Review: Two Boys

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Nico Muhly’s music for his opera Two Boys is often shimmeringly beautiful, and the opera’s themes are intriguing. Unfortunately, those themes are given only a surface treatment – as a piece of music Two Boys is very satisfying, but as drama very unsatisfying.

The opera takes its plot from the real-life story of the stabbing of one teenage boy by another in Manchester, England in 2001, which turned out to be the result of a tangled web of online intrigue. A very provocative premise, but librettist Craig Lucas does precious little with it. One of the boys is gay, the other deeply confused; to me it would seem that investigating their psyches would be where you would find the real meat for a piece like this.

That investigation barely happens, however, we only get a handful of passages that even glance below the surface very late in the opera. Instead, we get a detective trying to piece together through two acts what anyone in the audience with any intelligence or imagination has figured out less than a half-hour into the first act. Again, the music Muhly has written for this detective – named Strawson – is quite affecting and suggests worlds of suppressed feeling that the corny words don’t even approach, and Alice Coote sings the role gorgeously. But, still…

As the older, confused boy, Brain, Paul Appleby is a revelation, telling us more with a gesture or musical inflection than Lucas does in all the words he’s written for Brian. And Andrew Pulver is absolutely heartbreaking as geeky, gay Jake – both in his waveringly pure soprano and his poetically awkward way of moving. Bartlett Sher’s direction is brisk and intelligent, Hofesh Schechter’s surreal choreography truly haunting and 59 Production’s projection design a breathtaking marvel. But, still…

To me, looking into what motivates the troubled young Jake offers the best opportunity for helping the Met’s audience understand the thousand emotional traumas facing even the most mentally strong gay youth, let alone an introverted, isolated boy like Jake. That never happens here, and that is perhaps a bigger tragedy than any portrayed in the libretto.

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Review: Marilyn Maye

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There is simply nobody remotely like this 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. And at 54 Below right now, she’s turning her towering talent exclusively to showtunes. Lucky us!

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. But she’s had fans in good places for a long time: 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 nobody has broken since (maybe somebody should start a Facebook petition to have her back on the show when Fallon brings it back to New York)!

She’s always included showtunes in her act, so there’s plenty of familiar stuff, especially from Hello Dolly and Mame, shows whose title roles she played in now-legendary regional productions. She also does a a medley of songs from My Fair Lady that climaxes in a stunning, hard-swinging rendition of “On the Street Where You Live” that even the often-modest Maye had to admit “really cooked!!

There are several other medleys, but Maye and her music director Tedd Firth – a gifted but taciturn jazzbo she coaxes into some hilarious deadpan interplay – handle medleys in an unconventional way, undercutting their potential for corniness with thoughtful storytelling and sophisticated jazz musicianship. If you love show tunes sung in sparkling and surprising ways, it just doesn’t get any better than this.

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Review: The Nose

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What a freakin’ punk rock opera! Not really of course, since Dmitri Shostakovich wrote it in 1928, three years before the electric guitar was even invented and four decades before the garage rock explosion of the 1960s. But! It is noisy to the point of near-constant atonality, and is just as constantly rebellious and acidly satirical. I mean, less than ten minutes into the opera, we hear a three-minute instrumental piece for nothing but battering un-pitched percussion, the first piece of its kind in classical music ever. So! Punk rock!

It should come as no surprise that Shostakovich was 22 when he wrote it, in a Soviet Union that was still ferociously forward-facing and barely starting to become the nation-as-prison that it would be for most of its existence. The story is absurd: A bureaucrat wakes up to find his nose missing, but later discovers that his nose has taken on a life of its own, and acquired a higher position in society than he has. Punk rock, right?!?

Director William Kentridge clearly understands, better than any other opera director I am familiar with, that composers are communicating some kind of meaning or movement with every single bar, sometimes with every single note. Kentridge gained his fame as a visual artist, and indeed his animations are the driving force in the visual designs for The Nose (he shares stage direction credit with Luc De Wit, a Belgian expert in movement).

As the bureaucrat who wakes up to find his nose is missing, gay Tony-Award winner Paulo Szot really works his considerable acting chops. This is not a role for beautiful singing, but for flexibly expressive singing, and Szot shows great mastery in that area.

If what I’ve described above appeals to you, you’d better hurry – the last performance of the season is the matinee this Saturday, October 26.

For tickets, click here.

Review: Charles Busch

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Legendary playwright and drag performer Charles Busch has always combined elegantly languid, self-effacing charm with an effortlessly brassy glamour. His current cabaret act, titled “Ridin’ High” is the first club act of his I’ve seen, though I’ve seen many of his plays. The act possesses those qualities I mentioned above, as well as a discreetly dishy side.

Busch has a pleasantly throaty, not terribly strong, high tenor singing voice – but you don’t come to one of his acts for musical virtuosity. As with the greatest cabaret singers, it’s all about how Busch acts the story and emotion of a song. Busch sincerely loves artifice and invests every moment he has on-stage with substantial style.

He also uses a technique from his playwrighting background, where he puts something familiar in a new context, usually for comic effect. This is most pronounced where he uses the frame of “the most harshly sunlit noir film ever”, 1945’s Detour, for several songs about traveling from the West Coast to the Midwest.

He breaks midway into a monologue (presumably, but not necessarily, from the film) about taking a lift from a suspiciously familiar car. This character is right in Busch’s main line – comically complex hard-boiled dames – and his delivery is deliciously hilarious.

