Editor's Desk

Brooklyn Tapestry

(Brian Kellow, Performances, Broadway, Musical Theater, New York City) Permanent link

Beautiful, the new musical about the early years of Carole King, isn't much of a show, but it passes by pleasantly, and by the end of the evening, you don't feel that your time has been wasted. In a funny way, it's like some of King's most famous songs — it deals with some messy emotions, but it does so in a way that's rather becalmed.

The show takes the young Carole (née Klein) from her days as a precocious student at Queens College, when she has her first taste of success writing songs for doo-wop groups in the 1950s and '60s, through her loving but volatile marriage to her collaborator Gerry Goffin, to her emergence as a star singer–songwriter with the multiple Grammy-winning album Tapestry. (Is there anyone who didn't own this LP back in 1972?) There's a generous helping of King's hits along the way, and several by Goffin and King's close friends, the songwriting team of Cynthia Weil and Barry Mann. The numbers are neatly staged by director Marc Bruni and particularly by choreographer Josh Prince (who help turns "On Broadway" into a show-stopper), but what keeps the show earthbound is the book by Douglas McGrath. From the early scenes, which are reminiscent of the hackneyed old movie composer biopics from the '40s and '50s, McGrath's script listlessly rolls by, feeling like an outline that he couldn't summon the energy to develop. There are some nice individual lines, and they are given a good spin by Jake Epstein as Gerry Goffin, Anika Larsen as Cynthia Weil, Jarrod Spector as Barry Mann and, most of all, by Jessie Mueller as Carole King. ("I have the right amount of body, it's just not organized properly," complains the young Carole.) Publisher Don Kirshner (Jeb Brown) is a device, not a character, and Liz Larsen works much too hard as King's self-involved mother. Most of the big scenes are under-written, including the one in which the two couples' problems come to the surface over a strip poker game, and many of the moments dealing with marital discord seem strained and a little trivial, like an old '70s sitcom that decides to go all dramatic with an episode on infidelity.

But Jessie Mueller, like Hugh Jackman in The Boy from Oz a few years ago, works magic with her material. It might seem risky to build a big musical around a menschy woman who never loses her equilibrium, but Mueller so fully inhabits King's Brooklyn-girl-niceness that she ennobles her shaky vehicle. Her charm is never forced; she gives the show a quiet but absorbing center. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

Staged Reading

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Keeping it Local, Broadway, Arts Journalism, New York City, Theater) Permanent link

There's something about a long career on Broadway that makes lots of people think that their experiences are worth putting down in book form; over the years, I've known rehearsal pianists, dressers, chorus boys and stage hands who were busily scribbling their memoirs, most of which never saw the light of day. Now, one of Broadway's respected press agents, SUSAN L. SCHULMAN, has succumbed to the temptation. The result, Backstage Pass to Broadway: True Tales from a Theatre Press Agent, has just been published by Heliotrope Books. In Schulman's case, her efforts have been worth it; she's written a funny, sometimes shocking book about the things she's seen on Broadway for the past forty-plus years. (She got her feet wet in 1970 with Applause, starring the famously dyspeptic LAUREN BACALL, something that probably would have had most fledgling press agents applying for the night shift at Howard Johnson's.) Schulman is admittedly star-struck; there's a gosh-gee-whiz quality to many of her anecdotes, but her book is best when she's chronicling bad behavior: DAVID MERRICK's young wife NATALIE, LESLEY ANNE WARREN and JOHN DEXTER come off worst. If only most people who work in the opera industry were half this candid about their experiences, my job would be a lot more fun. 

BRIAN KELLOW

Willkommen, Bienvenue

(Brian Kellow, Performances, New York City, Cabaret) Permanent link

K. T. Sullivan and Karen Kohler rolled the dice and won: they presented their smartly conceived cabaret show Vienna to Weimar on February 24 — Oscar night — at the Triad on West Seventy-second Street. By a few minutes into the program, it was doubtful that anyone in the audience worried about missing Seth MacFarlane's opening monologue. 

