Tulips in an odd key

Tulipomania: The Musical, Book, Music, Lyrics, by Michael Ogborn, Directed by Terence J. Nolen, At the Arden Theatre, May 30-July 1, 2012

Three Michaels have told the story of the tulip’s 17th century boom and bust. Two are non- fiction. Now comes  Michael Ogborn’s Tulipomania: The Musical, at the Arden.  It’s a crazy mixed- up piece of theater. On purpose, I’m sure.  Tulipomania, which borrows from the Mike Dash book and surely the Michael Pollan is a musical comedy and a morality play.  It’s the first musical the Arden ever commissioned. The Arden’s Terry Nolen is directing (as he did Ogborn’s Cafe Puttanesca).

Tulipomania begins in an Amsterdam hash bar where the owner tells strangers the story of the tulip craze. Jeff Coon has an appealing accent that passes for Dutch, and he’s always an appealing singer. His presence is affecting but the role – in fact the musical is overloaded with messageguilt, risk, redemption – like one of those greeting cards that cost too much.

As the tulip tale gets told the Americans in the bar double as the people whose lives were shattered by the Great Tulip Craze of 1636. It doesn’t really work. The set doesn’t change, the costumes are grunge – contemporary – and the music is so Broadway style generic.  It moves from “What have you got to lose?”  with it’s New Age feeling to a Gospel-rousing- audience clap along.

Tulipomania: The Musical tells more than shows.  The lyrics are often cliched.  The score is predictable. But Adam Kazemi’s band (sax, reeds, cello, bass, guitar, flute, keyboard) steps above the bohemian cafe does a good job .  If  generic Broadway musical pop makes you smile,  smile away.

Terry Nolan directs a fine ensemble who could do so much better if  Tulipomania itself were tighter.  Coon, always sings wells, mostly so does Ben Dibble, who plays a painter in both centuries.  Adam Heller plays  a dot-com crook in hiding with a mordant, comic vein.  Singing’s not his forte.  Alex Keiper and Joilet F. Harris do well as women on a business  conference but the roles aren’t very interesting.  Billy Bustamante enlivens Tulipomania as the dancing Waiter.

The Island

The Island, by Athol Fugard, John Kani, Winston Ntshona, directed by Peter DeLaurier, The Lantern Theater Company, May 17-June 10, 2012, opening May 23, 2012, for WRTI, 90. 1 fm

Two prisoners. Two men shoveling and straining under immense weight.  Two prisoners during their down time rehearsing Sophocles. Doesn’t sound promising, does it?  But Athol Fugard and his collaborators John Kani and Winston Ntshona (pronounce: Chona) knew what they were about  in The Island at The Lantern now. The company which usually does well by the South African playwright outdoes itself in The Island.  Frank X, in the role of John, and U.R as the reluctant Winston, exceed their customary virtuosity. The Island refers to South Africa’s austere, windswept Robben Island, the site of Nelson Mandela’s imprisonment.  Once Antigone,  Sophocles’ play within this play, was performed by Mandela, for other inmates. There are other inside references to the anti-apartheid movement, which Fugard created with his actor-collaborators Kani and Ntshona.

It takes awhile to figure out what Sophocles is doing in this South African prison but we get there and when we do it’s wonderful. The Island honors these men whose anti-apartheid principles have put them behind bars and whose lives are simply our lives in a different time and place. The Island is a tough and sad play and a very funny piece of theater. The way Frank X and U.R.  play off each other, lock horns, Greek theater will not be the same. U.R.’s riff on envy is magnificent. He envies his buddy Winston’s approaching freedom. Frank X’s conversation to the outside world:  replete with wonders.  Peter De Laurier’s direction shows the power of his own fine actor’s timing.  Janet Embree’s lighting heightens 90 powerful minutes of theater.   The Island  through June 10 at the Lantern.

Il Postino comes East

Il Postino, Music & Libretto by Daniel Catan, (East Coast Premiere) conducted by Andrew Kurtz, directed by Leland Kimball, Center City Opera, Prince Theater, May 17, 19, 20, 2012. 

