Review: Galas

Diva! Here we have one diva (in the most positive goddess-like sense) playing another diva (in both senses). Well, it’s a little more complicated than that. We have a man with goddess-like acting gifts (Everett Quinton) portraying a fictionalized version of opera diva Maria Callas. Drag doesn’t get much higher than this.

The play is Galas by the late great Charles Ludlam, Everett’s partner in art and life – and the greatest playwright to come out of the Ridiculous Theatre movement. Now Quinton is directing and playing the lead role in Galas in its first New York revival since its original 1983 run.

As director, Everett fills the play with truly “Ridiculous”detail, as well as lots of warmth and romanticism, appropriate to the story of a diva with such great skills at singing Romantic Era opera. As an actor, Galas confirms Quinton as the greatest living actor in the Ridiculous tradition – and among the best in any tradition, as far as I’m concerned.

He attacks the role with great precision, and the almost supernatural conviction that is the hallmark of great Ridiculous acting, expertly playing the deep seriousness of this tragicomedy as well (its actual subtitle is “A Modern Tragedy” but it’s far too funny for that). Everett is the ideal interpreter of Ludlam’s plays, knowing when to be loyal to what Charles had already done, and when to push things even further into preposterousness to keep it fresh.

This is above all a star vehicle for the actor playing Galas, but there is one other fantastic performance in this production, as well as someone who shines in a smaller part. On the fantastic side is Jenne Vath as the diva’s mad maid Bruna. The role is nutty as hell and Vath plays it to the hilt. And, as Galas’s romantic rival Athina, Maude Lardener Burke leads you to believe – in a very few lines – that she is every bit as formidable as the great singer.

The production’s venue is the acoustically unforgiving main hall of St. John’s Lutheran Church, and its biggest flaw is lack of vocal projection equal to the echo-y space. That is for sure, a mere quibble when you are seeing such a great artist as Quinton vigorously at work. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

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Interview: Everett Quinton in “Galas”

I have had the great pleasure of directing Ridiculous Theatre legend Everett Quinton twice, in the New York premiere of Tennessee Williams’s Now the Cats with Jewelled Claws and a staged reading of Charles Ludlam’s Medea. The Williams play got some terrific reviews, which you can read here (and you can see some lovely photos here). Charles Ludlam was perhaps the greatest playwright to come out of the Ridiculous Theatre movement, and Everett was his partner in art and life.

Now Quinton is directing and playing the lead role in Ludlam’s fictionalized tribute to opera diva Maria Callas, entitled Galas, in its first New York revival since its original 1983 run. I sat down with this humble genius to talk about it.

So how did this revival of Galas come about?

It was suggested last fall. I’ve been working with the Yorick Theatre Company. Chris Johnson, who is the Artistic Director of Yorick, talked with Pastor Mark Erson who is the Artistic Director of Theatre at St. John’s Church on Christoper Street, where Yorick performs. They came up with the idea of doing Galas – because of the Stonewall 50th anniversary and World Pride – suggested it to me and I said “good.”

Is this a role you’ve wanted to do?

Yeah, people over the years have suggested it, but there was never the opportunity to do it. Now that it has, I’d be a fool to say no; its a terrific part. I’m having fun with it. When you’re directing it and you’re in it, like I am with this, there are so many pots on the stove. But now me and the other actors are starting to cook! [Laughs] I love the actors in this group, they’re a wonderful group and we’re finding our way.

There’s humor in everything Charles wrote, but am I right in thinking this is one of his more serious plays?

It does play as more serious, yes. That’s the beauty of it. It starts out one way and it flips midway, which is not accidental on Charles’s part. You carefully study the script and he sets up the flip early on. I’m really enjoying exploring that. When I was in the original production, for which I also did the costumes, I didn’t worry about the big picture. So that’s a joy of this production for me. It’s around this time that Charles blossoms from a good writer into a really fabulous one, so skillful. We all improve as we go along, right?

Funny thing is, this big play was originally supposed to be a two-hander for me and him, about an actress and her maid. I don’t know what was going on at the time that provoked him to turn it into a life of Maria Callas. Because usually that’s the way he worked, something in the air tweaked him.

I know this is fictionalized – she’s named Galas not Callas – but I recall that it actually tracks pretty closely with Callas’s life.