Sometimes this technique means something as simple as putting on display a thing that used to be self-evidently one way, and is now perceived completely differently. This happens when Busch reads from Always Ask a Man: Arlene Dahl’s Key to Femininity. The title alone suggests where this is going, but the fun piles on as Dahl lists hints from the biggest men’s men of the time – all of whom are now universally acknowledged to have been gay as can be. There’s something in Busch’s delivery that suggests Dahl may have been in on the joke.

In amongst all the fun, Busch delivers a handful of sentimental ballads with heartfelt sincerity, which makes for a good change of pace. They don’t make ’em like this anymore, and there’s only one Charles Busch.

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Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream (Opera)

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There’s something more than a bit radical about the fairies in gay composer Benjamin Britten’s operatic adaptation of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. He wrote the part of Oberon, king of the fairies, for a countertenor, a male voice singing in a soprano range (hauntingly sung by Iestyn Davies in the Met’s current revival).

Britten also gives all of the best diva coloratura action to the soprano playing Tytania, queen of the fairies (creamily delivered here by Kathleen Kim). And Puck – Oberon’s right-hand fairy, and the queerest role in both the play and opera – is set even further apart, speaking his role while everybody else sings. Riley Costello makes a full meal of it, responding sensuously to Oberon’s masterful demands.

Also, the role of Flute, a working man who plays the tragic heroine Thisby in a play-within-a-play (opera-within-an-opera?) was expanded by Britten, who wrote it expressly for his life partner, tenor Peter Pears. “Asleep, my love?”, played for pure comedy in the Shakespeare original, has an added tenderness in the opera, which Barry Banks puts across quite passionately in this production.

I have mixed feelings about director Tim Albery’s work on this production, and they are mixed in fairly exact proportions. His fluid staging is skillful, delivering speed where farce is called for, and languor when Britten and Shakespeare emphasize the beauty of nature.

Visually, however, Albery and designer Anthony McDonald do the opera no favors. They double down on Britten’s modernist tendencies, overworking an awkward metaphor of a 20th Century house invaded by dark dreams. The fairies have wings as black as bats, where every musical choice Britten made about them indicates a shimmering gossamer mystery.

The opera makes an interesting progression, musically speaking, from spiky dissonance in the first act to sumptuous tonality in the third act. Albery has, visually speaking, missed that cue almost completely, with the slight exception of Oberon and Tytania’s glittery final costumes. Overall, this is a very good account of a lesser-known, quite queer opera, but it is certainly in no way definitive.

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Review: Mildred Fierce

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International drag superstar Varla Jean Merman and avant-campy playwright Ryan Landry make for a flat-out hilarious combination in Mildred Fierce. This parody of the 1945 Joan Crawford film Mildred Pierce doesn’t have any serious message to deliver, but does its spoofing with a fun-loving ingenuity that makes it a real pleasure to watch.

Mildred Fierce could be called a pastiche musical: the songs aren’t original. Instead, they’re song parodies like one might find in Varla’s nightclub act, but cleverly stitched to the madcap plot at hand. Like the Crawford flick, Fierce focuses on the pie-making Mildred’s fraught relationship with her diva daughter Veda.

This is presented by Landry’s Boston-based troupe, The Gold Dust Orphans, which has been doing this sort of thing up in Beantown for nearly 20 years. As such they’ve developed a relentlessly creative low camp style which is surprisingly detail-oriented: The stage is overstuffed with toys and miniatures, as well as way-over-the-top costumes and set pieces…not to mention the tap-dancing pies!

Varla trades her usual operatic shenanigans for a more restrained vocal tone, as fits the rejiggered standards Mildred sings. Thank goddess, though, that doesn’t mean that she’s at all restrained in delivering trashy, down and dirty comedy. Penny Champayne, in the show’s other star turn as the conniving Veda, is hilariously mannish and brutish. In the end, Mildred Fierce isn’t anything revolutionary – or even insurrectionary – but it is undeniably a whole bunch of anarchic, raunchy fun.

For tickets, click here.

Review: The Glass Menagerie

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Another great Glass Menagerie! I was a big fan of the 2010 Off-Broadway revival, and the new Broadway revival is different but equally good in its own way. Some reviewers took the 2010 production to task for being too radical, but this much-admired new production is, if anything, more radical, incorporating dance-like post-modern gestures, from director John Tiffany and movement director Steven Hoggett, throughout.

One thing I like about both productions: Tom Wingfield (played with charm and quiet charisma by Zachary Quinto) finally appears onstage as a young gay man. That dimension of the character has been hiding in plain sight on the page for over 60 years, observed by any gay man that read it.

Quinto plays that side of Tom, but with enough subtlety that it never overpowers the central story of Tom’s concern for his beloved sister Laura (Celia Keenan-Bolger), but rather makes it richer and deeper. This Tom isn’t particularly repressed, but also isn’t about to tell the truth about his nocturnal wanderings to his mother or sister. Quinto’s performance is the closest I’ve seen an actor come to capturing the essence of the young Tennessee Williams (Tom being the most autobiographical role he ever wrote).

Best of all though, is Cherry Jones’s luminously sentimental interpretation of Tom’s mother Amanda. Terrified that her fragile children will be crushed by the hardness of late 1930s St. Louis, Amanda is often played as either a monster or as tragically misguided. Jones has none of that: This Amanda, in the end, is just as fragile as Tom or Laura, but never less than totally (if overbearingly) loving towards them.

In the end, the 2010 production still has a slight edge as my favorite Menagerie. The artsy movement in the new one is sometimes just too on-the-nose lyrical for my taste. In the end, though, Tiffany does pay close attention to the details of the very specific story and characters Williams created, to great effect. Vibrant, gripping, exciting theatre!

For tickets, click here.