Vienna to Weimar begins reassuringly, with Sullivan offering Rudolf Sieczynski's "Wien, Wien nur du allein," English words by Kim Gannon. (Gannon is one of my favorite trivia subjects: he wrote the words for some awfully good popular songs, including Max Steiner's "It Can't Be Wrong," taken from the 1942 Bette Davis film Now, Voyager, and the Christmas classic "I'll Be Home for Christmas." He deserves to be mentioned oftener than he is.) Then Sullivan lit into a delightful version of Fledermaus's "Mein Herr Marquis" (including the English words by Howard Dietz), hitting all her comic marks with ease and grace; she has a wonderful self-mocking quality that lands consistently with the audience. With Kohler, Sullivan also dusted off "Wenn die beste Freundin" (When the Special Girlfriend) and "Maskulinum-Femininum," both by Mischa Spoliansky and Marcellus Schiffer, revealing them as the sophisticated, subversive gems that they are. It fell to Kohler to cover the Weimar section of the waterfront and convey most of the spoken history lesson to the audience, which contrasted effectively with Sullivan's lighter approach. And although Sullivan didn't get near the chilling fury that an artist such as Nina Simone can bring to the Brecht–Weill "Pirate Jenny," she did manage to make that song uniquely her own. After spinning through a fine group of Friedrich Hollaender numbers, including the choice "Illusions," both women brought the evening to a memorable close with Leonard Cohen's "Take This Waltz," from 1967, and Franz Lehár's "Merry Widow Waltz." Jed Distler was the evening's excellent musical director. 

As New York's cabaret scene continues its quiet erosion, K. T. Sullivan is one of its enduring delights. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

Douce France

(Brian Kellow, Performances, Keeping it Local, New York City, Chanson) Permanent link

It's probably fair to say that the ever-broadening scope of song recitals in Manhattan owes a great deal to the New York Festival of Song. Under the guidance of artistic director Steven Blier and associate artistic director Michael Barrett, NYFOS has, over the years, built an intensely loyal audience with an imaginatively programmed series of concerts that at their best are both pithy and enormous fun. Blier, the series pianist and host, has a real knack for turning the group's performing space — most often Merkin Concert Hall on West Sixty-Seventh Street — into something with an intime nightclub feel. But it's a very in-the-know nightclub: Blier loves the thrill of musical discovery, loves to share his cleverly designed programs with his audience, which responds by hanging on every word of his savvy blend of erudition and plainspoken cool. 

On Tuesday, February 19, NYFOS presented a deeply satisfying program of French popular song, Jacques Brel & Charles Trénet: Fire and Fantasy. The ensemble was wonderful — Blier at the keyboard, plus guitarist Greg Utzig (who was sometimes a bit loud, throwing off the balance) and the marvelous accordionist Bill Schimmel. In addition to playing superbly (with no music in front of him all night long), Schimmel looked the part, as if Central Casting had come up with the ideal character actor to play a French accordionist in a Truffaut film. Tenor Philippe Pierce got things off to a stunning start with Brel's ever-accelerating "La Valse à Mille Temps." Pierce has a fine voice and sure rhythmic command, but in some of the evening's more soulful works he came up a bit short, lacking the French "lived-in" quality for a powerful song such as Brel's achingly poignant "Chanson des vieux amants."

In the second half, Brel gave way to Trénet. "Maybe if Irving Berlin and Mary Martin had had a baby they might have come out with Charles Trénet," said Blier, "but I doubt it." Here, Pierce's teammate, mezzo Marie Lenormand, gave what for me was one of the standout individual performances of the season, making magic out of "L'âme des poètes" (I won't soon forget the sublime way she landed on the word "artiste") and the famous "La mer," while showing great comic verve in her big finale with Pierce, "Grand-maman, c'est New York." 

At the end, Blier announced that the evening was something of a landmark — the fortieth anniversary of his first public performance. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW

Free to Be

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Performances, Listening, Keeping it Local, New York City, Theater) Permanent link

Why is it so difficult for some singers simply to be themselves onstage? It's fascinating how quickly we can pick up on a singer's discomfort. A poorly chosen program, a determination to stand back from the emotional content of the music, a tendency to joke around too much onstage, can all become a kind of distracting armor that prevents performers from fully showing themselves to us. Throughout her performing career, and in the many master classes she has taught around the country, Barbara Cook has advocated throwing off that armor. On October 18, when Carnegie Hall presented her in an eighty-fifth birthday concert, she demonstrated a lifetime of lessons learned. Her music director/pianists were Ted Rosenthal and Lee Musiker, and the show was scripted by David Thompson, produced by Jeff Berger and directed by Daniel Kutner. 