Pretty closely, except there’s a couple of things I couldn’t make sense of and then I realized that’s the fictionalized part. I thought I knew from the original production that the last act takes place in Paris – and it doesn’t [Laughs], that’s the fictional part. But it is a close tribute, and I’m using her speaking voice. All of the scene changes are her singing.

I love that Callas demanded a dollar more than all her contemporaries – she would say “so-and-so’s getting so much so I want a dollar more.” I love her arrogance, and when you realize who those contemporaries were, you realize oh my God she had cojones, she had ovaries. [Laughs]

Are you an opera fan yourself?

A fan, yeah. I have no intellectual conceptions about it, I just love it. Tony Randall called it the greatest of art forms, which is arguable. Those singers just do so many wonderful things. I mean I walk around the apartment pretending to be one. When I got the costumes for the original production, I had a decent budget and I found this beautiful green dress for Charles to wear as Galas. But when I first got it home, I wore it and went around the apartment pretending I was soprano Shirley Verrett [Laughs]. So I’m a lip synch opera queen. Charles liked opera but there were bigger opera queens in the company and our chatter could annoy him. I called it “gay baseball,” we talk about opera and musicals like straight guys talk about baseball.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Hadestown

How do you find a fresh way to musicalize one of the most-musicalized stories of all time? It’s the story of Orpheus’s descent into the underworld to retreive his wife Eurydice – in the 17th Century alone dozens of operas were written on the subject. For Hadestown, composer Anaïs Mitchell has crafted a very fresh musical take, with all kinds of soulful music, including flavors of indie folk, jazz, blues, funk and even New Orleans brass band second lines.

Mitchell’s gorgeous, surging score is definitely the draw here. There’s astonishing variety, and yet it all feels like it comes from the same world. The brilliant director Rachel Chavkin has been shepherding this show for a long time, and it is much helped by her gift for startling and nimble visual storytelling.

I don’t often mention the casting director in my reviews, but the firm Stewart / Whitley has really outdone themselves here. Orpheus and Eurydice are played respectively by Reeve Carney and Eva Noblezada, both doing the best work I’ve seen them do. Better still are Amber Gray as a hedonistic, down-home Persephone and Patrick Page as a rumblingly malevolent Hades. Page delivers his songs with a langorous phrasing that nods toward Iggy Pop.

Best of all is the inimitable André De Shields as the narrator Hermes. The moment De Sheilds snakes a single foot oh-so-charismatically on stage, you know that you’re in for one hell of a ride (sorry about that), but you are also in the best of hands. Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: La Cifra

This 1789 comic opera by composer Antonio Salieri – only now having it’s American premiere with Dell’Arte Opera – put a permanent grin on my face throughout, and made me openly guffaw more often than any other opera I can think of. It is actually laugh out loud funny.

This is partially due to the work of librettist Lorenzo Da Ponte, my pick for greatest opera librettist of all time. He’s most famous for his collaborations with Mozart (La Nozze di Figaro, Don Giovanni and Così fan tutte). Mozart called all three opera buffa or “funny opera,” but they are generally more wry, satirical and thoughtful than the gleefully low farce we find in La Cifra. Still – and this is the particular genius of Da Ponte – every now and again there’s a single line that cuts through to very human truths, or casts things in a more ambivalent light. La Cifra made me laugh – a lot – but also frequently made me pause for thought.

Salieri deserves a big part of the credit too. There are some luscious melodies here, but what really stands out is his comic timing, not a terribly common gift in operatic composers. In the Act I finale the ensemble hits a loud chord at the least expected moment, causing one to laugh from sheer surprise. When the cast is puzzling over an important cipher (the titular cifra) in the final scene, Salieri has fun spacing out the letters of this mysterious code. And these are only the most obvious examples of Salieri’s pervasive musical wit.

The character with the most stage time is Rusticone (Angky Budiardjono), a greedy scheming father, a stock type descending from the character Pantalone in commedia dell’arte. Da Ponte comes close to making us sympathize with the wily bastard, to the point of the whole story being seen from his point of view. Budiardjono takes that and runs with it, conspiratorially taking the audience into his confidence. Budiardjono has a vigorous yet precise sense of timing in every way, musically, comically, physically and more.

The plot is fluff directly out of commedia with all sorts of frustrated love, mistaken identity and general buffoonery. Stage director Brittany Goodwin had the savvy to lean into this commedia quality, encouraging the cast to go for a broad physicality which fits the material exceptionally well.

