even overwhelming, especially in this immersive context. Chavkin and her team bring this combination of smarts and virtuosity to every scene. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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