If you saw Massimo Troisi in Il Postino (directed by Michael Radford), you’ll miss his gaunt, eloquent face, as you watch Il Postino, the opera. Recall that Troisi, the actor and writer who was that postman,  died only hours after the film he championed was done. He was 41. Mexican composer Daniel Catan went to great lengths to buy the movie rights from Troisi’s heirs for his chamber version – only to die at 62 not long after Il Postino was finished for LA Opera.  Is the story cursed? It’s a beautiful fiction – about Pablo Neruda in exile and his friendship with an Italian mailman. Center City Opera gave the last of  Il Postino’s three performances at the Prince Theater Sunday afternoon.

As the postman, Jorge Garza lacks Troisi’s halting presence but his  apple- cheeked naivete and agile, soaring tenor more than compensate.  Hugo Vera as  Neruda,  sang as if he were emulating a young Placido Domingo, for whom the role was written (but in 2010). With more charisma than poetry perhaps but Vera’s voice is strong and he uses it well.  The opera feels longer than the languorous, wondrous, film. It would have helped if maestro Andrew Kurtz had picked up his pace. Musical passion heats up in the third act, where on Sunday the singers were fully invested in their characters.  Sopranos Jennifer Hoffman and Jennifer Braun play Neruda’s and the postman Mario’s respective beloveds. As Beatrice Russo, Braun sang a kaleidoscope of emotions; the color of her sorrow was intense. She and Garza (of the soaring hopes) were finely matched.

Buck Ross’s scene design should win an award – gorgeous color projections of the sky and sea. The computer dominated projections are efficient, persuasive. Catan’s music is neo-romantic. It’s got syrup but is more often accomplished, lush.  Center City Opera’s pit orchestra,   Symphony in C,  was reduced to twenty- some members so the full romanticism was missing. Sunday there were struggles in the brass, but woodwinds performed splendidly. Il Postino’s  sung in Spanish, which here sometimes sounded Italian. More operas in Spanish are planned.

Dutoit’s Last Stand: Elektra in concert

The Philadelphia Orchestra: Richard Strauss, Elektra, Op. 58,  Charles Dutoit, conductor, Eva Johannson, soprano, Melanie Diener, Mezzo-soprano, (Chrysothemis), Jane Hernschel (Klytamnestra), Ain Anger, bass (Oreste), Siegfried Jerusalem, Tenor (Aegisth), Jessica Klein, Soprano (Klytamenstra’s Confident), Allison Sanders Soprano (Klytamenstra’s Trainbearer), John Easterlin Tenor (Young Servant), Brandon Cedel, Bass-Baritone, (Orest’s Tutor), Susan Neves, Soprano (overseer), Kathryn Day, Mezzo–soprano, (First Maid) , Laura Vlasak Nolen, Mezzo-soprano (second Maid), Maria Zifchak, Mezzo-soprano (Third Maid), Priti Gandhi, Soprano (Fourth Maid), Jennifer Check, Soprano (Fifth Maid), Mendelssohn Club of Philadelphia (Men Servants, Maid Servants), Alan Harler, Artistic Director. Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, May 10 & May 12, 2012, Review of May 10 for WRTI, 90. 1 fm.

What a night at the opera Charles Dutoit gave us at Verizon Thursday. Richard Strauss’s Elektra in concert with The Philadelphians,  Eva Johansson  in the title role. Hugo van Hofmannstahl’s take on Sophocles puts you in the thick of the dysfunctional, timeless family. The perfect librettist, as Strauss often told him.

Thursday’s performance was spellbinding.  Not a mediocre voice in the cast of 15.  Johannson,  looking rightfully obsessive proved her stamina in a role that has her singing nearly an hour and a half and with tremendous force as well as lyricism. Melanie Diener, as Elektra’s  cautious sister, was extremely appealing,  vocally and in her  interactions with Johannson. The two were persuasive sisters.  Jane Henschel was the very bad mom, Klytemnestra. The mezzo voice conveyed rage, doubt, manipulation, in multiple She’s the character you love to hate and she didn’t miss the offstage shouts and whispers either.

As Klytemestra’s lover, Seigfried Jerusalem has a walk- on role before he gets the literal axe and the tenor made the most of it. Opera lovers in the house were in goose-bump mode watching a famous Wagnerian Siegfried deliver this part. Estonian Bass Ain  Anger, as Orestes, had a beautiful bearing and tone  in the role of the missing brother to the tormented Elektra. Their scene  was deeply poignant.