Cook has made many appearances at Carnegie over the years — the first being in 1961, with Leonard Bernstein. "Here I am again," she said when she padded onstage. "Blinked my eye — and eighty-five!" She then launched into a highly satisfying program, skipping some of her famous theater hits ("Vanilla Ice Cream," from She Loves Me, "They Were You," from The Fantasticks, "It's Not Where You Start," from Seesaw) in favor of a well-chosen collection of pop and jazz standards. In places, Cook's voice sounded drier than it has on past occasions, and now and then, from her seated position, she couldn't quite muster the support for an isolated high note, so that her vibrato widened in ways we aren't used to hearing. But for the most part she was in excellent voice, nailing stunning high notes in "Georgia on My Mind" and "When Sunny Gets Blue" and making a heartrending lament out of "Bye Bye Blackbird." There were a few miscalculations: Dan Hicks's country-flavored "list" song, "I Don't Want Love," is better suited to a performer who uses bolder, cruder strokes, and Musiker's arrangement of "I've Got You Under My Skin" undulated so much that the song itself got lost. But the almost-forgotten '30s ballad "If I Love Again" was pure, heartfelt magic, and "The Nearness of You" and "Makin' Whoopee" were all but flawless. At the concert's end, some surprise guest stars — John Pizzarelli, Jessica Molaskey, Sheldon Harnick, Susan Graham and Josh Groban — showed up to boost the birthday celebration by each doing a turn; the high point was Groban's cleanly sung performance of Stephen Sondheim's "Not While I'm Around." 

But it wasn't as much an evening about music-making or vocalizing as it was about honesty. Clearly, it took Cook many years to reach the point of exhibiting such ease onstage, so we shouldn't insult her by describing her art as "effortless." But it is a rare pleasure to listen to an artist who never forgets that her biggest job up there onstage is just letting us know who she is. spacer 

Up Close and Personal

(Oussama Zahr, Performances, New York City) Permanent link

Metropolitan Opera general manager Peter Gelb took the modest-sized stage at (Le) Poisson Rouge in the West Village on Friday, October 26, as the crowd settled in and started placing their drink orders. Referring to the program as "our downtown adventure," he added, to much audience laughter, "Our presence here tonight is not the result of our getting off at the wrong subway station."

While individual Met artists such as Danielle de Niese and Joseph Calleja have been booking LPR for one-off events, Friday night's concert reflected the Met's maiden voyage to the Bleecker Street cabaret bar. The evening's program — presented first at 6:30 PM, then repeated at 9 PM — was curated by composer Thomas Adès, whose opera The Tempest is currently playing at the Met, and who put together an hour's worth of Tempest-related material spanning three centuries of music. (A second event in the Met–LPR collaboration, this time an evening with composer Nico Muhly, is slated for May 14.)

As he explained his selections at the top of the program, Adès displayed a quiet magnetism. Right from the start, the intimate setting seemed to inspire a different kind of interaction between the artists and their audience: it felt warm, informal and personal. In a nice little bit of serendipity, Adès's program included five different settings by five different composers of Ariel's timeless verse "Full fathom five," from Act I of Shakespeare's play. 

Countertenor Iestyn Davies sang two of them, first Purcell's, in Adès's arrangement, and later in the program, Michael Tippett's. (Adès played piano all evening.) The piano accompaniment for the Purcell still possessed a Baroque stateliness, but Adès stripped away the formality of the original and forged a more direct emotional connection — at least by modern standards — to the words. Davies's sprite-like timbre was a lovely fit, but for Tippett's gorgeous, unabashedly tonal, just-sentimental-enough setting from 1962, I wanted something more soulful and tender from the vocalist. 

Kate Lindsey also received a pair of "Full fathom five" assignments. First, she braved Stravinsky's serialist setting from 1953, sitting alongside the flutist, clarinetist and violist as if she were just one more instrument in the quartet. Her delivery of Ives's "A Sea Dirge" was so devastated (and devastating), embodying the narrative voice so completely, that Adès could not suppress a smile from his seat at the piano. (Afterwards, my companion leaned over to me and said, "She's the Amanda Peet of opera. I'm completely obsessed with her.") 