The cast is uniformly strong vocally, but what really matters here is that they are also all gifted comic actors. Standouts in this area include Allison Gish, who gives us Rusticone’s hedonistic daughter Lisotta with infectious exuberance, and Jay Chacon, who is clownish perfection as love-struck peasant Sandrino. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Carmen Jones

Once Anika Noni Rose starts her sultry take on “Dat’s Love” (to the melody of “Habanera” from Bizet’s opera Carmen), you know at least one thing: this Classic Stage Company revival of Oscar Hammerstein’s Carmen Jones is going to be an evening of beautiful music, beautifully sung. Not in a purely operatic way, but in that style sometimes called “legit,” somewhere between opera and musical comedy.

In adapting Bizet’s opera for the Broadway stage, Hammerstein moved the action from early 19th Century Spain to the American South during World War II. In Hammerstein’s version, Carmen (Rose) is a passionate but fickle and reckless parachute factory worker who desires – and is desired by – many men, including an airman and a prizefighter.

While I’m a great aficionado of opera, I’ve always been ill at ease with the pervasive misogyny and toxic masculinity in the repertoire. Carmen is a big offender in this area, with men vying to possess Carmen, and Carmen herself being portrayed as a “man-eater.” Hammerstein, one of the most humane writers in American literature, helps matters greatly with his more sympathetic portrayal of all involved, but that only makes her murder by the one she loved most all the more senseless, and not “tragic” in any larger sense. Still, the music is irresistible, and it’s hard not to be charmed by Hammerstein’s warmth and wit.

John Doyle’s direction is well within his minimalist, story-centric approach. Sometimes things get a little too still for my taste, but that also means when Bill T. Jones choreography bursts through it’s all the more powerful. It’s finally Rose’s show, though, and she is magnificent. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Paulo Szot

Mr. Showbiz, that’s Paulo Szot! And I mean this as the highest compliment. The man who has always been a master musician – and can hold a note for days – is also a master showman, which makes for a massively entertaining evening.

The openly gay Szot’s voice is a seductive, luscious instrument, a large part of the reason he won a Tony his first time in a Broadway musical (South Pacific) – by the way, it seems like a serious oversight that he hasn’t been back on Broadway since. Never mind, though, he’s doing tours of a Hal Prince-directed Evita in Australia, and playing the lead in Leonard Bernstein’s Mass at the Ravinia Festival outside Chicago, and as a by-product of that, we get to hear an Evita medley and Bernstein’s “Lonely Town.”

He has incredibly solid musical taste, and real wit about the way he uses it. He talks about his fellow Brazilian Antonio Carlos Jobim’s collaborations with Frank Sinatra, and then weaves the single showtune Sinatra and Jobim did together, “Baubles, Bangles and Beads,” into a South Pacific medley. The absolute high points of this Broadway-centric evening were a reading of Sondheim’s “Being Alive” that is perhaps the most rawly emotion interpretation I’ve ever heard, and the song from South Pacific that has rightly become a signature for Szot, “This Nearly Was Mine.”

Szot is now definitively the total package! So when are we going to get another Broadway appearance, or even some studio albums? Highly recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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

Review: Piramo e Tisbe

What a gorgeous piece of music from an unjustly forgotten composer! Johann Adolph Hasse was one of the most important opera composers between Handel and Mozart. He was a proponent of a style of music called galant or empfindsamer stil (“sensitive style”), more interested in melody than the earlier Baroque style, but more ornamented than the Classical style that would follow. By the time he wrote Piramo e Tisbe (1768) – based on an ancient tale of star-crossed lovers that inspired Romeo & Juliet – this style was falling out of fashion, but Hasse bucked prevailing trends to write an opera that was among the most melodically elaborate he ever wrote.

Director Phillip Shneidman sets the action in a vaguely contemporary setting to mixed effect; Alex Basco Koch’s subtle projection design gives the production some appropriately melancholy atmospherics. Musically, this luscious opera is being given a gorgeous account under the baton of New Vintage Baroque’s Elliot Figg.

Most of the vocal pyrotechnics go to the cross-dressed “pants role” Piramo, and mezzo Kristin Gornstein makes a musically brilliant and powerful impact in the role. Soprano Kelly Curtin’s role Tisbe is full of expressive passages, and she delivers them with elegance and strength. In the role of Tisbe’s father, known only as Padre, tenor Glenn Seven Allen deftly negotiates a role that demands a balance of galant lightness and a father’s stony fury. Recommended.

For tickets, click here.

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