On the Beat

On the Beat

Smash's Hilty lights up Gentlemen Prefer Blondes; the Paley Center rediscovers NBC Opera Theatre's brilliant Butterfly.
by BRIAN KELLOW

On the Beat Gentlemen Prefer Blondes lg 812
Broadway babies: Hilty and York
© Joan Marcus 2012

GENTLEMEN PREFER BLONDES , with music by Jule Styne, lyrics by Leo Robin and book by Anita Loos and Joseph Fields, is the most recent musical-comedy excavation job performed by New York City Center's Encores! series. Blondes (seen May 11) is a big step up from the last Encores! outing, Rodgers & Hammerstein's dreary Pipe Dream, but it's far from a first-rate show. The songs that were added for the big, glitzy 1953 screen version starring MARILYN MONROE and JANE RUSSELL are actually quite superior to the ones from the Broadway original. Nevertheless, as directed by JOHN RANDO, and offering a new concert adaptation by DAVID IVES (All in the Timing), Blondes was a zippy way to pass an evening. Contributing immeasurably to its success were HUGH MARTIN's exhilarating vocal arrangements and RANDY SKINNER's dazzling choreography. 

But the big draw of this production was MEGAN HILTY, who has earned an army of fans for her role on TV's Smash. As the unapologetically gold-digging Lorelei Lee, she made a wonderful, self-mocking anthem out of "Little Girl from Little Rock." Hilty maintained an easy, light touch throughout the evening, until she got to the show's most famous number, "Diamonds are a Girl's Best Friend," which she delivered with a kind of brassy anger that seemed out of synch with the rest of her characterization. As Lorelei's shipboard pal Dorothy, RACHEL YORK sounded terrific, and her comic timing proved the consummate match for Hilty's. The supporting cast was a bit of a disappointment. (I often find that this is a problem with Encores! Rather than casting the secondary parts with an eye toward individual character, Encores! tends to fill them with generic chorus types; too many people look and sound alike.) But there was a dizzying tap routine courtesy of MEGAN SIKORA, PHILLIP ATTMORE and JARED GRIMES, in which the latter two seemed to be paying tribute to the NICHOLAS BROTHERS. 

THE PALEY CENTER FOR MEDIA, in association with Opera Index, presented a special screening of NBC Opera Theatre's 1955 Madama Butterfly on May 19. The close-to-capacity audience that showed up that afternoon may have expected something that would require a little indulgence — a creaky kinescope of a live studio performance from the pioneering days of early TV. 

Instead, what we saw for the next two hours plus was a minor revelation. What is most astounding about this Butterfly is how fresh it seems today. KIRK BROWNING's direction is seamless, imaginative and beautifully detailed. I was especially taken with the way in which, early on, he indicated Suzuki's realization that Butterfly would be betrayed by Pinkerton; he also did wonderful things with the humming chorus, and Trouble's obliviousness at the end was truly heartbreaking — as bold a statement as the "Hopp, hopp" of Marie's child in Wozzeck

In the 1950s and '60s, there seemed to be a practically endless supply of first-class performers who worked steadily without ever achieving major stardom. One of them was ELAINE MALBIN. As Cio-Cio-San, Malbin gave an inspired performance. Her voice was beautiful, sizable and richly expressive, and she didn't put a foot wrong on camera. She was particularly stunning in her response to Sharpless's reading of Pinkerton's letter and in her sighting of Kate. After the screening, in an interview with journalist ERIC MYERS, Malbin talked about her acting technique as "something I adapted myself after reading the Stanislavsky books." She recalled Browning's direction as "subtle.... I was never aware of the microphones or the camera — I was so involved in my character that I wasn't aware." In The New York Post, HARRIET JOHNSON wrote that Malbin deserved an operatic Academy Award, and the soprano received wires and flowers from ROBERT ALTMAN (years before his success as a feature-film director), CESAR ROMERO, VIC DAMONE, plus a handwritten letter from BING CROSBY telling her he was so mesmerized by her performance that he had missed a golf game. 

Malbin wasn't the whole show: DAVIS CUNNINGHAM was in splendid, ringing voice as Pinkerton, and I was even more taken with WARREN GALJOUR, who had a superbly conversational way of delivering his lines and gave one of the most appealing and intelligent readings of Sharpless I've ever encountered. The entire production was sung in the English translation of RUTH and THOMAS MARTIN and conducted by HERBERT GROSSMAN. (The orchestra was piped in; none of the performers saw them, although New York City Opera conductor FELIX POPPER would occasionally give them a beat or cue.)

The success of Butterfly spawned a short-lived NBC Opera touring company that took bus-and-truck productions of Le Nozze di Figaro and Butterfly across the U.S. Malbin had particularly vivid memories of performing in El Dorado, Kansas, a town she likened to the one in The Last Picture Show, and laughed about how many times the bus left her behind when she got off to use the ladies' room at the depot. 

Paley Center associate curator (and OPERA NEWS contributor) REBECCA PALLER is to be commended for producing the screenings of this and several past NBC Opera Theatre entries (including Dialogues of the Carmelites, with Malbin and Leontyne Price). The Paley Center's primary focus these days seems to be on the news media. It's nice to know that they haven't completely forgotten about television's rich artistic history. spacer

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Current Issue: January 2015 — VOL. 79, NO. 6