Laure Meloy, who is covering the role of Ariel in The Tempest at the Met — which I saw the following night; my favorite evening at the opera so far this season — sang the version from Adès's opera. (The lyric was reworked as "Five fathoms deeps" by librettist Meredith Oakes, who couldn't help but keep most of Shakespeare's unforgettable language.) She delivered the high siren calls with much success though not without what seemed like fear. In such a small venue, with such a dry, unflattering acoustic, the mercilessness of Adès's sky-high vocal writing was all too apparent. 

But when you have a singer like Simon Keenlyside, there's no need to quibble about acoustics. His voice could probably reverberate in a vacuum. His ninety seconds onstage, singing Prospero's "Our revels are ended" from Adès's opera, were magnificent in every way. He somehow scaled his performance to the venue but didn't at all. He was big and impressive but connected to every person in the room, holding his hands up just so, keeping you in his grasp. All I can say is, to hear an artist of Keenlyside's stature booming from the stage not twenty feet away like some kind of secular, seductive operatic god is well worth the two-drink minimum. spacer 

OUSSAMA ZAHR

Listen to the Music

(Observations, Brian Kellow, Listening, Criticism, Keeping it Local, New York City) Permanent link
Have you noticed that so many conversations in the world of opera now focus on one general area — audience outreach and product access? Whenever I speak with opera-company directors, in particular, they say surprisingly little about the quality of what is being put onstage; instead, they mostly want to talk about how they will continue, in these challenging times, to put bodies in the seats. More to the point, they want to discuss how they will continue to put young bodies in the seats. Recently, I was on the phone with an executive at a major West Coast opera company. I wanted to ask her about the company's programming thrust for the coming season. Before I knew it, she was performing a lengthy commercial for her efforts to involve all of the local comic-book artists in the opera scene, and how such initiatives were vital to bringing in the opera newbies. By the time I hung up, exhausted, I had forgotten why I'd called her in the first place.

I support this push for new audiences in opera, but I think I may be coming at it from a slightly different angle. Implicit in all of the arguments about the need to lower the median age is the suggestion that all of those older people currently filing into the theater are engaged, tuned in, fully responsive to what's happening onstage — and that it's crucial to get younger audiences to function in the same way.

I would hope we could get the new audiences, wherever they may come from, to do much better than that. I do not believe for one second that most of the senior citizens I often find myself surrounded by in New York really have a profound connection to the music that the younger generations will have trouble matching. I think many older people, in New York especially, were brought up with the idea that attending live performances was crucial to being culturally well-rounded. They may be paying to fill the seats, all right. But I’m not sure they're filling them in a meaningful way. 

One recent example, among many: in mid-June, I attended a concert of the New York Philharmonic, with Ludovic Morlot conducting. On the first half, the orchestra played the lovely Prelude to Khovanshchina, followed by William Walton's Violin Concerto, impressively performed by the wonderful Gil Shaham. The woman in front of me dozed off as soon as the Mussorgsky began. The man next to her waited until the Walton to start bagging his Zs, and he came to only when the audience broke into sustained applause at the end of the entire concerto. Behind me, a man wrestled with his hearing device, pitched at air-raid level. My favorite, though, was the lady to my left, who, before the music started, bitched endlessly at her husband about the jacket he was wearing. Later, she wondered aloud why it took so long to rearrange the stage for the Walton. Throughout the first half, she restlessly leafed through her large-print program notes without once looking up at the stage. In the middle of the concerto's exciting final movement, she said, to no one in particular, "You’d at least think the program could mention that Gil Shaham comes from Israel." What could any of these people really have taken away from the evening other than a hefty Visa bill for dinner and a parking garage?

As a journalist, I prize evenings such as this. It’s wonderful to be able to look around and eavesdrop on the people sitting near you, because you can learn a great deal about where we’re heading culturally. But my greatest hope for the succeeding generations of ticket holders is that they'll be more tuned in than those who came before them. spacer 

BRIAN KELLOW


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Current Issue: October 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 4