Friday, December 22, 2017

Les Misérables 

Les Misérables— despite its title which means  “the wretched” —  is wondrous! 

This new production of the phenomenon known as Les Miz brings a much needed spark of hope of the possibilities of love to hearts that have been broken or whose hopes have been dashed by the exigencies of life. 

 Les Miz’s music is haunting as befits the life journey of selfless sacrifice leading to salvation for one man and the tragic ending of the obsession of another.  It calls for a complex web of characters employing wide vocal choices  to follow the stories of these two men who are engaged in a life long bitter tug of war.  The dramatic tenor role of Jean Valjean is most poignantly sung by Nick Cartell.  Valjean has suffered a great injustice in  being imprisoned for 19 years for the crime of stealing a loaf of bread.  He escapes for a  life of hiding from his relentless pursuer, the conflicted  officer of the law,  Javert,  sung  with operatic intenseness by baritone Andrew Love.

For those who know Les Miserables well,  there are a few surprises in this  production  with this exciting new staging and scenery. Not only was the story inspired by Victor Hugo’s 1862 novel,  but the scenery has been reimagined, inspired by Hugo’s  drawings and paintings (over 4000).  

This celebrated opera-musical has broken records at the box office (in 32 years, seen by 70 million people in 44 countries and in 22 languages around the globe). What  is not measurable is how often its songs—“I Dreamed A Dream,”“On My Own,”“Stars,” “Bring Him Home,”“One Day More” —have lifted  human spirits.   

At the National Theater in Washington DC,  until January 7, 2018—  Les Miz is the ultimate Christmas gift.

Tuesday, December 12, 2017


Hansel and Gretel is so many things.   A folk tale adapted by the Grimm brothers,  Englebert Humperdinck’s beloved opera, and even a 20th century novel of  the nightmare of the Nazi era.   

The Met Live In HD rebroadcast of its 2008 production puts this tale of these two hungry kids with sweet tooths lost in the dark woods into a different light.

 Food is the theme for the three scenes set in three different kitchens.

The opener is the home of Hansel and Gretel, (Alice Coote and Christine Schäfer) and most appropriates for  the folksy qualities of poor family (the father is a seller of brooms and brushes not a woodcutter).   The “real” kitchen  has been compared to the kitchen in the The Honeymooners, with the father Peter (Alan Held) most resembling  a somewhat drunken Jackie Gleason, and the mother Gertrude (Rosalind Plowrights) like his  bewildered wife Alice?

The dream in the forest scene features a fabulous kitchen — right out of a German Expressionist painting —where 14 cook (instead of those inspiring 14 angels)  in totally weirdism costumes.  A fish headed maitre d’ serves the two kids a lavish meal, beyond what they could imagine. (so was it really a dream?)

The final scene, is in a kitchen  not be believed.  Yes! the witch-Rosina Leckermaul "Raisin Sweet-tooth”— (Philip Langridge) has the best kitchen of all.  A oven as large as an SUV,   A walk in refrigerator.  Pans are as huge,  table long.  Fantastical—this Theater of the Absurd—is absolutely believable for what will necessarily follow.

So many levels of meaning but the moral of this tale—what  might  that be?

 For some, it is that the excesses of greed —hungry children desperate for only the sweet treats in life—which will only lead to  doom.  

For others, it is that power in cleverness in overcome the difficulties that result  following these follies, by a technique of literally  “fighting fire with fire.”  That they will  push the witch in to the oven she intended for them.  (something they were able to achieve by using the formula hexes that she had employed in containing them.) …Is that the moral?—that we can overcome the bad results of our weak choices by cleverness with the aid of a few stock nonsensical phrases.

All this search for meanings,  can lead to overlooking the music of this opera — how  folk music (which is why Humperdinck’s sister wanted him to write an opera ) has been wrapped into lush Wagnerian orchestral pieces —all  under the brilliant direction of Russian conductor Vladimir Jurowski.   

It’s debatable if Hansel and Gretel  with all these grim themes really is for children.  While productions can go in many directions, and the moral of the story might morph,  this music that is centuries old, continues to put Hansel and Gretel  on the top ten opera hit list for all ages. 

Curve of Departure  —Studio Theater

In Studio Theatre’s brilliant offering of the season—Curve of Departure —Rachel Bonds  has like a clever spider weaving a perfect web created a play that is complex, fragile and beautiful for its finely threaded connections of human emotions.

There are five characters.

The one character that the play revolves about is never seen.  Cyrus. He is the one for whom there is this family gathering for his funeral, in a motel in  Sante Fe, New Mexico (some know it as “The Land of Enchantment”).  

His father Rudy (Peter Van Wagner) is now in and out of dementia, and on the constant verge of attacks of incontinence.  This grand patriarch wanders between confusion and distraction, bitterness and wisdom.  He  enjoys the silly in life like soap operas while focusing on his end of life decision.  

 Linda (Ora Jones) is the ex-wife. The good woman—she cares for her ex-father-in-law enough to be planning to  give up her day job as what else—a teacher.

Her son Felix(Justin Weaks) arrives with his lover Jackson (Sebastian Arboleda).  The son still angry at his father, wants to cut the funeral events to the minimum to get back to LA.  Jackson is distracted by messages on his phone. 

There is clearly a mystery here, one that causes pain.   Linda had opened the play while ironing Rudy’s pants, and as it follows,  Linda  will find what needs to be to iron out the conflicts of the son she loves and his lover.

 It’s very simple: There are no bad people in the play, but these four characters are dealing with the legacies of bad people who exist in their world outside of this time and place which brings them together. 

How this all works in a brief  85 minutes play  that covers the time span of an evening and an early morning sunrise— is  the beauty of this careful  crafted piece.  Using the shared spaces of a hotel room— beds and bathroom—with outside   hallway for secret phone calls, and  the patio for a group gathering before the funeral—the four characters navigate to have separate snippets of conversation that uncover secrets,  to share experiences, to come to understandings.

No play is expected to conform to equal employment guidelines for its characters.  The diversity of age, race, sex and sexual choices, add to this story that these circumstances are possible across all demographic lines.   There is nothing  so moralistic that turns these outer characteristics  into a sermon. 

Instead the play concentrates on what we know to be the good that is shared as humans, that is,  Linda’s empathy, Felix’s love for Jackson, Jackson’s commitment to family and a walloping dose of Rudy’s wisdom to top it off.