Elektra requires a giant orchestra; the Philadelphians almost overflowed the stage. Eight horns, four clarinets, three bassoons, contrabassoon, six trumpets….. you get the idea. The sound was exciting and ominous.  Elektra and Orestes revenge the death of their father by killing his unfaithful and murderous wife, their mother. Messy, old story. Leave it to Strauss to let the music  soar – just when you think things can’t darker or more dissonant. Then come the strings to ravish or those wisps of flute.

Elektra in concert is maestro Dutoit’s swan song as the Philadelphia Orchestra’s chief conductor here. When he returns in 2012-2013 season, Dutoit will be laureate, a title he richly deserves.

Symphony in C for Camden

Symphony in C, Rossen Milanov, conducting, Agustin Hadelich, violin; Gordon Hall, Rutgers University, Camden, May 5, 2012, Review for WRTI, 90. 1 fm

Patco, Center City to Camden is an easy ride. I could have driven over the Ben Franklin  but riding the rails with a friend to hear the Symphony in C at Camden Rutgers Performing Arts is a trip I’ll venture again after Saturday night’s safe, well-lit 10 minute walk.  Gordon Theatre has good acoustics, maestro Rossen Milanov’s proven his worth,  and his Symphony excels. Hard to believe it’s completing its 59th season.  A packed house Saturday night saluted the  challenging program. Gyorgy Ligeti’s Violin Concerto. German artist Agustin Hadelich was the soloist. A scaled down orchestra supporting the solo violin, which has a haunting pairing with viola. Hadelich’s musicianship was at a fevered pitch. Milanov’s control was equal to it. Over five movements, ferocious intensity  was conveyed — and inwardness. Strange music, strangely satisfying.

Symphony “From the New World,” Dvorak’s No. 9 in E Minor came after intermission: The canonic warhorse needed more care. Not the opening movement which was fine. Not the famous Largo which began stiffly but as things warmed up, the English horn solo went nicely. There was so much bark and bluster to the  final movements – Scherzo and that fiery Allegro – all that asking for attention, well, they lost mine.

More flair and refinement to the Symphony in C’s performance  of Roger Zare’s Green Flash which opened. The title is a scientific term for what happens in the sky as  sunset ends. Zare,  who won this year’s Young Composers Competition. has multiple awards and credentials. Some of his teachers are Michael Daughterty and Bright Sheng. The idiom is neo-romantic. The piece for large orchestra shimmers and  flows. It blazes. The strings in high registers have a sheen. Zare knows his instruments and how to combine them. The packed house liked it. So did I.

Boston Marriage in Philly


Boston Marriage
by David Mamet, 1812 Productions, at Plays & Players,  May 2-20, 2012, Review of May 2 opening for WRTI, 90.1 fm.

Expectations are high with anything Jennifer Childs or Grace Gonglewski  touches. And I hate to dampen them. But Boston Marriage, David Mamet’s “woman play”   – which Childs is directing for 1812 Productions – is fun but not as riveting as hoped. Mamet sounds like he’s trying to out- stop Tom Stoppard.   It’s such a high-falutin cultural shoot- out.  Victorian drawing rooms don’t exactly suit the master of mean and dirty man talk – though Boston Marriage, written 12 years ago – securely winds its way around a lot of smartly comic and sentimental foolery.  Anna and Claire, Bostonians  of a certain age, are anxious about their diminished relations and dwindling bank accounts.   Suzanne O’Donnell as Anna, the elder, has taken a male ‘protector,’ aka married lover, just as Claire ( Gonglewski) discovers she loves a young girl.  But wait, these otherwise Liberated, Discreet Ladies are flinging insults at each other. They’re also abusing Anna’s immigrant maid.

Mamet insults are not only mean they’re very funny.  As Catherine, the Scots serving girl, Caroline Dooner is terrific. The brogue, the stumbles, the scrunched face.  (I look forward to seeing her again. ) O’Donnell’s Anna is a marvelous flighty character given to histrionics.  Mamet’s lines bloom, explode,  droop:  O’Donnell handles the sentimental effusions well.  But she’s prone to facial and other gestures oddly similar to director Childs’ (her longtime friend),  whose comedy is well- known here.

Gonglewski brings classic timing and wit to the more tempered character of Claire but the part doesn’t quite fit this exceptional artist.  It’s easy to believe Claire’s fallen for the girl;  harder to sense past or present chemistry with Anna.

Eye and ear candy are provided by Boston Marriage’s  chintz  set, and Scarlatti-esque sound design by James Sugg.